If you’ve ever set foot on the Internet, you must have heard that we are in the second Golden Age of television. What we don’t talk about enough, however, is that animated shows are just as golden as live action ones. And I get it, it’s much cooler to discuss Sopranos or Breaking Bad than the rad show you’ve been watching on Cartoon Network.
Animated shows for adults are nothing new, The Simpsons has been on air since what it feels like the mid 18th century. But the past few years saw the emergence of many new animated shows that are not only a) geared towards children and b) good. The first was maybe My Little Pony – yes, My Little Pony is awesome and it teaches about accepting one another – and then came Adventure Time, Gravity Falls, the Duck Tales-reboot, and so on. Basically, creators have started to realize that children are not dumb. My favorite example - and the most relevant one for qlit - is Steven Universe.
The story centers around Steven, a young boy living in Beach City with his three quasi-aunts, who also happen to be magical alien superheroes. Their magic follows the tradition of Sailor Moon where everyone has a few magical powers – generally combat-focused – that roughly match their personalities. They are all anthropomorphic (some more than others), but they are actually members of an alien race called gems. Steven’s mother was a gem as well, but she gave up her body so that Steven could be born. His father, however, is a human, so we have a half-gem protagonist, with the obligatory trying-to-learn-and-control-my-new-powers journey – with such well-known tropes as The Time the Hero’s Fingers Turn Into Cats.
Watching the first 10-15 episodes, you could think that this is a fairly regular adventure of the week show, with some science-like magic or magic-like science, in which Steven sometimes talks to watermelons and sings songs about doughnuts. But by the second half of the first season, you’ll have learned so much about the gems and their war that you are knee-deep in an actual epic sci-fi story with serious moral issues and incredible drama - and the occasional doughnut-song.
Which is cool, but how is this relevant to qlit? Oh, did I forget to mention that every character is a lesbian*? Well, sort of. The trick here is that gems are a mono-gendered species, thus they are all women (and yes, technically that means they aren’t women, but they are female-coded, have female voice-actors and use female pronouns, so for all intents and purposes, they are women). And they sometimes fall in love. Sometimes with each other. The even trickier trick is, this kind of love is nothing special in this universe. Gems sometimes fall in love with each other. Big whoop, so do people.
When dealing with depictions of LGBT+ characters, one big question is, how much of their struggles should we include? On the one hand, those ordeals should be part of their story, because that is part of their real life as well. On the other hand, it would be great to see LGBT+ characters being happy and just live their life and deal with general “life problems”, without all the shitty prejudices they have to endure IRL.
It’s easy for science fiction writers to opt for the latter, they can just say “well, this is a story about a future society, where LGBT+ discrimination is no longer an issue”. (By the by, something that comes up far too often is the exact opposite: a story where the writers tried to go for a “nobody cares if you’re gay or straight” world, but they cannot really get rid of all their ingrained preconceptions.)
Since Steven Universe is not just a science fiction story, but also a cartoon for kids, everything is a bit lighter, more colorful and more fun - and if a lavender-skinned woman grabbing a lasso from her own chest doesn’t surprise you, why should two women in love with each other? You might say that this is cheating, and you might be right. You could say that LGBT+ acceptance in a story with talking watermelons has nothing to do with real life acceptance; nevertheless, it shows women being in love with each other as a natural and beautiful thing - how many live action series do the same?
This show doesn’t challenge preconceptions and stereotypes and gender roles - it doesn’t recognize they exist. And with that, it shows pretty effortlessly how stupid and unnecessary they actually are.
Traditional gender roles get the same treatment. Steven is kind, caring, in touch with his emotions, has no problem with crying if he is sad, and his magical powers are for healing and protection. These characteristics describe women and girls in 9 out of 10 stories. Male characters with classic feminine traits are either the butt of the joke (LeFou in Beauty and the Beast, Kronk in the Emperor’s New Groove), or the villain (Jafar, Scar, Him from the Powerpuff Girls). Steven is not only accepted for who he is, his “feminine” side is not even a point of discussion. No one thinks that caring about others is supposed to be feminine, so he is not caring despite being a boy, he just does.
The show also features strong female characters, who are not Strong Female Characters (TM). It’s not just the three main gems, we see a plethora of interesting, flawed, awesome women, many of whom Steven looks up to – but you don’t feel like the show is overly concerned with patting itself on the back for showing actual womenfolk. They are just there, being awesome, and because they are awesome, it’s fairly understandable that Steven looks up to them – and they just happen to be women.
One of my absolute favorite songs from the show - in 3 minutes they show kids that difficult feelings should be embraced without them taking control.
To borrow a headline from Vulture: Steven Universe – the queerest show on television. Smart, emotional, subtle and loud at the same time, with amazing characters, lovely songs and visuals that make me drool; and with subversive and progressive messages about gender, identity, love, relationships (and doughnuts). This is a world you want to keep revisiting.