Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?

steven universe retrospective
steven universe retrospective

Television

Steven Universe: The Future and The Past

Here were are in the future. Here is Steven Universe Future and it’s gone. Four final episodes this past Friday ended one of the best, most important, most innovative, most emotionally resonant animated shows ever made. Are we ready? We better be. It’s time to drive off into the future.

The end came rather quickly. I never would have imagined a year ago that Steven Universe would be finished. I never would have seen Steven Universe Future coming. At this point, we were still recovering from and debating “Change Your Mind.” We were beginning another hiatus and awaiting the expected season 6 announcement. Rumors told fans to possibly expect as many nine seasons. A movie had been announced. The idea that Steven Universe would be over so little as a year later did not seem possible.

I had my reservations about the announcement of Steven Universe Future. I was excited, for sure. How could I not be? Steven was grown up. A time skip established an Earth and Universe where gems lived free and happy. There was so much potential. However, for the first time, I could see the end. I caught my first glimpse of a post-Steven Universe entertainment world. When the announcement came that this was it, this is the end, it still somehow caught me off-guard.

Still, I resolved to enjoy this world while I had it. And I have. I always will. In the end, Steven Universe Future was an emotionally rewarding goodbye to the characters I loved.

The Future

Steven Universe Future had a lot to live up to when it began. It had to end the show, end character arcs, establish new storylines, establish the new world order, convince us of the Diamonds’ rehabilitation, and so much more. It was a LOT. More than could be realistically expected with the number of episodes to air, especially if we had to judge everything by the fandom’s hopes.

The end result was a bit of a mixed bag. I would have loved more time with Crystal Gems who started everything. Jasper could have received a more focused arc like Peridot or Lapis received. The vast collection of fan favorites outside of the main cast went mainly without being featured. Even if a different character each received their own episode, there was no way to get one for Connie, Sadie, Lars, Peridot, Lapis, the Diamonds, the Zircons, the Pearls, the Cool Kids, Lion, Topaz…there were just too many.

I’m sure you just read that list and are offended that I left someone out. If you mention them, I’ll probably be offended with you.

On the other hand, so many of these characters had their arcs already. What else is there to do with the Crystal Gems? They had their arcs, numerous times. We’ve seen Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl grow into fully adjusted, healthy people. Lapis came to terms with her past and her place on Earth. So did Peridot. Connie’s a young woman preparing for college. The healed gems are living the lives they want, and received episodes showing them choose those lives.

I would have liked to see a more convincing redemption for the Diamonds. Their jarring tonal shift will always bother me. Jasper completely deserved more. I would have loved more Sadie. I would have loved a lot of things. It’s only fair to judge Steven Universe Future for what it is, though, not everything I wanted to see.

And if there’s one thing Steven Universe Future made very clear, it was that it was not going to be about any of these other characters. They had their character arcs, they grew from their past and present traumas. In this new world that Future introduced us to, everyone had been helped already. There was just one more person who needed help, and Future would focus above all else on helping him. Future was about Steven Universe himself.

From that perspective, these episodes were an absolute home run.

A common complaint of Steven Universe was the emotional burden placed on Steven, and how the show somewhat overlooked the toll the events of the series had on him. Steven took on a heavy emotional responsibility throughout the original series. So many characters charged him with healing their anger and sorrow. It was his burden to erase mistakes compounded over thousands of years. Even when it wasn’t his responsibility, Steven often accepted the burden anyway.

This, after all, was what defined the show. Above all else, Steven Universe was a show about empathy and healing. Its characters served as allegories for a variety of real-world issues and Steven was usually the voice representing healthy ways to help solve or come to terms with those issues. Healing others came at his own expense. For every issue he solved and character he helped, another trauma was added for himself.

Future not only acknowledged those traumas, it cut through the metaphors and straight-up called out the trauma for what it was, and the people responsible for causing so much lasting damage to the poor kid. The episode where Connie’s mother performs a medical checkup on Steven stood out for showing us both the mental and physical toll taken on Steven by his adventures. Have Mrs. Maheswaran actually call Steven’s post-traumatic stress by its name was appreciated and important, because this a kid who spent his formative years facing life-threatening trauma.

In the end, having Steven be the final antagonist to be defeated with empathy and love was the most fitting way to end this series. Steven has spent so much of his young life helping everyone else. All the while he compiled more stress, more trauma, and more pain to be buried.

Steven never truly thought about himself. His goal in life was always to live up to his mother’s image and solve his mother’s messes. With those messes practically solved, Future left Steven to figure who he is. Surprise, surprise, he didn’t really have an answer. All he had left was the confusion, fear, pain, and anger left over from years of taking everyone’s emotional toll onto himself and ignoring his own. Surprise, he didn’t know how to deal with it.

And so, in its final act, Steven Universe had everyone else finally pay back Steven’s love and loyalty. Steven was finally able to begin his own healing. He began to discover who he is. Steven Universe gradually led Steven down a journey to realize he is his own person, not his mother. Future made him actually start coping with his own journey of self-discovery.

