Zenkaikon panel talks LGBT portrayals in Steven Universe

Steven Universe - image from Cartoon Network

A gender non-conforming protagonist. Agender sentient space gems who come from other planets. These two seemingly random typecasts fuse together effortlessly to create a show that has entered a generation of modern shows that include LGBT representation.

This show is Steven Universe, created in 2013 by Rebecca Sugar for Cartoon Network.

For those who are not in the LGBT community, this show may come across as the adorable coming-of-age tale of Steven, a boy on a quest to figure himself out. For others, however, this show encompasses the daily struggles of being someone who is queer. Sugar said she created this show based on the experiences of her bisexuality.

Friday, April 28, the 11th-annual anime convention Zenkaikon made its latest appearance in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Many panels were hosted by passionate folks who considered themselves knowledgeable about the topics at hand.

The following day, wives Judith Fisch and Natalie Reichel presented an hour-and-a-half long panel on Steven Universe, lovingly titled “Steven Universe: Gay Space Rocks.”

Judith Fisch and Natalie Reichel talk to attendees after their Steven Universe: Gay Space Rocks panel at Zenkaikon 2017. - Photo by Robert Beiler

Judith Fisch and Natalie Reichel talk to attendees after their Steven Universe: Gay Space Rocks panel at Zenkaikon 2017.

The panel covered various themes, such as the dynamic between the different characters, as well as the unique family situations featured in the show. Reichel mentioned that since it’s a children’s show, not all characters are confirmed to be in the LGBT community, though a lot host the same types of issues that LGBT kids may go through.

A lot of Steven Universe revolves around identity, and finding out who one is in relation to the world. From a young age, some feel as though they have to identify with a certain label or characteristic, or even fit in a certain archetype. “Part of why you have all of these labels is… you’re going against the grain,” said Reichel.

One of the issues that those in the LGBT community may face is an excommunication from their families. Nearly every character either has a family they had to create on their own, or a family with a non-traditional mannerism.

“It’s not just for people who have lost their families,” Fisch said. This also accounts for the families comprising of those who want kids but are unable to have them, or for those who have swapped gender roles in the household.

A lot of Steven Universe revolves around identity, and finding out who one is in relation to the world.

Gender roles are another overarching theme in Steven Universe. As it stands, Steven lives with Garnet, Amethyst and Pearl, three female-appearing gem humanoids, in a fictional city on the Delmarva Peninsula called Beach City. Steven is a half-gem, having inherited the gem from his mother, Rose Quartz.  During the day, Steven stays with his human father Greg.

The show is seen from Steven’s point of view, which means that a lot of the darker aspects are simply left without being spoken. Reichel and Fisch mentioned that Steven constantly questions gender norms, but in a way that indicates that he has an air of innocence to him, as if these boundaries were never laid out for him.

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Sugar said she created the show with the intent of it being gender-neutral and enjoyable for all ages, as the inspiration comes from the adventures of her and her brother while growing up.

Steven possesses what Reichel and Fisch described as non-toxic masculinity, where he can be free to be who he wants to be; if Steven wants to wear a dress, he does, and not one person in the show questions him for it.

Greg and Steven are two of the only main male characters in the show, which Sugar said 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,” Sugar said to Entertainment Weekly.

Judith Fisch and Natalie Reichel - Steven Universe, Gay Space Rocks - Photo by Robert Beiler

Judith Fisch and Natalie Reichel speak about Steven Universe at Zenkaikon 2017.

Because of this, Sugar created a show that represented a lot of different people; no character is placed haphazardly into the show. Whether it’s Pearl, a gem who is hesitant and calculated in her movements, to Amethyst, a wonderfully flawed gem, Steven Universe offers a little bit of something for everyone; the show emphasizes the beauty of being the flawed people we are.

And for those in the LGBT community, this show could potentially be the spark of a whole new movement of gender-neutral shows. Until then, folks in the LGBT community can find their sense of belonging as they ‘save the day’ with Steven and his fellow crystal gems.

About the author

Mickayla Miller

Mickayla is a workaholic who loves coffee and flowers. She's an accidental journalist who quickly fell in love with the trade. When she isn't writing she can be found playing Overwatch or cuddling with her appropriately named kitten, Reaper.