When I started watching Steven Universe, I was a 14-year-old with a lot on my mind. I was experiencing one of the most difficult years of my life, as I felt increasingly isolated from my peers and kept unrealistic expectations for myself to succeed academically, brutally berating myself when I failed to live up to them. As someone coming to terms with having both autism and ADHD, I felt inferior to neurotypical people nearly every day.
I thought Steven Universe, a show about a young boy who fights monsters alongside his three alien rock moms called the Crystal Gems, could be an escape for me. Instead, this silly cartoon about space rocks ended up offering something more. Directly or indirectly, Steven Universe taught me time after time about the importance of empathy, patience, and understanding toward others, but especially toward ourselves.
Steven Universe is about many things, but the core theme and message stressed again and again with its different characters is how love, both of others and of ourselves, can help us persevere through life’s hardest challenges. Each of Steven Universe’s main characters, including Steven himself, suffers from a different kind of self-defeating behavior they must eventually cope with and navigate.
At the show’s inception, Amethyst views herself as a weak, useless “mistake,” having been born late and shorter in height than other Amethysts in the Kindergarten. Pearl suffers from her unrequited romantic obsession with Steven’s mother, Rose, who died to create Steven and thus left Pearl in a constant state of mourning. Even Garnet, the seemingly infallible leader of the Crystal Gems, struggles when the two members of her fusion, Ruby and Sapphire, have to be apart.
Similar feelings of inadequacy have persisted throughout my entire life. People with ADHD typically receive 20,000 more negative comments than their neurotypical peers by the age of 12, which can become internalized and lower self-esteem. And although I couldn’t find a study connecting autism with increased criticism, I’ve lost count of the number of time-outs, detentions and even suspensions I got as a child for behavior I never learned was inappropriate until much later. Much of my youth was characterized by being viewed as a weirdo by peers and a screw-up by teachers and authority figures. By 14, I believed they were right.
For these reasons, I felt a connection to Amethyst’s character the most, the one at first considered to be the most immature of the Crystal Gems. Especially early on, Amethyst appears irrational and uncontrollably goofy, causing mayhem just for the fun of it and making jokes at inappropriate times. But as the show progresses, Amethyst is shown to be more than just comic relief. Her behavior stems from a lack of self-worth and a desire for attention, even if that attention is negative. As the “class clown” throughout my youth, that examination of why someone would feel drawn to act out was an uncommon display of empathy toward “troublemakers” which helped me reflect on my own behavior.
But Amethyst isn’t left to wallow in her own misery. Over the course of the show, she grows both her powers and maturity, showing more resilience in times of uncertainty because of having faced and overcome her own insecurities. In Steven Universe Future, a limited series that serves as an epilogue to the main show, Amethyst becomes a counselor for other gems, helping them find their place and purpose in the world.
The story is similar for many of the other characters. Pearl eventually learns to let go of the past and forge new relationships; Ruby and Sapphire unfuse for a while, then get married to be with each other even when they’re apart. Even past antagonists Peridot and Lapis eventually learn to come out of their shells and embrace life on earth.
More than all the space battles and fusions and cute songs, this repeated theme of learning to accept our differences in how we look, think, and love as a strength, not a weakness, is why Steven Universe has become so popular, especially with members of the LGBTQ and neurodivergent communities. For kids, teens and adults who felt their identities to be a source of shame, Steven Universe provided not only a safe, colorful world which showed characters struggling with those same issues and growing from them, but also a thriving, passionate community of like-minded fans. Toxic Steven Universe fans exist and have done some heinous things, but nearly all the fans I’ve met in-person and online have been the kindest, most supportive and accepting people.
Steven Universe Future sees Steven as a 16-year-old coming to terms with the physical and emotional trauma he’s repressed all these years in order to help keep his friends and family safe. In the series’ penultimate episode, his escalating self-hatred manifests by turning him into a literal monster. In a twist for the franchise, it’s Steven who needs help, and his loved ones who ultimately manage to calm him down and revert him to his human form. Near the show’s conclusion, it’s one final encapsulation of how being human is being imperfect, and as great as it is to help and love others, it can’t be done without showing compassion and love to yourself as well.
Creator Rebecca Sugar said they wanted to make the show they never had as a kid. Now, thanks to their and the whole teams’ years of hard work both making a beautiful series and fighting for it to be aired, that show exists.
I still have my own demons to fight, but after being kicked down, failing, and still getting back up and improving each time, I’m proud of the person I’ve become. And as silly as it sounds, this show that started with a kid crying over not getting his ice cream sandwich has something to do with that, both through the messages it promoted and the people it connected me with.
Steven Universe began just three months before I turned 13, and Future ended just four months before I turn 20, so I’ve had the privileged opportunity to grow up in real time alongside Steven and the Crystal Gems, seeing their growth reflected in my own. As Steven’s dad, Greg, tells him, “It makes a kind of karmic sense I just can’t resist.”
Joseph Stanichar is a Paste intern who specializes in videogames. He’s written for publications such as Game Informer, Twinfinite and The Post. He’s on Twitter @JosephStanichar.
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