Steven Universe Future was clearly never meant to be a new chapter for the series. Rather, it was the epilogue. The follow-up showing us all the good Steven had done. Fans had so many theories about what kind of villains would show up and what kind of new cataclysms Steven and the Crystal Gems would face. Few of those theories turned out to be true and none of them to the world-shaking extent that were predicted.

For all the galaxy-spanning adventures which occurred in Steven Universe, it was always a very personal show. The people have always mattered more than any kind of imperial politics or interplanetary war. Future reinforced this personal, character-driven focus one last time. The result was an absolutely beautiful ending to an absolutely beautiful series.

For now, anyway. Fingers crossed that Rebecca Sugar gets that Broadway musical she wants.

The Past

Now I’m left to grapple with Steven Universe being over. Steven has left Beach City, and us along with him. Just like Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl, though, Steven will always be a part of my life. This show will always be a part of my life.

I was 28 years old when I began watching Steven Universe in 2015. One blur of a weekend later, I caught up in the middle of the second season. I was never the intended audience for this show. Despite its wide appeal and fervent older audience, I can realize that Steven Universe wasn’t “meant” for a cishet white guy nearing the age of 30. At least, it’s main representation was not people like me, because shows for people like me are everywhere.

Except it did appeal to me all the same, because it was a show with something meaningful to say for anyone of any age. Steven Universe taught me to be a better person. It represented an experience I did not know and invested me in those experiences. The details of those experiences may differ, but they inspire emotions anyone can understand. Everyone can understand ostracism, anger, jealousy, love, childhood, family, abuse, etc.

Using those shared familiar emotions, Steven Universe made it easy to empathize with people from all walks of life. Because, ultimately, it was a show about acceptance of all walks of life. Rebecca Sugar created a show that wanted to show the connections we all have with each other, to show the shared human experience we can all relate with.

While it was never entirely perfect (and really, what is), Steven Universe succeeded. Through sheer, overwhelming positivity and effort, the Crewniverse made a show that tried to represent everyone and tell us we’re all human beings, experiencing the same lives and emotions that bind us together.

There is no denying that Steven Universe’s legacy will be that of a trailblazer that changed the perception of what can be shown in children’s animation, especially when it comes to bucking the conservative norms of gender and romantic relationships. This was the show that gave Rebecca Sugar relatively unrestrained control to begin breaking down the walls she initially chipped away at on Adventure Time.

Episode after episode saw the Crewniverse give voice to so many issues once entirely taboo to the medium. Steven Universe gave loud, proud voices to women, same-sex couples, the trans experience, nonbinary individuals, asexual and aromantic communities, polygamy, and it absolutely smashed gender norms with a casual ease that made previous objections feel laughable. By the time Stevonnie grew stubble, it was an afterthought that just made fans think, “well yeah, duh.”

Steven Universe will probably most be remembered from a cultural standpoint for Ruby and Sapphire, their fusion Garnet, and especially for the bombastic wedding episode that saw the two get married. It first really received widespread attention for the episode revealing Garnet as a fusion between two gems in love. In a time where any kiss between a same-sex couple was reason to celebrate, Steven Universe consistently blazed the trail for children’s animation. Sugar had no qualms with showing same-sex couples in love. It went well beyond Ruby and Sapphire. Pearl was largely defined in earlier seasons by her complicated romantic history with Rose Quartz. The Heaven and Earth Beetles were explicitly romantic. A Future episode had Bismuth explicitly crushing on Pearl, who is seemingly living a full romantic life with all kinds of people.

Steven Universe was often so explicit and bombastic in its representation that the minor victories were easy to overlook. The way Connie wielded a sword while Steven wielded a shield. The way Steven’s powers tended towards healing and support rather than violence. Peridot is considered to be on the autistic spectrum by many fans. The Zoo humans all loved Greg, male and female, without a single negative word about it.

All these bold and minor pushes against gender norms and became so common that it was easy to overlook just how influential an impact they had on the larger animated world.

The focus on the romantic and gender breakthroughs of the series also overshadowed how much effort Steven Universe put into normalizing a variety of stigmatized mental struggles. Many of its most memorable episodes dedicated themselves to teaching the audience about a healthy mental attitude and how to deal with attacks on said health. “Mindful Education” used familiar therapy techniques to teach about working through anxiety and guilt. Lapis’s entire character arc was based on post-traumatic stress, and her time as Malachite with Jasper taught about abusive relationships. Amethyst’s arc taught us about self-worth and esteem.

I often feel like Steven Universe’s efforts towards neuorodiversity are overlooked in favor of its gender and romantic diversity, when so often the neurodiversity is the greater emphasis of the show. That’s not to say that Steven Universe necessarily wants to say it’s “okay” to be depressed or angry or anxious. Rather, it wants you to know that those feelings are not strange and it is okay to feel them. We all deserve the same respect, patience, and love.

Though, really, Steven Universe is a stubbornly and defiantly diverse show in nearly all respects. Criticism sometimes arises over race on the show, or the lack of men in love compared to women in love. In the face of so much positive representation, though, Steven Universe will be remembered for all the good it did.

