With Adventure Time alumni Rebecca Sugar helming the show, it's no wonder that Steven Universe has risen to popularity since it started airing in 2013, and has only gained more fans in season 2. The cartoon is produced by Cartoon Network, and has the same 10 minute episode length as Adventure Time and somehow manages to cram an intense and complex plot into those tight episodic slots.
Children's television is an absolute treat these days for kids and adults alike: shows like The Legend of Korra and Gravity Falls have a sophistication in their storylines that everyone can appreciate, and the writers are clearly passionate about incorporating good morals into the shows. This is especially true of Steven Universe, which is lovingly crafted to teach children the best way to be a hero, believe in yourself, and care for others. Plus it features plenty of monster slaying action sequences. It's delightful.
So without further ado, here's why we think Steven Universe heralds a new era in children's programming, and also why you totally need to watch this show right now! (If you're not already hooked.)
The Value Of Compassion
Action shows often show the conflict between compassion and saving the day, positing moral dilemmas with characters often making the tough choice to act against their compassionate urges for the greater good. This is the exact opposite of the morals that Steven Universe represents: in this show, compassion is one of the heroes' most powerful tools, and when the characters act selfishly bad things happen.
This is very refreshing, as it's boring to constantly see bad guys fought without the heroes even considering talking it out. But for Steven Universe, not being compassionate is often a tactical mistake, not to mention a dick move. Obviously, this is a fantastic message for kids.
In the latest episodes of season 2, the writers once again made use of this theme, turning antagonist Peridot into an ally for the Crystal Gems, and revealing that her motivations weren't evil, but rather self preservation in the face of a fate she deeply fears.
Villain to reluctant team member is a great narrative trope (see also: Zuko in A;tLA), and it's going to be fantastic to see Peridot's dynamic with the Crystal Gems develop over the rest of season 2.
Other values are obviously also explored by the show, most notably the importance of communication and consent in relationships. Steven Universe's stories are fueled by emotion, and I could probably write entire essays on the way the show represents grief, joy, and love, but suffice to say that if there's a children's show which has more emotional integrity, I've yet to find it.
Progressiveness & Representation
Steven Universe is a real trailblazer on this front. Of course, it's not the first kids' show to heavily feature female heroines - Avatar: The Last Airbender had amazing female characters, and far before that Kim Possible was teaching kids everywhere that girls are can be seriously kickass. But with a cast of mostly women (or rather, feminine presenting agender space rocks) Steven Universe stands out from the crowd as a bit of a feminist milestone, which is only helped by the fact that its eponymous protagonist is male.
This makes Steven Universe a bit of a Trojan horse as far as feminist messages goes, as well as ensuring that the show is aimed at boys and girls alike. Steven's characterisation is very subversive as far as gender norms go: he's hardly an icon of hegemonic masculinity with his sensitive nature, he feels no qualms in dressing in skirts (as proved by season 2 episode Sadie's Song), and his fusion with Connie challenges rigid gender ideas (and helps to represent non-binary people in kids' TV... which is pretty rare).
Rebecca Sugar has been very clear that playing with gender norms has been an aim of the show since day one.
"My goal with the show was to really tear down and play with the semiotics of gender in cartoons for children because I think that’s a really absurd idea that there would be something radically different about a show for little girls versus a show for little boys."
The fact that the Gems themselves are actually agender is also very important. Non-binary people are barely represented in television, let alone in kids' shows. Having the majority of the cast challenge the gender binary is fantastic, showing that feminine presentation and pronouns can be a choice that isn't determined by your biology.
Gender aside, Steven Universe has also made leaps and bounds in representing queer relationships. This is thanks largely to the revelation that Garnet is in fact a permanent fusion of the two gems Ruby and Sapphire... who are very clearly in a long term romantic relationship.
The revelation of Ruby and Sapphire was somewhat ambiguous as far as the romance element went, but the nature of their relationship was later made more oblique, especially in the episode Love Letters when Connie tries to set Garnet up on a date...
Steven: "Garnet's already in a relationship!"
Steven: "She /is a relationship!"
Connie: "Oh you mean because she's a fusion!"
Garnet: "Three's a crowd"
The episode Keystone Motel again made this clear, because come on, neck kisses and intense flirting is hardly platonic. After Adventure Time struggled to get Marceline and Bubblegum's relationship to be canon, and with Gravity Falls still falling prey to censors, Steven Universe is making leaps and bounds in queer representation, and it's fantastic to see.
A New Era
There are so many more things I want to talk about, like the inclusion of character of colour Connie, the intelligence and drama of the plot, the amazing music, and just how gorgeous the animation is. But this is getting a tad long. Suffice to say that Steven Universe is among the best shows on television right now. And with its morals, complex themes, and progressive social politics, this show might just herald a new era of acceptance in children's programming!
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