Steven Universe: Normalizing LGBTQ+ Households and Non-Normative Ideas Through Love and Acceptance

By Channing Lester, and M. Rachel Palacios

Steven Universe is a show that is based on relationships. Created by Rebecca Sugar, the cartoon ran on Cartoon Network from 2013 to 2019 and told the coming of age story of a young boy who learns life lessons from a couple of aliens set on saving the Universe and anyone in need of help. This show acts as a haven for anyone experiencing difficulties at home, at school, or anyone struggling to be accepted. As Steven and his band of misfit, gem aliens travel and bring peace to the world through their random adventures, one cannot help but notice the underlying rhetoric that promotes acceptance and love. This is valuable today, considering that many people are still not accepted for their differences and life choices. Having a show like Steven Universe allows young children to develop an impression of love and understanding in situations of confusion and non-normative ideologies. It is through this love and understanding that the show attempts to normalize LGBTQ+ households, allowing children to form their identities around respect for themselves and others. 

Queer Representation

One of the most prevalent ways the show attempts to normalize LGBTQ+ relationships and households is through queer representation. While some shows attempt to ignore Queer Representation or in some ways display it as wrong, Steven Universe makes it commonplace and normal within the characters’ lives (Keller). This representation creates an accepting atmosphere for the young audience. By including an array of individuals from the LGBTQ+ community, we find a character for every audience member to relate to. The show even includes a non-binary character, Shep, who helps Steven process his emotions about growing older and accepting change. This representation is valuable to children because through developing an understanding of ideas that aren’t normal to them, they can develop acceptance for others. 

Non-binary Character

We don’t have to assume that children fully understand what their sexuality already is, but rather that the exposure to different types can help further acceptance of these ideas. The presence of characters such as Steven, Connie, allows for heterosexual representation, the presence of characters like Ruby and Sapphire allow for homosexual representation, and finally, the characters Peridot and Amethyst provide questioning or asexual representation. The show also includes a lesbian marriage between Ruby and Sapphire who (spoiler!) complete Garnet.

Ruby and Sapphire Proposal

Ruby and Sapphire Wedding

Furthermore, the show makes effort to normalize homosexual relationships. The characters go through struggles like any heterosexual relationship and solve their problems as well. Portraying this type of relationship and the metaphor of completing a person, Garnet, who is a parental figure to Steven, helps normalize the homosexual relationship to children. This representation is significant to developing minds to accept non-normative relationships in any instance they might experience them.

Working Against Prejudice

One of the most important lessons that Steven Universe teaches is that bigoted people are ignorant to the realities of the people they are prejudiced against, and it is possible for them to see their bias and change. The show introduced this concept through the addition of Peridot to the initial main cast. Peridot, a technician from the Crystal Gems’ totalitarian homeworld, was originally introduced as an antagonist. Early appearances from the character portray her as racist and classist, embodying the hegemonic ideas of the Gems’ Homeworld. She views Amethyst as defective for her race because she believes she is too small to complete the tasks required of an amethyst, she is offended that Pearl is given equal status to the rest of the Gems because she believes Pearls are meant to be servants, and she is made uncomfortable by Garnet because she does not believe two gems of different races should fuse together for the purposes of love. However, after repeated interaction with the Crystal Gems, she is exposed to their love and acceptance of one another, which makes her start to question the values she holds. 

The episode titled “Log Date 7 15 2” follows her journey toward understanding the Crystal Gems’ motivations through her perspective. Throughout the episode, it is made evident that Peridot is curious about the Crystal Gems, but is conflicted in openly trying to understand them. This is because trying to understand them means questioning the beliefs with which she was raised, and she is afraid to be rejected by her homeworld. Therefore, much like a child would do, she starts to explore in secret. Outwardly Peridot rudely interacts with the Crystal Gems, rejecting their acceptance of her and not wanting to be viewed as a part of them. When she is alone, however, she allows herself to imagine what it would be like to be a Crystal Gem and to embrace love, freedom, and acceptance. 

One day she finds a pair of shorts that she likes, and for no other logical reason than liking the shorts, she tries them on and dances around. 

Peridot Fancypants

Eventually, she turns around to discover Garnet watching the whole display. If she was caught acting so out of line on her homeworld, she would be immediately judged, harshly admonished, and likely punished. Instead, Garnet looks at her, holds up a thumbs up, and says “nice shorts.”

Garnet’s Approval

Embarrassed by being caught acting out of homeworld fashion, Peridot rips off the shorts and acts as nothing happened. Although she sees that she is accepted by the Gems on Earth, it is clear that at this point she does not understand them nor does she accept herself. Although Peridot did not accept this sign of acceptance, this recognition allowed Peridot a means to understand the gems more directly.

Later in the episode, Peridot talks to Garnet and asks her why she is constantly fused. It had been clear up to this point that Peridot was made uncomfortable by the way Garnet lives her life, as Peridot had made many brash and hurtful remarks based on her prejudice. It would have been easy for Garnet to treat Peridot with the same hatred that was spewed toward her. Instead, Garnet makes the decision to treat her with love and respect and to give Peridot an opportunity to understand her. She sees that Peridot’s prejudice is rooted in ignorance, and knows that this is changeable.

