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How Steven Universe opened the door to diversity and inclusion in kids' shows

Steven Universe

Source: Cartoon Network (Image credit: Cartoon Network)

Growing up as a queer kid in the 80's and 90's was tough. Beyond just the general discrimination from the government or bigotry by average folk, there was absolutely no LGBTQ+ representation in any of the kids' books or shows I could find. Even when I started watching anime that did feature LGBTQ+ characters, those characters were all but wiped from the dubbed versions (and subbed versions were so expensive!). I can't tell you how excited I was for Haruka and Michiru to be introduced in Sailor Moon, nor how deeply crestfallen I was when they were dubbed as "cousins" for Cartoon Network.

Fast forward 20 years later, and I'm sitting with my children in tears as we watch Ruby and Sapphire's wedding in Steven Universe on the very same network. To say that Steven Universe has been lifechanging for me and countless queer kids and adults alike is not an understatement. Rebecca Sugar, the creator of Steven Universe, as well as many of her crew have spoken at length about their desire to create a show full of diversity and representation and just how hard they had to fight to tell these stories.

Steven Universe Reunited Screenshot

Source: Cartoon Network (Image credit: Cartoon Network)

When Steven Universe first aired in 2013, we were introduced to a cast of strong non-binary women who were all but idolized by the young half-alien boy who serves as protagonst. The Gems were almost all voiced by and coded as women of color, and they all had body types unlike the cookie cutter Barbie figures we so often see in the women characters kids are told to look up to. In fact, with each new character introduced, Steven Universe continued to showcase diversity. While it would take dozens of articles to explain the diversity in this show, to celebrate Pride Month, we're going to delve into some of the highlights of LGBTQ+ representation in Steven Universe, which comes down to the different characters. Fair warning, there are most definitely spoilers ahead!

Garnet, Ruby, and Sapphire

Steven Universe Reunited Screenshot Garnet

Source: Cartoon Network (Image credit: Cartoon Network)

Garnet is, in and of herself, an incredible character. She is powerful without having to be emotionless. She is as close to a leader as the Gems have thanks to her future vision. She is deep, as well as deeply passionate, and Steven clearly adores her. However, Garnet is also so much more than an individual character. Beneath it all, she is also a relationship.

Although the hints were there from the very first episode, it wasn't until the show had been on the air for nearly two years that Garnet was confirmed to be the fusion of two other Gems. When "Jailbreak," the Season One finale, aired in March 2015, Steven finally got the chance to meet Ruby and Sapphire, the queer couple whose relationship creates Garnet.

After waking up on a spaceship having been abducted by Homeworld Gems, Steven meets Ruby. She is fiery and loud — an eternal flame, you could say! She is also deeply distressed because she needs to find Sapphire. Steven offers to help but they soon end up separated again.

Then Steven meets Sapphire, a petite blue Gem whose face remains hidden behind her hair, speaks softly, and sings sweetly. She is so very much the opposite of Ruby. She also immediately recognizes Steven, and once he is able to set her free from the prison cell, she speeds off dragging him along in search of Ruby.

Steven Universe Jail Break Ruby Sapphire Kiss

Source: Cartoon Network (Image credit: Cartoon Network)

The two reunite with Sapphire kissing away Ruby's tears and Ruby scooping Sapphire up. They spin and laugh before fusing to reveal Garnet. Fusion, for those new to Steven Universe, is the combination of two characters into a single new character. That character has their own name, voice, personality, and drive. Up until this point, Steven, and the audience, didn't even know Garnet was a fusion.

Garnet sends Steven to find the rest of their family while she takes on one of the Gems who captured them. When Steven expresses his concern for leaving her to face Jasper alone, Garnet smiles and tells him, "It's okay Steven. I'm never alone."

While Ruby and Sapphire were rarely shown apart during the course of Steven Universe, their relationship in the form of Garnet was given plenty of focus. Rebecca Sugar has spoken in a number of interviews about why it was so important for them to showcase Garnet. Ruby and Sapphire represent Rebecca Sugar and their partner, Ian Jones-Quartey. The pair of creators were once physically attacked because of their interracial relationship and they came out of that hurt wanting to showcase a love like theirs as something powerful and admirable. In doing so, they came up with Garnet and their love has always shown through in the way Garnet is written.

From the moment Garnet was revealed to be a fusion on, the confirmation of that relationship being a loving romantic relationship was subtle — and in some countries, censored entirely. Steven described them saying, "Ruby and Sapphire are so close, that they can't stand to be apart." A fight causes them to unfuse as the focal point of another episode. Each of these little moments were easily cut or downplayed by those who didn't want to think of a queer couple in a children's show.

