Through the everyday adventures of a half-magical alien boy and his growing group of friends, Rebecca Sugar wants to make sure everybody feels seen. It’s a seemingly simple concept, but listening to Sugar articulate her thoughts on the nuances of representation, it’s easy to see how “Steven Universe” continues to break ground.
Now in its fifth season on Cartoon Network, the animated TV series centers a sensitive, snack-food-loving hero in training with a penchant for breaking out into song.
It’s a tender, whimsical show for kids that doesn’t shy away from exploring complex themes as the titular Steven faces everything from accidentally creating a race of sentient watermelons to being taken across the galaxy to be put on trial by alien conquerors for his mother’s supposed actions.
But beyond the catchy songs, charming characters and the occasional episode with surprising revelations that shake up the show’s lore, “Steven Universe” has captured the hearts of many viewers for its LGBTQ representation.
When the series debuted in 2013, Sugar became the first woman to be the sole creator and showrunner of a Cartoon Network series. But as Sugar continues to challenge presumptions about the stories that can and should be shared through a cartoon for kids, that bit of TV history is just one part of her legacy.
Though episodes have tackled topics such as heartbreak, the ups and downs of friendships, the complexities of war, grief and even local politics, the show’s unprecedented inclusivity makes “Steven Universe” revolutionary. The series features characters of all shapes and sizes, embraces the full spectrum of gender and celebrates all types of love.
“Going into this show, there were a lot of different facets that I wanted to represent specifically because I hadn’t seen that before,” Sugar said in a recent phone call.
The importance of visibility is something Sugar is keenly aware of as someone who rarely was able to relate to most of the characters she loved watching growing up.
“When I was a kid, I felt like people really couldn’t understand what I was going through,” said Sugar. “But I think a lot of it was I didn’t see anyone I felt like was going through what I was going through.”
Those feelings helped guide how Sugar approaches representation in “Steven Universe.”
“Once I had the opportunity to pitch a show, it struck me that I wanted to do something that would be responsible and that would be helpful and that would just be original and new and something that I needed that I had never had,” said Sugar.
Steven is the only one of his kind on the series. He has a human father, and his mother was a magical alien being — a Gem — who gave up her life so Steven could be born. Helping raise Steven are the Crystal Gems: Garnet, Amethyst and Pearl.
The three are gradually revealed to be just as unique in their own ways, defying expectations by not looking, acting or loving how they are expected to. In fact, one of the reasons they protect the Earth is because it is a place they’ve found the freedom to be themselves.
“Something I’ve been really determined to do… is really show that these characters are processing the things that make them feel different,” Sugar said. And that means even when it’s not a positive experience.
Because beyond the empowerment associated with representation, Sugar is aware that for some people there are still risks involved with openly living their truths.
“As a kid, I feel like I was bombarded with these messages that would say, ‘Be yourself,’ ‘Be you,’ ‘Respect yourself.’ But it was the ’90s, and there were certain people who couldn’t quite do that without being in danger,” Sugar said. “So it just felt really confusing at the time.”
In “Steven Universe,” Sugar has explored this delicate balance around safety and identity through the recently introduced “Off Color” characters. These off-colored Gems are considered “defective” for their differences and have been living in hiding just to survive.
“They’ve never really experienced being visible and that being a positive experience for them,” said Sugar. “They associate that with being treated horribly, which is something that I think is very real.”
Sugar’s commitment to including these themes hasn’t always been easy. Although the show’s underlying message is one of love and acceptance, it has faced resistance.
“As I was coming up against the things that we could or couldn’t say, could or couldn’t show, it was really sinking in to me the real difference it would make to just have a statement that LGBTQIA characters should belong in media for children,” said Sugar.
She believes it is important to challenge the idea that something is or isn’t appropriate for kids because of “how damaging it is for kids to think that they might not belong in the environment that they’re in” just for who they are.
Now, more than 140 episodes into the show’s run, Sugar admits feeling a newfound urgency.
“It feels very different working on the show now than it did three years ago, two years ago,” reflected Sugar, noting that some changes have been positive, including the increased awareness around the importance of LGBTQ representation.
But Sugar believes more needs to be done to make sure all LGBTQ kids are safe, including challenging toxic masculinity at all ages, addressing bullying and shifting the stigma around mental health issues so they can be discussed openly and constantly.
Her desire to affect more immediate change has expanded the world of “Steven Universe” to include a new partnership with the Dove Self-Esteem Project, complete with special animated shorts specifically geared to engage viewers on topics such as self-esteem and body confidence.
“It’s very important to me when I’m writing ‘Steven Universe’ that we take these issues very seriously and represent them very responsibly,” said Sugar. She added that she is excited to be able to with to experts through the project to figure out “the most effective way to communicate the most helpful aspect of any given issue” for the six shorts that will be created during the two-year partnership.
Sugar’s dedication to responsible representation comes from a personal place.
Working on “Steven Universe” is how Sugar was able to see firsthand the importance of community, especially the LGBTQ community, and how it allows people to find support and understanding.
“When I started the show, I wasn’t out to my friends and family,” said Sugar, who at a San Diego Comic-Con panel in 2016 shared that her commitment to including LGBTQ themes in “Steven Universe” is rooted in her experience as a bisexual woman.
Expressing herself through the show’s characters, she realized how important it was to share this part of her life with the people she cared about.
“The show became my outlet,” said Sugar, adding that seeing others respond to the show gave her the strength to talk about these issues. “Drawing always helped me think.
“I’m really grateful for the experiences working on the show. The more it’s helped me in my life, the more I’m determined to reach as many people as I can.”