The legacy of Steven Universe: How a hidden gem changed animation forever

The beloved Cartoon Network show comes to an end, but a permanent mark on the industry remains.
By Nick Romano
March 27, 2020

Rebecca Sugar is too humble to admit this, but she and her Gems have been breaking ground since Day 1. 

Back in 2009, a curly haired, 23-year-old “unknown comics artist,” as she was described, walked into the Cartoon Network offices to pitch a seven-minute television short called Steven Universe. This Maryland-raised graduate of New York's School of Visual Arts caught the eye of executives through her work on Adventure Time, for which she found a home writing songs and drafting storyboards alongside Ian Jones-Quartey, her future husband and co-executive producer. So, they set up a meeting. By 2012, when an official press release finally came out about the short becoming a full-fledged series, Sugar became the first solo female creator to get the official series green light from the network.

Now, "here we are in the future…" as the opening theme song for Steven Universe: Future, the final season of Sugar’s show, intones. And, indeed, "it’s bright."

Since premiering in 2013, the children's sci-fi saga about a different kind of guardians of the galaxy, the Crystal Gems and their half-Gem “little brother” Steven (Zach Callison), has aired in 187 countries and garnered an average audience of nearly 1 million viewers, ages 2 and up. There’s enough cosplay and fan art to match the eternal love its audience amassed for Pearl, Ruby, Sapphire, Amethyst, and the rest of the gang. More than that, “Steven Universe changed the landscape of animated shows when it first hit the air,” says Noelle Stevenson, showrunner of Netflix and DreamWorks’ She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.

“There's been an idea of 'cartoons are for kids,' and they're either aimed at kids in this very optimistic but simplistic way or they're more aimed at adults who then bring in more of that fanboy-fangirl crowd,” she explains. “Those are the cartoons that get to be a little bit more hard-hitting by being more 'serious.' What I loved about Steven Universe was that it was solidly both things: it delved into complicated themes while never losing the optimism.”

Quartey, who left Steven Universe in 2015 to develop his own show OK KO! but pitched in on the TV movie and final season, notes how deeply the show’s themes on identity struck audiences. “We had come out of a time where there were these stock rules: a boy character can't cry, they can't wear pink, they can't do this, they can't do that. We were just trying to make something that felt like the characters were real people 'cause they were all based off of aspects of our lives and friends we had. It did take people a while to adjust to that idea, but I think when people got it, they really understood.”

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Sugar, now 32, and Quartey, 35, met while living in New York City in the mid-2000s. She studied animation, he worked in animation, and the two ran in similar social circles. “She was someone who I could talk to about every cartoon and videogame, and everything that was important to us,” he says. "We also had similar philosophies with regards to the work we wanted to do.” When they eventually joined the Adventure Time team — Sugar as a writer-storyboard artist and Quartey as a storyboard supervisor — both were simultaneously helping each other form pitches to someday, with any luck, launch their own shows.

From the beginning, Sugar vowed to make Steven Universe a personal story, one inspired by her relationship with her brother. (Yes, his name is Steven.) Reflecting on it now, she says, “I knew then that it was always going to be dangerous to put so much of myself into something that I couldn't necessarily control, but that belonged to a company. I grew up loving commercial art and I wanted television animation to be my artistic medium. So, that was a decision I made.”

The idea Sugar conceived for the initial short featured Steven, a boy with a clear love of pink and a magic gem in his bellybutton, using a time-travel device to see if he could do over certain moments from his past. Even during that 2009 pitch meeting, the soon-to-be-show was pushing boundaries.

The first thing that struck Rob Sorcher, CN’s global chief operating officer, was how well executed it was. He admits that “sounds generic,” but not when you think of all a short has to accomplish in the span of seven minutes: establishing a narrative, characters, a world. “Oh! And by the way, it should be funny and have a lot of action and whatever else,” he adds. He also remembers the concept’s “very unusual” family setup. Steven’s father lived in a van, which wasn't exactly the idyllic family unit commonly shown on kids cartoons. Then there was Steven himself. He was the main protagonist, yet was surrounded and shaped by women. Given all the boundaries Sugar would go on to push with Steven Universe, it sounds silly to think of this as radical. Sorcher points to how focused CN was at the time to stereotypical “boys” programming, which made this story feel like unexplored territory. “All these things were going around but the short itself was so cleverly executed that it demanded to continue forward with those conversations,” he says. 

What Sorcher didn’t understand, and to some extent still doesn’t, is how Steven Universe would transform into “one giant serial thing that would last for 162 episodes of television.” For that, he considers Sugar “a goddamn genius.”

