With the popularity of social media allowing news and opinions to be shared quickly among many people, creators are more conscious about their depictions and possible interpretations of their work. This includes the producers of the culture industry. As the issues of gender equality and expression have grown in popularity, modern cultural productions have reflected a change in ideology. Carol Clover, when writing about gender in horror films, related that “what filmmakers seem to know better than film critics is that gender is less a wall than a permeable membrane.” (Clover 46) The idea of gender as a spectrum has now dominated in popular culture and is exemplified by the cartoon show, Steven Universe. Most of the characters in Steven Universe are female, but they each express their gender identity in a unique way. Although there are few male characters, they, too, are shown expressing their identity in more than one way.
While animated cartoons are similar to film in that the scenes shown on screen are controlled by the producers, cartoon drawing artists have more control over the view of the audience. Sam Abel, in his article, “The Rabbit in Drag: Camp and Gender Construction in the American Animated Cartoon,” recognizes this difference and asserts that “the commercial animated cartoon presents a particularly valuable case study of gender construction in American society” because, as a film genre, it physically and temporally frames reality, but it is also drawn by an artist who designs “a wholly created world which, of necessity, simplifies reality, both visually and psychologically.” (Abel 184-185) Abel then outlines the gender constructions in early cartoon series. The historical norm was to show a “predominance of male characters and heavily stereotyped female characters.” (Abel 187) Early MGM Studios’ productions only offered three versions of female gender expression: the domestic woman, the sex symbol, and the comic old woman. Warner Brothers privileged male characters and focused on their experience in cartoons. Although Abel shows that Bugs Bunny is able to transgress gender, he acknowledges that this shows that “only male characters have the power of transgression, and in wielding that power they appropriate both male and female identities.” (Abel 191) Steven Universe differs from Abel’s reflections on common gender constructions in cartoons; the show features a predominance of female characters and defies stereotypes. Each female character represents a different expression of the female gender. Also, the female characters are able to transgress gender norms and expectations as well as the males.
Steven Universe displays innovative, modern depictions of gender. Gaye Tuchman reflected on the depictions of women in popular media productions and stated that “the idea that a literature reflects its society is transformed into the statement that the media should reflect society and the charge that contemporary media do not properly reflect the position of women” (Tuchman 532-533) However Tuchman later discusses the underrepresentation of women and their often stereotypical portrayal as capturing and demonstrating the lack of power that women experience every day. The main three-part argument she presents is “1) few women hold positions of power in media organizations and so, 2) the content of the media distorts women’s status in the social world. The media do not present women who are viable role models, and therefore: 3) the media’s deleterious role models, when internalized, prevent and impede female accomplishments. They also encourage both women and men to define women in terms of men (as sex objects) or in the context of the family (as wives and mothers)” (Tuchman 531) Again, Steven Universe is able to counter many of these claims.
Steven Universe premiered on November 4, 2013 as the first series on Cartoon Network to be created by a woman, Rebecca Sugar. It presents viable female role models, and the female characters are not defined “in terms of men or in the context of the family.” It represents modern defiance of normative heterosexuality and strict gender roles. The Cartoon Network show, Steven Universe, features many characters who transgress traditional gender roles and exemplify various forms of gender expression. With an abundance of female characters, the show offers many options for expressing the female gender identity. However, it does not offer the same range of options for expression of the male gender identity.
In the fictional world of Steven Universe, gems represent themselves in a temporary physical form and fight each other based on differing ideologies. The Crystal Gems: Pearl, Garnet, Amethyst, and Rose Quartz rebelled against the other gems who wanted to use Earth for massive gem production, which would cause the Earth to become uninhabitable and unable to sustain life. Rose Quartz fell in love with a human man and bore a son, Steven. Rose then gave up her physical form so that her gem could inhabit Steven. And so, he has never met her, but he can use her magical gem powers to aid the Crystal Gems in their missions to protect the Earth from dangerous gem creatures who attack and disrupt human life.
