Steven Universe creator has done more for LGBTQ visibility than you might know
There's a reason Alex Hirsch, the creator of Gravity Falls, believes Rebecca Sugar is "at the front of the pack" and "pulling everyone else along" with regards to representation in kids' programming. "She really is the Moses parting the waves on this thing," he tells EW.
Steven Universe, a show that has already been leading the way in LGBTQ representation for cartoons and animation, made history in July when it aired the first same-sex marriage proposal for the medium. Days later brought the episode "Reunited," which gave the equally historic wedding between Ruby and Sapphire, two members of the Crystal Gems that combine to form one of earth's alien defenders, Garnet.
These episodes involved years hard work on the part of Sugar and her team.
It hasn't always been easy to air LGBTQ characters in shows geared towards children, a genre often policed by anti-gay conservatives and religious groups.
Sugar tells EW it has been "extremely difficult" for her to earn this kind of visibility on Steven Universe, but acknowledges that large strides have been made. "When we started doing this in 2011, it was impossible and it has become possible over the last many years of working really hard to do this," she explains.
"We need to let children know that they belong in this world," she says. "You can't wait to tell them that until after they grow up or the damage will be done. You have to tell them while they're still children that they deserve love and that they deserve support and that people will be excited to hear their story. When you don't show any children stories about LGBTQIA characters and then they grow up, they're not going to tell their own stories because they're gonna think that they're inappropriate and they're going to have a very good reason to think that because they've been told that through their entire childhood."
Here, Sugar discusses with EW the obstacles she's faced in the fight for LGBTQ visibility in kids' animation, where we are now, and the importance behind the representation.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Do you remember what the initial conversations surrounding your pitch for the proposal and wedding episodes were? When did you realize you wanted to do something like this and when did you realize you actually could do something like this?
REBECCA SUGAR: I remember everything. These conversations really go all the way back to 2014, maybe even 2013, when Ruby and Sapphire were becoming characters on the show and when the nature of Garnet was suddenly being put front and center in the episode "Jail Break." That's when I first started coming face to face with the limitations that existed on what we could do. And from that point on as we were developing their relationship, because in our show we're dedicated to developing the relationships between all the characters, the absolute unfairness of being able to develop certain relationships and having a ceiling on developing other characters relationships was so clear.
We started talking about the wedding episode, I think, in early 2016 and it didn't surprise me that there were roadblocks. I mean, when we were working on "Jail Break," gay marriage was not yet legal in the US. Basically, what was interesting to me about the arc of this whole experience was that I ended up in many conversations where it was made clear to me that this was not something that should be in G-rated content and that there was a limit on how much we could show these characters, how close these characters could be with each other. And it was a little bit like staring into the sun because I felt the toll it was taking on my personal mental health and I realized that that is what is happening to millions of children because when this is not in this content, that is what is being said to them.
And this has changed. We have been able to break this down and I think the only way to do it was to just really show how wholesome these characters are, how adorable their love is. There's no question that these aren't the two cutest little characters in love you've ever seen in your life. There could only be one reason you could not show this to kids, and that reason is not fair, so that reason has to disappear.
Do you see some of the earlier moments, like with Pearl's dance sequence, allowing the proposal and wedding scenes to be more accepted?
Yeah. Every time we would cover this ground, it would be a conversation. I think part of the challenge is that this show was an international show. We would be getting notes not just from the US but also from Europe, from around the world about what we could and couldn't show, and they would be different notes from different countries. And I felt really determined to make this as acceptable as possible because I didn't want this show to be censored in countries where I felt children would really need to see this—and it has been now [censored] in several countries. But I feel that, hopefully, they'll still be able to find it.
There was a point at which it was brought to my attention that the studio… I was brought up to a meeting where they [the studio] said, "We know that you're doing this, and we support that you're doing this… We don't want to be giving notes on this, but we have to give notes on this" and it was all very difficult to navigate. 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.
Are you allowed to say at this point whether Steven Universe is going to continue beyond the movie that was announced at Comic-Con?
I can't say, but we definitely got over the hurdle of this particular [situation]. I feel very free. I feel that I've been able to tell the story I wanted to tell and I've been able to tell it without keeping this a secret. If I had had to continue keeping this a secret, I don't know how I would have continued to go on 'cause it was so impossible to dodge such a personal question over and over again about why I wanted to do this story, if I was doing it at all. [Editor's note: Sugar came out as bisexual in 2016 and as non-binary in 2018.]
What I remember most about the wedding scene was how Ruby, who typically embraces a more masculine style of dress, was shown to be in an actual wedding dress and then Sapphire was in the suit. Was that a conscious decision that you made for that moment?
I promise you that every single thing you see drawn is a very conscious decision, down to the 24th frame of every second, everything meticulously thought through.
Yes, that was a very conscious decision. 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. I think the other thing is it's never explicitly stated that, the Gems costuming, it's not necessarily something they chose for themselves. The Gems sort of are of these various types and getting to explore their own identities is something that they're really only able to do on earth. So being able to choose what they were wearing at their wedding is one of the many exciting things about them investigating human culture and it always just felt like it made a lot of sense to me.
