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Reviewed by:
  • Steven Universe
  • Brittany Pladek (bio)
Steven Universe (Rebecca Sugar US 2013–). Cartoon Network 2013–. Distributed by Hulu.

You know a cartoon show aimed at kids has become a crossover hit when, one season into its airing, adult fans had already dubbed its backstory ‘lore’. Such is the case of Steven Universe, a Cartoon Network show that follows the adventures of a boy named Steven and his family of alien guardians. Steven (Zach Callison) is half-human and half-Gem, a species of sentient, ageless rocks whose bodies are material projections; they are technically genderless, but read as human(ish) women. Steven’s Gem mother, Rose Quartz (Susan Egan), gave up her physical form to conceive Steven, who now carries her gem in his bellybutton. When the show opens, Steven is 13 and being raised jointly by his father, ageing rocker Greg (Tom Scharpling) and Rose’s three closest companions: the ‘Crystal Gems’ Garnet (Estelle), Pearl (Deedee Magno) and Amethyst (Michaela Dietz).

Fan praise for the show’s ‘lore’ testifies to the unusual depth of its world-building, at least among American cartoons aimed at children. Steven Universe is set in an alternate timeline whose history was shaped by the Gems’ presence at the dawn of recorded human history. The Gems, we learn over the course of the show, command an oligarchic interstellar empire that they expand by farming the minerals of their subject planets in order to produce more Gems. In the process, they gut the colonies, rendering them uninhabitable for all other life. The only reason Earth has escaped this grim fate is that Steven’s mother Rose led a rebellion against the Earth’s occupation – motivated, it is strongly implied, by her mounting guilt at her own complicity in genocide. The rebellion succeeded, but at a high cost. As Greg tells Steven, ‘No such thing as a good war, kiddo. Gems were destroyed. Humans, too’ – before explaining that Rose was only able to save herself and her closest friends, Steven’s three Gem stepmothers. Though the rebellion was thousands of years ago, Garnet, Pearl and Amethyst still bear its emotional scars. Some even display symptoms of PTSD: when off-world Gems appear for the first time in the show, Pearl hides her face in her hands and cries in terror, ‘They’re coming back. I can’t do this. Not again!’ The show’s storyline seems to be building towards a second [End Page 501] confrontation between the Crystal Gems and the Gem Homeworld, which wants to complete the occupation initially stalled by Rose and her allies.

If all this seems a bit dark for a children’s cartoon, then it is all the more extraordinary that Steven Universe is a show whose primary affect is kindness and gentle humour. This is in no small part because Steven himself is the show’s lens. He is a remarkably big-hearted lead whose approach to problems, a blend of curiosity and cheery compassion, derives partly from his own naïveté but is ultimately endorsed by the show itself. To date, there has been no problem in Steven Universe to which empathy has not been the correct answer (the show’s thesis is perhaps best summed up by a recent episode called ‘The Answer’, in which the answer, delivered without a hint of irony, is ‘love’). That empathy is not always a feasible solution is the quandary Steven faces as he matures, especially as he learns more about his Gem guardians. The show’s progress mirrors Steven’s growth in this respect. Earlier episodes are more light-hearted and feature the Earth Gems capturing flavour-of-the-week monsters; true to his age and fledgling nerd’s knowledge of genre, Steven yearns to participate in these ‘super cool’ adventures. Only later, as Steven learns more about his history, do we discover that ‘Gem beasts’ are the partially-sentient remains of Gems who were shattered during the rebellion and who cannot control their actions: war casualties, not monsters. Steven’s reaction to this knowledge is sorrow, coupled with the recognition that while he dislikes his stepmothers’ imprisonment of the Gem beasts, he understands its necessity – though he also swears...