The television series Steven Universe is the brainchild of former Adventure Time storyboard artist and musical composer Rebecca Sugar, and is the first show created by a woman to air on Cartoon Network. Apart from being branded as a Cartoon Network property, the show is not overtly commercial in nature – there are few, if any, tie-in toys, although there are occasional comic book releases. The show is centered around the character of Steven Universe, a young boy who is half human, half alien, as he comes into his powers and uncovers the very compelling histories of his alien mother Rose Quartz, his human father Greg Universe, and the three alien women who are raising him. The Crystal Gems, once led by Rose Quartz, originally came to our planet to claim it for the Gem Homeworld, but came to love and respect humanity. When Rose Quartz, the leader of the Crystal Gems, met Greg Universe, a human rock musician, they fell in love and their union ultimately produced Steven, at the cost of Rose’s physical form. In the absence of his mother, Steven is being raised by Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl, her friends and battle partners in the fight to protect the Earth. Greg remains a strong part of Steven’s life as well. Music is often used as a method of bonding between characters, and as a vehicle for presenting characters’ backstories and thought processes to other characters and to the viewer.
Common Sense Media recommends Steven Universe for children ages 10 and up, and this seems sound. Although the show contains no objectionable language or mean-spirited humor (Creator Rebecca Sugar specifically avoids cutting, sarcastic humor), there are complex characters and popular culture references that might appeal more to tweens and teens than very young children. Common Sense Media has given the show a rating of four out of five possible stars, citing that the most potentially problematic aspects of the show might be the characters’ consumption of unhealthy foods, persistent bathroom humor, some violence, and occasional crudity. The violence does not end in death – all villains defeated are captured and locked away, rather than destroyed. That said, although the show is meant to be entertainment only, it also provides brief moral lessons through the well-rounded characters’ faults and strengths. The L.A. Times Television Critic calls the show, “a gem,” and praises its emotional nuance, and the A.V. Club consistently gives the episodes grades of A- and higher.
Steven Universe also promotes body positivity – more than one character has a non-standard or non-stereotypically action-hero-esque body type. It is important for children to see that all body types can act heroically, and Steven Universe does a good job of depicting this. Women of color are also depicted in the characters of Connie Maheswaran, who is Indian, and Garnet, who presents as an African-American woman. The overarching message of the show is that love – familial, friendship, and romantic – is stronger than evil and will always win in the end, and the excellent dialogue and strong characters are put to use to deliver this message.
Steven Universe is very progressive and liberal in its interpretation of family, and while I believe this to be a very positive thing, more conservative parents may object. Garnet, one of the Crystal Gems, is what is referred to on the show as a “fusion,” a combination of two Gems into a new entity. Garnet is comprised of Ruby and Sapphire, a lesbian couple who show affection on-screen. Their relationship is portrayed as normal and beautiful, and while most would find this a positive step toward equality, some families might not be so accepting and may be offended by some content. I would call Steven Universe subversively educational in that the diversity and complexity of the characters stimulate critical thought without seeming preachy or heavy-handed. Steven Universe is available to watch on Cartoon Network’s cable television channel as it airs, and the first season DVD is available from major retailers such as Wal-Mart, Amazon, and Target, for $7.50.
Steven Universe – TV Review (Steven Universe TV Review)
(Los Angeles Times)
The A.V. Club (Steven Universe ·)
~ S. Goodwin