All of the gems assume a female physical form. Differences in gender expression among the gems exemplify multiple options for viewers. Pearl is a resourceful, classy lady who can be strict in her teaching style. She most represents the traditional “domestic woman.” Amethyst is carefree, fun-loving, confident, and outgoing. She most fits the role of an adolescent girl who argues with her mother (a role which Pearl best fits) and craves independence. Garnet has the most characteristics that are considered traditionally masculine. She appears in control of her emotions and is the most physically strong. Her dominance and leadership role mark her as the most masculine crystal gem. She fills the role of a traditional father figure in the group.
Although the crystal gems and Steven could be thought of as a traditional family unit, the Crystal Gems are not forced to conform to usual familial/societal roles. In the episode, “Fusion Cuisine,” Steven must decide which gem to present as his mother to his friend’s parents. His friend, Connie, told her parents that Steven has a “nuclear family,” or a traditional two-parent household. In trying to choose one gem, Steven states the roles of each gem in relation to the traditional role of mother. He tells Garnet, “you keep us safe by scaring off the bad guys – Just like a mom would… But you’re not the best conversationalist.” Garnet’s role as a protector can be considered either motherly or fatherly. Then Steven says “Amethyst, you would be a super fun mom!” but Amethyst begins picking her nose and playing with her snot so he asks “can moms be gross?” Lastly, Steven looks at Pearl and says, “You’re always worried about me, you teach me lots of stuff, you’re approachable, and, you’re, like, totally not gross! … But you can’t dinner.” Although the gems are capable of eating, they do not need to because they receive all of their nourishment from their gem. Amethyst likes to eat anyway, but Pearl finds the idea of eating disgusting. Therefore, unable to choose one gem, Steven convinces the gems to fuse into a six-armed giant creature, named Alexandrite, who could go to dinner as his mom. Steven’s refusal to choose one gem allows all the gems to continue to share the role of caregiver without being forced to conform to traditional familial roles.
Steven’s own expression of his gender identity is one that has not traditionally been offered for males. Steven is the only gem who is male, and this is likely because he is half-human. Steven is constantly surrounded by female caregiving figures and acts feminine. His favorite show is “Crying Breakfast Friends!” which consists of various breakfast items who are constantly crying. Crying has traditionally been seen as a sign of weakness, especially for a man. In contrast, Steven cries freely and even excitedly watches a cartoon show in which there is constant crying. He also watches a hospital drama show, “Under the Knife” with Connie. Steven’s willingness to watch soap operas and cry freely is a quality that has been traditionally seen as feminine. Also, Steven is not a physically fit character, which is unlike the traditional valuing of males as strong protectors. Steven is also inevitably close to his mother which makes him favor the color pink, a traditionally feminine color, because it is the color associated with her.
Steven himself must learn to accept his appearance. In the episode, “Steven’s Birthday,” Steven’s age is revealed (he turns fourteen) and he tries to alter his appearance. When his dad shows a photo album of Steven’s past birthday, viewers see that he has looked the same since age 8. Gems live forever and do not age, however, as a half-human, it remains unclear whether Steven will age. Gems can temporarily stretch their physical forms, and Steven discovers that he can too. He tries to stretch his body as if he had instantly grown several inches for the entire day, despite Amethyst’s warning, because he wants to pretend that he can age with Connie. He also deepened his voice to make it seem like he was experiencing puberty. However, Connie tells him that she does not care if he cannot age with her and this helps him return to his normal appearance. Steven learns that he does not need to change himself in order to be accepted. He does not need to make himself age or appear more masculine.
As a modern cartoon, Steven Universe reflects the changing dominant ideologies regarding gender construction. The characters defy traditional gender roles and offer multiple expressions of each gender identity. In the gem-ruled world of Steven Universe, some of the most important gems (of knowledge) offered are those regarding gender.
Abel, Sam. “The Rabbit in Drag: Camp and Gender Construction in the American Animated Cartoon.” The Journal of Popular Culture 29.3 (1995): 183-202. Web. 18 May 2016.
Clover, Carol J. “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film.” Men, Women, and Chain Saws. N.p.: n.p., 1992. 21-64. Print.
Sugar, Rebecca. Steven Universe. Cartoon Network. N.d. Television.
Tuchman, Gaye. “Women’s Depiction by the Mass Media.” Signs 4.3 (1979): 528-42. JSTOR. Web. 18 May 2016.