That Time a Queer Relationship Saved the World
Steven Universe engages with issues of queer identity, the essence of successful relationships, and Cookie Cat.
Before going into the subject of this article I’ll give a brief background for the show and provide some texts which will be helpful in this discussion…
Steven Universe premiered in 2013 amidst what many are calling a “cartoon renaissance” experience by Time Warner’s Cartoon Network. The series was created by Adventure Time alum, Rebecca Sugar, envisioned as a sort of homage to shows like Sailor Moon and more serialized cartoon programs featuring fun adventures, unique environments, and the ability for one-off storylines.
The series focuses on Steven, our young male protagonist whose characterization is based largely on Sugar’s brother, someone who has a clear affinity for food, music, and, most importantly, emotion. This is where the series makes its first statement:
It’s easy enough to present a character which meets the typical script of the masculine protagonist in cartoons, someone who Thompson and Zerbinos (1995) described as “independent, assertive, athletic, important, attractive, [and] technical”. Some common examples here would be the extremes of G.I. Joe and He-Man or, even more recent, Samurai Jack and the type of character Archer intends to parody. You’re likely familiar with this stock type of character because they’re not exclusive to the cartoon format — they’re everywhere in mass media.
Steven defies this script of masculinity. Through the series’ early episodes we come to understand his sense of adventure limited by his dependence on his guardians, The Crystal Gems, a group of alien gemstones who have adopted feminine identities behind their names of Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl. He relies on these characters in the early episodes for the purposes of plot progression and protection, deferring to their superior technical and assertive skills.
Likewise, Steven misses the mark of what Kivel (1999) refers to as the “man box”. He is openly emotional, prone to crying in front of others, and upfront about the way he feels for others. There’s nothing hidden within the complexity of Steve, nothing too risque for communication (a theme the show conveys to its younger audience). Then there’s the obvious note regarding his character design and how it excludes the six-pack abs or thin figure we’re familiar with when describing male heroes in media.
But we’re not here to talk about Steven.
At least, not right now. What I’d rather talk about is the character of Garnet, a character who not only challenges scripts of femininity but represents a queer identity through the embodiment of a queer relationship. Sound confusing? I’ll clarify.
Somerville (2014) describes anything queer as a critique of heteronormative structures, existing beyond normative borders of gender and sexuality (i.e. masculine and feminine lines). This is obviously a more academic usage of the term than some are familiar with and might raise some contention in its understanding. I use this as a frame for the following point of reference…
Garnet is made up of two characters involved in a queer relationship. Literally: There are two characters, Ruby and Sapphire, who come together through their emotional exposure with one another to create a bigger, stronger version of themselves combined. Analytically: The relationship is coded as queer not because the characters are both coded as feminine (referred to as she and voiced by female voice actresses), rather, their relationship represents something beyond a heteronormative matrix.
The matrix here means more than male/female relations. It means a dominant/submissive type of engagement or active/passive sort of relation. It’s helpful to think of the model breadwinner/housewife when speaking about this example as that comparison strikes at the point I’m reaching.
Neither Ruby nor Sapphire engage in activities which trump the others’ integrity. The relationship does not subdue either one’s personality. For example, Ruby is coded as being aggressive and Sapphire as passive (the common association with red/blue).
But the point of their relationship is not to accept that difference at face value. In fact, when those extremes persist, they fail to come together and create Garnet. It’s only when they share an understanding of one another in which neither claims superiority/inferiority that the fusion of their personalities might take place. It requires understanding and consensuality.
So why is this a queer relationship? Let’s recap: The relationship only works when there is understanding beyond a heteronormative script. It requires less of a male/female dichotomy and more of a unified understanding of the partner. It’s a relationship built on communication versus subordination (more on this later).
So what does it mean when Garnet becomes the hero in Steven Universe? What does it really mean to see a queer relationship overcome incredible odds?
Well it means a few things.
First, it shows the strength of this relationship model. We can learn from Garnet’s power that there’s something to this whole love thing you read about in old poems or in the lazily written verse to your favorite pop songs. But it only works in a particular way and that way requires communication, understanding, and cooperation.
There’s a line in the song featured above, Stronger Than You, that speaks to this testament:
“But I am even more than the two of them.
Everything they care about is what I am.
I am their fury. I am their patience.
I am a conversation.”
I am a conversation? Like holy shit that’s the essence of what I’m talking about right there. There’s no assumption, no cultural model to follow, instead there’s something being actively created — a queer way of informing the relationship which transcends anything media or culture has to tell us about romance. There is fury, there is patience. There is balance.
That’s the strength of a queer relationship, the strength of dismissing your masculine/feminine roots. We can embrace one another without limit and break the boundaries which keep us from attaining a true potential.
But only if you’re open-minded, aware of who you are, and open to asking the questions that make you uncomfortable, making the decisions you’ve never had to make, and living life in a way television has not sold you before.
We can thank Steven Universe for providing new models for romance and sensuality. But we can thank it even more for its clear celebration of this way of life. B)
Kivel, P. (1999). The “Act Like a Man” Box In Boys Will Be Men: Raising Our Sons for Courage, Caring, and Community. New Society Publishers.
Somerville, S. B. (2014). Queer. In B. Burgett & G. Hendler (Eds.). Keywords for American Cultural Studies, New York, NY: New York University Press.
Thompson, T. L., & Zerbinos, E. (1995). Gender roles in animated cartoons: Has the picture changed in 20 years? Sex Roles, 32(9–10), 651–673.