Why You Should Believe In Steven
By: Michelle Anderer
When Steven Universe first started airing on Cartoon Network back in the fall of 2013, there was a lot of uncertainty and speculation surrounding how progressive the show was going to be. Viewers questioned whether having another default male protagonist would detract from the otherwise refreshing premise of a show that revolved around three female-presenting super heroes who kick butt and defend the world. It felt like a step back after shows like The Legend of Korra and The Powerpuff Girls had proven that kids’ shows centered on female main characters could still be action-packed and garner a wide audience. Fortunately, as the series went on it became increasingly apparent that the creative team behind Steven Universe was very committed to exploring issues of sexuality and gender, while also boasting one of the most diverse casts in cartoon history. While it may seem ridiculous to contribute the show’s progressive success to its white male protagonist, I’m here to argue that Steven’s presence is what ultimately allows the show itself to function in its most revolutionary and subversive form.
To start with, Steven embodies a very subversive form of boyhood, as he is characterized by an amalgam of both “feminine” and “masculine” traits. And for a lot of reasons, I think that’s pretty amazing. Steven is literally the biggest magical girl on the show and takes immense pride in inheriting both his mother’s pink gem and her rose-themed super powers. He idolizes his three gem moms for their strength and wisdom and has no issue putting on makeup and a cute dress to help a friend out at a talent show. Similarly, Steven’s willingness to be vulnerable and cry (numerous times), to approach conflicts with compassion and understanding, and his designated role as a peace keeper and a healer (rather than a fighter and a hero) all help to normalize “femininity” in a positive way for young kids, especially boys, watching the show.
Several times throughout the first and second seasons Steven is directly confronted with toxic masculinity and each time the show goes to great pains to provide Steven with progressive alternatives. “Coach Steven,” for example, centers on Steven’s desire to be “super strong” after seeing Garnet and Amethyst form Sugilite. Steven assumes that in order to be “useful to the team” he needs to become more physically powerful. Pearl, by using her intellect to outsmart Sugilite, ultimately convinces him that there are, “different ways of being strong.” The take away of the episode shows that people find strength in many ways and that trying to be what you think you should be, rather than what you inherently are, is never the answer. Likewise, in “Full Disclosure” Steven is convinced by Ronaldo to keep the looming threat of homeworld a secret from Connie under the misguided belief that she is better off not knowing the full extent of the danger. This ideology is especially damaging because it completely removes Connie’s agency from the situation through both a failure to let her make her own decisions while also keeping her in the dark when homeworld poses a legitimate threat to everyone in Beach City. To counteract this, the show takes a lot of pleasure in poking fun of Steven’s feigned attempts to embody the lonely hero and by the end of the episode, Connie reminds him that it’s not his job to protect her, especially from the truth, because they’re a team and she’s determined to be a part of his world. In this way, both Steven’s subversive gender presentation and rejection of toxic masculinity produce a truly revolutionary male protagonist for viewers to relate to and identify with.
The fact that the audience sees everything through Steven’s perspective is another critical part of what makes the show so subversive. As mentioned before, Steven is not a fighter, and his actions always demonstrate his desire to understand and resolve conflict first and foremost. It is Steven’s inherent innocence and curiosity in new things, from discovering Lion to befriending Peridot, that allows the audience to approach these new characters not as the potential threats that Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl see them as, but as complex and interesting people that we will ultimately learn to understand and empathize with. By choosing Steven as the show’s central character, Rebecca Sugar is helping the audience to identify with a boy, who not only embraces femininity, female authority, and queerness, but also kindness, gentleness, compassion, and love.
One of my favorite examples of this is highlighted in “Rose’s Scabbard” when Pearl harshly tells Steven that he can’t possibly understand what she’s going through because he never met his mother. Even after he follows her through an old battlefield and nearly falls to his death, Pearl makes no move to help him and doggedly continues to retreat. The episode makes it clear, from Steven’s stunned expression as he climbs up to her to his angry exclamation of, “Pearl!” that her behavior has both shocked and scared him. He feels betrayed, and we expect him to call her out on it. But the moment he sees how conflicted and shaken she is, he is at her side comforting her to the very best of his ability. This instance of compassion does something for Pearl’s character that would otherwise be impossible. It openly acknowledges her feelings of depression, anxiety, and conflicted resentment over Steven’s very existence, without placing any harsh or lasting judgments on her character. By showing Pearl unwavering compassion and validation in that moment, Steven allows the audience to accept Pearl as a loving, smart, but also deeply flawed and layered person who deserves empathy over blame. In so doing, Steven’s love and compassion allows viewers to both enjoy the show’s characters as wonderfully complex and relatable while also providing a role model that encourages us to live our lives with a greater capacity for empathy, trust, and understanding.
So while it may be temping to write Steven off as your typical protagonist, I implore you give him a closer look. Because what Steven is doing for children’s television is critical. And it’s something truly revolutionary.