Steven Universe is an animated series airing on the Cartoon Network. Created by former Adventure Time writer Rebecca Sugar, Steven Universe follows a young boy named Steven, who discovers that he is descended from a member of a magical race known as the Crystal Gems. Although Steven is unlikely to ever fully unlock the fantastic abilities used by the Gems, he is determined to take his place among them and, in his mind, fulfill his purpose. Joining him on his adventures are three Gems: Pearl, Amethyst, and Garnet. While the set-up for Steven Universe makes it sound like a non-stop barrage of action and magic, the show also finds wonder in the mundane: for example, the first episode of the series, “Gem Glow,” concerns Steven’s obsession with ice cream sandwiches.
According to Common Sense Media, Steven Universe is suited for children ages 10 and up; however, the writers of the show intentionally include things that older children and adults will find compelling, such as the subtle pop culture references that find their way into most episodes (the first episode contains a reference to Midnight Cowboy, for example).
There does not seem to be any educational/didactic intent behind the show; it appears to follow the vein of series like Adventure Time and Gravity Falls in that the zany, sometimes absurd humor is the focus.
As mentioned above, Steven Universe is geared toward slightly older children; however, there are some story elements that adults may find inappropriate. The most (potentially) controversial thing about the show is its use of LGBT characters: one of the Gems, Garnet, is actually a “fusion,” meaning she is the result of two Gems becoming one; the Gems who created her, Ruby and Sapphire, are a lesbian couple and are shown to kiss onscreen. Certain viewers may find the show’s casual acceptance of LGBT individuals off-putting, and while I personally think the writers are doing a very good thing by doing it, I understand that more conservative parents will take issue.
Steven Universe is also a rather violent show, and although most of the violence is zany and non-serious, death occasionally plays a role. If a character is slain in battle they typically disappear in a puff of smoke or something similar; however, death is recognized as permanent in this series. Steven’s mother was a Gem called Rose Quartz, and in order to give birth to Steven she sacrificed her life; she now dwells within Steven as a sort of mentor. Young children may find the show’s portrayal of death frightening or upsetting, and parents may not want to expose their children to it.
There does not appear to be an aggressive marketing angle to Steven Universe, and while there are toys and merchandise for the show, the show never takes an opportunity to market or mention them.
Aside from the comedy, what initially drew me to Steven Universe was the plot. It reminded me of the shows I grew up watching, such as Thunder Cats, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Sailor Moon: shows that are episodic, but also have larger story arcs running throughout. The plot is compelling, albeit confusing at first, and there is an ever-present emotional element to the show that is hard to describe (some episodes deal with love and loss, particularly when it comes to Steven’s mother). The dialogue is witty, but not impenetrable for kids, and the characters all feel like individuals.
Common Sense Media sums up the series as, “family, fun, and finding your purpose” (2015). I would agree: the most consistent thing I noticed about Steven Universe is that it stresses the importance of friendship and responsibility — not just to use magic powers responsibly, but to be oneself, even if it’s hard.
n.d. (2015). “Steven Universe.” Common Sense Media. Retrieved from https://www.commonsensemedia.org/tv-reviews/steven-universe