Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Six Degrees of Rebecca Sugar: The Long Road to Bubbline and Beyond

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The emotional, weird, and beautiful Adventure Time finale has come and gone, and with it (finally!) came the long-awaited confirmation that Bubbline is indeed a thing. The relationship, consisting of Princess Bonibel Bubblegum and her on-again, off-again companion Marceline, the Vampire Queen, has been a shipper favorite for years. Many of us assumed they were together already; how could you not after “Broke His Crown?”

Still, we lacked the official confirmation and had no idea if we would ever get it. Boy did we, and then some. We got confirmation in the form of a long, loud, make out session. It was absolutely glorious.

The long road from angsty songs about failed relationships to the Bubbline kiss saw a lot change in the world around Adventure Time, and it was this considerable transformation that took the relationship from a shipper favorite to canon. How did we get here? Well, this is The Fandomentals and you only need read my Steven Universe reviews to know I worship at the feet of Queen Rebecca Sugar. To say she played a considerable role in making Bubbline happen is an understatement.

While so many creators (understandably) played safe and carefully knocked on the doors regarding queer relationships in animation, she took up her sledgehammer to knock the damn doors down. I imagine very few people are happier than Sugar to see Bubbline happen. After all, she was there from the beginning. Without her, the relationship probably wouldn’t exist, and the TV world may never have changed enough to allow it.

Why Did You Eat My Fries?

It all started with Adventure Time and its rock-star vampire queen.

Rebecca Sugar joined Adventure Time as a storyboard revisionist during its first season which aired in early 2010. She received a promotion to storyboard artist for the second season. Her very first episode (alongside seasons 2 and 3 partner Adam Muto) was the seminal Marceline episode, “It Came From the Nightosphere,” airing in October 2010. Besides signaling the vast improvement of Adventure Time as a whole over its zany but awkward first season, and nabbing Sugar one of her two Emmy nominations during her work on the show, this was the episode that laid the groundwork for Marceline as a character.

It still stands tall, in my opinion, as her defining episode. Her love for music, its function as an outlet for her repressed emotions, and her strained relationship with her father are all core aspects of her character. “It Came From the Nightosphere” was the episode that established who Marceline is and who she would be moving forward. Rebecca Sugar also wrote the iconic “Fry Song” featured in the episode, the first of many songs she wrote for the show, many for Marceline.

From here, Sugar would storyboard and write songs for pivotal Marceline episodes such as “Daddy’s Little Monster,” “I Remember You,” and “Simon and Marcy,” the last nabbing her a second Emmy nomination. Damn near every defining episode for Marcy had her hands in it.

To say Rebecca Sugar heavily influenced Marceline is an understatement. She still talks glowingly about her experience working on Adventure Time, and how the storyboarder freedom on the show inspired the way she now runs Steven Universe. This freedom encouraged those working on the show to gravitate towards certain characters and really imprint themselves on them. For Sugar, this was Marceline. She has mentioned never putting so much of herself in to a character before:

“We all connected with different characters and were given a lot of room to flesh them out. I loved to write for Marceline. It was eye opening to see her resonate with audiences. I’d never had the chance to put myself into a character in that way. That’s something I couldn’t help but carry with me into my work on Steven.”

And if you ever doubt how much of the character was personal pizza for her, well, take a listen to the full “Fry Song” demo she pitched. Or consider how she came back for the Stakes miniseries to VOICE MARCELINE’S MOM. And write another song for the show. She basically is Marcy’s mom. This was the start of something much bigger. Rebecca Sugar found her outlet. Damn if she didn’t use it to pick out just the right tool to start knocking doors down.

I’m Just Your Problem

You probably noticed a pretty key episode missing from that list of Sugar-storyboarded episodes above. No, I didn’t forget it. Yes, she worked on and wrote the songs for it. And yes, it was THE episode putting the Bubbline ship out to sea.

