Over its six seasons, feature movie and epilogue series, Steven Universe has taught me a lot of valuable lessons about the world and myself. It’s a series that’s—for better use of the word—unapologetically queer, pushing for queerer bodies and relationships. Its characters’ journeys share inspiring stories of overcoming trauma, grief and questioning identity, all in camp musical theatre, anime references and classic Cartoon Network goofs.
Steven Universe is genuinely the best cartoon in recent years and thinking about what it would be like to watch this as a preteen makes me ugly cry, I love to see it.
So, it’s no surprise that its series finale over the weekend broke me. As Steven’s trauma and anxiety from the series’ intergalactic events spiralled into his everyday human life, it not only felt therapeutic but encompassed everything that makes the show so special.
Steven Universe is a story about a chosen queer family first, goofs second and space warfare third
Since its pilot episode in 2013, Steven Universe has made history as a cartoon unlike any other.
The series follows a bubbly and adorably pudgy half-human-half-gem-alien child with curly hair named Steven Universe, as he’s raised by his single human father and a trio of queer non-conforming gem beings, each an allusion to identities within the LGBTQI+ community.
Initially, we had Pearl, a sword-wielding femme lesbian with anxiety; Amethyst, a butch queer purple gem with a non-conforming body type and chaotically rowdy personality; and Garnett, a literal fusion of the love between two female-presenting gems, played by *the* Estelle. Then, there was Peridot, a former-enemy-turned-companion who despised fusion and wanted to study life on Earth; Lapis, a water-based gem and victim of the war who experienced a traumatic event from fusion; and Bismuth, a former gem soldier coming to terms with living a normal life after conflict.
Raised by these queer beings, Steven Universe’s audience, much like Steven, was not only encouraged to explore their emotions and be feminine, but told valuable lessons around it and self-love. Through a chosen queer family, Steven, a heterosexual gender-fluid boy learned about meditation, to always talk through conflicts instead of confront them, to respect boundaries and celebrate difference, and, ultimately, learn not to blame himself for his mother’s mistakes. Even if she’s an intergalactic gem overlord who started a whole space war and left her friends and family behind to clean up her mess, had huge attachment issues and…I could go on, lol.
The original Steven Universe series taught us important lessons about the world and ourselves. Pearl’s unrequited love for Rose/Pink Diamond taught us that sometimes, we don’t get the closure we want, and showed someone trying to move on from a traumatic relationship and loss of a loved one. Amethyst’s body dysmorphia around other manufactured gems like Jasper taught us about loving our own bodies, from the perspective of a non-conforming queer and/or trans identity.
Ruby’s and Sapphire’s wedding made queer history as the first same-sex wedding in animation, but also stressed the unparalleled importance of having a clear sense of self in a relationship, and cherishing each other as individuals instead of one shared entity. And, of course, Peridot’s and Lapis’s individual relationships with fusion were wonderfully inspiring metaphors for how you can be fullfilled without experiencing sex or romantic love, from someone who’s asexual and another who’s experienced sexual and emotional trauma.
For queer and young people with anxiety, Steven Universe Future’s finale hit close to home
With that in mind, Steven Universe Future took into account all of the traumatic moments Steven had experienced throughout the show, and did something no other child-friendly TV animation would. It showed not just the good and bad outcomes of these events but the mental toll it all took on our hero.
The trauma of seeing his chosen family shatter before him, being confronted with his late mother’s war crimes and being put in dangerous situations again and again all caught up to Steven. As series creator and showrunner Rebecca Sugar told the Los Angeles Times, in shonen anime and action movies, “if you win a fight, it’s as if that’s not a problem that you were in a fight. But having someone fight you is a really difficult experience to go through, and that’s something that you need to unpack. If you win it doesn’t mean that that didn’t matter.”
“[All of these experiences have] taken a toll on [Steven], being the protagonist of the show to whom everything happens, who is tasked with fixing everything and has to feel personally responsible for everything,” they added. “For me, ‘Future’ was about going on this journey through Steven with Steven [and] really unpacking everything that the show had been.”
The result of that intention was a series of episodes tackling real world anxieties and trauma. In “Real Graduation,” Steven struggles to come to terms with the various changes to his life in Beach City, his friends moving overseas and into space and dating other people, and the fear that he’ll be left alone. Following that, in “Together Forever,” Steven freaks out when he hears that Connie plans to move across the country to study, and proposes to her, claiming that they’re at their best when they’re fused as Stevonnie. Then, as she understandably rejects his proposal in “Growing Pains,” his body starts to mutate (a nod to Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira and Steven Universe episode, “Cat Fingers”) and we learn that he’s experiencing intense physical pain from all the emotional trauma he’s had from his childhood.
It’s wild that this show used to be about a little boy and his favourite ice cream sandwich that’s no longer in production. But, just like Shia LaBeouf’s Honey Boy, the series matured with its fans and showed not only how our childhood trauma can define us, but how we can learn to free ourselves from it.
As Steven turns to everyone he knows for guidance in the last few episodes and feels so alone and tormented by his thoughts that he transforms into a mindless kaiju, the most wonderful thing happens. Something that speaks to what makes this show so special and beloved. Something that made me ugly cry.
The Crystal Gems, Steven’s chosen family, surround his kaiju form. They admit that they’ve never really been there for him the way he’s been there for them. When he’s inspired them with words of self-love and blissfully sweet innocence from his youth. In a montage-heavy moment reminiscent of something from a shonen anime, they remind him they’re here for him and embrace him in one monumental hug.
In this way, Steven Universe has felt like much needed therapy and representation for queer people experiencing anxiety. Through Steven and the Crystal Gems’ trauma and discoveries of self-worth and identity, it confronts and exposes our fears and anxieties. Even ignoring the camp aesthetics and its magical girls in love, Steven Universe is queer culture, speaking to an audience that’s trying find a place to belong, understand who they are, how to navigate our emotions and grow up in an unconventional family.
For Steven Universe Future, Sugar was inspired by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris’s The Deepest Well, a book that explores how transformative love and support from a loved one can be. The end result is a powerful story of healing, all from what started off as just a show about a goofy little kid and his weird gem family adjusting to human life.
Thank you, Steven Universe.