The topic of LGBT representation in children's cartoons is one fraught with tension, but it's something that Steven Universe has dealt with with ease. Slowly building up relationships by showing the emotion and affection between characters, showrunner Rebecca Sugar nonetheless makes it clear in several episodes that yes, these female characters do in fact have romantic feelings for each other.
The path to representation hasn't always been easy for Steven Universe, and it still struggles with international censors, but Sugar is passionate about providing a reflection for people who too often feel as though they don't have a place in mainstream media.
As the latest episode of Steven Universe features Ruby and Sapphire "flirting" with each other (and yes, that term is used to describe the two gems), Sugar's values are really paying off when it comes to this show.
A Fairy Tale About Love
Ultimately though, as Sugar argued when speaking to the School of Visual Art's Society of Illustrators, LGBT representation isn't a political battle or about taking a stand — it's something vital to children's development.
"You can’t wait until kids have grown up to let them know that queer people exist. There’s this idea that that is something that should only be discussed with adults — that is completely wrong. If you wait to tell queer youth that it matters how they feel or that they are even a person, then it’s going to be too late!"
Commenting on the pervasive nature of heteronormativity, Sugar pointed out that not allowing children to see themselves in the stories they love can be very harmful. With LGBT youth ranking alarmingly high for homelessness and suicide risk, Sugar's argument couldn't be more pertinent. In most fairy tales the idea of true love is intrinsically linked to a happy ending, and therefore happiness in life. As Sugar argues, it's just flatly unfair that some children are denied this vision of hope.
"I think a lot about fairy tales and Disney movies and the way that love is something that's always discussed with children. You're told that you should dream about love, about this fulfilling love that you're going to have. The prince and Snow White aren't someone's parents, they're someone you wanna be. You're sort of dreaming about a future where you will find happiness. Why shouldn't everyone that? I loved Disney movies when I was little, but I didn't really feel like they were me, ever."
This thinking is evident in Steven Universe in everything from the structure of the plot as somewhat fairy tale-esque, to the imagery Sugar employs — clearly reminiscent of Disney's most romantic stories.
Some might see LGBT representation as a political issue but when it comes right down to it, it's not about arguing a case or pushing for social change.
Developing A Sense Of Identity
It's about providing people, and in this case children, the chance to understand themselves. When it comes to the development of identity, studies have proven that fiction helps us learn who we are by finding characters who chime with how we feel. If you take that away from a certain group of people, that group will feel isolated and wrong from the very start of their development as a person. Which seems rather cruel.
This is why Steven Universe is so important. The slow build from subtle framing of certain moments as romantic, to the oblique use of words like "love" and "flirting" to describe Ruby and Sapphire's relationship, is really very clever. Instead of barreling straight in with the facts — that these two characters are in love — Steven Universe concentrates on the fact that this relationship is healthy and loving, and then moves on to making it clear that it's undeniably romantic.
It's not just Ruby and Sapphire though: Many fans have spotted a budding attraction between Peridot and Amethyst, and Pearl's love for Rose Quartz is barely subtextual.
If seeing all of this play out onscreen isn't enough, Sugar has written a book adaptation of the episode "The Answer", which should provide kids with the queer fairy tale Sugar herself always wanted. And at the end of the day that's all that matters — showing children that no matter who you love, you deserve a happy ending too.
What was your favorite fairy tale as a child?
[Source: Society of Illustrators]