“What Was Missing” isn’t a Marceline episode per se. She’s in it, but as part of a group of characters who have their personal belongings stolen by a Door Lord. The Door Lord forces our heroes to play an appropriately personal and good song in order to open the door it hides behind. They eventually do and in the end it turns out Marceline had nothing stolen. I could spend a 2,000 words commenting on Bubblegum being the thing Marceline considers “missing,” but let’s stay on track. For now.

As the most musically-inclined member of the group, Marceline takes the first crack at the song to open the door. She starts off talking about sucking Princess Bubblegum’s face until Peebles objects to the tastelessness of the song. How does Marcy respond? Well…


(P.S., you should listen to the demo for this one, too.)

To say fans ran with the romantic implications of this song is an understatement. It seems clear as day; Marcy and Bubblegum used to be in a relationship. It ended badly. The breakup still haunts Marceline and she wants PB back. This song gave birth to Bubbline and the fandom never looked back.

Of course, the episode did not pass by without controversy over whether the song actually confirmed a past romance or not. Marceline’s voice actor, Olivia Olsen, confirmed as such before kinda-sorta taking it back later. Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward’s public position was basically to stay out of it. Ward’s position basically became the “company line” regarding the episode. They let fans read into it how they wished without making a final judgment.

As the song’s writer, Sugar surprisingly attributed the influence of the song to friendship. In the DVD commentary for the episode, she mentions how she wrote the song based on her experience with a former roommate she fell out with. So maybe the song itself wasn’t written with romantic connotations in mind.

Still…come on. It’s not just the song. Bubblegum’s stolen possession was a shirt entirely outside her style that she kept just because Marcy gave it to her. A shirt Bubblgegum later wakes and take a big whiff of. You know, like you do with clothes belonging to a partner. Their arguments throughout the episode include an exchange about whether Marcy needed to be perfect or not. Is friendship outside interpretation here? No, but just barely.

Whatever the case, this was big episode setting Bubbline on the path towards canon kisses. Much like “It Came From the Nightosphere” established Marceline’s solo traits, “What Was Missing” established the dynamic between her and Bubblegum that informed every interaction the two had moving forward.

And whatever Sugar’s intent with her song and the rest of the episode, I would be surprised if the emergent Bubbline fandom didn’t drive her to want the two in a canon relationship. Adam Muto, her storyboard jam bud and future Adventure Time showrunner, has given Sugar considerable credit for the eventual canonization in the show’s finale. He gives her credit for laying the foundation for them by “building and nurturing that connection” between the two.

Honestly, can anyone be surprised? All you need look at is the show she left Adventure Time to make.

Made of Love

Let me just start off by saying I don’t want to dismiss the pitch Rebecca Sugar gave for Steven Universe or the greater themes outside of its triumphs regarding representation. It has purposes far beyond letting its gay space rocks exist on screen so that kids and adults have characters they relate to on screen. Rebecca Sugar will always be the first to talk about using the show to capture a feeling of her childhood and the sibling dynamic with her brother, Steven. There’s also no question how Steven Universe tackles a variety of important themes having nothing to do with the gender or sexual interests of its characters.

On the other hand, Steven Universe is clearly a vehicle meant to break down barriers preventing representation in children’s animation. It’s Rebecca Sugar’s tanker truck, and she’s Imperator Furiosa driving it and everyone aboard to freedom.

Sugar’s increased interview presence in the past year has seen her admit as much. She conceived the gems as non-binary from the beginning. Garnet was always going to be the fusion of two female-coded gems who felt romantic love for each other. Pearl and Rose always had a romantic history. From the start, Rebecca Sugar and everyone helping her intended for Steven Universe to push every boundary it could regarding LGBTQ representation. If that representation cost her the show, she was willing to pay the price:

“Ultimately, I said, ‘If this is going to cost me my show that’s fine because this is a huge injustice and I need to be able to represent myself and my team through this show and anything less would be unfair to my audience.’ This was around 2016 and that’s when I began to speak openly about what we were doing.”