The evolution from hidden (Crystal) gem(s) wasn’t without a transitional period. In the same way a television cast will often settle more confidently into their characters by the second season, Quartey acknowledges the writers were going through the same thing behind the scenes. He singles out the season 1 episode “Steven and the Stevens,” which aired in 2014. The story follows our main hero in need of a musical partner. What better partner than... himself? Thus begins a travel back in time to retreive another Steven, not too unlike that short. The episode, Quartey says, “was us looking at the character we created and trying to figure out who this character was and how he thinks about himself. And I think that really did set us up for a lot of things in the future.”

Much of what would become Steven Universe, including the final seasons, was mapped out early in 2012 and 2013. But, as the show developed, Sugar both consciously and subconsciously found herself pouring more of experiences into the work. “I have struggled certainly over the last 10 years with my own personal mental health,” she says. “About halfway through the show, I finally began to see a therapist and have a better understanding of myself. What I was going through was something that I also really wanted to put into the show.” Sugar's journey led her to come out as bisexual in 2016 and as non-binary in 2018, but she’s also talking about her journey with anxiety. “We were always doing episodes on top of each other since the beginning,” she says, “and I've been working really nonstop for a very long time.”

As a show that routinely faced LGBTQ story lines openly and earnestly, Sugar began to feel the weight of fighting to get those stories told against the backdrop of a culture that was still calling for acceptance. It was only really with the start of the final episodes in Future that she says she found “an opportunity" to talk about the impact of that stress "in a much more clear-eyed way,” but Sugar was also unpacking these feelings “in real time throughout the show.”

You can almost see this struggle play out in the lines of “Love Like You,” a piece of music she wrote over the course of three years. Only snippets would play over the show’s official end-credits, until it was composed and released for the Vol. 1 soundtrack in 2017. In the early writing stages, Sugar saw it as the story of "an alien that doesn't know how to experience human emotion." By the middle of the process, "I was starting to really buckle under the weight of running the show for multiple years and receiving these notes [from Standards & Practices] and of not really unpacking my own issues from the past," she says. (The middle of the song sings, "I always thought I might be bad/ Now I'm sure that it's true/ 'Cause I think you're so good/ And I'm nothing like you.") "And then by the end of it," Sugar continues, "I had really turned a corner: I started seeing a therapist, I started forcing myself to take breaks to eat food, I started taking care of myself, and I realized that it was not an alien concept at all. You really have to care about yourself in order to care for the people around you."

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The trials, both personally and systemically, served the show well. It's why, as even Sorcher noticed, Steven Universe was making an immense impact and propelling Sugar to become a celebrity of animation in her own right. These stories felt authentic.

"It was the internet that told me [the show] was successful before I knew what we were fully seeing," he admits. "But I would probably say it was also [attending San Diego] Comic-Con and understanding in person the emotional depth the show was hitting, to see these fans and to understand how deeply it was touching their lives and to see how that was represented in what they were wearing and how they were reacting to what this crew was doing."

No episodes brought such a seismic imprint on both viewers and the industry at large than season 5's “The Question” and "Reunited," which both aired in 2018. It was the moment, across this two-part story arc, that the kids animation space welcomed its first same-sex marriage proposal and wedding. It was revealed earlier in the show that former Gem soldier Ruby (Charlyne Yi) and the precognitive Sapphire (Erica Shukrani Luttrell) shared romantic feelings for one another, which leant more meaning to their ability to combine with each other and form the more powerful being Garnet (Estelle). In "The Question," Ruby, having been separated from Sapphire, got down on her knee and asked for her hand.

"As someone who also just got married last year to my wife, it gives me a lot of feelings," Stevenson says of that episode. "I mean, kids of today are going to grow up knowing that they can marry whoever they want, and that hasn't been true up until very recently."

On She-Ra, Stevenson found her own level of success in bringing queer elements onto the show. Season 1 toyed with gender roles and the attraction between Adora and Catra, and by season 4, Stevenson was able to introduce the show's first non-binary character — played by gender non-conforming actor Jacob Tobia. The showrunner calls this wedding arc of Steven Universe "so bold and courageous," a moment "that knocked down so many walls for so many other storytellers."

"Every show that is pursuing representation and pushing the limits of what we can do in animation, that's the biggest kind of benefit to others who are making stories in the same industry," she explains. "We can point and be like, 'Look! They did this.' So often you just don't have anything to point at."

Sugar once told EW how "extremely difficult" it was to get any kind of LGBTQ representation on the show. "It was a little bit like staring into the sun," she said in 2018, "because I felt the toll it was taking on my personal mental health." You don't often hear this of creatives from executives these days, but Sorcher, reflecting back on the wedding episode, now says, "Rebecca Sugar is right." "I think that's a marker point from my point of view, as well," he continues. "It was then that I understood how behind we really were in doing all of this."

