In the great Western cartoon canon, there are shows that stand above the rest, as deft navigators of their respective cultural milieus. Gen X America had The Simpsons, which set the bar for family comedies and paved the way for the likes of Bob’s Burgers and Bojack Horseman, shows that keep their ears close to the pulse of pop culture. Perhaps for Gen Y it was Spongebob Squarepants, whose inanity, and the way it skirted the line between wholesome and uncanny, set a precedent for the absurdity of the modern meme landscape.
And while the jury’s still out for which animated serieses now best engage with the spirit of the times — we don’t have to choose just one — there are many things about Steven Universe that make it seem like both an artful reflection of, and response to, the zeitgeist.
It’s easy to imagine why this kind of show resonates so powerfully in today’s cultural and political landscape, one that demands queer representation and acceptance, and runs counter to the popular mood of ironically distant nihilism.
Created by Adventure Time alum and non-binary cartoonist Rebecca Sugar, Steven Universe is a show truly in a league of its own. It is unapologetically queer, presenting same-sex relationships, non-binary identities and unorthodox family units as things to be celebrated. It can be called the gold standard of the (unfairly maligned) CalArts aesthetic. Genre-wise, it is as fluid as many of its characters, managing to fuse (pun intended with no shame) tropes of the Magical Girl genre, slice of life pacing, the whimsy of Broadway musicals, and Power Ranger-scale colossus combat in a way that can only be described as an experience. It’s easy to imagine why this kind of show resonates so powerfully in today’s cultural and political landscape, one that demands queer representation and acceptance, and runs counter to the popular mood of ironically distant nihilism.
We’re given a main character who embodies traits not normally seen in your average male hero — he’s sensitive, nurturing, and solves most of his problems by talking it out before throwing down.
Such a starry-eyed, optimistic view of the world is most evident in its titular character, a young boy whose journey as a protagonist is just so unique. As both human and gem, Steven’s existence is a bridge between two worlds. In his journey of coming to terms with what makes him different (and therefore what makes him strong), he also has to unpack his late mother’s complicated life and legacy as both Diamond royalty and treasonous rebel, bring together his Crystal Gem family despite everyone’s respective psychological baggages, and resolve, by choice, every conflict he encounters in a pacifistic, non-violent way — even when he’s faced with White Diamond herself. He goes through a lot of development throughout the course of the series, but right out the gate we’re given a main character who embodies traits not normally seen in your average male hero — he’s sensitive, nurturing, and solves most of his problems by talking it out before throwing down.
I’m thinking of everybody in Steven Universe’s audience who gets to spend their childhood following the adventures of a hero too hard to find. These are the same kids who also got to see fusion — a special power in the show that also kind of functions as a loose analog for the queer experience, or at least something that would be unthinkable to air in the year 1999, when I was a kid.
Two weeks have passed since Steven Universe aired its season five finale (and what feels very much like a series finale), a masterfully executed culmination of everything the show has built over the five-odd years of its existence, and I’m still reeling. It is always a bittersweet experience to see a show you love reach its logical end, but also a satisfying thing to know that such a show existed at all. And as we see more cartoons being aired, embracing similar elements of love and sensitivity, we can look at Steven Universe as ground zero for that impact.