A More Progressive Universe
Originally published in Gather Journal: Heroines Issue
Rebecca Sugar became a pioneer in 2013 with the launch of Steven Universe, the first show in Cartoon Network’s 21-year history created by a woman. Although its titular character is a preteen boy, the show is one of TV’s most feminist, thanks to the narrative significance of the Gems, members of a female-presenting alien race.
Steven is half-Gem, half-human; his alien mom sacrificed her corporeal form to birth him, leaving him in the care of her compatriots, Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl, who act as Steven’s “three moms.” In short, this is not a nuclear family. Among the many taboos addressed, the most subtly transgressive is that of female caretakers who don’t cook. We’re used to seeing TV moms beatifically be-aproned, but the Gems don’t need to eat, and resultantly raise Steven without routine family dinners or lessons on the finer points of nutrition. And yet food is one of his favorite things about being part human. Left to his own devices, he nourishes himself as any adolescent might, on chips and ice cream sandwiches and homemade cheese-puff sushi. The show acknowledges the value of a family meal (in “Together Breakfast” Steven insists popcorn-topped waffles be appreciated by all) while allowing unconventional food dynamics to be portrayed as a functional reality, rather than a familial failure. Steven cooks for himself—and that doesn’t mean he’s unloved. His three intergalactic moms just express how they care for him in other ways.