Family (noun) – a basic social unit consisting of parents
and their children, considered as a group, whether dwelling together or not
Steven Universe is about a boy being raised by a trio of magical, sentient space rocks as he trains to save the world. Yes, it’s really as bizarre as it sounds, but it’s also brilliant and fun and generally happy, although there’s a dark undercurrent that’s becoming more transparent as the show moves along.
This darkness stems from the fact that the Crystal Gems—the three aliens who are raising Steven—are the self-exiled remnants of a rebellion against their home planet, aptly named Homeworld, and the Diamond Authority. The Homeworld leaders planned to use Earth as an incubation chamber for one of their monstrous creations, a plan that would’ve destroyed the planet and wiped out the entire human race. A rebellion against this plan formed, led by the powerful Rose Quartz, who believed that mankind, with their ability to grow and change, should be left alone. A bitter war followed, and although the Crystal Gems ultimately won, they couldn’t return home, and they instead began new lives on the very planet they had fought to save.
Hundreds of years later, Rose Quartz fell in love and chose to give up her physical form to have a child. That child is Steven, whose half-Gem status imbues him with a plethora of magical abilities. That’s where the other Gems step in, to raise Steven and help him learn how to use his powers while his human father is around to teach him about life in general. What results is an interesting family structure, with Steven’s main upbringing coming from three mother figures.
For a cartoon, this image of a family is essentially unheard of. Although live-action television has families that don’t fit the image of a nuclear family, cartoons over the past few decades haven’t been so inclusive. Sure, there are plenty of Disney movies with a single-parent family—typically the heroine being raised by her widower father—but even then, there’s a lack of diversity in the type of family units.
Steven Universe is just the opposite. There are a number of different families living in Beach City. Aside from Steven’s unique familial set-up, there are single mother families, single father families, families with both parents, and multigenerational families. There are small families, large families, families with different races and ethnicities, families by blood, and families by bond. Not every type of family is portrayed, but there’s certainly a wide range, wider than most other shows.
And what this shows us is that there’s not just one type of family. The world is made up of so many different kinds of alternative families, and Steven Universe does a wonderful job of showing that reality within the confines of their little seaside city.
There are many things Steven Universe does well—it’s visually beautiful, the music is amazing, and the story is clearly much more complex than we know—but at the heart are the relationships between Steven and the Crystal Gems. Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl are the only mothers Steven has ever known, and they’re hid best link to his biological
mother and the people and values she believed in. They’re his teachers and his friends, and they’re also the best equipped to help Steven fight back against the returning Homeworld threat.
That’s not to say that Steven’s father, Greg, isn’t a supportive and loving parent—because he totally is—but he’s just a human, and there’s only so much he can do against an alien invasion. Likewise for Steven’s friends in Beach City, and it’s Steven’s love for his friends and the other townspeople that pushes him to fight so hard to protect them. He knows that he and his family are the only ones who can save them and their families, and so Steven’s willing to do whatever it takes to save the day.
Steven Universe is a science-fiction fantasy show that tackles topics that few other shows are willing to address at all, let alone in such a front and center way. Steven is such a good-hearted and joyful character, but he’s not afraid to ask hard questions or to use his powers against the bad guys. It’s a joy to watch as he grows both as a person and as a hero. And it’s also a joy to see how he makes new friends and expands the circle of people he cares for. Although Steven can be tough and capable of making the hard calls when he needs to, he’s naturally a happy person, and he’s never happier than when he’s spending time with his family.
Together, they face both the good times and the bad; they take the time to play games, to sing together, and to explore, and when things go south, whether due to unforeseen mistakes or to Homeworld threats, they trust one another and work together to make things right. They treat each other like the family they are, even though they’re bound by experiences and beliefs and love rather than blood. Without seeing one another as their family of choice, Steven and the Crystal Gems would never be able to work so well with one another to save the world time and time again. But because of their strong bond, they’re able to fight as one, proving that it doesn’t matter what kind of people make up your family; when you’re facing trouble head-on, your family are the ones standing beside you, whether they’re the same race or gender or even species as you.