Warning: This article contains minor spoilers for Steven Universe.
Steven Universe and the Crystal Gems are here to save the day for the foreseeable future.
Cartoon Network recently renewed Steven Universe, the animated series from Adventure Time writer and storyboard artist Rebecca Sugar, for two extra seasons. Now in its third season, the show has something along the lines of a consistent schedule.
Up until the renewal, episodes would air in a series of weeklong drops known as “StevenBombs” (five episodes that aired at the same time over the span of a week), but then fans would have to wait up to six months for a new set of episodes. Now, the show will air from June to August in what’s being called the “Summer of Steven.” If you can’t wait that long, you’re in luck: Cartoon Network is bringing the show back for a four-week special event called “Steven Universe: In Too Deep” that starts May 12.
Steven Universe first aired in 2013, and it has a passionate and devoted fanbase. In 76 episodes to date, Steven Universe is full of world-building, character depth, and fulfilling story arcs that explore consent, same-sex relationships, and the unconventional family with a nuance that most shows on TV don’t come close to achieving. Plus, many of the episodes feature catchy and whimsical musical numbers.
While it has the seal of approval from fans, they often worried that Steven Universe might not have it from Cartoon Network. (The uneven scheduling is only one factor.) But with the renewal, new fans will be able to hop on board and not have to worry about a sudden cancellation. If you’re wondering what this even is, we’ve got you covered.
Why do fans love Steven Universe so much?
Three gems and a Steven
Steven Universe follows the titular Steven, a half-human, half-gem character, and his three gem caretakers (who are part of an immortal, genderless alien race) as they fight to keep Earth safe from evil as well as the gems they fought a war against thousands of years ago. It takes place in the fictional town of Beach City, Delmarva, which appears to be based on the state of Delaware (although in the show Delmarva is its own separate state).
Here is a map. It's a great map. pic.twitter.com/A3AXmDn5YO
— Nicolas Barriere-K (@Soranomaru) March 25, 2016
At the heart of Steven Universe’s many adventures, mysteries, and the many interactions between humans and gems, it’s ultimately a story about family—and a very unconventional one at that. After all, Rose Quartz, Steven’s mom and the former leader of the Crystal Gems, gave up her physical body so Steven could be born.
Steve is being raised by Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl, the three Crystal Gems who followed Rose Quartz’s lead. They’re like a mother, sister, and a cool aunt, respectively, and they’re learning how to raise a human while teaching him how to be a gem—often with the hilarity, love, a sense of protection, and growth that comes with normal families. They clash and unite—sometimes literally, with what a process called fusion—and they are constantly learning about one another. Each of them are positive role models for Steven, and in the case of Garnet, who is a fusion of two gems named Sapphire and Ruby, a constant and consistent example of a loving, romantic relationship between two female characters.
“[The Crystal Gems] have expectations of [Steven],” PBS Idea Channel’s Mike Rugnetta explains. “They support and encourage him. But they also worry, underestimate, overprotect, and enable him. But in return he challenges and surprises them. He teaches them about his world as much as they do the same.”
Steven is surrounded by female characters, and he’s often the only male character in the room—a complete reversal of a TV and movie trope that’s all too common. According to Sugar, the strong female presence in the show was intentional.
“My goal with the show was to really tear down and play with the semiotics of gender in cartoons for children because I think that’s a really absurd idea that there would be something radically different about a show for little girls versus a show for little boys,” she told Entertainment Weekly last year. “It’s exciting to me to play with a lot of that language, because everyone’s very familiar with it but it really doesn’t make much sense. I used to really enjoy shows that were aggressively targeted to boys when I was a little girl and I know the same can be true the other way around, so why not have something that everybody can watch?”
Steven’s relationship with his father Greg is just as important. He doesn’t live with Steven or the Crystal Gems, something he’s never shamed for by the show, and there are instances where Greg is as vital to Steven’s character growth as the Crystal Gems or Steven’s best friend Connie Maheswaran. Greg’s also able to give him insight into his mom that Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl don’t have.
They’re one big unconventional, functional family.
The real progressiveness of Steven Universe
The first thing you might notice about Steven Universe—aside from the rose-colored crystal gem where his belly button should be and the magic—is how much he feels like a real person. And in part, that’s because he is.
Steven Universe is based off Sugar’s brother Steven, whereas Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl are all based on aspects of Sugar herself and how she acts around her brother. But his realness goes beyond his real-life influence.
He’s a complex character from the get-go, and as the show develops, so does he. He’s caring and wants to protect the people he loves from the creatures that come to Earth, he’s friendly and kind, and he’s sensitive. Sure, you’ll often see some of those qualities in other characters across television, but rarely do you see a male character that’s nurturing and in-tune to his feelings or allowed to be upset outside a list of approved reasons without being ostracized for it; he’s not held to the standards of masculinity. Steven can often shield others with a bubble and the weapon that comes out of his gem shield like Rose Quartz. It’s a defensive weapon instead of something used to attack like Garnet’s fists, Amethyst’s whip, or Pearl’s spear, but it’s just as vital for the Crystal Gems.
Steven has some traditionally feminine qualities, but he’s never shamed for it by Greg or the Crystal Gems or told to “man up” if he gets upset about something.