Then, in 2018, the moment that Rebecca Sugar and their team fought for finally happened. The undeniable proof that Ruby and Sapphire were truly a romantic couple: a marriage proposal and wedding. It became clear that the characters wanted their love to be solidified as both separate people but as one couple, but so did the creators behind the show itself.

By this point, plenty of other LGBTQ+ representation had been included in Steven Universe, and plenty more was yet to come.

Stevonnie

Steven Universe Lars Of The Stars Stevonnie An Experience

Source: Cartoon Network (Image credit: Cartoon Network)

While fusion served as representation of Ruby and Sapphire's romantic relationship, not all fusions were romantic and none were so long lasting. When fusion was first introduced as a concept, it was Pearl and Amethyst whose constant bickering kept the two from fusing often or for long. The second time fusion was featured in the show was between Steven and his best friend Connie. The fusion was accidental and unprecedented — the Gems weren't even sure Steven could fuse because of his human half. Their fusion and friendship became the focal point of several lessons on communication and consent, but their LGBTQ+ representation was also huge.

Steven Universe Alone Together Stevonnie Lars Sadie

Source: Cartoon Network (Image credit: Cartoon Network)

Stevonnie took traits from both Steven and Connie. They used they/them pronouns, and were presented as canonically nonbinary and intersex. They're also positively beautiful. The other teens Stevonnie meets, male and female alike, all seem to find them attractive, tripping over their tongues and blushing. Described by Garnet as "an experience," they were very much a good one, and a character who meant worlds to many trans, enby, and intersex people.

Steven Universe Jungle Moon Stevonnie Shave

Source: Cartoon Network (Image credit: Cartoon Network)

Although some watching the show didn't quite get that Stevonnie wasn't a woman, it becomes clear in a later episode, where they get stranded for an extended period on an alien planet. They end up growning facial hair, which they then shave using their sword. To further clarify, Stevonnie was featured in a Dove Self Esteem Project spot , in which their social media specifies intersex, non-binary, and those they/them pronouns.

I've heard from so many non-binary adults who desperately needed even a bit of this sort of representation growing up. Growing up never seeing yourself in the stories you read and watch is so isolating. Lacking the terminology to even describe your experience builds so much self doubt. As a parent of a non-binary kid, the joy I see in their eyes every single time Stevonnie comes on the screen is indescribable, but once again, I find myself so grateful that kids growing up now can see themselves in these characters.

Pearl

Steven Universe Pearl Rose Quartz

Source: Cartoon Network (Image credit: Cartoon Network)

While Steven's mother, Rose Quartz, died long before the events of the show, we get to know her through the people who loved her, and no one loved her longer than Pearl. Pearl's love and devotion to Rose Quartz defines her character for so much of the show, and at no point is that love presented as anything other than romantic. In fact, there is even an episode and song built around Pearl coming to terms with Rose having chosen Steven's father instead of her.

Eventually, Pearl does move on past her unrequited love. She is shown crushing on a human woman, and eventually having a whole fan club of humans whose numbers she collects. Although we don't ever see if Pearl ends up in a romantic relationship with any of these admirers, we do find out by the time Steven Universe Future wraps up, that it's not just humans who have an eye for Pearl, but one Gem in particular.

Bismuth

Steven Universe Bismuth And Pearl

Source: Cartoon Network (Image credit: Cartoon Network)

Although she spent much of the series in a bubble, Bismuth is another awesome LGBTQ+ character from this series. Bismuth was an old war buddy to the Crystal Gems who ended up in a bubble thanks to her desire to shatter the Diamonds. It took a lot of big reveals, and the impending wedding of Ruby and Sapphire, but eventually she was brought back as a permanent addition to the team. After some comments suggested Bismuth might just have a crush on Pearl, she admits as much in Steven Universe Future.

And me? I just want to know what their fusion would be called!

Shep

Steven Universe Little Graduation Shep Sadie

Source: Cartoon Network (Image credit: Cartoon Network)

Even when it comes to background characters or side characters that only show up in one or two episodes, Steven Universe continued to provide LGBTQ+ representation. Take the introduction of Shep, a non-binary character who was introduced as Sadie's partner in Steven Universe Future. Shep only speaks in one episode, but their inclusion — and the fact that their being non-binary didn't need to be explained with Gem magic and wasn't a plot point — was great for many of the enbies watching.

What now?

Steven Universe, Steven Universe Future , and even the Steven Universe comics are all over now. Fortunately, the work Rebecca Sugar and their crew did in getting LGBTQ+ representation on air has helped so many other creators showcase their own LGBTQ+ characters. There are lots of LGBTQ+ inclusive shows to watch after you've finished Steven Universe and more coming every day. The future is definitely bright!