July 3, 2015 was the first time I ever saw an episode of the original Cartoon Network animated series “Steven Universe.” I remember it because we were visiting my aunt’s house and she’s the only person I know that has cable TV but no WiFi. At the time, I remember hearing friends recommend it to me but I had never gotten around to it. Watching those episodes, even though I didn’t know what was going on in them, I was captivated by the charming fantasy element of it. By the time 11 minutes of the first episode was over, I knew I needed more of it.
I had no idea that almost five years later, it would go on to become my absolute favorite show ever.
For those unfamiliar with the show, it follows Steven Universe, a 13-year-old boy who is half-human half-gem and the adventures he gets on as he tries to navigate that. A description, that while on the surface might sound a little strange, is pulled off effortlessly in the show. Through the course of the show we see Steven try to find the balance between his humanity and his gemness. Ultimately, his journey is one of self-discovery and redefining.
One of my favorite themes of “Steven Universe” was the recurring theme of change. Change is sometimes scary and unpredictable but when you’re going through your teenage years, it can often feel like the end of the world. When you’re younger, you expect all the adults in your life to be able to provide all the answers. But as we grow, we find out they’re often just as clueless as we are. One of the reasons this show resonated with me was that despite all the crazy monsters and alien space conflicts that might’ve been occurring, I could relate to the feeling of being lost and confused and trying and failing to live up to expectations that’ve been laid out for you.
Speaking of change, as the show grew from its sugary sweet roots, it began to tackle heavier themes like grief, trauma and mental health. People took notice. The show grew, eventually spanning six seasons and one movie. Outside of the show itself, it was clear that Cartoon Network understood the hype behind the show, giving “Steven Universe” dedicated merch at stores like Hot Topic and products ranging from graphic novels and art books to vinyl records. There was even an official podcast that featured various members of the ‘Crewniverse,’ as they called themselves, ranging from voice actors to the series creator herself, Rebecca Sugar.
As the show grew, it never lost its tone or message of love, making it the perfect show to be enjoyed by anyone. We see Steven deal with the burden of trying to live up to his mother’s legacy. Steven’s mother, Rose Quartz was a rebellious resistance leader who led a revolution against the oppressors of her and the gems homeworld. She gave up her physical form in order to bring Steven into the world. Or at least this was the story he had been told for the first 14 years of his life, as he gets older he finds out her legacy might be a lot more complex than he’s been led to believe it is.
Groundbreaking Queer Representation
Another groundbreaking element of the show was explicit portrayals of LGBT+ themes. When the show first premiered back in November 2013, gay marriage wasn’t even legalized in all 50 states and queer representation as a whole was rarely found in children’s media. Nickelodeon’s “Legend of Korra” was one of the only shows from that time having an “explicit” sapphic relationship. And that moment served as the last scene of the show and was officially confirmed offscreen by the creators. At the time of that, I was convinced seeing the two main female characters look lovingly into each other’s eyes as they held hands was the height of representation that I’d ever seen. So it was to my complete and utter delight starting this show and watching as the “queer subtext” became less subtext and just explicit representation. Throughout its run, “Steven Universe” featured non-binary characters who went by they/them pronouns (and never having it be questioned), along with explicit women loving women relationships.
‘Steven Universe’ Fandom Was All About Love
The show had a major fandom, one that wasn’t as cookie cutter as you would often think. Because the show was so accessible, everyone was reflected in the show’s viewers. One of my first fandom experiences was going to MomoCon in 2017 in Atlanta and I specifically went because of the panels that were happening for the show.
I spent a month beforehand creating “Steven Universe” cosplay that was mostly born out of stuff I had in my closet, along with a sword I built out of cardboard boxes. Being in the room with hundreds of other fans of the show was an experience like no other. It was my first experience at a convention so I didn’t know what to expect. Everyone was showing each other love.
I remember waiting outside for the big Saturday panel that featured most of the show’s crew. When the doors opened and all us excited fans flooded in to try and get to the best seat, there was no shoving or fighting. Surprisingly, there were people helping each other find better seats. Even though we were an audience full of strangers, we were all able to connect through our love of this show.
This year’s final season of the show, titled “Steven Universe Future” took place after the events of the movie, so two years after the main series. At first, I was wary of having the show do a time skip because I would’ve loved to see some flashbacks between the season five finale, “Change Your Mind,” and the events of the movie. But looking back on it, the time jump makes perfect sense.
Insanely Relatable for Teens
Over the course of the series, we’ve seen Steven constantly trying to help out and prove himself even as it takes a toll physically and emotionally. This last season really took a look at Steven as a character and who he is when he’s not trying to solve a 6,000-year-old space conflict. What he’s like at almost 17, when he’s heartbroken, struggling to figure who he wants to be, and even who he is.
As someone who’s close in age, this was insanely relatable. Even though the series finale (which aired March 27 on Cartoon Network) didn’t answer every single question I wanted, I’m extremely happy with the way it ended. It was the perfect mix of bittersweet nostalgia and hope for the future you’d crave from a coming of age story.
Overall, “Steven Universe” has been one of the most impactful and important stories for me. Especially when you live in a world that’s constantly changing where it feels like the only voices we hear are those of hate. It was powerful to have a show that was created with the intent of spreading love, especially among those who might be the most marginalized.