The Beauty of Steven Universe
Steven Universes is one of those cartoons directed at children and received by older audiences. After it began airing on TV for the first time, around a year ago, the show melted the internet and instantly erected a cult following that could easily rival that of its predecessor, Adventure Time. Why did so many people allow themselves to be consumed by their love of the show? Because Steven Universe is an experience to be proud of. Not only is the show beautiful in every possible employment of the word, but it’s also interesting and extremely fun to watch. Creator Rebecca Sugar made it an all-inclusive package: brilliant design, loveable characters, dynamic action, hidden themes, and light storylines, each complete with a hint of contrastingly dark meta-story.
The show is a coming-of-age tale following a half human, half alien boy named Steven Universe who lives with three alien warriors known as the Crystal Gems. Together, Steven and the Gems go on adventures and fight monsters to protect the earth from greater alien forces. Although his dad is still alive, Steven lives with the Gems- who all act as his surrogate mothers- to learn more about himself and discover his true place in the world.
We can already begin to source out the beauty of Steven Universe by analyzing it on the surface level. The insanely alluring animation is one reason why many choose to begin watching the show, myself included. Full of pastel colours and rounded edges, Steven Universe is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful cartoons I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. The scenery is whimsical and fun, as if taken straight from dreamscape, while remaining shockingly well through out. It is easy to see how the backgrounds and settings of Steven Universe are composed of real world influences with the added charm of imagination.
If you don’t find the art enticing enough, how about the character design? Animations are infamous for representing looks in a very biased way, using slenderness, muscularity, and impossibly disproportionate figures and features in their character design. Too many times have we seen absurdly attractive “good guys” with noticeably less attractive sidekicks pitted against unusually unattractive “bad guys”. This isn’t true for Steven Universe. Every Character has a realistic blend of features – Steven’s chubbiness, Amethyst’s height, Garnet’s poofy hair, Pearl’s long and pointy nose, the list goes on. The beauty is in how a character’s appearance does not define their role in the show. Rose Quartz is the prime example of this, as she is an individual of god-like greatness held in the highest esteem by other characters, and yet she is an obviously plus-sized woman (her heft akin to many villainous representations, such as Little Mermaid’s Ursula and Adventure Time’s Ice King). Rebecca Sugar isn’t afraid to send the clear message of importance not being directly proportionate to hegemonic attractiveness.
So far, we’ve established beauty on the surface level, but it runs deeper in the story. Not only is the show chock full of fun action and references, but smooth storylines and continuous plots are a guarantee throughout the show. These plots may be lost on younger viewers, but for the older audience they are a great source of interest an appreciation- and for me, beautiful harmony.
References take many forms in Steven Universe. For example, Steven has an action figure that bears a striking resemblance to Cloud Strife, Pearl’s fighting technique pays homage to the Revolutionary Girl Utena, and the power of friendship is depicted in a very Sailor Moon-esque manner. As someone who grew up on anime and video games, picking out all the instances where Rebecca Sugar gives a nod to the influences of the show provides bucket loads of satisfaction. Steven Universe never fails to surprise you and elicit smiles.
Sugar also relies heavily on foreshadowing. Most, if not all, episodes of Steven Universe delve into the true meta-story of the show despite their bubbly, surface-level, slice-of-life plots. These revelations about the story take the form of character interactions, scenery details, or even episode-to-episode objectives. Hidden (or not so hidden) within each episode is at least one detail of importance to the veiled scheme of the show.
Steven Universe also eliminates any potential source of continuity flaws for the show. Personally, I find continuity flaws extremely frustrating, and they really take away from a show’s overall appeal. Steven Universe manages to avoid errors by layering storylines, having characters frequently reference former events, monsters and minor characters make a comeback, and items and relics are often featured repeatedly. There’s even an episode dedicated to pointing out al the scenery changes made to Beach City, the main setting of the show, as a result of the numerous battles having taken place there. I appreciated this attention to detail, and believe it greatly adds to the overall beauty of the show.
The most beautiful part of Steven Universe is the relationships characters build with one another. Since cartoons target young audiences, they rarely touch on sensitive topics such as atypical parents, sexuality, gender bi-polarity, and other complicated social constructs. Steven Universe does.
Let’s begin with atypical parents. I have found that in works of animation, parents are one of two things: present or non-existent. It is typical that a given hero/heroine may either have two exceedingly normal parents or none whatsoever, but very rarely is there anything in between. Some shows do break from this pattern by making use of the “deadbeat dad” trope. The “deadbeat dad” is the parent that isn’t present in the show and is rarely spoken of because he is 1. dead, 2. deadbeat, or 3. somehow even worse off. If he ever shows up, he is usually the epitome of a bad influence, which serves to further encourage the hero/heroine(s) to strive for greatness. The general formula consists of a struggle followed by the “deadbeat dad” and the characters reconciling their differences. Steven Universe takes a unique spin on this trope in the form of Greg Universe, Steven’s father. He’s a washed up, failed rock star who owns the local carwash, lives in a van, and is the spitting image of a drunkard hippie past his prime. Despite his representation conforming to the “deadbeat dad”, he is a kind man, loving parent, and active positive influence in Steven’s life. He is there whenever Steven needs him and cares greatly for his wellbeing and safety. Despite having experienced nothing but hardship in life, Greg holds nothing against Steven and is a good person who can be relied on and trusted.
Furthermore, the fact that Greg was able to win the heart of the great Rose Quartz is one way Steven Universe speaks to the importance of personality trumping the importance of placement in life. Greg’s character alone adds so much beauty to the show.
Next, Steven Universe has been praised by many for unabashedly representing queer relationships and deviating from normal bipolar depictions of gender. One thing I will spoil about the show is that Gems do not technically possess a “gender”. Yes, they are referred to as “she” and their character designs tend to appear more feminine than masculine, but it is made very clear on the show that Gems do not really have genders, as they are nothing more than the “projected physical forms” of space rocks. For this reason, some Gems are more feminine, some are more masculine, and some are neither here nor there. I don’t believe it’s a stretch to say that Steven Universe is one of the first shows to have so many characters that do not identify with genders.
Although technically Gems are non-gendered, their typical identification as female and the explicitly romantic relationship between the two Gems Ruby and Sapphire resulted in a huge leap in gay relationship representation in cartoons. Yes, Korra and Asami from Legend of Korra are confirmed to be romantically involved, just as Adventure Time’s Princess Bubblegum and Marceline were supposedly once together, but no American animation has ever been able to clearly depict homosexual relationships. Ruby and Sapphire, on the other hand, are seen kissing and flirting, and are always accredited as a couple. More shocking is that Rebecca Sugar stated that this relationship was her intention from day one, and Steven Universe was greenlit for production way before “love won” in the US. She took the risk hoping that Steven Universe would lead by example and cultivate more accepting attitudes in children and adults alike.
In conclusion, Steven Universe is a beautiful creation throughout. Aside from the amazing aesthetic experience, the show provides complex storylines and progressive social politics that you can be proud to be a fan of. I’ve purposely avoided as many spoilers as possible so you can go explore the world of Steven Universe for yourself. Only then will you be able to decide whether or not my analysis of beauty in the show is justified or not. Happy watching!