Garnet *Understands*

It would have been easy for the creators of the show to keep this character a villain, but that would only teach their child audience to act in hatred towards people that are prejudiced against them. Instead, they chose to teach their audience how to act in love towards people who disagree with them, because prejudice comes from ignorance. 

Forming Identities Around Acceptance

It has been heavily researched that children often use media as an aid to understanding themselves and the world around them. By watching television shows children connect with the character’s situations and use them as guides for their own lives (Götz). Steven Universe is no exception to this. Through the normalized portrayal of nonheterosexual characters and relationships, the creators of Steven Universe attempt to help children from a young age be more accepting in everyday life. This is beneficial because having shows like this can weed out homophobia, racism, and classism that may be displayed in children. This can help create more acceptance and understanding within the children audience. Positive portrayals of queer characters develop characteristics of love and peace that can mature through children, allowing them to be more accepting of their peers. Depending on how they interpret the message, children can preach and help acceptance spread to their friends and family, whether it be through a verbal understanding of the show’s message or just recommending the show to watch. Steven Universe helps children form their identities in many ways, but it is most successful in its normalization of non-normative child characters and parental figures.

Pearl Teaches Connie and Steven

When children watch television shows, it is common for them to imagine themselves in the roles of characters they identify with, usually characters of similar age to them and of the same gender identity (Götz). While the show includes characters intended for the child audience to identify with, the creators of Steven Universe intentionally make these characters subvert the norms associated with their genders. The two main child characters in the show are Steven, a 14-year-old boy, and Connie, a 12-year-old girl. While Steven’s character is in touch with his emotions, sociable, and focused on forming positive relationships, Connie is strong, studious, and strongly opinionated, flipping hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity on their heads. This is very inclusive for children who aren’t a direct portrayal of targeted audiences of girly girls of masculine boys or emphasized femininity and hegemonic masculinity. Using the main characters Steven and Connie as stand-ins for themselves, the children watching are able to accept that there is no right way to perform one’s gender, heightening acceptance of themselves and others. 

Children also commonly form parasocial relationships with characters in television shows, imagining themselves interacting with certain characters directly. When watching television, “children imagine television characters as ideal teachers, fathers or mothers who understand, recognize, and support, thereby compensating for, among other things, experienced deficits in reality (Götz). Steven Universe actively supports parasocial relationships by including characters like Garnet and Pearl, who are able to indirectly give advice to the audience through advising Steven. This allows the children watching to imagine these characters as if they are their own ideal parents, and ask themselves what they would do. These characters are not infallible, however. It is demonstrated many times in the series that parents don’t always have the answer to everything or they sometimes make bad choices, and that it is important for a child to make their own decisions. 

Steven and Garnet Bond

By allowing these characters to act as stand-ins for the parents of the audience, queer parenting is in turn normalized, as the children are able to accept these parental figures as akin to their own. Whether it be a parental figure, a heterosexual parent, a homosexual parent, or a nonconforming parent, children are able to see representation in the show and accept their parenting styles as valid and normal. This show creates an atmosphere of acceptance and understanding for the children to experience and learn from which does more than the shows from other generations that sometimes taught internalized homophobia and racism. Based on Cavalcante’s piece, Anxious Displacements: The Representation of Gay Parenting on Modern Family and The New Normal and the Management of Cultural Anxiety, television shows can often overemphasize the hardships and negativity of growing up with gay parents, which Steven Universe does a good job of not doing that. “This secondary process as “anxious displacement” in which figures and relationships circulating around gay parents are overloaded with negatively codified social differences and symbolic excesses” (Cavalcante 2014). Instead of focusing on these hardships, the creators of Steven Universe formed the show in an almost welcoming utopian society that isn’t based around glorifying the hardship of being a gay parent or single parent but normalizes nontraditional families. 

Steven’s Struggle and Acceptance

Through watching the show, children can question and form their identities from their interests and surroundings. This show teaches early acceptance that is not always present in real life for all children. Nearly every non-normative identity is represented and taught to the audience to produce a new generation of accepting audience members and members of society. This show offers a healthy environment for children to question and learn about themselves. This is necessary to produce a more adaptable generation of future parents and leaders.

Fighting Against Pushback

Many parents argue against the show’s message and the impact it has on developing minds. There are concerns that a show so candid about sexuality and difference could confuse children from an early age, that children are too young to learn about the mature topics discussed in the show, and that parents do not want to have to explain something on the show that is not represented in real life. These assumptions, however, undermine the curiosity and intelligence that children have, and the prevalence and normalization of queer parenting which is occurring today. 

