By Giorgi Plys-Garzotto
Hi. I’m here to talk to you about a cartoon. This cartoon has changed and shaped my life, and helped me through my darkest moments. Maybe it can help you too.
This cartoon is about coping with life’s struggles, and how love and community can help us do that. It’s about how communication is the most important thing in relationships, and it teaches us that we can find common ground with anyone, as long as we take the time to talk to them and make an effort to understand. On the other hand, it’s also about protecting yourself and the ones you love from people trying to hurt you—it’s about the imperative to fight for freedom, even when the odds are hopeless.
It’s also about dealing with the emotional fallout of fighting for what’s right–it teaches us that it’s okay not to be okay, that healing from emotional crises takes time. Most of the characters in this show are struggling with some kind of lasting trauma, and they all have to learn to deal with that, especially when it comes to how their pasts lead them to react to the present. Grappling with ways for many survivors healing from different experiences to coexist with each other without letting their traumas interact in harmful ways is a major theme of the show.
This show is unabashedly silly and weird, and can go from songs about ice cream sandwiches, and fights against monsters made of waffles and popcorn, to some of the most real and raw drama on TV right now. And sometimes it does these two things at the same time. This show knows that seriousness and levity are not opposites; it balances and combines the two fearlessly. This show is uncool, and it’s not ashamed of that, because it’s not trying to be anything other than what it already is. In this, as in so many other ways, this show is awesomely brave and inspiring.
Let me back up. This show is about a boy. His name is Steven—Steven Universe, as you might have guessed. Steven, and most of the main characters in the show, are Gems, members of an alien warrior species. The core of every Gem’s being is a gemstone, which contains their life force and from which they can summon a weapon based on their personality (and which matches their outfit).
For instance, Pearl’s gem is a pearl in her forehead, and she can summon a white spear from it. Amethyst has a purple gem in her chest and fights with a matching purple whip, and Garnet, who has a gem in each hand, uses two huge red gauntlets to punch things. And then there’s Steven, and his mother Rose Quartz, who share a pink belly-button gem and can summon a shield.
As you can see, these characters aren’t stereotypical sexy-lady supermodel aliens like in many blockbuster movies, where the only difference between an alien and a typical hot human woman is that the alien’s skin is green or something.
No shade intended, Gamora.
Gems can have any body type, and many are coded as non-white. They’re also pretty much all queer, as you’ll see if you watch enough of the show. Seeing all kinds of bodies portrayed as beautiful and attractive without being weirdly sexualized all the time is a radical thing for anyone, but especially a child, to experience, and I envy the viewers of Steven Universe growing up with this messaging rather than what I got.
Re: queerness, without giving too many spoilers, I can tell you that there are multiple queer relationships that will give you everything you’ve been wishing and shipping for in straighter shows, but never getting in canon. When you watch Steven Universe, you will feel a little bit healed from Lexa, Poussey, and all the other victims of shows that are not Steven Universe.
Anyway. The backstory for the show is thus: Rose Quartz, Steven’s mom, was a Gem who came to Earth as part of a colonization force. Gems were going to destroy Earth as fuel for their own development, but Rose decided Gems didn’t have the right to do that, and left her birth planet behind forever to stay on Earth and defend it from other Gems. Along the way, she settled down with a human, and eventually gave up her physical form to create a human/ Gem hybrid named Steven.
So Steven is left to be raised by Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl, the only remaining “Crystal Gems” who started Rose’s rebellion. He has his mother’s gem, which means he’ll grow to have her magic powers someday, but, like another animated hero I know of, he’s got a lot to learn before he’s ready to save anyone.
Most of the episodes involve Steven learning about his powers while figuring out interpersonal problems, or trying to solve problems between other people. As he prepares to take his mother’s place, this is as important as learning to control his magic, because magic wasn’t Rose Quartz’s greatest power—it was friendship. More than fighting and magic, this show is about solving problems and how to have healthy relationships, and most episodes revolve around that.
The thing about this show, is that the average episode starts out being as fun-loving and silly as any other kid’s show, and then it gets heavy, heavier than most kid’s shows have the courage to be. Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl are all still processing the events of the war, and more recently, Rose’s death. Steven has to deal with the huge pressure of taking on Rose’s mantle and defending humanity in her stead. That is a lot, and the show doesn’t sugarcoat it. In fact, some of the best Angst™ I’ve seen on TV of late has been from Steven Universe.
Looking at you, Pearl.
Flashback: It’s the spring semester of my junior year of college. For the past six months or so, I’ve been spiraling into a nervous breakdown, which I won’t fully recover from until my senior year. For the most part, I’m going through this all alone.
At the same time, I’ve been seeing screenshots and fanart about this cartoon about warrior-woman aliens. Apparently there’s lesbians in it, and a really catchy song called “Stronger Than You.” I decide to give it a shot.
When you spend most of your time hanging out in your dorm room, eating granola and mangoes while fending off irrational fears, a cartoon like Steven Universe can be everything you need.
When a building explodes (long story) by your dorm and you’re hyperventilating about the asbestos that could have been released into the air, Steven Universe can make you feel safe again. When you want to forget other people exist, Steven Universe can distract you. When your OCD makes you puke up the curry you made for dinner because you noticed you used vegetable stock a couple days past the expiration date to make it, you can get fast food and watch Steven Universe while you fend off residual waves of nausea.
Around the end of junior year, I heard from the social media hive mind that Game of Thrones had sharply deviated from George R. R. Martin’s source material. They had chosen to have the character Sansa be brutally raped by one of the main villains on the show, to further the development of a male character who is relatively tangential in the books.
I hadn’t watched the show for a couple seasons and, ever a sore winner, I smirkingly told anyone who would listen that Steven Universe did better drama than Game of Thrones, all without boobs, blood, or sexual assault. Not counting Rose Quartz’s death, which happens before the show begins, Steven Universe doesn’t have a single instance of character death or rape propping up its storylines—it doesn’t need them.
I spent a lot of the following summer at my parents’ house, watching and re-watching Steven Universe. There were times that summer where my anxiety kept me up for days at a time; when I couldn’t think about anything beyond getting through the next inhale and exhale. Sometimes, I couldn’t even pay attention to Steven Universe: I just huddled in a blanket and tried to keep from screaming or sobbing, while an episode played on the screen.
By the time I went back to school, I’d watched the whole series several times, and while that probably wasn’t a deciding factor in my recovery—insofar as I would have found something to cling to in the same way even if this show hadn’t existed—Steven Universe was still my companion through my worst period of mental health. It has been there for me to come back to in other moments when I’ve needed it, and I imagine it always will.
“Don’t worry about labels, or conforming to a standard. Just be true to yourself, and people will appreciate your honesty.” This line is spoken in a dream, by a character named Dogcopter, the protagonist in Steven’s favorite movie franchise who is half-dog and half-helicopter. In this moment, Dogcopter encapsulates what Rebecca Sugar, the creator of Steven Universe, is trying to do with this show, and it’s no accident that she gave one of her most personal lines to one of her most absurd characters.
Because above all, it’s honesty that makes Steven Universe what it is. The emotional intelligence and complex storytelling would be nothing, if this show didn’t have the courage to be honest. When you’re alone and terrified of life, a show that speaks openly like that about love and pain is something that can save you, and for me, that’s exactly what it was.
So this is me saying to you: if you’re in need, if you’re in pain, if you’re in love, if you’re human and don’t quite know how to be, there’s this show I think you’ll be into. It could help you, or at the very least it can be your companion while you help yourself.
So come join me in my love of Steven Universe—and together we can wait six months for the current hiatus to end.