Steven Universe and the embrace of genderless programming

For those in on the new school of hip, all-ages appealing animated programming, Steven Universe is likely already on the radar. The show tells the story of a young man, Steven Universe (Zach Callison), who lives with a team of intergalactic warriors called the Crystal Gems: Garnet (Estelle), Amethyst (Micheala Dietz), and Pearl (Deedee Magno). They all posses a magic gem (Steven, whose gem is embedded in his bellybutton, inherited his from his mother, Rose Quartz, a former Crystal Gem) that summons a different special weapon, and have been tasked with defending humanity. Though Steven in an anomaly among the Gems–he’s the only male on the team, still young, and has little control over his magic gem–the others care for him, helping him train his powers and solve life’s little (and sometimes, very big) problems.

What immediately makes Steven Universe distinctive is the woman behind it all, Rebecca Sugar. A former storyboard artist, writer, and composer for Adventure Time, Sugar is the first sole female creator in Cartoon Network history. But while this is an important accomplishment, Sugar seems to have no intention of creating a “female” show. Or a “male” show, for that matter. Steven Universe has no use for traditional gender lines in animation or storytelling, trading those in for forward, smart stories that cover the spectrum: action-packed beat-em-ups sit comfortably within outsider stories; sentimental family moments rub shoulders with comic book-level apocalypse scenarios. It’s not just that three of the protagonists are female, it’s that gender has little bearing on what happens within the show. Even The Powerpuff Girls, a show that dealt with gender stereotypes directly and indirectly, is seen as a “male” show–though how much of this is because of the show or because of our cultural attitudes is up for debate. Steven Universe isn’t the first show to shift in this direction, but it feels like the first to fully embrace to, to not cover it up with subterfuge.

But the genderless nature of Steven Universe is just one reason to watch. The animation is lovely, utilizing big, distinct shapes and a large color palette that make each character, villain, and location distinctive, and the action animation is no slouch either. The writing aims for pleasant, but is peppered with enough gut-busting humor and touching moments to keep it fresh and exciting. The music is lively, incorporating electronic styles that suit the sci-fi/magic mashup of the show. And the influences run the gamut: Adventure Time (obviously), 70s and 80s sci-fi anime like Robotech and Mobile Suit Gundam, The Powerpuff Girls, The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack, and more. It’s a smorgasbord of treats that combine into a new flavor all of its own.

With the right push from Cartoon Network, Steven Universe could become their next big intergenerational hit, and hopefully with that will come the big shift away from gendered storytelling. In our modern age, there’s just not a place for it, and Steven Universe could be the show to finally give it the boot.

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