Unless you have been under a rock for the past three and a half years you have most likely heard of Cartoon Network’s original series Steven Universe. The series which features the adventures of a young half-alien boy named Steven and his family The Crystal Gems as they fight to protect the earth from all sorts of magical and alien threats. At face value that may not sound like enough to drag you in, but if there is one thing that the current decade of animation has taught us is that you cannot judge a show by its appearance or its synopsis alone. Over the past three or so years we have watched Steven Universe grow from a series about a young boy trying to learn to use his powers to one of the most progressive, complex and emotionally in-depth and mature series to ever grace our television screens. And what really makes the series hit home for many is how human the characters are despite being magic alien gems. So today we take a look at what Steven Universe can teach us about the human condition.
I. Dealing With Loss/Living up to Expectations
One of the key elements to Steven Universe’s lore is how Steven’s mom Rose Quartz for all intensive purposes passed away while giving birth to him. Because of this we have seen characters such as Rose’s husband Greg and her confidant Pearl deal with the loss over the course of the series in different ways. Pearl especially had been the main focus of this story arc as we saw how overprotective she was of Steven early on in the series and acting like a surrogate mother of sorts and all the while holding a silent grudge against Greg for taking the one she loved away from her, we saw this all come to a head in season 3 when Greg & Steven take Pearl on a vacation with them to the big city where we get various musical numbers one focusing on how Pearl still laments over the loss of Rose and ending with Steven serenading the two with a ballad about how he loves both of them and they should talk to each other about the loss of Rose Quartz. The episode ending with some sense of closure for the two. Loss of a loved one is also what drives the remaining Diamonds to have such a hatred for Rose Quartz and in some cases the Earth. Rose was the one responsible for shattering Pink Diamond leaving her sisters in either a state of constant rage like Yellow Diamond or sorrow like Blue Diamond.
Another important element of Steven Universe is how Steven constantly feels the need to learn more and live-up to the example his mom had set for the Crystal Gems. Over the course of the show we see him lament not being as strong as her, and even as his powers grow we see him struggle to fine that line between respecting his mother’s legacy while still trying to be his own person. And Steven is not the only one dealing with this struggle as Amethyst, a character who is basically a big sister figure to Steven also views herself as inadequate, an aspect which was first touched on when she and Steven first visited the Kindergarten and Amethyst admitted to Pearl she felt like the others saw her as a mistake and later on when she realized she was falling behind even Steven in terms of ability.
These two tropes while not solely unique to Steven Universe are used in a very well done and natural way, and they show us that even though loss and self-doubt are part of life that they do not define us, and they can in the end make us stronger as long as we do not let ourselves be controlled by them.
Like many lead characters in animation Steven has an uncanny knack for being able to make friends. While this cliché is usually pretty aggravating, in Steven Universe it has been used organically for the most part, as Steven doesn’t just become friends with every new person or gem he meets, but slowly bonds with them over the course of episodes/seasons. The most notable use of this was when the Homeworld gem Peridot was captured by the Crystal Gems after months of chasing her and falling prey to her traps. While the rest of the Gems would have been just fine leaving her unconscious and imprisoned in a bubble, Steven freed her and over the course of several episodes formed a bond of friendship with her that eventually lead to her defecting from Homeworld and joining the Crystal Gems to help them stop the planet destroying geo-weapon “The Cluster” that had been placed deep within the Earth’s core. We also see Peridot her self attempt to and at times fail to befriend her fellow refugee Lapis Lazuli and a sentient pumpkin-dog Steven created for them to have as a pet as well.
As for Steven himself we do see how his relationships with both the Gems and his fellow Beach City residents evolve over the course of the show, as they all essentially work off of each other to slowly grow and become better people. We also see the difference in the way the various friendships work, some characters being more social or asocial than others, some being more eccentric or more talkative, over the course of the series we learn more about the Beach City residents and we see how their friendship with Steven effects them both positively and negatively.
III. Dealing With Negative Emotions
Over the course of the show we have seen various subjects like Anxiety, Depression, Anger, self-doubt, fear, jealousy and sorrow all put on in full display and how the various characters have dealt with these emotions. The show helps the audience accept that these feelings are part of life, but they do not define us and can only destroy or control us if we let them. From Connie or Steven dealing with the fallout of Anxiety or Lapis being Jealous of a potential new roommate we see how these characters in both good ways and bad deal with their negative emotions and how these things can help or harm them in the long run.
While the word itself has become a bit of a cliché, Steven Universe uses love very well, from Platonic to Romantic to undefined relationships, love is a key part of why the characters do what they do. Ruby and Saphire’s love for one another allows them to remain fused as Garnet, Steven’s love for Connie allowing him to fuse with her in battle, or Pearl’s love for Rose causing her to remain dedicated to the Crystal Gem cause and protecting the Earth, or Steven’s love for his father and the of the residents of Beach City being a big reason for his desire to both befriend and protect them. While it may be cliché, Steven Universe shows that love can be a positive and powerful force in our lives if we let it in and use it properly.
Overall this is just a light touch on the level of emotional depth and complexity the series has come to portray over the years. Like with many modern animations there is much more to it than meets the eye and if you are willing to have an open mind and open heart you might just learn a thing or two from Steven and his family.
Steven Universe: Wanted special premiers tonight @ 7 P.M./6 P.M. Central on Cartoon Network.