Slowly but surely, and with an unrelenting insistence, Steven Universe has smashed through barriers you would never dream could be broken back when Adventure Time first aired “What Was Missing” and gave birth to the Bubbline ship. Ruby and Sapphire went from kissing noses in their first appearance to necking in their next to an eventual wedding featuring a legit kiss. Pearl’s relationship with Rose went from innuendo and subtext to outright stating its romantic love. Stevonnie’s design went from strongly resembling a feminine form to complete non-binary Stubbonie.

Steven Universe broke so many barriers that no one even blinks an eye anymore. When Flourite debuted, a permafusion of six different gems in a polyamorous relationship, she barely registered with people. Of course she was polyamorous. That’s what Steven Universe does.

However, they had to earn this every step of the way. As effortless as it may seem on TV, and as supportive as Cartoon Network must be for it to air at all, there have been barriers. Sometimes the barriers come in the form of international censors. Sometimes they come from Cartoon Network, who must always consider potential PR backlash. Some of these barriers have come in the form of personal hesitation.

Rebecca Sugar has increasingly talked about the way her amazing show has served as a sort of personal examination of her life. In recent years she has come out publicly as bisexual and then non-binary. She has talked about growing up loving Disney movies while realizing none of the princesses truly represented her. Steven Universe is a personal project allowing her and her storyboarders to examine themselves and the stories they feel need to be told. There’s the same kind of personal pizza involved that she infused into Marceline’s character on Adventure Time:

“For me, Ruby in a dress is how I feel when I’m in a dress. I think the show has been a chance for me to become a little more comfortable with exploring my own relationship to gender, and, of all the characters, Ruby is my most direct vessel of a character. There are drawings from 2014 of Ruby in that dress. That was a long, long dream, and I really couldn’t imagine it any other way. Ruby and Sapphire have always been meant to represent me and my partner and so that always felt natural to me.”

The result is a show that could not exist without smashing barriers. Gravity Falls creator Alex Hirsch calls Rebecca Sugar “the Moses parting the waves” regarding representation. Adam Muto gave lots of credit to SU for making it easier for Bubbline to exist. There’s no question what show currently leads the way in making queer content more accepted in children’s television. The world has increasingly accepted openly queer characters, and they’ve filled these new available spaces with gusto.

Yet there’s no doubt Steven Universe leads the way. Without it, Bubbline may have remained relegated to subtext and fandom arguments rather than making out in the Adventure Time finale. In fact, I’m sure it wouldn’t happen if Marceline’s mom hadn’t left to make her amazing show. Maybe Rebecca Sugar wasn’t the one who storyboarded that kiss. She wasn’t in the writer’s room conversation about the relationship which eventually made it a reality. However, when the head honcho of Adventure Time says that Sugar made Bubbline happen, I’m inclined to listen to him.

Rebecca Sugar made increased representation her mission, and it’s a mission she’s succeeding at.

The Elephant Koi in the Room

Now I know what some of you are thinking. Surely I’m forgetting something big? Some important moment on a separate network that broke through the barrier before anyone else? Something involving a show we talk about a lot around here and still haven’t gotten over?

No, I have not forgotten about Korrasami. I never will.

I’m also not here to denigrate Korrasami in any way. LGBTQ content on TV has increased so exponentially in recent years that it’s easy to look back on the comparably chaste handholding that ended The Legend of Korra as somehow lesser. Natural rivalries pop up among the community that inevitably compare relationships and result in talking one or the other down.

I’m not here to do that. Any such argument involves ignoring the social climate when Korrasami aired. They also ignore what it meant for so many people. 2014 was a remarkably different time for queer characters on TV. Korrasami also maintains a special place for the importance of its wlw relationship. It’s still a special show that created a special connection between two bisexual women of color, including the main character.

Korrasami broke barriers for more than existing. It broke barriers by creating the relationship as a perfect thematic cap on the entire show. It was more than “these two are together now.” Korrasami was the perfect ending to the evolution of Korra’s character. There is no denying how important it was to representation across the TV landscape. There’s no denying how much Korra and Asami still mean to fans and how they continue to be idols through Turf Wars.

