Diversity out the wazoo! On Steven Universe and why it’s the best cartoon on TV right now

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Hands up in the room if you’ve watched Steven Universe. If yes, great. You’re likely to be a fan already!

If you’re a ‘no’ here’s the synopsis. Steven is the youngest member of a group of magical beings, the Crystal Gems. The other three members Garnet, Amethyst and Pearl are raising Steven in their temple because Rose Quartz, Steven’s mum and leader of the Crystal Gems, died so that Steven could live. Steven’s dad, Greg Universe, is an ex-rock star who lives in a van and despite being a daily and loving presence in Steven’s life, simply can’t provide a better life for him than the Gems, who are also helping Steven understand and control the epic powers he inherited from Rose. It’s a coming of age story.

Steven-Universe

Ok here are three fine reasons why you might want to watch it – they’re the same reasons why I Think It’s The Best Cartoon Right Now.

  1. Steven Universe is the first cartoon in Cartoon Network’s 24 year history who’s solo creator is a woman – Emmy nominated Rebecca Sugar (IMDB and Tumblr). 24 years seems like a long time, especially, perhaps, considering that Cartoon Network was established by Betty Cohen, the US businesswoman who presided over CN for its first 9 years. Might get you thinking…
  2. At a time when diversity in children’s media is an important issue to champion, Steven Universe has diversity coming out the wazoo.

    Many cartoons and children’s books use anthropomorphic object and animal characters as metaphors to diversity; metaphorical characters can express, among others, challenging issues and diverse communities. Now, I love anthropomorphism as much as the next person that can write that phrase, but I simply don’t agree that diversity can be expressed in such a way, because
    a) it can easily, and frequently does, descend into cack-handed stereotypes that in years time may well illuminate prejudices held now in ignorance;
    b) anthropomorphising human life doesn’t mean illustrating diversity – I feel it actually dodges a daily reality of diversity because we don’t live in metaphorical places with metaphorical people, no matter how much children may be able to imagine we do.

    The world of Steven Universe exudes real diversity. In the small town of Beach City there is room for well-rounded characters in African-American and Indian families. Steven’s own family is a non-traditional family unit – he’s being raised by three incredibly powerful women while his loving Dad lives in a van. The Gems all love Steven unequivocally, especially Pearl. She loved Rose. Not in the same way that Garnet and Amethyst loved Rose, their 8-foot tall goddess-like leader, no. When Pearl talks about Rose it’s of lost love… her mothering of Steven… he’s her link to Rose.

    What’s more, Garnet is a ‘fusion’ of two other Crystal Gems Ruby and Sapphire. Normally two Gems can fuse for a short while, but Ruby and Sapphire are so compatible, love each other so deeply, that they can fuse indefinitely and become a whole new third entity more than the sum of her parts. Beautiful no? What more beautiful expression of love has ever been seen in a kids sci-fi cartoon than this? Seriously, I’d like to know, please comment.

    That’s how you do diversity. Not in having a dialogue between a giraffe and a mouse, but in people living diverse lives in ordinary towns.

  3. There is a moment in every episode which inspires a genuinely unexpected emotion.
    I’m no media student but there’s probably a term I don’t know which describes the moment in a sitcom or story where the audience realises what the plot actually is. The Simpsons does this so expertly.

    In Steven Universe this ‘turn’ is an emotional kick where you realise that the vents up to now have led to Steven being even more vulnerable or courageous than we thought anyone should have to be. Or that something is scarier or more disturbing than it should have been. For example, the episode ‘Cat Fingers‘ starts with an exploration of Amethyst and Steven’s shape-shifting powers and ends with Steven unable to control that power rendering him terrified of what he becomes – nigh-equalling the horrifically heart-breaking demise of Tetsuo in 80’s anime classic Akira.

So there you have it, there’s my case, down there… resting… Steven Universe is genuinely ground-breaking from the creator to the actual explorations of diverse communities and families. And it’s a cartoon(!) so of course you’re guaranteed beautiful character design, amazing stories and some of the most complex emotional scenes you’ll get from 20 minutes in any media.

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