Again, as a cishet white man, I acknowledge how this representation was not for me. That said, it led me to lots of people who were represented, and along with the show helped me be a better, more understanding person. Steven Universe was a formative experience in leading me down a path towards understanding the greater diversity of the world, and how people who may not be like me are like me, and how we can understand each other’s experiences.

This was, is, and will always be the great triumph of the show and its many talented creators. It brought people together from all walks of life.

The key to making all this diversity and representation work was always rooted in the characters, and my goodness did Steven Universe create a lot of characters I cared about. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt as much attachment to so many characters as I do with this show. Other than Bojack Horseman, I’m not sure I’ve ever watched an animated show that made so many non-human characters feel so authentically human.

Steven Universe’s race of alien gems often stood in as representations of the various issues the show wanted to cover, but that never stopped them from feeling real. They always felt so complex and consistent in their personalities and choices. I easily invested myself in their fates and well-being. This happened so often because Steven Universe made its characters so painstakingly human. I could easily empathize with and relate to Pearl’s inability to move on from Rose, or her complicated parental feelings towards Steven, or Garnet’s need to be the stoic strength of the group. The differing forms of grief the Diamonds showed over Pink Diamond’s death felt so real, as did their inexcusable abuses towards her.

This humanity was reinforced by the show’s insistence on making Beach City, and its human population, such a presence in the story. The complaints about “townie episodes” often felt to me like they missed the point of their inclusion. Townie episodes were Steven’s anchor to his human side. They were the influence that helped the gems find joy and peace on Earth. They provided a more direct representation for the audience.

Yes, the townies could be hit or miss. Connie Maheswaran was such a great character that, in the end, she was the voice most responsible for both Steven’s descent into his monster form and his return from it. Others, like Ronaldo, often made fans groan when an episode focused on them. Their importance to the story cannot be denied, and some of the very best episodes of the series are based in the normalcy of Beach City life, as was some of the greatest diversity.

You could always feel the variety of voices involved in telling Steven Universe’s story, and this variety made it easy for a diverse audience to find characters they loved, be they alien gem or human.

This connection to the characters carried me through every high and low. They were an area of the show that never faltered. Even in Future, with so many characters having completed their arcs and found both their peace and place in life, the Crewniverse still found quality in showing us who these characters were when the pain and trauma were no longer crushing them. And, of course, it was these healthier characters who were finally in a place to help Steven when he most needed it.

I’m finding it difficult to let these characters go. Like with any story, I would rather see them go when the quality is still high, rather than when the inspiration is gone. Knowing they still had more great content for these characters also makes it hard to accept that I won’t see any more of them. At least not any time soon.

With Steven Universe’s end, an era of animation has come to an end. It was an era packed with all-time great children’s shows, starting with Adventure Time in 2010 and also including such other remarkable shows like Gravity Falls, Over the Garden Wall, The Legend of Korra, and Regular Show. The debate over the best of them will continue forever and has no clear answer. They were all very different shows offering different experiences, and they all deserve love and attention for giving us a fantastic era in the medium.

For me, Steven Universe meant more than any of the others. It delivered on the promise of Adventure Time, which found a niche in using completely inhuman and strange settings and characters to deliver remarkably human stories. The best of Rebecca Sugar’s years with Adventure Time seemed to transfer seamlessly into Steven Universe. Combined with the more personal experiences she injected into the show, and the sheer talent of her fellow contributors, it made for something that hit all the right chords for me.

It seems fitting to me for Steven Universe to be the show that ends this era. Others have since picked up the baton and continued to push the boundaries it first made retreat. She-Ra, Carmen Sandiego, Apple and Onion, Craig of the Creek, and We Bare Bears are just a few of the shows currently building the current generation of quality children’s animation.

For many kids and adults, these shows will have the same impact that Steven Universe had on me. Just like Rebecca Sugar and the Crewniverse built upon the work of their predecessors, future shows will build upon their work. I’m excited for those fans to find a show that means as much to them as Steven Universe meant for me.

I’m happy to have such a good ending to the show I loved. I’m sure the many talented creators who gave me so much joy will go on to great things. Right now, I’ll need to cope with seeing Steven Universe go. At least for now. And I’ll take solace in knowing these characters deserve their peace and the future they fought for, and I’ll take solace in all the ways this show helped make many lives better.

Images Courtesy of Cartoon Network
Bo
Written By

Bo relaxes after long days of staring at computers by staring at computers some more, and feels slightly guilty over his love for Villanelle.

Comments

You May Also Like

Television

War…war never changes. Especially when that war is between different parts of the same fandom. The front for the new war? Avatar: The Last...

Digital

Because we can’t have anything nice, and what nice things we do get are quickly turned to evil, the recent release of Avatar: The...

Film

In my original review, I called Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire is a parody of 70’s action movies. Watching it now it seems obvious it’s...

Analysis

Avatar: The Last Airbender (A:TLA) is back on the US Netflix and many fans are (re)discovering the show. And while A:TLA is undoubtedly one...