'Steven Universe' creator on growing up, gender politics, her brother
Of late, it seems girl power is en vogue. Michonne is slashing and stabbing her way through the Walking Dead, the clone club gals of Orphan Black are taking on the misogynistic military industrial complex and Daenerys Targaryen (the First of Her Name, Stormborn, Mother of Dragons, etc.) is about to light a fire underneath Westeros and it’s fighting factions. So how is it that with all these ladies shooting first and asking questions later, that the biggest name in feminist television is a little boy? It’s because that little boy is Steven Universe.
For those disconnected from their inner child, Steven Universe follows the half-magic, half-human Steven as he and his ageless, mystical mentors the Crystal Gems protect their home of Beach City from intergalactic threats. Steven Universe creator Rebecca Sugar, an Adventure Time alum, is the first woman to create a show for Cartoon Network, and the second half of season two premieres on Monday, June 15 with a brand new opening.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How would you describe Steven Universe to someone who was unfamiliar with it?
Rebecca Sugar: He’s the newest member of this team of alien rebels called the Crystal Gems who have been defending earth from their own kind for millennia. He’s only just come into his own, and he’s sort of developing in real time. And it’s about him not only fighting for the planet earth, but coming to terms with who he is as he finds out who he is. Which is how a coming-of-age story should be, because that’s sort of how it feels when you come of age.
It’s rare for shows geared towards boys to have such a strong female presence. Was this intentional or just the direction the writing naturally took?
Yes, completely intentional. My goal with the show was to really tear down and play with the semiotics of gender in cartoons for children because I think that’s a really absurd idea that there would be something radically different about a show for little girls versus a show for little boys. It’s exciting to me to play with a lot of that language, because everyone’s very familiar with it but it really doesn’t make much sense. I used to really enjoy shows that were aggressively targeted to boys when I was a little girl and I know the same can be true the other way around, so why not have something that everybody can watch? And at the same time, have something to say about the fact that that really is absurd.
Ultimately, what do you want to accomplish with the series? Is it to make it known that children are just children and we don’t have to gender-fy everything?
That’s definitely part of it. I think for me, I’m really telling a story about my little brother, and that’s my goal with the show. I think that that sort of comes with that message and that goal for me, because the two of us growing up were best friends and we would do everything together and nerd out about everything together and it didn’t matter the things that he was into and the things that I was into, we were both sort of fantasy nerds and it seemed just to be this universal thing. But I know it wasn’t necessary. It was just me and him and the fact that I associate all that kind of media with getting to spend time with my brother. I think that’s the feeling that I want to give to everyone, the feeling of having an unconditional friend that’s always there for you, because that’s really what he was. So as much as I want to talk about gender politics and make a cool action show that’s really cool, and a funny comedy show that’s really funny, at the end of the day I really want to do something that’s dedicated to my brother.
How has working on Adventure Time previously helped or influenced Steven Universe?
Oh, so much. Adventure Time was the first show that I got a chance to write on, and it was the first time anyone gave me a chance to write music for a show, which I never thought would be part of my job. I always wanted to be a cartoonist and an animator, but I never thought I’d be writing songs. Also the fact Pendleton Ward gave me so much freedom to really express myself inside of his show, and I didn’t really know that that kind of job existed with writing and drawing, and making something to me that felt like my personal work. The more I did something that was personal to me, the more he appreciated it, and that was just a revelation to me. Everyone on the show really got to do something that felt like their voice, and when I was going into making my own show, that was something that I wanted to accomplish with my team. The crew is amazing and I tried to keep the show really flexible at first so that we could really build it together, and now I think it really is this reflection, not just of the things that I wanted to say, but the things they wanted to say and how I’ve gotten to know them and my relationship with everyone on the crew is really reflected in the show. The show is so much about relationships between different people and how they affect your life and I feel like that has been happening in my life, with my team, and now that’s part of the show. I think I started learning that on Adventure Time and I really feel that now.
Speaking more specifically about the show, you have a really rich mythology in terms of the Gems and their history as a race, so what can we expect in these new episodes in terms of learning about Gem mythology?
Well, we started getting Steven up to speed. Everything is from Steven’s point of view, so at this point he knows a lot more than they really wanted him to know with what’s been happening. There’s a lot that they’ve been trying to cover up, that they’re not particularly proud of, that he’s aware of because other Gems have shown up. I think moving forward in the show, a lot of things are starting to happen in real time and they kind of can’t avoid talking about why and the history of what Gems have been doing on earth and why they need to keep them away from it. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but there will be a lot more about Gem history and Gems in the present and how they feel about what’s going on, on earth.
A lot of that Gem stuff can get a little dark, so I was wondering how do you decide what is and is not too serious, too dark for the show?
Conceptually, one of the things that I really wanted to do was because it’s all from Steven’s point of view, the show will always be a kids show because Steven is a kid. They’re only going to try and do and show him whatever you would do in front of a kid and show to a kid, and try and tell them. But in real life there are things that you just learn. I think the balance for me is trying to make sure that there’s this harsh element to adulthood that we start to experience when we’re becoming adults. I don’t want to avoid that, I want to have it feel like that but also balance that out with the way then you have to talk to kids that are going through something like that and help them understand it. I would never want to throw this character into the deep end without the love and support of the Gems because that’s what siblings, parents and people who are there for you have to do. So I want to take that challenge, but I also want to approach it the way you would approach children, because I know I am speaking to a lot of actual children.
Do you have an ending already set for the show, or are you just taking it a season at a time?
I have a long-term dream that’s way into the future. I just have a lot of themes that I want to touch on while I have the chance. I have this end goal, but then while I can I sort of keep everything in the middle flexible as I’m realizing what I want to talk about. At any particular time in the course of doing this show, I think that my thinking has changed since I’ve started because I’ve grown up a lot. Actually, I feel like I really started this show as a child and have been becoming an adult in the course of making it. So what I’ve wanted to say about that has definitely sort of grown with me. So yes I do have an end goal, but it’s not rigid. I try to do the show like life, have plans but know that they can change.
One last question: who’s your favorite Gem and why?
It’s Steven. I mean, he’s my brother. The show is so much about us and he’s really saved my life.