Steven Universe returns to Cartoon Network with new episodes in January. The show’s creator, Rebecca Sugar, worked as a collaborator on Adventure Time for several years before branching off. The Emmy-nominated Steven Universe has a broader appeal than its marketing suggests; it’s a rare cartoon written for children with an interesting enough plot to keep adults engaged. It manages to be smart without being smarmy, and it has amassed a huge following on Tumblr, due partly to its work in gender politics.
Pleasing social justice warriors can sometimes mean that a show is preachy or saccharine, but Steven Universe avoids this. It’s a complex, unfolding story with its own sci-fi mythology, making it reminiscent of the Dragonball franchise, though its frenetic energy and swiftly-moving plot structure also resemble Space Dandy.
So why bother watching if you’re not a kid?
The boundary between adult animation and children’s programming is blurring
Years ago, the number of animated shows meant for adult audiences surged, and The Simpsons was joined by shows like Daria, King of the Hill, and all of the repetitive shows Seth MacFarlane excreted into our culture. Adult Swim grew in popularity, becoming not a late-night fringe series but a source for quality television.
Steven Universe is not the first of its childrens’-animation-collective to do well; Adventure Time, Regular Show, The Amazing World of Gumball, and Uncle Grandpa each employ their own sense of comedic timing and challenge kids to keep up with plot twists and dramatic irony. These programs are neither a commentary on low income families (King of the Hill) nor based on gross-out humor (The Rugrats), but are something else entirely. Steven Universe, for example, is not quite a children’s show that appeals to adults as a secondary demographic; it satisfies both groups the way Dragonball Z did. It’s an adventure, a family drama, and a well-thought-out sci-fi sitcom that never falls too far down the rabbit hole of zaniness.
Some awesome people are already involved
Nicki Minaj voices Sugilite, a morphed-combination of two characters. Pop star Estelle voices Garnet, a deadpan hero with both male and female traits, who sometimes sings while in combat.
T-Pain is an obsessive Steven Universe fan, and Joel Hodgson, the creator of Mystery Science Theater, voices the town’s mayor. Tom Scharpling, a writer for both Tim and Eric, Awesome Show, Great Job! and Tom Goes to the Mayor voices Steven’s hippie dad.
Steven Universe has given adult animators and voice actors a place to use their creativity
The show has a deep respect for the classics
In July, Cartoon Network began releasing short companion films online, which featured the Steven Universe characters as chibis (cutesy little versions of themselves), explaining the show’s lore to the audience in simple terms. These videos are funny and useful, given that the show explores young Steven’s exploration of a larger, alien culture, but they’re also a direct homage to omake clips from classic anime like Gunbuster and Super Sentai. The “Classroom Gem* shorts are Rebecca Sugar’s confirmation that her program exists in a larger canon of Western/Japanese fusion animation.
The show’s lore is complicated, and fun to think about
On the surface, Steven Universe is about three female aliens, called Crystal Gems, who co-raise their half-alien nephew Steven alongside his human father in a town by the beach. The show unabashedly tackles topics like feeling ashamed of your parents, the paradox of time travel, nature vs nurture, queer relationships, consent, and the stigma and complications which surround sex.
Steven Universe employs a sense of nostalgia, which has been analyzed by PBS as a narrative tool utilized by Adventure Time, although Steven Universe treats the past differently. The show’s hero, Steven, was conceived by his alien mother and human father, when his mother’s body and consciousness morphed into his. He wears her gem, a rose quartz, on his belly button, and the audience learns about his mother through flashbacks, or through the narration of characters who knew her, like the other Crystal Gems.
Steven is an effective entry point into the show’s mythology, as child audiences easily identify with his awe of the Crystal Gems. The Gems themselves, however, are interesting characters, written with such care that adult audiences have begun studying them critically. Garnet, a permanent fusion between two seemingly-female gems in love, is voiced by and sings songs about the relationship she embodies while fighting enemies.
Amethyst, the stocky and hot-headed comedic relief, was created on earth by Gems who sought to overthrow the planet and wipe out humanity. Pearl, the most uptight of the three Gems, resents Steven for effectively ending his mother’s life. In flashbacks, we learn Pearl may have been in love with Rose Quartz, and was resentful of Rose Quartz’ connection with Steven’s father.
It has a sensual undertone
The role sexuality plays on Steven Universe is complicated. The audience is never sure how much of the fusion process is overtly sexual, although certain cues seem to suggest it is. First of all, the Gems’ fusion process always begins with a romantic, or suggestive, dance, depending on the nature of the Gems involved.
The experience of fusing with another Gem is pleasurable, and the Gems argue about who gets to do it when. If a Gem is tricked into fusing under false pretenses, this is treated as a perverse and reprehensible act. When Steven realizes he’s able to fuse (as a half-Gem), the Crystal Gems decide to give him a “talk” that very much resembles a “sex talk,” although they stress the importance of intimacy, consent, and trust.
The very fact that Steven Universe treats fusion, or sex, as a complicated concept that requires forethought and an emotional connection, though it doesn’t deny that it’s fun, is a huge step forward for children’s programming. As far as adults go, any person interested in contemporary media can appreciate Rebecca Sugar’s innovation. She frames her look at sexuality in such a way that it’s fun to parse out what her characters want, and Steven Universe never talks down to its audience, which makes it a great watch for viewers of any age.