What I hope I’ve established at this point, though, is how Rebecca Sugar was pushing the boundaries making Bubbline possible well before Korrasami came about. The Legend of Korra cracked the door open for others to slip in behind it. Rebecca Sugar and Steven Universe broke the door so everyone could rush inside. She always had every intention of doing so.

The timing alone goes a long way in negating Korrasami’s impact on Rebecca Sugar’s intentions. Korrasami did air first, in December 2014, but the reveal of Garnet as a romantic fusion between Ruby and Sapphire aired a mere 3 months later in March 2015. Considering production schedules, “Jail Break” was almost certainly ready to air well before Korra’s finale could be of any influence. Steven Universe’s first season had also well-established its boundary-pushing intentions through Stevonnie, Pearl and Rose, and other various relationships.

Steven Universe was always going to push these boundaries regardless of whether Korrasami existed. Considering the extremes to which it continues to push boundaries, I think it’s safe to say that Sugar and her show would have made their own goals, and eventually Bubbline, a reality, no matter what happened in the TV world around them.

Does this mean Korrasami had no impact on Steven Universe? Of course not. The overwhelmingly positive reaction to The Legend of Korra’s finale proved a larger point about the readiness of children’s television to accept same-sex relationships. Korrasami most certainly made it easier for Cartoon Network to see what Sugar wanted from her show and allow her more freedom to make it happen than they otherwise might have.

We can’t say for sure that the Ruby/Sapphire wedding happens in 2018 if not for Korrasami in 2014. Maybe it would have taken another year pushing boundaries to get Steven Universe there. Ultimately, though, it would have gotten there. Rebecca Sugar would have had it no other way.

In the end, it was her long, determined journey from those early days imprinting herself onto Marceline to the extravagant Rupphire wedding that made Bubbline happen. She was directly involved at just about every level. She wrote and storyboarded the episodes that established Marceline and her dynamic with Princess Bubblegum. Sugar pushed every boundary she was allowed both on Adventure Time and with Steven Universe. She pushed within the shows and with the executives holding the power to squash them.

Bubbline came about as a result of one person’s stunningly successful mission to make relationships like theirs a reality. I doubt anyone was happier than Rebecca Sugar to see Marcy and Peebs kiss.

In many ways, Bubbline is a lot like Korrasami. It started out as a crack ship based off limited interaction between the two most prominent women on their respective shows. A conscious effort began to slow build it through friendship. Fans constantly debated the legitimacy of romantic subtext. Some shippers never lost faith in the dream of romantic canonization. The more skeptical among us rationalized the inevitability of forever viewing it through subtext so obvious you could barely call it subtext.

Then the finales rolled around. The big moments happened, the ships officially set sail, and the world was better for it.

Korrasami and Bubbline also serve as significant bookends for the era of breakthrough LGBTQ representation in children’s animation. Korrasami was the first breakthrough moment beginning the era, with Steven Universe hot on its heels. Gravity Falls revealed a gay relationship between two cops. The Loud House has a character whose parents are an interracial gay couple. Danger and Eggs was created by a trans woman and features numerous queer characters.

Then Bubbline, after 7 years of speculation, got their canon kiss. It proved of the sweeping change that has come to television since “What Was Missing” first aired. Something fans once thought nothing more than a pipe dream came to life with a nice explicit makeout session.

A lot of people helped create an environment for Bubbline to happen. None, in my own humble opinion, mattered more than Rebecca Sugar. Between her direct involvement in the characters themselves and the considerable influence Steven Universe has had towards LGBTQ representation, she has wreaked havoc on the limitations which once labeled anything queer as “adult content” not suitable for children. In many ways, Bubbline was a personal victory for her, just as it was for the LGBTQ community as a whole.

I can’t wait to see how she continues pushing these boundaries. I also can’t wait to see what the next group of amazing creators to can do by following her lead and pushing even further.

Images Courtesy of Cartoon Network

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