Steven Universe, a cartoon series by Rebecca Sugar, has been gaining a lot of attention since it first aired in 2013. Not that anyone’s surprised. It was the first cartoon show created by a woman to feature on Cartoon Network.
Unlike what we are used to seeing in many cartoons and TV shows, Rebecca Sugar successfully provides quirky, harmless humor that avoids poking fun at anything in a cruel degrading way. The characters are all lovable, complex, and relatable. Also, the show has more female characters than male, which contrasts with the norm in shows to have one token female character. The voice cast even consists mostly of people of color. Episodes not only strategically provide pieces for the plot but go over broad issues, such as relationships, family, and growing up, in a minimalistic but effective manner that helps the viewers connect the show to their lives.
This, combined with the beautiful animation, which consists of bright pastel color schemes, gorgeous sceneries, and cute character designs, make Steven Universe one of the most groundbreaking and charming animated series of our time in every sense. However, one of the most fascinating things about Steven Universe is not just the varying and complex personalities of the female characters (which is amazing!) but the male characters, both main and supporting. Common tropes used for male characters are flipped on the head and given so much dimension.
To make this spoiler-free for those of you who are only now being introduced to the show, I’ll only very vaguely go over the main plot and mention the three most common male characters. The protagonist is a young, half-alien boy named Steven who is living alongside alien guardians in a place called Beach City. Episodes consists of his adventures with the alien guardians and his interactions with the human inhabitants of Beach City. Among the inhabitants of Beach City are male characters that portray a variety of personalities that challenge common conceptions of masculinity.
Steven is the biggest example of this. He is short and chubby. He is also one of the most sensitive, nurturing, friendly and understanding characters on the show. If there are conflicts with his friends or between the people of Beach City, he genuinely helps and finds a solution where everyone is happy. Steven is the glue that holds everyone together. One of his greatest challenges is learning about his alien powers and developing them. Regardless, he consistently proves how capable of being a hero he is. Steven’s strong connection to his emotions really sets him apart from other male heroes and protagonists.
Lars (one of my favorite characters) is a teenage boy that interacts with Steven on the daily. He tries to comes off as aloof and “cool” to fit in but it’s obvious to everyone around him that he’s uncomfortable with himself. With his insecurities and awkwardness, Lars embodies the “angsty teen girl trope”. Instead of it being used as a joke, however, his insecurities and fears are acknowledged in a healthy way. Other characters make an effort to understand him rather than make fun of him, especially Steven. Lars is one of the more relatable characters of the show to anyone, especially teenagers who are struggling to find themselves and fit in. Hang in there Lars!
Greg, Steven’s father, is not in the “ideal” position he wished to be in when he was young. He’s a failed musician , is going bald, and has gained a few pounds over the years. Still, despite it all, he is hardworking, compassionate, and content with his life.Greg is very gentle and accepting so it’s easy to see where Steven got his nurturing side from. He is always there for his son and anyone else that needs his help. The most important lesson he teaches Steven is to accept himself and that’s it’s okay to make mistakes. Interestingly enough, along with Greg, there are other examples of fathers on Beach City that have their own way of caring and helping their children.
The complexities apparent in all of these male characters, especially the ones built off of dusty old tropes fused with healthy emotional expression, offer lovely counters to glorified toxic masculinity found in so many cartoons and comics. Steven Universe is truly groundbreaking and I hope it holds up as a strong example for the future generations of cartoons and animation.