In an episode of Steven Universe that first aired in November 2016, 14-year-old protagonist Steven tries to bring his father, his estranged conservative uncle, and his alien-refugee “aunts” together for a peaceful Thanksgiving. The resulting dinner is about as quirky and tense as any holiday get-together can be, with the conversation touching on “illegal aliens,” divided families, and the threat of change. However, the fact that the episode aired so soon after the election gave it heft and urgency. It’s an understatement to say that the episode resonated, in the way it deftly confronted the anxieties of an audience still shell-shocked by Donald Trump’s rise. Months later, it still does.
Let’s not mince words: Steven Universe is one of the best shows on television. It’s important to state that early, because after three years and almost four full seasons, the show has earned enough critical acclaim that extolling its virtues as some new piece of art is redundant. As part of an innovative generation of fantasy cartoons pioneered by the likes of Adventure Time, Regular Show, and Gravity Falls, it shines for its gentleness, emotional sensitivity, and visual beauty.
It’s better, then, to say that Steven Universe matters. Few shows are as empathetic or committed to the value of all identities as this one, and it’s fearless in its message of loving kindness even in the face of profound adversity. In this way, it’s quietly one of the most radical shows in the medium, let alone its genre. Given American politics’ visible shift toward isolationism and intolerance, the series, which returned to Cartoon Network this week, is more than just must-see TV. It’s a defining example of artistic resistance in our time, and with the stakes rising both on the show and the real world, it’s more important than ever.
Steven Universe does a great deal with a deceptively simple premise. Borrowing from influences as varied as Hayao Miyazaki and Dragon Ball Z, it follows Steven and the all-female alien life-forms the Crystal Gems — Garnet, Amethyst, Pearl, and their allies — as they protect the planet first from alien monsters, then from their own conquering people. A lesser show would focus solely on Steven, a naive but fundamentally good teenager, and his coming-of-age story. Instead, series creator Rebecca Sugar goes out of her way to create an expansive series mythology, with Steven as a small yet central part.
In large and small ways, Steven Universe is about embracing differences, even if doing so is a revolutionary act. More than the delightful swashbuckling adventures, slice-of-life stories, and even musicals, the show is about characters who must actively choose to be there for one another, no matter who they are, where they come from, who they love, and what they believe. That outlook is timely, and is given more force thanks to its being pushed mainly by women both on-screen and offscreen. It’s also continually put to the test as the cast faces existential threat after existential threat.
That’s evident in the series’s epic sweep. Steven is the son of human musician Greg Universe and Rose Quartz, a Crystal Gem of almost legendary status. Rose was the leader of the Crystal Gems during a thousand-year war against her home planet, and that conflict cost countless lives and cut her faction off from their Homeworld. Steven is her legacy, having inherited her powers, intrinsic goodness, and the oft-challenged hope that everyone is worth defending — even his enemies. But that hope can be insufficient when facing a returned Homeworld threat that sees Earth as worthy of destruction. In this week’s run of episodes, Greg is kidnapped and taken to a human zoo in deep space, and it’s up to the Crystal Gems to rescue him without alerting the Homeworld Gems to their presence and bringing about Earth’s annihilation.
The stakes in a miniseries like this would be high in any science-fantasy story. But the characters’ investment in their mission goes deeper than just protecting their own. In the show’s mythology, Rose’s rebellion had a high cost and even higher ideals, which continue to drive the characters. They fought for freedom in all its forms against a rigid society that dictated their function, status, and possibilities. Their fight against systemic oppression mirrors the fight against oppression in our world, only on a far grander scale.
In that light, it’s hard not to view the rebellion, a movement designed to let gems be themselves outside an established conservative order, as ultimately worth it. The show itself is staunchly progressive in its acceptance of everyone, and goes out of its way to honor the experiences of people regardless of their race, body type, or place of origin. The gems themselves, already so different from one another, let alone the humans they meet, are much more than the roles they would’ve played on Homeworld. Crystal Gem leader Garnet is the queer, loving fusion of two gems Ruby and Sapphire, even though their union was verboten. Pearl, whose social class originally made her a servant, is fully autonomous. Amethyst, a Gem created on Earth and dealing with Earthly appetites for food, experience, and sensation, is constantly regarded as short and stunted, but her allies still celebrate her as worthwhile for her uniqueness. Steven, for his part, is presented positively as gender-fluid, and he forges a bond with his friend and partner-in-crime Connie that allows them to fuse into the non-binary Stevonnie. Even the Beach City citizens they defend are families of color, single mothers, and regular people just living basically good lives.
The series reiterates time and time again that protecting the Earth, its people, and their messy individual way of life are worth any risk. Even Homeworld defector Peridot, who’s initially as bigoted and close-minded as anyone on her planet (and our own), says as much to her leader’s face after spending time with the Crystal Gems. “I won’t do it!” she cries after being commanded to see to Earth’s destruction. “I can tell with certainty that there are things on this planet worth protecting!” It’s among the most poignant moments of the entire series, and strikes at the heart of what Sugar and her team are accomplishing with their show.
Steven Universe is powerful, necessary fiction, and its importance is going to become even clearer as the Trump era’s parade of intolerance continues. It offers up characters who used their magical powers to fight their status quo, and willingly put themselves in danger for those they care about. They capture the spirit of those pouring onto streets week after week to agitate against divisive policies. This week’s new episodes build on that message. And like any good heroes, they’ve arrived just in time.