Do you think it's easier to include more LGBTQ visibility when you're in a fantastical genre like sci-fi or fantasy as opposed to a more family-oriented household show?
I can really only speak to my experience writing sci-fi/fantasy/action/comedy shows, but it has been extremely difficult to do it within this show. So I don't know how it would be to do it for a different show, but please know that when we started doing this in 2011 it was impossible and it has become possible over the last many years of working really hard to do this.
It's really interesting because the fantasy part can get through just fine. These concepts, which are so human, that's the part that was difficult to include and I think that that is so strange — that in a fantasy these simple, real, human experiences, that there would be any reason not to include them. And now we can, which is just so exciting.
I'm curious how you view the acceptance of LGBTQ visibility in this kind of kids' medium now compared to when you were working on Adventure Time. Do you think the environment has become more inclusive?
I think that we've been — and I say this across many networks — many different people have been working very hard to change this.
Since I started working on Adventure Time, when I became more aware of what we're really saying by excluding these characters, it became more and more dire, and also to know that the difference, one of the things that was presented to me was that there were certain things we could do because we were a PG show that we couldn't do if we were a G show, and it struck me how critical it is to make that there are LGBTQIA characters in G-rated content, that the G rating said everything because as long as certain people are considered to be inappropriate for families and children, there is no equality and we are keeping very young children who are seeing this, especially if they are LGBTQIA, if they're queer kids, you're telling them directly that they don't belong in a family-friendly world if you exclude them from G-rated content.
Over the course of realizing that, it began to feel like an emergency. We need to let children know that they belong in this world. You can't wait to tell them that until after they grow up or the damage will be done. You have to tell them while they're still children that they deserve love and that they deserve support and that people will be excited to hear their story. When you don't show any children stories about LGBTQIA characters and then they grow up, they're not going to tell their own stories because they're gonna think that they're inappropriate, and they're going to have a very good reason to think that because they've been told that through their entire childhood. Realizing that changed everything for me.
The other thing is that people would tell me often, "How are you getting these adult themes into your show?" And that would really strike me because love stories are not adult scenes. The idea that it is adult because it's queer, the gravity of that started to set in for me and the fear I had growing up myself came into focus for me. The things that I felt I couldn't talk about — even into my late 20s — came into focus for me. By including LGBTQIA content and characters in G-rated entertainment for kids, you tell kids when they're young that they belong in this world. You can't not tell them that. There can't be only a certain group of kids that gets told someone will love you by all the entertainment that they see. It's just so unfair. By the time I reached 2016, I felt the weight of it so powerfully I would've risked everything just to get to say this to you now in this moment.
When you were first pitching this show, was there a concern that you would be running into roadblocks or that you wouldn't be able to tell the story you wanted to tell?
When I first pitched this show, I pitched that it would be based off of my childhood with my little brother and our sibling relationship with each other, and I was always very honest about that. It was always going to be about that. At the time, I hadn't told anyone that I'm bisexual, but that's been a part of my life since I was a little kid. And I think what happens very naturally when writing in the show is that, in mining all of our own personal experiences for stories, so many of my stories had to deal with childhood crushes and high school romances and falling in love with friends and things that I couldn't not write about. It was just part of my young experience and that's what felt so alarming. It was very true to my original pitch. This was going to be about me and my younger brother, who was always my best friend and my support when I was young and then to realize that there is this huge part of my experience — and so many of our experiences on staff — that we would have to not talk about in order to smoothly make this art. It made me realize that not only was I having a difficult time talking about it in this cartoon, but I have also had a difficult time talking about it in my life and that it's not fair. People should be able to express themselves, especially sweet childhood love stories. Why not?
Why do you think that you've been able to make so much progress in furthering the visibility, while other creators are hitting similar roadblocks?
I think that the stars have really aligned. I think that it's my team, it's the fact that we were all so dedicated to telling honest stories and to just fighting and fighting to get this material through and make it so entertaining that you could never deny how sweet and thoughtful and entertaining it is that there's just no way to say no. But then I think also at various levels we have had allies fighting for this to be made.
I was just learning about how The Answer book, which was also very difficult to make and I only just now found out that a big part of why it was made was that one of the big champions of the book was an ally for her sister. We've had allies at all these different stages, people for whom this is very personal and they understand the personal toll that can be taken. I think there are people at Turner [the company that owns Cartoon Network] who are LGBT who would see these notes come through and just realize how shocking they are and I think that it made all the difference. You have to try and do it so that when these feelings become visible. You know where they are so you can break them down.
I'm just extremely lucky to think I have had support. Instead of being told don't talk about this, I was given the option of being upfront about this even if it might become a problem. Cartoon Network allows for a lot of creative freedom, especially from these creative-driven shows so the responsibility really fell on us to tell the story that we wanted to tell. And I'm grateful to have been here, to have the opportunity to fight for this.
Steven Universe airs Thursdays at 6:30 p.m. on Cartoon Network.