Too often children’s curiosity is treated as a bad thing in children, especially when discussing sexuality. Many parents believe that representation of differing sexualities should not be included in children’s media, believing that if children are exposed to different sexual orientations they will become confused about their own sexual identities or be exposed to mature topics. The fault with this argument is that children are innately curious about themselves and the world around them. The argument asserts that children would be too confused by the topics of the show, but fails to see that children are already confused with their own lives. By putting characters that differ in sexual and gender orientation, children are able to learn about these things and get a better understanding of the world they live in. Ultimately, there is no problem with being confused and thinking about different sexualities from a young age. Normalizing the idea of nonhetrosexualities in everyday life is the same as teaching a child about the love between a man and a woman. If newer media is able to discuss differing identities, a generation of children who are open-minded and accepting will come of age to preach love and acceptance for all differences. Those who argue against children learning are just projecting an internal discomfort with differing sexualities, and an unwillingness to learn themselves. 

Furthermore, children are made to have a better understanding of their own lives and others’ through learning about mature topics. Although it is uncomfortable to admit, many children go through traumatic experiences, and having a character on screen going through something similar is beneficial in their understanding of how to react to it (Götz). The show presents problem-solving and character acceptance in order for their child audience to better understand themselves through how the characters on-screen work through their problems. This interaction normalizes real problems and problem resolution for children, which aren’t always exercised in real-world interactions. A good example within Steven Universe is how Steven Universe works through the grief he has for his mother. 

Never Knowing his Mother

Some tragedies can never be fully accepted in a child’s mind. Showing Steven dealing with the death of his mother and the love all the gems had for her is a great example for children who may have lost their parents. The show portrays both the sadness Steven feels that he has never met his mother and the happiness in the knowledge that although he lost his mother he gained the loving support of the Crystal Gems. Through their parenting, the gems show that any parent, no matter sexuality or orientation, birth parents or not, will protect and love their child. Even though he lost his mother, Steven gained parental figures who are not heterosexual and presented as normal as they help him deal with his growth as a young man and come to terms with his mother’s death. Many children experience this type of loss and have trouble connecting with their friends, their families, and anyone who wants the best for them but struggles with confronting their issues. A show like this confronting death and a shift in parental status is an undervalued occurrence. 

It is important for children’s media to portray nontraditional families so that children can be more accepting of others in a world where nontraditional families are increasingly common. This is a valuable experience that can be taught through media such as Steven Universe. Nontraditional families are incredibly prevalent in today’s society, about 54% being nontraditional, and including it in a children’s show to further the exposure of the ideas will only benefit the normalization of the phenomenon (Livingston). Children with queer parents can often suffer from teasing from other children with heterosexual parents or the stereotypical normative type of parents. This is due to a lack of representation of nontraditional families in media, which harms a child’s reaction to the exposure to said family.

Conclusion

When discussing the LGBTQ+ aspects of Steven Universe, Rebecca Sugar said “These prejudices are all learned. I was so glad to be making something for a young audience because they didn’t know that these things weren’t supposed to be in there” (Brown). This speaks to the progressiveness of the show, and to the inherently accepting nature of its child audience. Through representing characters of many orientations, the show has created an accepting and loving environment for children everywhere. Through teaching about prejudice, conflict, and real-life issues, the show helps children to develop a more well-rounded persona and take on the difficulties of their lives. Through developing the show, the creators allow for recognition and normalization of the LGBTQ+ community to be displayed in common households, a development in media that has never been allowed before. Media like Steven Universe can be depended on to teach the more difficult lessons that parents wish to avoid, which can help develop a child’s identity and be more accepting of others. It is necessary to make every normal or non-normative child fit in and relate to any message, and Steven Universe is a perfect example of a show that will only bring out the best in people and acceptance for the LGBTQ+ community.

Works Cited

Brown, T. (2020, March 25). ‘Steven Universe’ Changed TV Forever. For Its Creator, Its Queer Themes Were Personal [Review of ‘Steven Universe’ Changed TV Forever. For Its Creator, Its Queer Themes Were Personal]. Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/tv/story/2020-03-25/steven-universe-rebecca-sugar-lgbtq-legacy

Cavalcante, A. (2014). Anxious Displacements: The Representation of Gay Parenting on Modern Family and The New Normal and the Management of Cultural Anxiety [Review of Anxious Displacements: The Representation of Gay Parenting on Modern Family and The New Normal and the Management of Cultural Anxiety]. Sage Journals, 16(5). Sage Journals. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1527476414538525?casa_token=iJ0aDXvIl3cAAAAA%3ArPejFRrB63l5m44iG2kWOBCGNarKqO3ZeQ6l0n5OV0ZyX4iOaw9vv-wdv-BhF27twu6CaG3zkzw

 Götz, M. (2016). How Children Negotiate Their Identity Development With Television [Review of How Children Negotiate Their Identity Development With Television]. TELEVIZION.

Keller, J.R. (2002). Queer (Un)Friendly Film and Television [Review of Queer (Un)Friendly Film and Television]. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=XB7kZ5geeyUC&oi=fnd&pg=PR7&dq=queer+parenting+representation+in+television&ots=nSCjkncngp&sig=AAw8psb7EgHtwUMjG-jwk1XUqto#v=onepage&q=queer%20parenting%20representation%20in%20television&f=false

Livingston, G. (2014, December 22). Fewer than half of U.S. kids today live in a ‘traditional’ family. Pew Research Center; Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/12/22/less-than-half-of-u-s-kids-today-live-in-a-traditional-family/

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