Sorcher, a gay man himself, remembers fielding various questions from multiple departments of CN, including international divisions, amid the planning of the wedding episode. Most asked, "Is this gonna be okay?" "If you’re gonna question that, you have to have some supporting rationale around," he says. "I looked into this matter and it became very clear to me that, for all of this time, we had been doing weddings on every single show that we've ever made — and, in many cases, there's a specific wedding episode within all those series. The lightning and the heat around this particular topic was big, and it was then that I really understood what we were inside of here."

Despite certain "difficult" conversations he alludes to, "in some cases and in some regions," Sorcher realized there wasn't "one single rational reason" to question the intentions of Sugar and her team. "When I heard other peoples’ responses as to why this should not be in children’s content, that was my education — actually hearing terrible reasons as to why this should not appear. And I just made a simple decision."

Steven Universe has been censored in various parts of the world where strict homophobic laws are enforced, but it hasn't stopped Sugar from pursuing meaningful stories. "I can speak directly to our young audience about my experience with anxiety or about queer relationships, queer identities. Children don't have a reason to not accept," she says. "They can receive that without the kind of judgment that I have had to navigate and unlearn in my adulthood. I love making content for children, and if I have to jump through a couple of hoops in order to get it through the gauntlet of adults that I have to convince, then I'll do that because, ultimately, children are so intelligent and imaginative."

"And they also have no tolerance for boring, inauthentic stories," she adds with a laugh. "They demand that I have fun and that I tell a story that's fun."

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Steven Universe, technically, already ended with season 5 in January 2019. Steven Universe: The Movie (aired on Sep. 2, 2019) and now Steven Universe: Future (concluding the series on March 26) are more like "sequels," Quartey mentions.

"It had been implied while I was on the series proper that we were working towards the end, that there would not be another pickup," Sugar recalls. "They couldn't tell me for certain, but they were fairly sure that there would not be more show. So, at that time, I was furiously campaigning for the movie because I really wanted to do the movie story after the end of what we had planned for the show. But then, at the same time that the movie was green-lit, the request came for additional episodes."

Sugar says she was "ecstatic" by the news, but it required developing the movie and Future simultaneously, and a lot of restructuring to wrap up all the pre-planned stories that had been in the works for years. She "fought for six additional episodes" in season 5, while shifting other arcs to Future to give them "more room."

"As we were approaching the movie, I was pretty fried, but I really wanted to do it so badly," she says. "My adrenaline was just surging trying to write all the songs, trying to get everything organized."

Quartey, who returned for "early brainstorming" on Future, considers the final batch of episodes as "the story of the hero and what happens when that's over." Steven, having essentially succeeded in saving everyone from threats, is losing control of his abilities. They are forcing him to alter and change color at any given moment, and he finds himself questioning again his place in the universe. Through the story Sugar expanded for Future, she was able to re-examine a lot of what Steven's gone through, through a new lens."

"Up until [season 5 episode] 'Change Your Mind,' he really couldn't be sure whether or not he was himself," she says. "And it's a very different life once he knows that he has to take a certain amount of responsibility for himself. He has to start figuring out who he wants to be now that he knows that he is himself."

It's a conclusion Sugar can also say about herself. Over the course of two years, she speaks more confidently about her experiences as a creator and identity as a person. She established her own family, in addition to launching a show to which the industry at large is still trying to catch. Quartey experiences this first hand. "I've been taking a break, just doing some development and thinking about what I want to make next," he remarks. "The thing that's hilarious is, in all the meetings that I've taken, when [executives] talk about what they're looking for, they're all like, 'We're looking for shows that have a lot of appeal to kids but have strong tween and teen audiences, that have a lot of diversity and maybe queer characters, but also a large universe-spanning story.' They're describing Steven Universe."

Now that Future is in the bag, Sugar confirms, "I'm going to take a break." (Who can blame her?) But shows like She-Ra continue to carry the baton onwards from where Steven Universe leaves off — not just in terms of queer visibility, but in facing more profound themes authentically.

Stevenson saw "a big shift" occur over the past few years in network conversations about queer visibility, specifically. But she doesn't take the wins for granted. "Now, my cover's been blown a little bit. It's like everybody knows what my angle is. There's no going back to pretending that these are not the kind of stories that I want to tell," she says. "I do think it's interesting because there's still a little bit of nervousness around the idea that this will actually narrow the audience. Especially with what I'm interested in is telling central queer stories, not having queer characters necessarily just being supporting members. I want stories that are built around them."

"We still have a ways to go on that front," she adds, but the strides are "in no small part due to Steven Universe."