Steven Universe is a cartoon about a boy who lives with three immortal aliens, each with their own superpower. It’s also a show about gender, sexuality, trauma, mental illness and abusive relationships. And it may be the most important show on TV right now.
It might seem like your typical goofy-but-fun children’s fare, but the show is much, much more than that. The cartoon has, since its inception in late 2013, dealt with topics that some shows aimed at adults wouldn’t dare approach. And while it’s not a replacement for important conversations with your children, Steven Universe is an excellent starting point.
It’s tough to describe Steven Universe without falling down a rabbit hole of complicated plot details. But here’s the basic breakdown: Steven Universe is a young boy who lives in the fictional Beach City with his three guardians, Garnet, Pearl and Amethyst — all of whom are immortal genderless gemstone aliens who immigrated to Earth from their home planet after a war.
These three aliens — better known as the Crystal Gems — have helped raise Steven since he was a young boy and act as parents, teachers and protectors of Earth. Steven, who is half Gem himself, tags along and helps in their adventures, which are sometimes accompanied by (awfully catchy) musical numbers.
The show can be silly, sure: Steven and co. spend an episode trying to hide from the bad guys — and somehow end up challenging them to a baseball game. And it’s through those whimsical trappings that the show delves deep into profound subject matter.
Gender expression and sexuality
Through the act of “fusion,” Gems can combine their beings into one. This can be read as sex, although it isn’t explicit at all, and the comparison falls apart when Steven and his best friend Connie, both young teens, fuse later in the show. The most notable fusion happens between two Gems, Ruby and Sapphire — the first two Gems to ever fuse for purposes other than utility and simply combining physical strength. When they fuse — into Garnet — their fellow Gems are appalled and disgusted, casting the newly formed Garnet out of their midst. This can open discussions about same-sex relationships and how they can sometimes be perceived by others. Because Garnet is a main character and Ruby and Sapphire’s love is shown as true and strong, you can easily segue into how your child would treat someone like Ruby or Sapphire, and how their relationship is just as valid as people of different genders.
Trauma and grief
Steven’s mother, Rose Quartz, met his father — the awesome and entirely human Greg — and chose to give up her physical form to give birth to Steven. As a result, Steven has never met his mother; he’s only ever heard stories. While everyone around him knows what Rose was like, he has to come to terms with the fact that the stories he hears might not paint a full picture of his mother. This is an excellent portrayal of losing someone close to you, perhaps before you ever got the chance to know them. Pearl, who knew Rose for hundreds of years, loved her, and is still dealing with the complicated feelings of Rose choosing Greg and deciding to die for Steven. It takes a few seasons, but Pearl eventually recognizes her need to let go of Rose and move on. Discussions about death and grief are tough no matter when they’re brought up, but using these characters as jumping-off points can help the conversation go a bit more smoothly.
Even though Greg doesn’t live with Steven or the Gems, he is incredibly involved in his son’s life and forgoes the single dad trope of laziness and distance. Other families involve a mother and stepfather, a single mother, two working parents and countless others. Whether or not your family is considered “traditional,” this is a great way to show your children that all types of families should be seen as valid and worthwhile.
Jasper, a militaristic enemy Gem from the planet Homeworld, forces another Gem, Lapis Lazuli, to fuse with her, and the implications of rape and abuse are hard to miss. It’s a tough scene to watch, and Lapis’ journey after this incident clearly shows the lasting effects of abuse and trauma — and how, sometimes, you might even miss your abuser.
While these topics are important to speak to your child about at any age, maybe wait until they’re in double digits before introducing them to Steven and the Crystal Gems. Common Sense Media suggests Steven Universe watchers should be 10 years or older, and parents on the site say you can go as young as 8 years.
These can all be heavy subjects to broach, but children will undoubtedly benefit from learning how to healthfully deal with loss, recognize signs of abuse and open their minds to those who might be different from them. Steven Universe might be branded as a kids’ show, but the heartfelt, genuine way it deals with real-world adult issues places it leaps and bounds beyond the rest.