In LGBTQ storytelling, Steven Universe shows a path forward — but is it enough?
How the show (and now movie) falls into a common trap by presenting its queer content in a fantasy context
The popular cartoon Steven Universe is often praised for its inclusivity and how it handles themes of queer identity and romance, but author and editor Andrew Wheeler says media needs to keep pushing further.
Steven Universe is "a welcome and necessary step towards where we need to be, but it's not all the way there," he said.
The cartoon features alien characters Ruby and Sapphire who, against the laws of their people, merge into Garnet, a physical manifestation of their love. Ruby and Sapphire, who both present as female, get married in the show's fifth season. The episode in which they do is nominated for an Emmy. The successful show also has a movie, which aired in the United States last week and became available online in Canada this week.
"I think [Steven Universe] actually a very radical show," Wheeler said. "It's pushing the envelope on queer representation much further than I think any show that came before in terms of how central those themes are and how central the discussion of identities are."
But Wheeler warns that Steven Universe falls into a common trap by presenting its queer content in a fantasy context.
"The wedding episode was was huge, but at the same time, it had that context thing where they could explain it as being something other than a gay wedding. There is an audience that can look at that and say: 'Oh that's cute that they are presenting their weird alien gestalt thing in human terms as a wedding.'"
"I don't think that's what they were doing. I think it was a wedding. I think it was a same-sex marriage. But there is a veneer of deniability that's created by the sort of sci-fi fantasy framing of the show."
Wheeler is from the United Kingdom, but based in Toronto, where CBC Arts reached him. His works include the comics Another Castle and Freelance, and the Dungeons & Dragons Young Adventurer's Guides. Wheeler was also the lead editor of Shout Out, a comics anthology for children and teens written and drawn by LGBTQ creators.
In a way, he said, the ambiguity baked into Steven Universe can be useful because it can make the show more palatable to networks and help the program reach queer kids who need to see themselves represented in the media they consume.
Steven Universe creator Rebecca Sugar recently told the New York Times that was one of her goals for the program.
"Without having access to stories from individuals like myself, I felt what I was experiencing was either irrelevant or just nonexistent. I didn't have any way to find a connection to other people who were going through what I was going through as a kid," Sugar said.
While some may argue incremental progress is good enough, Wheeler says publishers need to keep pushing ahead.
"The fact that now, even after same-sex marriage is legal, we're still having to accept incremental victories seems ridiculous to me. It seems so slow and we should be calling out how slow it is, not saying well this is how it has to be."
It seems so slow and we should be calling out how slow it is, not saying well this is how it has to be.- Andrew Wheeler
Wheeler said he often used to hear people dismissing that idea by saying they wanted queer characters in their stories, but wanted them to enter "organically."
"We know [queer people] exist in the world. So if they don't exist in the world that you created, you've made a choice and that's not organic," Wheeler said.
"That's a contrived political act to exclude people from visibility. So organic is not the solution. Organic is not a reality of writing. And anyone who says it is, is either a fool or a liar."
Sometimes, creators do have to make concessions to get their work published. Wheeler said he's pulled out of projects when people told him he had to make his art less queer, but he acknowledges some people are not in the financial position to turn down work.
"That's a terrible choice to have to make. So I would say: survive first and foremost. That's your duty to yourself as a marginalized person. But your secondary duty is to help those around you survive, because we all have to have each other's backs and we all have to accept the struggles that we're going through."