Writing in Subtext: The Brilliance and the Problems of ‘Steven Universe’

Steven Universe may be one of the most progressive cartoons ever, but it still stumbles when it comes to depictions of race.

Steven Universe is one of the most progressive kids cartoons ever created. The show follows a young Steven (Zach Callison) raised by three magical alien warriors — the Crystal Gems — sworn to protect the universe. Although the show’s explicit narrative is fun, witty, and engaging, Steven Universe provides a masterful example of a series with a unique, rich subtext.

The intergalactic family, created by Rebecca Sugar (Cartoon Network’s first solo female show creator), is full of underlying messages about same-sex relationships, a subtext that has brought the show immense acclaim and controversy. This key thread throughout the series is illustrated through the characters Garnet (Estelle), Amethyst (Michaela Dietz), and Pearl (Deedee Magno).

Pearl, coded as white (though others have read her as Asian) and femme, displays the most overt queer romance themes in Steven Universe‘s characters. Pearl has internal conflict from being in love with the Crystal Gem’s former leader Rose Quartz (Susan Egan), who symbolically died (gave up her physical form) to give birth to Steven. We see this in her jealousy and resentment towards Steven’s dad for “stealing” Rose, and her continual attempts to convince everyone that she and Rose had a “special relationship”.

In “Rose’s Scabbard”, Pearl opens up about her feelings towards Rose, using a hologram to recall a discussion the two once had. During the virtual conversation (which she recited verbatim) she tells Rose “I will do anything for you”. By her finally opening up, we get a deeper look into Pearl as a three-dimensional character. Even the title (“Rose’s Scabbard”) is a metaphor for her opening up (a scabbard is the sheath for a sword, so Pearl “putting away her weapon” is symbolic for her letting her guard down). She also reveals her feelings of betrayal, realizing that her bond with Rose wasn’t as special as she wanted it to be.

Pearl and Rose’s relationship operates as a universal metaphor for being in love with someone who’s not in love with you. It also, however, serves as a proxy for two problems that can arise specific to queer relationships: 1. when one partner’s sexuality is fluid and the other’s is closer to a binary; 2. when one partner is oriented towards polyamory, while the other, in order to stay in the relationship, represses their desire for monogamy.

While Pearl’s subtext is intriguing, Amethyst is one of the most fascinating characters in terms of the ambiguity and the fluidity of her race, gender, and sexuality. Amethyst has been read as African-American, Latina, or East Asian, but a case can be made that she’s coded as racially ambiguous. She relates to Steven (who’s coded as bi-racial) the most, has darker-colored (purple) skin with white hair (a contrast symbolic of her being part-white, part-person of color [POC]), and laments about not fitting in (her insecurities about “being short” and not strong enough are codes for her not fitting into to a defined race or sexuality).

Amethyst’s ambiguity is symbolically reinforced by her ability to morph into things (an owl, baby seat, helicopter, wrestler, clone of another Gem, etc.). This power is paradoxical; it allows her to conform, but is also code-switching. This want or need to change is a critique of how even within both the multi-racial and multi-gendered communities’ pushes to acknowledge diverse experiences, there’s still pressure to — and some choose to — adhere to binaries. Amethyst is an allegory for issues regarding performed identity, and how these problems are difficult to solve since they usually reify binaries (ie, make a choice – you’re black or you’re white, you’re straight or you’re gay, you’re femme or you’re butch).

To oversimplify it, the answer provided in queer theory, and in Steven Universe, is self-determination. Much of Amethyst’s internal conflict goes away when she finally accepts who she is and who she isn’t. Ironically, the mineralogical meaning of amethyst (the stone) shows that the solution is inward. Amethyst represents spiritual healing, calmness, and peace, and Amethyst’s gem rests over her heart. This provides a brilliant layered metaphor: in order for Amethyst to find peace, she has to be herself (be more like amethyst).

Steven Universe offers highly nuanced subtexts, which is a credit to the writers, the voice actors, and the artists on the series. It’s one of, if not the most, progressive family cartoons to date, particularly in its ability to display all the complexities of queer life. At Comic Con 2016, Sugar said: “It’s very important to me that we speak to kids about consent. That we speak to kids about identity … I want to feel like I exist, and I want everyone else who wants to feel that way to feel that way too.”

Much of the media depicting queerness is obsessed with “coming out” narratives: the processes in becoming openly gay, lesbian, etc. Although the “coming out” narrative can connect to broader universal themes and tropes (self-determination in a society that rewards conformity and punishes nonconformity), it reduces the queer experience to one single, fetishized narrative framed within the hetero-normative gaze. The show explicitly and implicitly displays same-sex romance, but it isn’t consumed by same-sex sex. The Gems watch movies, play video games, love, have friendships, get heartbroken, argue, make up, have small talk, and have existential conversations.

Yet, despite Steven Universe‘s progressive queer imagery, it’s marred by some of its problematic depictions of race, particularly blackness. This questionable imagery arises in the show’s “black” main character, Garnet.

Current leader of the Gems, Garnet is undoubtedly coded as African-American. Voiced by singer Estelle, she has red skin (a color visually close to brown), a large, cubic afro, and a over-the-top hip-to-waist ratio. Also, like other characters coded as black, her lips are drawn on, while (with very few exceptions) characters coded as non-black are just given a line for a mouth, replicating the idea that black people have bigger lips.

