“Steven Universe” fans recently cheered at a wedding kiss between two female characters, the latest example of how the Cartoon Network series has broken new ground for its frank portrayal of sexuality and gender identity in children’s programming.
Since its premiere in 2013 on Cartoon Network, the show has wielded zany comedy, drama, and visual metaphors to teach its children—and adult—viewers that identity isn’t chained to heteronormativity. Inspired by creator Rebecca Sugar’s experience with her bisexuality and feminism, “Steven Universe” has been championing LGBTQ visibility for five seasons.
The same-sex relationship between Ruby and Sapphire, from an onscreen marriage proposal to an uncensored lip-to-lip kiss, led to some earth-shattering milestones of LGBTQ visibility in kids’ shows. But the kiss and wedding were not the only instances of queer expression in “Steven Universe.”
Through sci-fi world building, Sugar and her writing team like to play with “fusion.” For the uninitiated, fusion is an ability where two or more Gems—humanoid aliens—can combine their bodies and personalities to generate a larger and more powerful form. Fusion requires an amount of emotional connection, allowing the writers to use fusion as a device to teach consent and other relationship dynamics. Some fusions are platonic, but plenty of fusions are depicted as romantic.
In the Season 1 finale “Jail Break,” it is revealed that Steven’s guardian, Garnet, is the product of a romantic fusion between Ruby and Sapphire. Garnet is the living embodiment of a normalized lesbian romance, as her song goes, “I’m made of love.” The origin story of Garnet’s fusion form is told with Disney fairy tale flair in season two’s “The Answer.” After narrowly escaping a shattering (i.e. a death sentence in their culture) due to their forbidden fusion, Ruby and Sapphire sing their signature song number “Something Entirely New” to ponder the emotional mysteries and anxieties of loving outside social constraints.
Rose Quartz and Pearl are two female aliens of two different classes: One’s a leader, and the other a handmaiden. In particular, Rose is coded as pansexual, as she experiments with romances with Pearl and human men and women alike. While Pearl and Rose do not have a permanent fusion like Garnet, they do partake in a romantic fusion form by performing a sensual dance (which was censored in the U.K.). Ultimately, Pearl enters a love triangle with Rose’s human lover Greg, the man who wins Rose’s heart and fathers the latter’s child.
In Season 1’s “Alone Together,” Steven and his human friend Connie fuse into a form called “Stevonnie”, who goes by the gender-neutral “they/them” pronouns. In their debut episode, Stevonnie gallivants off to explore the physicality of their form and expresses both exhilaration and trepidation over navigating this new body. Human women and men alike show attraction to the androgynous Stevonnie, who best represents youths who identify as non-binary and/or genderqueer.
In contrast to its portraits of healthy fusions and relationships, “Steven Universe” does not shy away from depicting a toxic relationship between two females. One of Steven’s allies, Lapis Lazuli, is forced to fuse with an antagonistic Gem, the bullying Jasper. The fusion takes a toll on Lapis’s mental state. She is haunted by the relationship, even confessing she is equal parts terrified and emotionally attached to Jasper. In Season 3’s “Alone At Sea,” Jasper tries to “win” Lapis back, and the scene plays gruesomely like an estranged abusive ex trying to drag their former significant other back into an unstable relationship. Rarely does LGBTQ representation contend with domestic violence or toxic relationships.
In the early part of Season 5, “Off Colors” introduces Steven to a gang of colorful Gems (though stigmatized as “off colors” due to abnormalities) cast out of their society. One gang member is a fusion consisting of six Gems who calls themselves “Fluorite.” Fluorite is affirmed to be symbolic of a polyamorous relationship, as cemented by this line, “Maybe more [Gems], if we meet the right Gem.” In a show that has a monogamous emphasis, it is quite refreshing.
The productions of Cartoon Network have been a breeding ground for queer representation. A “Science of Love” parody sequence in “The Amazing World of Gumball” makes a point against heteronormativity. “We Bare Bears” and “Clarence” feature lesbian couples as well. But “Steven Universe” is distinctive for its prominence of queerness and its relevance to narrative arcs. Queerness is not sidelined. It is at the forefront.