Screen Squinty’s “Steven Universe: A Queer Television Show Analysis”

Screen Squinty
July 14, 2016
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In recent years we have seen an emergence of children shows that have challenged the mainstream traditionalist standards. But none of them ever quite fully embrace their own powers of dissent quite so much as one particular animated family series that came out in 2013. Created by Rebeca Sugar (the first solo woman creator at Cartoon Network), the fantasy/sci-fi show known as  Steven Universe (2013-present).

Steven Universe is a vital artifact of queer discussion, and by studying various episodes of how queerness is worked in the series; I will prove its importance as a queer failure to be mainstream.

But before we get into discussing the episodes what do I mean by “failure”?

According to gender and queer theorist Dr. Jack Halberstam, the term “Failure” is an anti-nationalist discourse in dissent in the era of the superpower. If you take to his/hers definition, to be “Queer” is to regularly and willingly choose to fail within the terms of normalization (or mainstream) that society has set-up (Halberstram, J. p.27-52 & Halberstram, J, IPAK Centar Interview, 2014).

When considering the show’s ways of failing to be mainstream, an important factor in regards to one of the target audiences, in this case children, and how its relationship as a children’s show or family show, to is important in highlighting its unique queerness.

All Children are Queer?

In the works of Dr. Kathryn Bond Stockton, she theorizes that all children are essentially queer.

Not born destined to be straight, that heteronormativity is in fact an illusion that is instilled in children through various forms of conditioning (Stockton, K. Reynolds Lecture, 2010).

This is a radical theory that fails to adhere to the mainstream contention that one is born with their orientation, and defies the set belief in the liner progression of the heteronormative straight child into the ideal of marriage (one woman and one man) and procreation, forcing children to in fact not develop linearly at all, but develop sideways under the reeling in conditioning of various authority and media (Stockton, K. Reynolds Lecture, 2010).

Stockton’s theory also fails the dominant mainstream desire of silence in regards to the queerness of children, or challenging the figure of “The Child”, which is a dominantly believed in being this state of divine purity bolstered by a pillar of innocence and weakness, or as Stockton puts the figure:

“..A creature of gradual growth managed away and bolstered by laws that ideally protect it from its own participation its pleasure and its pain.”– Quote, Stockton, K (Stockton, K. Reynolds Lecture, 2010).

This child figure idealism echoes into our media consumption, particularly in anything directed towards children. Animation especially is still not taken seriously as a medium whether adult oriented or youth despite some of the magnificent strides made, simply because it is thought to dominantly remain within the realm of “immature” due to the medium being originally directed towards youth (Rosewarne, L. p.1-16).

Granted that is a belief that has been seeing a decline in the recent decades, there are entire fan communities that are proud to declare their appreciation for particular animated shows (the most infamous being the Bronys), but there is not only still a certain level of prejudice lingering around animation due to its target audience origins, even accepted varieties aside, some modes of animation, particularly family oriented animation, are segregated as immature (Bronys, who are predominantly considered to be adult men, are quite commonly mocked for liking a show geared towards a “little girl” audience).

As such there is an underlining preoccupation of protecting our “impressionable youth” from subjects deemed “to mature”, there is a dominant belief that children are too immature to be exposed to things so shocking *roles eyes* as gender identity, sexuality, and non-hetero intimacy, etc.

Sexuality discussed as part of children is one of the bigger taboos in children’s television as a result, yet because of the sentiments of the medium of animation, the veil of its seeming lack of ability to be taken to seriously makes it the optimum ground for a lot of rebellious content, which Steven Universe takes an entertaining delight in doing (Rosewarne, L. p.1-16 & Halberstram, J. p.27-52 & Halberstram, J, IPAK Centar Interview, 2014.)

Steven Universe Queer Episodes: A Sampling.

We will now explore various samplings of episodes and overarching content within the show that expresses the various ways in which Steven Universe is a gloriously queer television artifact.

Gender fluid/Transgender/Nonbinary individuals have found a long history of difficulty gaining a competent visible foothold in children’s television.

There have been some strides over the years within other programing such as Orange is The New Black, The Fosters, Transparent, etc., but in children’s programming, it is only just beginning to find its footing, but is still primarily willingly ignored by producers because of the earlier explained protection of the child figure (Rosewarne, L. p.1-16, & Stockton, K. Reynolds Lecture, 2010).

Only in the past decade or two has programming for children shed the strict gender polarization and shows began appearing that broke down some of the strict gender categories, though often not quite as upfront and certainly not with a main character.

For example, My Little Pony Friendship is Magic introduced the concept of transgender and/or gender fluid as existing within the canon of the show, and a minor character (Big Macintosh)as being possibly gender fluid through the episodes “Brotherhooves Social” and “Do Princesses Dream of Electric Sheep?” where Big Macintosh homages Sailor Moon’s transformation.

Steven Universe unlike other shows however takes it a step forward by breaking down the heteronormative gender and sex categories in their episodes even further, and isn’t afraid of utilizing main characters while doing it.

