Thanks to the constant demand of animation, Rebecca Sugar doesn’t often have the chance to talk with kids who watch “Steven Universe.” That’s why her annual visit to San Diego Comic-Con has become such a highlight for her, as she has been moved by the impact her Crystal Gems have had on countless young fans.
“When we do the signings, I get to speak to people one-on-one, and they tell me how the show has become a part of their lives,” the animator and Cartoon Network series creator told TheWrap. “When I meet a kid who tells me how much they love Ruby and Sapphire, it’s just great because they never think there’s anything inherently adult or surprising about their relationship.”
The marriage of Ruby and Sapphire this past month was the pinnacle of what has been the standard-bearer for LGBT representation in kids’ media. On top of the show’s main demographic, there’s an army of adult fans who gather online and gush over the show’s charm and its themes of self-acceptance and empathy. Go find them posting about the show on Twitter or message boards, and you’ll often find fans talking about how they wish they had a show like “Steven Universe” when they were kids.
That’s a sentiment that Sugar knows all too well, and she’s been delighted at the way kids have jumped at the opportunity to embrace the sort of colorful characters in her show that she didn’t have all those years ago, and in turn let that affect the friendships they make.
“When I was a kid, I used to love characters like Batman. Y’know, cool anti-heroes,” she said. “And now I see little boys who love Garnet. When they’re on the playground, they’re playing as Garnet, and I love that!”
“When I was young, certain kids didn’t want to play with other kids because everything is separated by gender. Now, I get to meet kids for whom everything is so much more fluid, and it makes me so grateful that things are different. And I’m not just excited for them, but for their friends who I’ll never meet but who get to meet these kids and talk with them and never think that they’re not supposed to be friends.”
Helping kids overcome those social barriers is one of the major reasons why Sugar spent time with 11-year-old fan named Giada Rainey as part of her partnership with Dove’s Self-Esteem Project. After a long chat about the show, Sugar helped Rainey create her own “Steven Universe”-inspired character named G-Wiz, a magical character who uses her powers to help others see the beauty in themselves.
It’s people like Rainey that Sugar says make doing the show so rewarding.
“When I spoke to Giada, she had gone to a school that was not supportive of her to one where she had a really solid group of friends who were all so interested in Steven and the show. It was so moving to me that through the show Giada found this interest in animation and a group of people to share it with.”
And at its core, that desire to express herself through animation is what has made “Steven Universe” resonate with so many. The show recently earned its fourth Emmy nomination for “Jungle Moon,” an episode that is the first in which Steven doesn’t make an appearance. Instead, it features Stevonnie — the fusion of Steven and his best friend Connie — surviving on an alien planet.
The episode earned rave reviews for its graceful depiction of a non-binary character, as shown in one shot where Stevonnie casually shaves with their pink sword. Sugar, who herself has come out as non-binary and bisexual over the course of the show’s run, says she approaches Stevonnie in the same way she approaches all the characters and relationships on her show: treat them as people first, and the kids watching will accept them for who they are. No long explanation required.
“We had an earlier episode where Steven is growing up and starts growing a beard, and as a fusion it just made sense for Stevonnie to shave while on this big alien jungle adventure,” she said. “And more than that, Stevonnie’s experience is just a lot like the everyday experience of a lot of people who are non-binary, and they can connect to that.”