Steven Universe is often given as an example of a cartoon that is intended for children but mostly watched by teenagers or adults. At the Ottawa International Animation Festival in late September, anecdotally this wasn’t quite true — the festival’s Steven Universe events were dominated by fans of all ages. Rebecca Sugar, the show’s creator, reminded Teen Vogue that her approach to cartooning leaves questions of audience demographics aside. “I really wanted to have my work say: this is what I love and I really want to share it with you, these are stories about my childhood that I really hope you’ll understand and relate to, regardless of whether or not the person is a child or an adult,” she says.
Some of the young fans I spoke to, though, do feel as though the show is addressing them directly. Jake Sloan, a 19-year-old fan who was 16 when he started watching the series, explains, “the show talks a lot about self-actualization and being in control of your own identity. There’s a lot of things Steven deals with that a lot of teens have probably encountered, too.” Shane Verkest, 18, says, “The show is incredible at taking on mature and complex concepts and handling them in ways that most adult shows can’t even figure out, so it totally appeals to the teenage demographic. All my teen friends watch it.”
Emma, 13, was standing anxiously in line to see Rebecca (and team members Kat Morris and Joe Johnston) give a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the movie. She was dressed in simple but effective cosplay as Spinel, the new villainous character in the film, with dramatic tear-esque makeup down her cheeks. Later, she rushed the stage to speak with Rebecca, but she was too late. She was one of the most excited people in the long line, and she could barely contain herself while talking about how the show has inspired her to become an animator. “I think the design of the characters is great, it’s frickin’ awesome, and has inspired me to try animation, but I’m not very good at it,” she says, letting a hint of shyness creep in. “I want to try to animate in Rebecca’s style.”
Jake, likewise, responded to the music on Steven Universe, leading him into new forms of creative expression. “Learning how those songs ticked helped a lot with learning how to compose music and sound design,” he says. “I’m pretty sure I’ve made content in almost every visual and audio medium based on Steven Universe because it’s such a huge inspiration.”
McKenzie Atwood, host of Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe podcast, suggested that the show presents a toolkit for teens and young people to deal with a variety of difficult situations. “How do you deal with finding your own identity? You learn how to handle these things by watching Steven and the other characters, and it’s not condescending, it’s all integral to the story and you’re learning through their successes and failures,” she says.
Shane, meanwhile, honed in on the show’s lasting impact. “Seeing characters you look up to be flawed individuals and love each other despite that is refreshing, and as a young viewer — I started in middle school — those lessons stick with you,” he says.
When Teen Vogue spoke with Rebecca Sugar, it was still about a week before Cartoon Network would announce that Steven Universe’s final season, subtitled Future, will be an epilogue of sorts, tying up loose ends, with no release date yet attached. The TV series that won a Peabody award in 2018 has been running for upwards of eight years is soon coming to an end, and Rebecca seems even more thoughtful than usual. This show has become something much larger than she ever imagined – and it was clear that she was in a state of both exhaustion and elation with hordes of fans awaiting her arrival.
The conversation had been going on for a while, but she became particularly animated when talking about the early days of the series she created, and the ways she and her team had to rely on subversive storytelling to make what they wanted to make. “At that time, it was the only way to do this,” she continues. “We’ve made strides so that we can speak about this openly, but the idea that just saying we are people that exist would have to be a subversive act seems so unfair. We’re still in a situation where that continues to be true.”
“In a way,” she adds, “maybe I’ve become an angrier person.” She laughed. “But I don’t accept that anymore.”
That anger, and that confidence, is hard-won for Sugar. As she says, heterosexual cis kids have had cartoons and entertainment for 100 years that cater to them and asserts their identities as “normal.” In the beginning, Steven Universe was forced to exist as itself while in a certain amount of hiding, and Rebecca says that as it went on and gained popularity, and as young fans came forward with their own stories, she found that she could no longer keep hiding.
“Until deep into the show, I was a closeted bisexual, and working in children’s television made it very difficult to talk about that publicly,” she says. “I realized that if I don’t come to terms with this and be honest about it, it’s going against all of my principles as an artist because honesty is supposed to be at the core of this show, and I wasn’t [being honest] in my own life.” She referred to the oft-told story about her younger brother, Steven, and how she created the show to express how important their relationship was to her. “With Steven, I always felt there was at least one person that understood me,” she says, “so this show is about scrambling that [heteronormative] language, and to have people respond to that, and to learn through this outlet a lot of the terminology I know now in terms of being a gender-expansive person and writing these gender-expansive characters, was so great because it was just writing about how I felt around my brother.”
With this experience coming to end, there is much to celebrate, and much to rethink. Her biggest regret of the series: “I have regrets about a bunch of compromises I made,” to get the show made in the beginning, she explains. “Back then, people would ask, how on earth are you doing this? They knew I was doing it deliberately and blatantly, and could not understand how I was getting this on television, and that’s because we were working so hard behind the scenes.”
Sugar seems to think very carefully about all she does, whether it’s answering an interviewer’s questions about the thesis they wrote about her show or thinking critically about her approach to animation as a medium. “In so many ways, the medium is the message,” she says, “and if the message of the show is that having many different voices in one place strengthens everyone and makes their lives richer, then of course that has to be reflected in the art,” so every character is fluid, malleable, and has the potential for change.
When she was young, she says that she felt wrong and dangerous from what she saw in children’s media, particularly the long-standing tradition of queer-coded villains. “I hope that the show makes it clear to marginalized artists that they deserve to express themselves fully. It may be hard to tell watching the show just how much we had to fight to make it what it is, and just how painful that was for us internally,” she says. “I want everyone to know they deserve that, and they don’t deserve to have to struggle for that.”
Her commitment to the truth extends to all aspects of the show, from her respect for children (“They’re the toughest critics.”) to the incorporation of hate and consequences into such a utopic show. “If you’re looking for perfectly happy endings in this story, it won’t happen because it’s not the truth,” she explains. “There are difficult things trapped in the show, because we are people who interact with people that don’t want us to exist, and we’ve had to do that over the course of trying to make this show.”
Reflecting on how the show has developed, and how she herself has progressed, it’s clear that she cannot even begin to fathom what comes next. “We’ve been working nonstop on this since 2012,” she says. “I don’t feel like I’m delivering if I’m not showing you something you haven’t seen before. Each of us [on the team] have something different to say, but we’re saying it together, and that’s very much in the spirit of the show. What has been so moving and life-changing was realizing that it took making this show to find my community, and it means everything to me that other people are having that same experience from watching it.”
Shane would agree. “I think it’s about being yourself and it sounds cliche, but when I watch it, I feel like I love myself!”
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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue