10 Years Ago, Steven Universe Paved the Way for Wholesome Queer Storytelling on TV

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10 Years Ago, Steven Universe Paved the Way for Wholesome Queer Storytelling on TV

With just two seasons, Heartstopper has already defied its namesake and saved actual lives through its positive and deeply earnest portrayal of two boys in love. It’s the kind of show that young queer people draw much-needed comfort from, and for older fans, there’s a wish fulfillment that speaks to the teen versions of ourselves who never got to enjoy what Nick and Charlie share at that age. 

In short, Heartstopper is the show we all wish we had growing up. But before Alice Oseman gave us the wholesome, gay love story we long deserved to see, another gem of a show paved the way in animation just ten years prior.

On November 4th, 2013, a Cartoon Network series named Steven Universe began with a quest to obtain Steven’s favorite ice-cream, a sandwich brand named Cookie Cat. Who could have known back then that, across five seasons, a movie, and a sequel show (titled Steven Universe Future), this quirky series would go on to become one of the most complex, groundbreaking, and most importantly of all, gay sci-fi sagas ever made?

It started with this notion that Steven didn’t have to be a typical “boy” in the traditional sense. Here is a child protagonist who loves wearing the color pink, who cries whenever he needs to, whose entire life and outlook has been shaped by a trio of warrior women who he adores and idolizes. Breaking down gender norms so casually like this was radical for any show in 2013, let alone a cartoon aimed at kids, and it remains pretty radical still, ten years on.   

Showrunner Rebecca Sugar and her team didn’t stop there though. In the final episode of Season 1, titled “Jail Break,” it was revealed to Steven and the audience that Garnet, one of the main Crystal Gems, was actually a fusion of two separate Gems named Ruby and Sapphire. They had bonded both physically and emotionally into one entity joined by love, a love that other members of their homeworld outright condemned. 

From that point on, fusion became a metaphor for same-sex connection across an entire cast of Gems including Steven himself, a half-human/half-Gem hybrid who regularly formed an intersex fusion with his friend and love interest Connie (together known as Stevonnie). 

Polyamory, asexuality, and almost every other queer configuration you can think of have all been represented on the show in some capacity, yet it wasn’t until Season 5 that these metaphors became a tangible reality when Ruby proposed to Sapphire in “The Question.” Their subsequent nuptials became the first same-sex wedding ever seen on Cartoon Network, and with the kiss that sealed this marriage, Ruby and Sapphire’s love changed the world beyond Steven Universe too.

Just a few years earlier, women couldn’t legally marry each other in real life and now suddenly, in 2018, kids were able to see two female characters cement their relationship on screen without fear or judgment. Queerness had become as integral to this cartoon world as it always has been to our own, and from that point on, anything felt possible.

Over the next few years, cartoons like Arthur, Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts, and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power followed in the footsteps of Steven Universe with more declarations of queer love, and this joy spilled over into live-action too—most notably in the High School Musical series where Seb and Carlos fell for each other like any other teenagers would. Without these shows paving the way, it’s hard to imagine a world where Heartstopper could exist so freely and authentically just a few years later.

Other cartoons like The Owl House and Dead End: Paranormal Park have since continued the legacy of Steven Universe in animation as well with sweet, selfless queer characters who love not just others, but also themselves. And that self-love is just as crucial for queer people, if not more so, than the depiction of queer love itself.

Growing up in the ‘90s when queer experiences were equated with death and tragedy onscreen, I learned that being gay was “bad” before I even realized I was gay myself. So when those feelings did start to emerge, I pushed them back down as hard as I could, desperate to stop feeling so different and “wrong.” Simply loving another man seemed impossible, let alone loving myself. 

Decades later, things outwardly improved, yet the shame and self-loathing I grew up with still lingered, even when I wasn’t consciously aware of it. In fact, it wasn’t until I watched Steven Universe that I realized quite how much pain I still carried inside. 

Seeing Ruby and Sapphire get married physically shook me to the point where I sobbed and heaved throughout their ceremony. Yes, there were happy tears, but it also felt like a release that I didn’t realize was needed until I suddenly let it all out. Simon’s mom was onto something in Love, Simon when she told her son that coming out meant he could finally exhale. 

Other Steven Universe moments helped me breathe a little easier too, like when Steven rocked his aquamarine dress or when Lapis ended her toxic relationship with Jasper. Then there’s “Mr. Greg,” the musical episode from Season 3 where Pearl and Steven’s father bond over the love and loss of Rose “She always did what she wanted” Quartz. I still can’t sing along to “Both Of You” or “It’s Over Isn’t It” without my voice cracking.

Watching Steven Universe as an adult didn’t make these moments any less powerful. If anything, they hit me harder precisely because I’m not a kid anymore. My generation was forced to reckon with queer coded Disney villains and Simpsons stereotypes in the absence of something more positive, so it’s hard not to think of what my life could have been like if Ruby and Sapphire had been there to show me queer joy instead. 

The same is true of Heartstopper as well. Watching Nick and Charlie love themselves and love each other is so intensely emotional because it reminds me of what I lost growing up, but also how far we have come as well. I mourn the kid who never got to see shows like these and all the other queer children who struggled to feel love like I did, but that’s alright. I’m just grateful that these stories exist at all. 

As Steven himself once sang: “Happily ever after never ends,” and thanks to the legacy of shows like Steven Universe and Heartstopper, that can be true for queer kids too now that they finally get to see what a happy ending might look like for themselves on screen. 

David Opie is a freelance entertainment journalist. To hear his ramblings on queer film and TV, you can follow him @DavidOpie.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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