Here are the notes from my presentation on Rebecca Sugar and queer theory in Steven Universe.
Today I’m going to talk about Rebecca Sugar, an american animator born in Maryland in 1987 who graduated from the School of Visual Arts in New York. She worked for several years on Adventure Time, where she wrote some of the best loved songs of the series including: “Making Bacon Pancakes”, “Daddy why did you eat my fries” and “Everything Stays”. At the same time she started work on Steven Universe, which premiered on Cartoon Network in 2013. She is the first and only woman to have her own show on the network.
Steven Universe is about a kid called Steven, who lives with three aliens: Amethyst, Garnet and Pearl – the four of them together are the Crystal Gems.
They live in a temple, next to Beach City. (The backgrounds to this show are incredible.) where they spend most of their time saving the earth from being invaded and colonised by hostile gems from their home planet.
They also spend a fair amount of time eating doughnuts, going on road trips, practicing fighting and learning about friendship, love, community and all that good stuff.
Each crystal gem, is a distinct character, in the superhero tradition each have their own weapon and way of fighting. In order to make themselves more powerful they can join together to make a fusion who embodies the powers of the gems that make her up. All the gems are referred to by female pronouns, but as projections of light they can’t really be said to have a gender. Fun fact: the animators worked out what the fusions would look like by playing the game exquisite corpse, where you fold up a piece of paper and different person draws each part of the body, until you unfold it to see what the thing looks like as a whole.
Rebecca Sugar uses her cartoon to explicitly talk about different kinds of genders and relationships. When asked about this in an interview with The Verge, she says:
So much of the preexisting language for cartoons is heavily gendered. For example, how many cartoon couples are two identical characters, except one has eyelashes and a bow? This is the time and this is the tool to expand people’s visual language when it comes to what a couple looks like, and to create gender nonconforming characters that are so compelling that you can’t deny their humanity. *
If you look at Mickey and Minnie mouse or Mr and Mrs Potato Head there is nothing essential in the characters that genders them, they are merely accessorized in such a way to signal that they are male of female. What happens when we remove those accessories? Does the system of binary gender disintegrate?
In her book, Undoing Gender, Judith Butler describes the performance of gender as follows:
If gender is a kind of doing, an incessant activity performed, in part, without one’s knowing and without one’s willing, it is not for that reason automatic or mechanical. On the contrary, it is a practice of improvisation within a scene of constraint. Moreover, one does not “do” one’s gender alone. One is always doing with or for another, even if the other is only imaginary.**
Here, Butler separates the idea of gender from that of biological sex. Gender is not to do with what our bodies look like; but rather it is the place where what we project out into the world, and what the world recognises in us, comes together. We enact our gender everyday in the way we move around and interact with the world and because everyone’s performance is different, then it follows there must be as many genders as there are people to enact them.
In Steven Universe, Rebecca Sugar shows us the expansiveness of gender and its myriad presentations. In Sadie’s Song Steven dresses up in drag to perform a show stopping hit at the Beach City talent show. Unlike many other cartoons, this is not played for laughs. Steven totally smashes the set and the fact that he is wearing a dress is not even commented on.
In Alone Together, Steven and his best friend Connie fuse to form the genderqueer character Stevonnie. We witness the exhilaration that Stevonnie feels in their body that is neither male nor female, but also the confusion of the humans who encounter them. Where the gems are excited, and celebrate Steven and Connie’s fusion, the human characters are uncomfortable with Stevonnie and they don’t seem to know why.
This is highlighted because while she celebrates the diversity of gender, Sugar doesn’t brush over the fact that it is far from easy to slip outside of the gender binary.
In Undoing Gender, Judith Butler describes how “social norms” are used to police our performance of gender and that we have to choose whether to resist or submit to these in order to live what she calls a “livable life”. How much will it cost us in violence, abuse and/or invisibility to transgress these norms? How much will we be dehumanised, isolated or unfulfilled by remaining within them?
If I am a certain gender, will I still be regarded as part of the human? Will the “human” expand to include me in its reach? If I desire in certain ways, will I be able to live? Will there be a place for my life and will it be recognizable to the others upon whom I depend for social existence? ***
We rely upon others to recognise us, and thus recognition becomes a site of power for those who seek to give or withhold it.
