Animated Distractions: Steven Universe
When Cartoon Network started showing commercials for a cartoon featuring three lady warriors last year, I was certainly intrigued. With unique character designs and an art style not really similar to anything else on television, I thought, This could be great! Then a pudgy kid talking about a cheeseburger backpack ruined it for me. Here we go–another cartoon with a stupid main male character overshadowing the others. I should have had no hope. But then, two things sat me down for the premiere. First was the showrunner, not only an ex-Adventure Time team member (who wrote the best songs* and storyboarded some of my favorite episodes), but also the first woman to create a Cartoon Network show, Rebecca Sugar. Number two? A single line Steven and his dad said in the longer preview: “If every pork chop were perfect…” “…we wouldn’t have hot dogs!”
So I sat through the premiere episodes, “Gem Glow” and “Laser Light Cannon”, and all the things that piqued my interest before hand — female characters, goofy lines — were there in wonderful full force and the scenes were beautiful, the backgrounds with a light, pinkish hue.. Every second fixed my eyes more firmly on the screen. And then, the Cookie Cat Rap happened.
Yeah. This is my kind of show.
First, the plot. Steven Universe is a half-human, half-crystal gem, who was born when his mother, Rose Quartz, “gave up her physical form” (no explanation other than that, yet) to bring him into the world. Rose Quartz was a member of the Crystal Gems, a team comprised of three other women, Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl, thus named for the gems set somewhere on their bodies. The Crystal Gems possess a slew of magical abilities — weapon summoning, shape-shifting, magic portal transport, and what amounts to a Fusion Dance — that they use to fight monsters and “protect humanity.” Steven doesn’t have much of a handle on his powers yet, but he insists on doing whatever he can to help the Gems, whether it’s hunting down a beetle or storing mystical items in his backpack so he can protect the world and the people of his home town, Beach City.
Steven is obviously the focus (he is the title, after all) but he doesn’t take the show away from the ladies, not like I thought. Though Steven is the main character, the Crystal Gems are no less important. Even though he inherited his mother’s rose quartz gem on his stomach, his own powers are undeveloped and unpredictable. Because of that, he looks to his role models for guidance and as examples of what kind of person to be: strong like Garnet, fun like Amethyst, smart like Pearl. Each of the Crystal Gems are bright with strong personalities and unique, often conflicting world views. And just like Steven, who has weaknesses and insecurities to overcome each episode, these ladies grow, too. One of my favorite episodes, “Giant Woman” (which also has a fantastic song) shows Amethyst and Pearl, the two characters with the most divergent personalities, at odds with each other and thus unable to work together, until they can no longer let their fighting get in the way — and then they become great.
Steven while rather doofy, is pretty savvy with emotions. He understands when people don’t feel right or are angry, like when Lars tries to shoo him away, or a boy named Onion acts out because he misses his dad, but he doesn’t always know how to fix it, sometimes making it worse before he makes it better. And I’ll always be able to relate to someone who prefers fry bits.
The town of Beach City is populated with some great people, too. Lars, the obnoxious teenage Big Donut employee who only wants to fit in; Steven’s dad, a balding ex-musician who doesn’t live with his son but cares for him very much; Connie, a smart, possibly nerdy young girl who moves around a lot and feels overwhelmed and uncertain about how a magical boy could think she’s interesting. Oh, and Lion. We can’t forget about Lion.
Steven Universes‘s story grabs me again and again; cool monster fights and storylines that range from delivering a relic to replacing a little plastic figurine from a quarter machine; basically, it’s both exciting and silly in the best way; delightfully weird moments, like when a creepy mascot suit comes to life, or when Steven turns into an amorphous cat monster**; funny lines (Garnet: “The hardest part was getting the shark to pose.”) and hilarious moments. But what really makes the show special is the emotional depth that reveals itself through the show. Steven’s life is made up of non-traditional relationships, but he cares deeply for everyone around him and understands what they mean to him in is life. And we see that he’s not always feeling peachy-keen — he has a sense of loss from having never known his mother. Rebecca Sugar has stated that this character is based on her brother (also named Steven, who also works on the show) and the love and respect that caused her to do that bleed into the whole cartoon.
Though the episodes are definitely chronological and interconnected, an overall plot has been missing from the show as seemingly important questions continue to go unanswered even 20 episodes later: Why do there seem to be so few Crystal Gems? Why are all their temples falling to ruin? Why do they collect gems from monsters, and where do those gems go when Garnet sends them off? Bits and pieces of Gem lore and abilities comes to light with each episode, but the overall picture remains blank. While frustrating, I am confident they’ll get to it when it’s time. Right now I’m just happy that such a weird, funny, sweet, character-driven show exists.
*I make myself cry singing “I Remember You” in the shower.
**I realize that these references are strange out of context. =P