the voice and vision of a new generation
Image credit: Cartoon Network

Breaking the binary: How 'Steven Universe' empowered me to claim my they/them pronouns

May 18, 2018

Steven Universe is an animated children's series on Cartoon Network about a young boy, Steven, who is trying to learn about himself and his family, while working to save the world. Steven, who is part alien, lives with three other alien beings—called gems—named Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl who form a group called the Crystal Gems that fights against alien tyranny.

Steven Universe was also one of the first places I learned about my own identity as nonbinary.

The show features nontraditional gender roles, same-sex relationships, and other LGBTQ+ identities, in addition to having several characters of color. One example of same-sex couples in the show is Ruby and Sapphire, who are lesbians and main characters. Another character, Rose, even falls within the bisexuality umbrella. This is a progressive step for a children’s cartoon, as it reflects the reality of many different types of relationships to kids at a young age. In fact, the creator of the show, Rebecca Sugar, described Steven Universe in a 2015 interview with Entertainment Weekly as an effort to “tear down and play with the semiotics of gender in cartoons for children.” You go Rebecca!

Steven Universe characters: Amethyst, Garnet, Pearl. Image credit: Cartoon Network.

In the show, many characters fight the traditional gender and sexuality roles represented in kid's media. One of the characters that embodies the idea of breaking the binary is Stevonnie. Stevonnie is a “fusion” (a physical combination of two or more characters creating a larger new person) of Steven and a female-identifying character named Connie. Stevonnie presents as masculine, feminine, or androgynous depending on the episode. This fusion uses they/them pronouns and both male and female characters are attracted to them. This was a huge moment for me: It was the first time that I had seen a character use the same pronouns as me in any form of media.

Stevonnie helped me feel more confident with my pronouns. My identity and pronouns are something I have always struggled with and still do at age 19. In the past, I have been criticized because I identify as nonbinary and use gender neutral pronouns, yet I present very feminine. This has frustrated and confused people, but Stevonnie helped me feel more confident.

Stevonnie showed me that I was wrong, that asking people to use my pronouns is okay. It was so incredible to me that no person in the show made a big deal about their pronouns. Everyone just went with it. Stevonnie was able to be themself without worrying about their pronouns. Even though I still struggle introducing my pronouns to people, I look up to Stevonnie in these moments. When saying my pronouns, I think about how comfortable Stevonnie is, and how accepting the world around them is.

People of all ages deserve to see diversity in media. Being able to see other identities allowed me to learn more about myself and people around me. These moments are able to help show people that our identities are valid, and that one day people will become as welcoming as those in Steven Universe.

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Athena Schwartz is a GLAAD Campus Ambassador and first year at University of Utah studying health and education. Athena is a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma Delta Eta chapter and a part of their campus It's On Us campaign.

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