Of the three Gems, Garnet is also the most overtly sexualized. The show highlights this during “Fusion”, when two or more gems perform provocative dances to combine forms and powers. One example of Garnet’s hyper-sexualization is her fusion with Amethyst. Sugilite is formed by Garnet dropping spread eagle, and Amethyst running in between her legs (“Coach Steven”). This is a dive away from the intimacy and sensuousness fusions usually represent, and into base sexual desire. Even Sugilite’s characterization is problematic, since the result of two POC-coded Gems fusing is a wild, unstable behemoth that delights in destruction. This is in contrast to Pearl, who lightens the color palette and temperament of all the fusions of which she’s a part.

In another episode, enemy-turned-friend Peridot (Shelby Rabara) ruminates over what it’s like to fuse, and Garnet offers to fuse with her. Here, Garnet is the first Gem we see who just wants to “get it on”. This display of sex positivity is not “bad” in and of itself, but since fusion is Steven Universe‘s code for not just sex, but intimacy, consent, communication, and teamwork to achieve a goal, this reasserts Garnet’s position as the most explicitly sexual of the three, in both perception and action.

Finally, in the episode “Alone Together”, the Gems console Steven about his inability to fuse. Amethyst says “it’s really hard, even for us”, to which Garnet responds “Not for me”. One can make a diegetic argument of why she would say this (Garnet is the strongest of the three Gems, and is herself a fusion of two female Gems. The fact that she can remain fused all day everyday is symbolic of her acceptance of her sexuality). At the same time, this statement adds to Garnet being a symbol of black female hyper-sexuality.

One of the biggest issues surrounding Garnet as a proxy for black women, however, is an intersectional one, dealing with race and consent.

Consent is a topic the show tackles at different points (the fusion between Jasper [Kimberly Brooks] and Lapis [Jennifer Paz), which raises questions around consent in an abusive relationship, is a great example), but it’s mainly addressed in the fusion between Pearl and Garnet. Pearl fabricates danger in order to repeatedly fuse with Garnet. Here, Garnet isn’t only an outlet for Pearl’s emotional baggage (the void left from Rose’s absence) and her (implicit) sexual frustration; Garnet’s “consent” is achieved through manipulation. This coincides with a troubling recurring trope in popular media of the black female body being exploited as a pedagogical tool for others. To teach kids watching the show about consent, Garnet’s body was used, and not even in a subliminal way.

Despite the numerous problematic parts of Garnet’s characterization, there are interesting and positive aspects as well. The afro and gauntlets are nods to Black Power iconography and the black womanist tradition within art, academia, and liberation movements. Her “third eye” (giving her the ability to look into the future) is both a nod to theories of spiritual connection, awareness, and awakening within Indian, Afrocentric, and other spiritual cosmologies, and a symbol of black women’s broader, intersectional understanding of past history and present reality.

Garnet even shows solidarity with other black women in the show. During the “Beach Party” episode, the Steven, the Gems, and the Pizza family fight a giant puffer-fish. The grandmother of the Pizza family takes the lead to distract the monster while others attack from the periphery. Seeing her run towards danger, Mr. Pizza (Godfrey C. Danchimah) panics and yells out that she’s “crazy”. Garnet replies with a smile: “Not crazy, brave.” Aside from Garnet “being” black, her using the word “brave” is an (most likely) unintentional, but over-determined reference to “All the Women are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us are Brave”, a seminal work on the intersectional reading of race, class, and gender issues in American history.

The numerous examples in this piece don’t even begin to scratch the surface of all the covert messages in Steven Universe: the mineralogical meaning of the Gem’s gems, how the placement of the gems on their bodies informs their characterization; the phallic symbol on Jasper; the innuendos behind Pearl and her “pearl”; the acceptance and rejection of binaries; the nature vs. nurture debate inherent in Steven being raised by three women; Pearl and Amethyst’s different reactions to their partners optioning for heterosexual relationships; emotional and sexual manipulation; Steven’s relationship with Connie (Grace Rolek); his feminist impulse; the presence and absence of fathers; reconciliation between straight, cis-gendered folk and the queer community; Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon, and The Powerpuff Girls references; and so many more.

All of the above praise and critique of the show’s subtext isn’t meant to attack the intentions of Steven Universe‘s writers, artists, or voice actors, but rather to illustrate how texts take on lives of their own once they’re created.

Think of imagination as a solar system: it’s huge, but not boundless. Like planets, stories don’t materialize from thin air; they’re created from matter that’s already there. Subtexts aren’t only formed by the messages we consciously insert, but by our subconscious biases and blindspots rising to the surface. Even the most progressive minds are still informed by social conceptions and realities that can be positive, negative, or somewhere in between. All of us are susceptible to this. As a heterosexual, cis-gendered male, it’s very likely, even after all my assertions, that there are biases and blindspots in my analysis of Steven Universe because it passes through those prisms (to read a black queer critique of the show, check out this article by Riley H).

If an artist draws a type of dragon that no one has ever seen, regardless of its uniqueness or singularity, his or her drawing is still informed by every single drawing, story, or mythology about dragons. So when creating a fictional black magical female alien, artists pull from their experiences and perceptions of black women, using ideas that can be progressive or problematic. Even a show that attempts and clearly succeeds at subverting stereotypes has the capacity to reproduce them. Ultimately, Steven Universe is profound but not infallible show, which its subtexts make clear.

Joshua Adams is a writer and arts and culture journalist from Chicago. He holds a BA in African American Studies from the University of Virginia, and a Journalism MA from the University of Southern California. His writings often explain current and historical cultural phenomenon through personal narratives. Currently, he’s working on a young adult fiction novel. He thinks Scooby Apocalypse is amazing, hopes Ms. Marvel and Miles Morales date at some point, and tears up a little when he remembers that Will Smith could have been Neo in The Matrix.