What is Steven Universe? Having launched last year as Cartoon Network’s first ever female-created animated series from ex-Adventure Time writer Rebecca Sugar, Steven Universe is ostensibly a cartoon about the titular Steven discovering that he is a member of the Crystal Gems, a group of female alien superheroes who defend the Earth (and mainly Steven’s home of Beach City) from evil threats. What Steven Universe actually is, however, is both one of the most joyful and smart sci-fi series I’ve watched in a long time — one that just so happens to be wrapped up in the guise of a magical girl-style pastiche and a loveably goofy aesthetic.
For those unfamiliar with the term “Magical Girl”, or mahou shoujo as it’s known in Japan, it refers to a subgenre of anime that revolves around, unsurprisingly, female heroes who use magic. Think Sailor Moon, Madoka Magica, and so on. Steven Universe is in the same vein, but is a loving pastiche to the genre in a way that both completely respects its origins and often mocks the ridiculousness of it all.
Obviously the most notable twist on the magical girl genre is the fact that the protagonist is a little boy rather than a girl. It’s an interesting subversion, not only because it doesn’t fall into the trope of trying add a masculine bent to a traditionally female-driven genre, but because Steven is portrayed as anything but traditionally masculine. He’s unafraid of showing emotion for his friends and family, he is equally comfortable in hanging out with women like his best friend Connie or the Crystal Gems themselves as he is with other boys of his age or his father Greg. Steven embodies the same sort of femininity that all Magical Girl leads do, he just happens to be a boy — and one that’s not uncomfortable with showing that side of himself. Even better, Steven is never ostracized for that by any other character in the series, but instead embraced for his openness in embracing the feminine and masculine sides of himself equally. In a world of cartoons for boys and cartoons for girls, and all these gender barriers in media, it’s refreshing to see a cartoon protagonist that defies those barriers — it’s a very clever and subtle subversion that ultimately creates a really positive and interesting lead character.
And for all of its genre subversions though, Steven Universe is equally at is best when it really plays into the Magical Girl genre — usually through it’s frenetic action sequences, which wear their anime inspirations on their proverbial sleeves. Everything from Dragon Ball to even Revolutionary Girl Utena (a direct homage of which forms the basis for the swordfight in “Steven the Swordfighter”, which you can see above) gets a nod every time the Crystal Gems do battle against whatever bad guy of the week they’re fighting. Steven Universe is this heady mix of embracing its anime inspirations as well as playfully mixing them up, leading to something really unique. If you’re a big anime fan, it’s basically a love letter to some of the greats.
As well as its subversion of typical masculinity, Steven Universe is ultimately a show about love — all kinds of love. The three other Crystal Gems who fight alongside Steven — Garnet, Pearl, Amethyst — also act as surrogate mothers for Steven during the series (Steven’s actual mother was the Gem’s former leader, Rose Quartz, who gave up her physical form to give birth to Steven, creating a half-Gem/half-human hybrid. This show is not afraid to get a little weird!), and the show is as much about their emotional bond with Steven as mothers, as well as the bonds between themselves as friends, as it is about fighting monsters. The fact that Steven runs around having adventures with three mother-figures in his life — he lives with them to boot, rather than his now-single father — is never questioned either, and the citizens of Beach City treat the Gems like any other family. They just also happen to be this weird and badass superhero team, too.
Later on in the series first season you also discover that one of the Gems, Garnet, is the product of a power-up/fusion process (think Dragon Ball Z, right down to the hilariously silly dances) between two Gem beings, Ruby and Sapphire, who are openly described as being in a romantic relationship with each other. It’s not subtly teased either — at several points it;s openly stated that Ruby and Sapphire fused into Garnet because of their love for each other. The fact that Garnet herself (voiced by the British rapper Estelle) just so happens to be the brawling badass of the Crystal Gems on top of being this physical embodiment of a lesbian relationship is another awesome layer on top of the fact that this is also a show aimed at young kids, portraying these myriad kinds of relationships and forms of love in a hugely positive manner.
Even though it is ostensibly a show for children, Steven Universe is an equally rewarding watch for adults, one that offers some of the most efficient and intriguing world-building I’ve seen in a show in a long time. As the show’s first season progresses, viewers are teased with snippets of backstory about who the Crystal Gems really are, the nature of their powers and why they’re on Earth (it turns out that the Gems are actually the sole surviving remnants of a rebellious faction of aliens, who chose to defend the Earth from their fellow Gems rather than conquer the planet thousands of years in the past), before the second half of the season starts focusing less on one-off and adventures and telling a larger, interconnected story about the Crystal Gems coming face to face with people from their homeworld again. It’s a slow and steady build-up from your standard “monster of the week” cartoon to something that’s actually telling an interesting, deep meta-story; one that’s not just rewarding to watch, but equally rewarding to go back and re-watch to see all the little moments of foreshadowing interwoven into the earliest parts of the show. There’s this really unique and interesting mix of the normality of life in Beach City and the alien weirdness and anime-fuelled fantasy of the world of the Crystal Gems that links this backstory and the “present” of the show together really well that you absorb while watching it the first time around.
What makes this all so impressive though is that an episode of Steven Universe is about 11 minutes long — so naturally any time spent fleshing out the backstory of the world in an episode has to be ruthlessly efficient, lest it impact too much on the actual story thread of each episode. Yet it manages to not only flesh out that backstory little by little to create an interesting whole, but not feel like it gets dragged down by its own lore and continuity. Many a show could learn from Steven Universe’s practically masterful sense of pace.
Anyone who’s already familiar with Steven Universe knows that I would be in great error not to at least say something about the show’s music. The series is full of charming earworms and musical interludes aplenty, but that music also evolves over the course of the series to become a crucial part of the show’s (already impressive) storytelling arsenal.
The series begins with a lot of little, somewhat goofy ditties — the likes of “Cookie Cat”, a rap about an ice-cream sandwich mascot, or “Giant Woman”, a song Steven sings to urge Pearl and Amethyst to try fusing with each other (also, who doesn’t love a ukulele ode to giant women in general?) — that befit the early half-season’s focus on isolated, one-off episodes. But as the show expands a little more and starts delving into the characters and world a little more, the music itself actually starts maturing, and turning into an integral part of the storytelling, while remaining charmingly foot-tapping. Remember how I mentioned Garnet is voiced by rap artist Estelle earlier? You actually learn about Garnet being a fusion born out of a romantic relationship during a rap performed by Estelle called “Stronger Than You” as she fights off some a hostile Gem:
Yup, that’s a rap about the power of two women in romantic love, delivered during a fight aboard an exploding spaceship. It’s as awesome as it sounds, and it goes a long way in adding some character to the Crystal Gems, Steven and the show’s cast.
If you want to watch Steven Universe yourself, you can check out recent episodes of the show either for free on Cartoon Network’s website in the US, or purchase episodes online through the likes of Amazon or iTunes. If you want something that mixes both fun cartoon goofballery and crazy sci-fi storytelling in equal measure, it’s definitely a show to check out.