Steven Universe shows this struggle in the episode Fusion Cuisine. Steven’s best friend Connie tells her parents that Steven is part of a normal nuclear family, so that they will let her hang out with him. But they become suspicious at never meeting his parents and ask them to come to dinner with them. Steven wants to bring all three of the crystal gems who play the role of mother to him – but Connie tells him he has to choose just one. Steven lines up the gems and asks them: “Which of you would make the best and most nuclear mum?” (see clip: Fusion Cuisine 2:40) We see Steven trying to force his queer multi-gendered family into a nuclear mold that they can not possibly fit.
In the end they decide all three gems will fuse, to be one mother. This totally fails to convince Connie’s parents that they are “normal”. The fusion, does not know how to behave at a human dinner party – they are too big, too loud, too “uncivilised”:
And this is where I think the show goes beyond the mere representation of gender non normative characters and enters the realm of queerness. To explain what I mean by this, I want to start with a couple of short definitions of queer theory – while acknowledging that it is a huge and varied field of which I will only brush the surface:
“For scholars influenced by queer theory, “queer” names or describes identities and practices that foreground the instability inherent in the supposedly stable relationship between anatomical sex, gender, and sexual desire” ****
“Queer is by definition, whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant” *****
Queer theory uses the non-normative as an entry point for discussion, it flips the script on “social norms” and “societal expectations” by questioning their legitimacy. Through queer theory we are able to observe the world from a whole other angle, where the the “normal” or “natural” ceases to be so and it’s weirdness is fully exposed.
As a quick example lets look through a queer lens at the way gender is constructed in our society: babies genitals are glanced at at birth and whatever the doctor believes they have identified determines the shape of that child’s life: from the clothes they will wear, to our expectations of their intelligence and athleticism, to their paycheck when they enter the workplace. This is patently ridiculous, and causes huge amounts of pain and suffering to humans of all genders who are forced into the system, and yet it is widely accepted as both “normal” and “natural” in societies across the globe.
Judith Butler argues that “the capacity to develop a critical relation to these norms presupposes a distance from them, an ability to suspend or defer for them’. In Steven Universe, Sugar achieves this distance is by having the main characters LITERALLY come from another planet. The earth is alien to them and so they see it without the normalising filter that we do: everything that humans do is strange to them and the gems continuously question things that to the humans in the show and the audience seem completely obvious. In an interview on Hot Topic, Rebecca Sugar explains that this idea underlies the entire series:
It’s always been our theory of the show, this sort of reverse escapism theory, which is that a fantasy world and fantasy characters became interested in real life and wanted to participate in that and Steven is the son of a human being and a crystal gem and he’s the product of fantasy having this love affair with reality. And all the imperfections of real life could be beautiful and fascinating to someone and those are things that are exotic and foreign and interesting to these characters who are used to the impossible perfection of their fantasy world. ******
So the gems alienness coupled with their non-normative genders and relationships give them a queer perspective on the earth. This scene between Peridot, Steven and Amythyst – shows the potential comedy of such a scenario:
When we compare these moments with the scene with Connie’s parents we see the multiple ways in which characters are “alienated” from their surroundings. But this alienation is not always painful, sometimes it creates comedy and sometimes it enables the gems to see the beauty in things that humans have long taken for granted.
In conclusion, much has been made of representation in this show, which is part of what has garnered it it’s HUGE internet following. Representation is important: being able to see yourself reflected in these worlds can be life changing for children and adults alike. But I think Steven Universe goes even further: it doesn’t just SHOW us admirable non-normative characters, but the show embodies a queer perspective on the world we live in, in all its humour, terribleness and beauty.
* Rebecca Sugar, quoted by Kwame Opam, (2017), Steven Universe creator Rebecca Sugar on animation and the power of empathy, https://www.theverge.com/2017/6/1/15657682/steven-universe-rebecca-sugar-cartoon-network-animation-interview
** Judith Butler, (2004), Undoing Gender, New York and London: Routledge, p.1
*** Judith Butler, (2004), Undoing Gender, New York and London: Routledge, p.3
**** Robert J.Corber and Stephen Valocchi (2003) Queer Studies, An interdisciplinary Reader, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, p.1
***** Nikki Sullivan (2003) A critical introduction to Queer Theory, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, p.3
****** Rebecca Sugar in Hot Topic interview, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l9rQlh0KxYo (2.10)