“That’s one of the reasons that I adore Steven: he’s kind, caring and has a big heart,” one redditor noted last year. “ And the reason I think that he’s important for young boys is that he teaches them it’s okay to be loving and kind. You can still be a hero.”
It’s a woman’s world
Steven is surrounded by women (and gems who identify as such) that he looks up to and learns from everyday. Garnet, Amethyst, Pearl, and Connie could easily just be archetypes of characters, and in some episodes play off of Pearl’s uptight nature or Amethyst’s occasional immaturity. Most of the time they’re each able to flourish just like Steve and show their own flaws. Amethyst is ashamed of where she came from, Pearl is still harboring feelings for Rose Quartz, and Garnet’s entire self—Ruby and Sapphire—can sometimes be at odds with each other. Connie is smart and shy, but she’s just as capable a warrior as the gems.
These relationships are healthy and are a normal part of the Crystal Gems’ lives. It’s an intimate relationship with respect and most importantly, consent. They can fuse because of necessity, a show of force, or in the case of Steven and Connie, it might happen completely by accident and result in something wonderful. When he first learns about the concept, he doesn’t question it but instead reacts to it with unadulterated joy; he just wants to see a giant woman.
Garnet is a unique example because her constant fusion is a loving relationship between two other gems—something that confuses the other gems she fights, who see it as a weak tactic—and she has an entire song devoted to how great it is (performed by Garnet’s voice actress, R&B singer Estelle). The start of that relationship, told in “The Answer,” will soon be published as a children’s book written by Sugar herself.
Consent and honesty are such important parts of fusing that the idea of a gem being forced into a fusion or tricking one into a fusion, as Pearl did with Garnet, is seen as a form of cruelty and betrayal.
The queer representation on the show is apparent with each of the gems—and especially in the case of Pearl’s feelings for Rose Quartz. Compared to other shows that still weren’t allowed to explicitly show its main characters getting together, it’s already one of the more progressive shows out there.
The anxiety of the Steven Universe fandom
A TV show with complex characters? Check. Geared towards young girls but has boys and adults fully onboard? Check. Feminist values? Check. An active, online following? Check. So why are fans constantly worrying that Steven Universe is about to be canceled?
We’re in a landscape where girls are rarely ever catered to on a larger scale outside of Disney princesses—just look at the lack of Leia, Black Widow, Gamora, and Rey merchandise for starters. Steven Universe has critical acclaim, an Emmy nomination, and five Annie Award nominations under its belt, but despite reassurance from the team behind the show, collectively referred to as the Crewniverse, fears about the show’s untimely demise aren’t subsiding.
Take Young Justice, for instance. The Cartoon Network series received critical acclaim both before and after its run, was praised for being “mature, intelligent,” and boosted ratings; the second season received an average of 1.9 million viewers. But in 2013, Cartoon Network canceled it along with the other DC Nation shows Green Lantern: The Animated Series and Tower Prep, leaving fans unfulfilled. Warner Brothers soon stopped fans’ attempts to Kickstart a third season.
In December 2013, writer and producer Paul Dini—who created Tower Prep—appeared on Kevin Smith’s Batman podcast where they discussed its cancellation as well as Green Lantern: The Animated Series and Young Justice. According to Dini, executives didn’t want girls watching their shows because “they don’t buy toys,” and while he said that was what happened to Tower Prep, fans also took Young Justice’s female audience as the reason for its cancellation.
Young Justice creator Greg Weisman has denied that it was because of its female fans and later said the budget came from a toy deal with Mattel, which weren’t selling. But still that narrative has stuck with fans, and one fan feared in February that “this will be exactly like Young Justice.”
Steven Universe also shares some kinship with Legend of Korra. Both shows are beloved, have complex characters and intricate storytelling, same-sex relationships, and from a fan standpoint, have a sporadic schedule, extended hiatuses, and received little love from the network that aired it. (Gravity Falls has had an unreliable schedule as well, taking four years to air two seasons.)
In Korra’s case, this meant starting a new season with little notice after a leak, then having little-to-nonexistent advertising to the point where fans didn’t even know when it was on, and ultimately being pulled off the air after declining ratings. It returned for season 4 just weeks after its third season ended, giving fans an indication that Nickelodeon just wanted to burn off the episodes as quickly as possible, and when it came back on TV, it came off the heels of learning that Nickelodeon cut an entire episode’s budget. Sure, the show ended on its own terms with the romance between Korra and Asami that fans have been waiting for, but it couldn’t openly show it like Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Cartoon Network’s irregular scheduling is another factor in the uneasy equation. New episodes aired irregularly and all at once before disappearing for a big hiatus, and while it’s a strategy it uses with other shows, the inconsistency is causing fans to become frustrated with the network.
“Is there a method to this madness?” Zach Blumenfeld wrote at the AV Club. “Absolutely. When you look at both the history of animated television scheduling and the statistics Steven Universe has generated over the past year, the StevenBomb-hiatus cycle begins to look like a brilliant response to the rise of binge-watching, allowing the show to dominate not only TV, but also the online arena.”
One report spread panic across parts of the fandom after Cartoon Network removed it from its schedule before it was added back in a few days later. But the show is huge on Tumblr. It has two official accounts—one run by the Crewniverse and an in-show blog run by Beach City’s resident conspiracy theorist— and it was the most reblogged animated TV show in 2015.