For example in the episode “Tiger Millionaire” (Season 1, Ep. 9, 2014) Steven discovers that Amethyst, one of the other main characters, sneaks out at night to go to an underground wrestling arena. When she is in the ring she transforms herself into the heavily muscled Purple Puma and is addressed as male.

In this setting she revels in her hyper aggressive masculine identity, glorying in being free to express this side of herself “in the ring nobody can tell me what to do and if they try I hit them in the face with a chair” (Amethyst, 02.49). Later in the episode when the other two Gems storm the arena expressing their displeasure with Amethyst and Steven’s actions (he’d joined up with Amethyst at this point as a wrestler) and intervenes with his fighting family to explain the purple puma’s stage backstory:
“…He was the wildest cat in the jungle, so wild the other cats couldn’t take it so she, I mean he, went to look for somewhere he fit in, somewhere with other people who were also misunderstood…that’s why we are all here, to be wild and body slam each other and wear cool costumes and make up nicknames, and…uh…so can’t we just have this? Can’t we just wrestle?”– (Steven, 09.30).

While the episode can be seen as a commentary on pro-wrestling, this episode also can be  read as a very solid allegorical lesson in acceptance of being one’s self in the multiple ways people present themselves, and accepting that outlet of expression.

The show meanwhile also acknowledges the binary gender tropes common to popular fields of animation.

Anime in particular is referenced due to the show in part being inspired by the medium, and often pays homage to its roots in many episodes, and anime is certainly rife with these tropes.

One of the most visible subversion of gender norms from television content is the common anime trope of “the magical girl” or “mahou shoujo.” This is a character trope usually considered female and for female audiences, one of the most popular being Sailor Moon, Tokyo MewMew, Pretear, and Cardcaptor Sakura (1998-2000) just to name a few.

“Magical girls” are usually small cute figures or cute voluptuous figures, having a magical transformations before a battle with a lot of melodramatic gestures and speeches sometimes involved, and flowers or feminine colors such as pink is very present (tvtropes.org, Magical Girls).

In the episode “An Indirect Kiss” (Season 1, Ep. 24, 2014) Steven’s status as being based on the magical girl trope is emphasized when he tries to access his mother’s healing magical tears (healing powers and tears long in animation also firmly categorized as feminine).

Trying to do so Steven moves in the melodramatic gestures and stances of a transforming magical girl, with profuse roses and pinkness (pinkness and roses very much a dominant theme and symbol of his power carried over from his mother Rose and prominent throughout the series) (Season 1, Ep. 24, 2014).

Steven Universe itself also takes a lot of inspiration from Revolutionary Girl Utena, a show about a girl who decides she wants to become a Prince, an anime that is considered very queer leaning for its time. Steven Universereferences this root in the show through various scenes such as Steven pulling out his mother’s sword from Lion’s head in a similar manner that Utena pulls out a sword from Anthy’s chest, and Pearl’s swordsmanship is a copy of a fight scene of Utena’s.
In “Giant Woman” (Season 1, ep. 12, 2014) the viewers are introduced to the concept of fusion for the first time, which is the ability for two or more gems to merge their bodies and minds (provided they are compatible) into a new being.

Periodically throughout the episode Steven expresses his desire to see the fusion (whom is called Opal) and sings a song (04.02) about that desire. At first it comes across as almost autoerotic in his fixation, but then the last line of the song reveals his true desire.

“…But if it were me, I’d really wanna be a giant woman,
a giant woman!
All I wanna do, is see you turn into a giant woman…”- 
(Steven, 04.45).

In “Alone Together” Steven and Connie manage to fuse and create Stevonie, a gender neutral or genderqueer individual who was only prominent in one episode and briefly there in another.

They are never referred to as “he” or “she”, usually referred to as “They,” and are often considered attractive by both males and females alike, though Stevonie seems to be somewhat unaware of the later.

Steven throughout the show is commonly presented with female gender trope signifiers such as his powers being primarily defensive, forming in a manner associated with magical girl powers, has been commonly mistaken for his mother by other Gems, and has even said that he may be his mother.

There are also the mixing of mainstream gender codes within the show: Lion, whom as a male lion is considered a masculine symbol (often associated with Kings) is combined with the color pink and a vaguely heart shaped head design which are female gender codes, and Steven’s healing powers (feminine) combined with spitting as a mode of use (masculine), just to give a bit of an example.

The queering of gender isn’t the only aspect explored by the show.

An Erotic Universe?

Steven Universe is surprisingly rife with erotic content that acknowledges its queer characters and youth characters as physically intimate beings in a largely non-sexual way and delights in going out of its way in its failure to keep things “behind closed doors” so to speak.

As mentioned earlier, the concept of fusion was first introduced in “Giant Woman” but the intimate connotations were first fully realized in “Coach Steven” (Season 1, ep.20, 2014).

In this episode Garnet and Amethyst decide to fuse to create Sugilite (another giant woman). The dance that follows in Sugilite’s creation is unmistakably erotic, a lot of pelvic movements and provocative gestures, and ending with Garnet in a decidedly hard-to-interpret-as-anything-else pose with her legs spread wide, and Amethyst leaping head first between her thighs at the moment of the merge (01.36-02.07).

