10 Years Ago, One Brilliant Cartoon Gave Struggling Kids A Way To Be Seen
Steven Universe offered hope for many viewers and opened the doors for future cartoons to take things further.
When Steven Universe first hit the Cartoon Network, it had been advertised as a silly romp featuring a happy-go-lucky kid and his three alien guardians, powered by mystical gemstones. But, on November 4, 2013, what viewers ended up with was an emotional roller coaster that spent the next seven years teaching fans of all ages how to cope with trauma, take care of their mental health, and be comfortable in their own skin. It broke ground in places for children's entertainment and ushered in a new era of possibilities for what a kids’ show could discuss. Without this cartoon and the impact it left behind, many of today’s most popular animated series might not exist.
Steven Universe began as innocuous as any kids’ show could. Thirteen-year-old Steven learns valuable life lessons from the Crystal Gems, a trio of warriors turned maternal figures as he comes to terms with the powers he inherited from his Gem mom Rose Quartz, a revolutionary with a dark and muddled past. Along with his human dad Greg and best friend Connie (plus the diverse citizens of Beach City), Steven grows mentally and emotionally through 180 episodes and a movie, turning enemies into allies, and brokering peace between worlds. From that first Cookie Cat-filled episode to Steven driving away from his hometown in the finale, nobody expected the journey to be full of so many heavy revelations and unpleasant truths, while simultaneously focusing on improving the mental well-being of its audience.
It's difficult to summarize Steven Universe in a few words because the story was so winding and epic in the best way possible. It’s also tied to many psychological elements, typically processed thanks to Steven’s empathetic nature. Each of the Crystal Gems has their own internal scars, which they learn to overcome with Steven’s innocent probing and safe guiding hand. Pearl comes to terms with co-dependence and becoming her own person, Garnet discovers it’s okay to be vulnerable and not stoic all the time, and Amethyst learns to accept herself- flaws and all. I still can’t sit through Spinel singing “Drift Away” without sobbing as she explains her abandonment issues at the hands of Steven’s mother. Steven Universe Future concluded the saga with Steven facing his PTSD from years of solving everyone else's problems while burying his own, demonstrating the toll of not taking care of himself.
This wasn’t your average weekday cartoon, with episodes combatting not only rival Gems or creatures, but fighting what lurked in the darkest recesses of their minds to heal the pain they’ve carried for years (a few thousand for the Gems). It was truly breakthrough stuff and found an older audience it didn’t expect. Similar to how many adults have become Bluey fans and use that show as a means of makeshift therapy, Steven Universe was ahead of its time by unabashedly opening the floodgates of personal anguish and generational trauma, using its characters to precipitate mending the invisible wounds of its audience.
When it wasn’t giving therapy in 11-minute chunks to its viewers, Steven Universe was leading the way in promoting LGBTQ+ rights in the context of kids. These topics were sparsely addressed in children’s programming when the show first came on the air, but creator Rebecca Sugar felt obligated to confront them.
The Gems are female-presenting holographic projections emitted from their stones, although the showrunner added later, that these characters could also be considered non-binary. This meant many romantic relationships between them would be with the same gender. Matters became more controversial when looking at the Gems ability to “fuse” by joining together to become a different Gem, which was treated as a highly intimate act. Sugar received notes for changes not only from Cartoon Network but from international networks with different regulations, often leading to censorship and outright bans on the program. One instance saw a particular Gem redrawn into a man, complete with a poorly rendered mustache when they kissed another character. Despite the massive pushback, Sugar persisted.
“It struck me how critical it is to make sure that there are LGBTQIA characters in G-rated content… because as long as certain people are considered to be inappropriate for families and children, there is no equality,” Sugar told Entertainment Weekly in 2018. “We need to let children know that they belong in this world. You can't wait to tell them that until after they grow up or the damage will be done. You have to tell them while they're still children that they deserve love and that they deserve support and that people will be excited to hear their story.”
Sugar, who came out as bisexual and non-binary during the show’s television run, never backed down from ensuring future generations felt seen as they struggled with identity issues. Some believe this was part of what caused the cancellation of Steven Universe, with the Network’s last straw being Ruby and Sapphire’s wedding. It’s safe to say despite all of the trouble Sugar had making her vision become reality, she wouldn’t have done it any other way.
While Avatar: The Legend of Korra was among the first in this wave of cartoons to subtly hint at a same-sex couple in a kids' show, it was unable to explore this with as much depth as Steven Universe achieved. Since then, it’s inspired shows like She-Ra and The Princesses of Power, The Owl House, and even helped PBS Kids mainstay Arthur be an agent of change with LGBTQ+ themes.
Steven Universe was crystallized chicken soup for the soul; a pioneer in advocating positive mental health in kids’ entertainment, and an animated ally for a previously neglected audience. Rebecca Sugar led the way, filling a void for the type of cartoon they wished they had growing up, ensuring the viewers of tomorrow would always have someone to see them, no matter what pain they may feel. It took a half-gem hybrid to teach viewers what it’s like to be human and to love yourself like you would others. After all, the answer always was love.