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

'Steven Universe' is the GLAAD-award winning kids’ show I wish I had growing up

April 30, 2019

When I bring up Steven Universe in conversation, it mainly elicits two reactions: “I love that show!” or more commonly, “Isn’t that a kids’ show?” To which I always reply, “yes, but it’s so much more than that.”

Like most LGBTQ+ people, I did not have queer role models to look up to when I was growing up. Queer people—especially LGBTQ+ youth—were almost nonexistent in the early 2000s popular culture landscape.

I was five years old when Will & Grace ended its original run. That show was not meant for children—most of the situations were too mature for me to fully grasp and would  go over my head. The same goes for a number of other shows with LGBTQ+ characters that aired at around the same time: Friends, How I Met Your Mother, The Office—the list goes on. Though it should not go unsaid that some of these shows also promoted harmful stereotypes of those LGBTQ characters and situations.

Honestly, the queerest show I grew up watching was Spongebob Squarepants. Even then, the creator and cast have denied throughout the years that the titular character is gay. Up until recently, there were no queer characters deliberately made for children’s television.

In 2014, The Legend of Korra (TLOK) made history by becoming one of the first children’s animated shows to feature a lead LGBTQ+ character. In the series finale, Korra, the show’s namesake, quite literally rides off into the sunset with her love interest, Asami. Unfortunately, the show never really explored their relationship—all we saw as an audience were passing glances and suggestive dialogue. However, unlike Spongebob, TLOK’s creators intentionally made Korra and Asami queer—and even wrote a blog post confirming so, explaining Nickelodeon’s limitations. The Korrasami relationship also ended up being shown in detail in comic book form later on.

Overall, TLOK’s ending was not a perfect example of queer representation, but it certainly was a step in the right direction. And I believe that direction, along with a greater push for inclusive all-ages programming, led to Steven Universe—I would go as far as to say that the entire show is an allegory of the internal and external struggles LGBTQ+ people endure.

Steven Universe actually explores queer relationships in depth. The character of Garnet is the best example of this; she is, quite literally, the physical manifestation of the romantic love between two gems. And while gems technically do not have gender, they are coded as female—and the fusions of these gems are looked at with disgust by the matriarchs of Homeworld. It wouldn’t be a stretch to compare this to how queerness is viewed today.

In the 2018 episode “The Question,” we see what is perhaps the queerest moment ever made for children’s animation. Garnet’s two halves, Ruby and Sapphire—both of them being female coded gems—have a wedding to renew their love and dedication for each other. No one in the show questions it and no one objects to it.  The wedding is treated as a completely normal event—as it should be.

Besides Garnet, throughout the show we also see Pearl (another female coded gem)  deeply in love with Rose Quartz—and we see how devastating it was for her when she realized that Rose had chosen Greg as her partner. The culmination of this pain and sorrow is shown in Pearl’s song, “It’s Over, Isn’t It?”. The song is essentially a love ballad about Pearl struggling to come to terms with Rose’s absence. It is an incredibly heartbreaking song about unrequited, queer love—a feeling I’m sure many queer people can relate to.

More recently, the show has explored gender identity further. The latest episodes feature Steven—who is a male coded hybrid between a gem and a human—wearing his mother’s old dress because the Diamonds (a group of gems) insist Steven is actually his mother, Pink Diamond, and refuse to acknowledge him by his actual name. No one says anything about it. It’s not used a punchline, unlike the age-old “Haha, a man in a dress” trope—he’s just wearing a dress and that’s it. Eventually, the Diamonds come around, with Blue Diamond exclaiming: “Actually, she prefers to be called Steven.” This moment can be likened to the process that trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming people may go through if/when they decide to come out to their friends and family.

I love the normalcy Steven Universe applies to LGBTQ+ topics. The show treats queerness and gender fluidity as completely normal and okay—because they are! And children need to know that. While I am a bit jealous that I did not get to watch Steven Universe growing up, it makes me incredibly happy that queer children growing up now will realize they are not alone, and that their identities are valid.

Leo Rocha is a GLAAD Campus Ambassador and junior at University of Missouri studying journalism. He currently serves as a Lead Junior Editor of amp.

the voice and vision of a new generation