 

The erotic nature of this is also signified through Pearl who bears a keenly embarrassed look on her face, as she tries to block Steven’s view, who is quite excited by the display (01.36-02.07).

With this implication of the more intimate nature of fusion firmly signified in the viewers thanks to this episode, when “Alone Together” mentioned earlier comes along, viewers are introduced to the uncommon sight of two child characters engaged in their own form of intimacy when Steven and his friend Connie merge together into Stevonie.

They are encouraged to be the experience that Stevonie is by Garnet; despite Pearl’s objections to the inappropriateness of it.

In an article by the editor of “Polygon” Carli Velocci comments on how the Stevonnie character can be perceived as a positive metaphor for consent, in an entirely non-sexual context (Velocci,C. 2015). Indeed, the notion of consent in fusion is brought up by Garnet herself in the show as well more then once.

This in turn puts a form of intimacy in a seeming non-sexual act, or perhaps introducing an intimacy that is not traditionally defined as mainstream sex, perhaps queering the definition of “sexual act” itself.

Later on in the episode “Jail Break” (Season 1, ep. 52, 2015) it is revealed that Garnet herself is in fact a fusion, the personification of the romantic relationship of two female presenting characters Ruby and Sapphire, who are in a romantic relationship and are often depicted as a couple since their first appearance arguing, flirting, and physically acting as a couple on the show.

Soon after the revelation that Garnet is a fusion, stipulated on the show as  the personification of their relationship, is sung by her as she battles Jasper in a lyrical flip-off to traditionalist narrow mind-sets which are later expanded upon in other episodes as a trait of many off world Gems (05.16-07.35).

There are other incidences and allusions to eroticism in the show, as well as other significant queer relationships such as Pearl and Rose, a relationship that echos the old style chivalrous love depicted between medieval knights and a royal, and of course the relationship between Sadie and Lars, one of the few straight relationships depicted on the show whose intimacy status is in no doubt.

Steven and the Family.

It should also be significant to note that Steven Universe also features as a visible queer family dynamic, often on contrast with the mainstream Nuclear family dynamic, and does discuss this from the point of view of both Steven as a child from the former who doesn’t understand how having 3 mother figures and one not at home father is any different in the definition of family then having one mother and father.

This was done in “Fusion Cuisine” (Season 1, Episode 32) quite well when Connie’s parents want to meet Steven’s parents, whom they had been led to believe were a nuclear family.

The episode did well at portraying Steven’s point of view on the matter, showing his confusion with the “Nuclear Family” dynamic as a norm in contrast to his own norm, highlighting that their is no real norm in regard to family from one aspect to the next highlighted well by Steven’s confrontation with Connie over the issue, and Connie’s parents reaction to the truth of Steven’s family situation.

Basically, as long as a child was reared with proper discipline and boundaries in the eyes of Connie’s parents,they saw no problem with who was enforcing it.

Conclusion

So in conclusion Steven Universe is a glorious failure to be mainstream that subverts, declares, and challenges viewers in dominant ideals about children, queer representations in television, and intimacy, while also providing a fiction which speaks to the queerness of all children in general with a strong emphasis on embracing and communicating ones identity and uniqueness.

This is an important show in the continuing steps forward in children’s programming.

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Bibliography

*Note: this is somewhat incomplete as more stuff was added to later, and are entirely common knowledge anyway.

Halberstam, Judith. Queer Art of Failure. Durham, NC, USA: Duke University Press, 2011.
Accessed December 9, 2015. ProQuest ebrary.
—“Chapter One Animating Revolt and Revolting Animation,” p.27-52.

Rosewarne, Lauren. American Taboo: The Forbidden Words, Unspoken Rules, and Secret Morality of Popular Culture. Praeger, An Imprint of ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2013. Kindle EBook.
—“ The Gay Chapter : Homosexuality in Animation,” p.1-16.

“Magical Girl.” Tvtropes.org. Last modified November 29, 2015.
http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MagicalGirl.

Dr. Kathryn Stockton. “The Strangeness of Sexuality: What is Queer Theory? Are Children Queer?” 2010 Reynolds Lecture at the University of Utah, published November 25, 2014. Online Video. Retrieved at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NklYXR4mY5I&list=PLbP1qZTHfPXoHJ6gnyGb1NzvMIbRa5r9z&index=12

Prof. Jack Halberstram, “Interview with Prof. Jack Halberstram”, 2014 Summer School for Sexualities, Culture, and Politics, Research Centre for Cultures, Politics and Identities (IPAK) Faculty of Media and Communications (FMK), Singidunum University, September 05, 2014. Online Video. Retrieved at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iKDEil7m1j8

Rebeca Sugar, et al.

Steven Universe. United States: Cartoon Network, 2013-present.

Velocci, Carli (2015-07-14). “What a children’s show can teach us about sex and healthy relationships”. Polygon.