‘Steven Universe’ creator Rebecca Sugar talks making feminist art and favorite songs from the show
It can be difficult to explain the Cartoon Network show Steven Universe to someone who’s never seen it. On the surface, it’s a simple premise — Steven is a boy with magical powers, who lives in a house on the beach with three similarly magical women, Amethyst, Garnet and Pearl, known together as the Crystal Gems. Amethyst is brash and messy, Pearl is anxious and fastidious and Garnet, voiced by the British singer Estelle, is cool and levelheaded, the group’s effective ringleader. Along with Steven, they go on missions, sing songs and generally help save the world — a pretty straightforward set-up for an episodic cartoon.
Except that the show, currently in its fifth season, is now a sprawling world with millennia of backstory, a deep mythology, celebrated queer representation that earned it a GLAAD Media Award nomination and a fiercely devoted fanbase. Steven Universe regularly deals with themes of intimacy, consent and breaking gendered expectations while maintaining an almost-too-pure-for-this-world sincerity and lightheartedness. This delicate balance is likely thanks to show creator and executive producer Rebecca Sugar, an alum of the surrealist, philosophy-heavy Cartoon Network show Adventure Time.
With Sugar at the helm, Steven Universe carefully spins out a world where heroes can be flawed and fragile, and villains can be victims, too. Every decision seems thoughtful: Steven, for example, happens to wield the type of magical powers that are usually assigned to female characters. He can heal, his “weapon” is a pink shield and he is prone to protecting his loved ones by encasing them in magical bubbles.
The Crystal Gems, on the other hand, who all read as women, use swords and spiked whips and giant fists to take down enemies — but only in service of a greater good. Mic spoke to Sugar over email about the current season, which began a new slate of episodes in March, building out the world of the show and which character she identifies with the most.
Mic: This season of Steven Universe has really expanded the world of the show and its history, even beyond the many layers it had already. The transition from the earliest episodes, which are sort of one-off adventures, to the complex concepts and mythologies of the later seasons is such a payoff for committed viewers. Did you always know that’s where Steven Universe was headed?
Rebecca Sugar: A lot of the overarching story was planned from the outset. I like to make charts and timelines to map out what happened when, who knows what and why, while still leaving things open to change as we talk everything over as a group. We’ll all strategize the most elegant, interesting way to tell the stories we’ve been setting up for years. I’m especially excited about the episodes in May, and the run that comes after, too — stories we’ve been working on for years, literally six years.
I’m curious about how your experience at Adventure Time influenced Steven Universe — both shows take a lot of interest in side characters, devoting entire episodes to characters who started off sort of in the background. Is that something you’ve always been interested in? Are there any specific lessons you took from Adventure Time that have informed your choices about Steven Universe? Anything you specifically wanted to do differently on your own show?
RS: Working on Adventure Time felt like writing existentialist poetry all day. I loved it. I had been drawing independent comics, and I always thought that would be my outlet for the things I really wanted to say. I never imagined there’d be a home for that inside a cable television show, but [Pendleton Ward, the creator of Adventure Time] really encouraged the Adventure Time team to make art we believed in.
We all connected with different characters and were given a lot of room to flesh them out. I loved to write for Marceline. It was eye opening to see her resonate with audiences. I’d never had the chance to put myself into a character in that way. That’s something I couldn’t help but carry with me into my work on Steven.
One thing I think a lot of people love about Steven Universe is that, while it has a boy hero at its center, like a lot of cartoons, there are so many strong women characters around him and a real feminist sensibility to the show. Was that something you felt like was lacking from cartoons you watched growing up? What creators or women/femme characters made an impact on you as a young viewer?
RS: I had so many goals in relation to this. There is so much to do. A conversation about equality, a conversation about feminism, has to include all kids. We can’t speak exclusively to little girls. Little boys and gender-nonconforming kids must be a part of the conversation. Otherwise we are teaching little girls to respect themselves while we teach little boys that they don’t need to respect girls or women, and while we teach gender-nonconforming kids that they’re not in the picture at all. That makes no sense to me. I wanted to show on screen characters with a range of gender identities who are constantly benefitting from respecting one another, and constantly learning new ways to respect one another, and themselves.
Media for kids is so aggressively divided by gender, which is harmful in and of itself. Growing up, I couldn’t relate to cartoons for little girls at all. But I loved cartoons for boys, which made me feel extremely guilty. When I was really young, I kept it secret. I thought about that a lot during the early days of Steven Universe. I wanted the show to give audience members instant permission to like it. You’re supposed to be watching! It really is for you this time! That’s how I wanted it to feel.
You have a lot of fans who care really deeply about the show, and social media makes it really easy for viewers to say exactly what they do or don’t like about all of your creative decisions. There’s an episode that has a kind of meta reference to this, when Peridot [a Gem from outer space who gets stuck on Earth and struggles to adjust] is obsessed with a show within the show — Camp Pining Hearts — and has a lot of opinions about the characters’ relationships. Was this an homage to super-devoted fans who do the same thing with Steven Universe?
RS: That was more of a reference to ourselves on the crew! Many of us were once super-devoted members of various fandoms (and some of us still are) and many of us have a habit of overanalyzing everything about our favorite characters. It was a big goal when I started Steven Universe to make sure that if people were going to read into the show, they would ultimately be rewarded, because that depth would really be there.
That depth isn’t there in Camp Pining Hearts. I suppose Steven Universe itself is the homage to the super-devoted fans. We are working hard to deliver on everything CPH fails to deliver for Peridot! You’re right to comb through all the lines, and connect dots, and make charts, especially right this moment, with the special that’s coming up in May. (Editor’s note: This latest spate of new episodes culminates in a half-hour special on Monday, May 7.)
The music on the show is always a treat. Do you have any favorite Steven Universe songs that you find yourself singing all the time?
RS: I find myself singing whatever song I’m working on at the moment! These days I’m singing the song that we just recorded this week. It’s an unusual one. I heard it in a dream. I woke up and recorded it. I’ve never written a song that way before.
Are you more of a Garnet, an Amethyst or a Pearl? (I’m definitely a Pearl.)
RS: I’m Pearl at work, Amethyst at home and Garnet in my dreams.
Steven Universe airs Mondays on Cartoon Network at 7:30 p.m.