‘Steven Universe’: Cartoon Network’s Avant-Garde Animation

Steven Universe's brightly colored world offers nuanced characters and complex plots by doing everything "wrong" by the outmoded standards of typical animated programs.

Steven Universe makes for a fascinating counterpoint to older action-adventure cartoons like G.I. Joe, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, ThunderCats, or Transformers. The traditional American style of action-adventure cartoons generally tended to involve a masculine protagonist set against a masculine antagonist. The protagonist would usually have a team of deuteragonists at his side that were largely male, but would include one or two female members (who generally took supporting roles).

The irony of traditional American action-adventure cartoons is that despite their veneer of “maturity”, they lacked the depth that typified mature art. In other words, they tended to reduce the world to good and evil, made their characters utterly asexual, removed all potential for horror and violence, and left personal issues unaddressed. This bowdlerization created global terrorists who didn’t kill anybody, war veterans who were milquetoast pictures of mental health, and erstwhile galactic conquerors reduced to the status of comic relief. These cartoons served the purpose of being appropriately toyetic for Hasbro and Mattel, but they couldn’t elevate American animation out of its age ghetto.

G.I. Joe‘s antagonist is a mustache-twirler with a penchant for snake puns and Rube Goldberg plots. In contrast, Steven Universe‘s overarching antagonist is a species of genocidal imperialists willing to mutilate the dead into body horrors for the sake of collective punishment and military expediency.

Three protagonists of Steven Universe — Garnet (Estelle), Pearl (Deedee Magno), and Amethyst (Michaela Dietz) — are suffering from the scars of a war fought 5,000 years ago, quietly dealing with depression, post-traumatic stress, and self-loathing. This is all compounded by the fact that they’re aliens permanently exiled to a planet whose inhabitants can’t fully help or understand them because of the barriers between their species (a sci-fi angle that show creator, Rebecca Sugar, handles with remarkable depth and intellectual rigor).

Even the eponymous Steven (Zach Callison) is, in the words of a semi-antagonist, a “hybrid abomination”. His nature essentially unknowable to the Gems and to humanity, Steven seems to be an incomplete clone of his father Greg (Tom Scharpling) built over a techno-magical matrix provided by his mother, Rose Quartz’s (Susan Egan) gemstone. His inability to fully control his Gem nature leads to nightmarish deformations of his human body, such as being consumed by teratomas like something out of Akira, or aging from childhood to the point of aged decrepitude in a matter of hours.

All this is broadcast on Cartoon Network.

Indeed, Steven Universe is part of a growing trend in “children’s animation” that may make that label irrelevant. From the end of World War II until the early 2000s, American animation was almost completely reserved for children, and while there were rebellions against that idea — Bakshi’s Coonskin, South Park, and Spike TV’s ill-fated block of animation experiments in 2003 among others — they weren’t truly intergenerational. These rebellions against “children’s animation” became an antithesis to a thesis: they were only for adults, being too violent, sexual, or referential to be appropriate for children.

Instead, the return of true intergenerational animation in the United States was a two-part process that began in the ’80s. The introduction of the action-adventure anime Robotech made US audiences aware that Japan’s animation culture had avoided the stringent age barriers that characterized American animation. The Ren & Stimpy Show and Rocko’s Modern Life, two cartoons from the ’90s, also laid the groundwork for the avant-garde revolution in contemporary animation. Still, it’s difficult to say that those two shows achieved a goal of being appropriate for all ages, if only for the fact that the networks responded to the push against the boundaries of “made for children” by severely censoring the material.

Steven Universe isn’t the first animation of the “new era” that attempts to remove age distinctions entirely, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Adventure Time, and Regular Show are predecessors that have all broached topics ranging from sexuality to violence to war, but it is fair to say that Steven Universe is acting as the vanguard of the revolution in “children’s animation”. Rebecca Sugar and her writing team have been unabashed and unapologetic in clearly presenting topics that even the aforementioned shows were hesitant to broach. Avatar: The Legend of Korra, for example, waited until the last episode of the show to hint at certain characters becoming involved in a gay relationship; Steven Universe has shown since the first season that the three Crystal Gems are queer (acknowledging that the gender and sexual identities of sapient magical rocks are idiosyncratic, of course), and that their late leader Rose, Steven’s mother, was bisexual.

The show isn’t content staying within the ordinary dichotomies — gay, straight; male, female — either. Steven can be interpreted as genderqueer in not one, but three different ways: his gender performance frequently alternates between signifiers for “feminine” and “masculine”, but also, Steven’s very likely a construct built from his mother’s body; during the first season, Steven goes through a temporary, albeit welcome, change that transforms him from a “he” to a “they”.

Steven Universe is a studied reversal of tradition, while still remaining identifiably in the “action-adventure” genre. The style of Steven Universe is “softer” and more welcoming than the cartoons of the ’80s, leaning more towards curves and brightly colored pastels than the alternative. Perhaps as important as the cartoon’s intergenerational appeal and sci-fi sensibility is the fact that Steven Universe is a show specifically geared towards minority audiences. The outreach to the LGBTQ audience is very apparent, but I’m not sure if an American action-adventure cartoon has ever been as female-centric or as populated by people of color before.

To my eyes, 19 regular and semi-regular characters read as people of color, and most of them are voiced by people of color. Just as many characters identify as women. This openness and embrace of a female and a POC audience isn’t simply morally appropriate, but a smart idea, too. As with video games, networks are being battered by the reality that women, queer people, and people of color aren’t content with being fed media that excludes them. The question of “children’s animation” is quickly changing from “how can we make new robots and adventures?” to “how can we make pre-existing robots and adventures appeal to untapped audiences?”

Beyond inspiring the careers of a few thousand future geologists, Steven Universe is a remarkable milestone in American animation not simply because it has an unprecedented following, but because it’s achieved such recognition while doing everything wrong — well, wrong according to the received wisdom of the last 70 years of US animation. It’s a queer show. It’s dominated by female characters. The lion’s share of its characters read as people of color. The show deals with issues of extraordinary violence and horror, depicts its characters in shades of grey, and subtly plays with matters of philosophy, morality, and interpersonal conflicts, all while refusing to reset any development to a status quo.

Its style risks being read as “childish”, but even if the show is, it’s not the kind of childishness that patronizes children, and it’s certainly not the kind that sands the sharp edges off of the human condition. I suspect (and hope) that the continued success of Steven Universe and other shows of the new era of animation will lead to companies changing their perspective on animation as a medium, and set aside the false dichotomy of “child” and “adult” in order to make cartoons capable of fusing together the best of both worlds.

Kat Smalley is a graduate of Florida State University. Most of her nonfiction work is dedicated to cultural and philosophical analyses of sci-fi programs and video games. Her fiction has been published in Lambda Award-nominated Gay City Anthology vol. 5: Ghosts in Gaslight, Monsters in Steam.