I first saw Adventure Time when I was sixteen. I was visiting New York to meet my cousin’s firstborn, and one particular night we were housed in some burger bar in the Soho area. You know how when you’re in a restaurant or bar, and you can’t help but be distracted by the excessively large TV screen? Not through any interest in the programme that you can’t hear, but because you’re fascinated by the colours and shapes, or are curious over the dialogue you’re missing? That was happening. While I was pretending to engage in family conversation, all I could see was a strangely proportioned kid and a really messed up yellow dog attacking a large blue wizard. Imagine watching an Adventure Time episode with no sound. Now imagine that being the first time you’ve ever experienced it. I was fascinated, and upon my reunion with an internet connection I scoured Google for an answer to what it was I saw that night (try and google ‘kid and yellow dog attack blue ice wizard’, go on). In the years since, Adventure Time has grown to be hugely popular and has managed to redefine the public’s relationship to children’s cartoons, both in terms of challenging expectations of acceptable content and changing perceptions of acceptable audiences.
Yet even more impressive is the talent that Adventure Time has spawned. Natasha Allegri, the storyboard revisionist who was responsible for designing the gender variant characters for Finn and Jake (‘Fionna and Cake’), also created her own mini-series on Channel Frederator called Bee and PuppyCat. It follows an aimless and jobless young woman and her cat (that might also be a dog) as they work magical temp jobs in search of rent money. Patrick McHale, creative director for Adventure Time, developed the mini-series Over the Garden Wall, a stark tale of two boys lost in a mysterious forest known as “the Unknown”.
Most recently though, Adventure Time storyboard artist and occasional songwriter, Rebecca Sugar, created the animated series Steven Universe. If you haven’t yet seen it, I wholeheartedly recommend that you do. To summarise: Steven is a young boy who lives with three women known as the Crystal Gems, a trio of magical aliens who defend Earth. Steven’s mother Rose Quartz was also a Crystal Gem, but she gave up her physical form to give birth to Steven. He inherits many of her powers, but he must learn to control them if he is ever to help the Crystal Gems in their mission. This barely covers any of the plot of the series, which is well into its second season now, but I’ll try to keep it relatively spoiler free.
Six months ago was when I first started to watch Steven Universe. Now, I’d never really understood many forms of intense fan love for television shows – there were many shows I enjoyed, but none so much as to join a ‘fandom’. However, after finishing season one (for the first time) I felt an intense connection to the programme that I could neither place nor shake, but over time have come to understand.
Steven never knew his mother, and he doesn’t live with his father, Greg, either. He lives with three aliens to whom he shares no blood relation, yet still they are undoubtedly his family. Pearl is a loving parental figure who strives for perfection, but can be overbearing. Garnet is a stoic and strong family leader with much wisdom and infrequent (but still bright) bursts of love for Steven, and Amethyst is the goofy and reckless sibling that Steven forms a close bond of friendship with.
“But isn’t this family of friendship such a common trope in countless sitcoms?” I hear you ask.
Well sure, the six friends living in apartments opposite each other may fall into family-like patterns – say, the one who cooks well and has an obsession over cleanliness, or the two goofy brothers, or the weird aunt, or the spoilt one, or, um, Ross. But if you ask me, Steven Universe just feels a little bit different. In the time we spend with Steven and the Gems, we see their familial relationships become more and more real, echoing at least some of my own experiences of family. Not to mention that they refer to one another as family at multiple points throughout the show. Hell, there’s even an episode in which Steven and the Gems try to cover up the fact that they’re not “nuclear” enough as a family.
Family structures change wherever you go in the world, and they change as we look back through history – but the structure we see in Steven Universe echoes something which exists in many places in the world right now, something that many of us experience. This family feels queer.
I came out to my parents when I was 16. I then came out to them when I was 17. The third time, when I was 18, I realised that, at least for now, this was something they were not going to accept, that they would refuse to see as good, if they even wanted to see it at all. It was shortly after that third attempt that I moved away from home to go to Uni. There were spaces there that were made with me, and the many like me, in mind. And I met so many of us, and it was beautiful and it was freeing. Over my three years here I would say that I have made a queer family (and if you’re reading this you’ll know who you are!). They’re a group of people who know what it can be like to be queer, who I can talk to without hesitation, without fear from judgement, or fear for myself. They hold me accountable for wrongs I might do. I love them, and they love me.
I think that’s what I see in Steven’s family that makes me love it so much. Garnet, Amethyst and Pearl are as much of a family to Steven as Greg is, and they show this ‘alternative’ family unit to be something beautiful, real and natural. Steven Universe teaches us that your family is as you define it, be they your closest queerest friends, or your crystalline alien guardians. Just so long as they love you, accept you, support you and keep you accountable for your actions. It teaches us that a queer family is as much of a family as a biological one. Contrary to popular belief, you can choose your friends, and you can choose family.
I’ve always been a firm believer in representation, that the narratives we read, watch and play should reflect the reality of our human experience, and the experiences of the people that surround us. Every person should be able to see some semblance of themselves, their relationships and lives in the media. I’ve always said this, yet I’ve not always felt it. But with Steven, I think I do. When watching Steven Universe I feel a sense of homely familiarity, and a reflection on an aspect of my life and family that often is not treated with the respect I wish it was. Steven Universe takes pride in a diverse range of inclusion, from numerous queer characters, characters with autism, women characters, fat characters, poor characters, non-binary characters, and characters who are something other than white. And none of these characters are tokenised or made into a punchline; they are honest, human depictions. I hope that people who rarely see themselves represented in the media see this show and feel the same solace that I do.
While much of Steven Universe is about kicking monster alien butt and saving the earth, it’s much more about the relationships that Steven forms with others, and the love that Steven feels for his family, his friends and his neighbours. Problems are solved by talking, kindness and love. It’s so rare to see the character of a young boy being defined by the power of his emotions in a culture of hyper-masculinity. Emotions are in no way Steven’s weakness – in fact, his sensitivity to the world around him is his greatest strength.
In many ways Steven reminds me of my ten year old self: small, slightly chubby, and queer beyond belief. And for Steven to be who he is without compromise or apology makes me feel OK about me being me. It makes me want to tell my ten year old self that while it’s not always going to be OK, and that while it may not get better for a while, there is going to be a time and a place where it’s going to be alright to be you.
If I ever meet Rebecca Sugar, I’ll have one thing to say to her – thank you.
Robert Duncan is an animator based in Edinburgh, who spends too much time crying over cartoons. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, and commissions are totally welcome.
This piece is a part of Season V of PTL which is run in association with: All About Trans.
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