The Subversive Boyhood of Steven Universe

The Cartoon Network series Steven Universe is an adventure show about a boy with super powers derived from an interstellar gemstone in his belly. But in many ways it’s also a coming-of-age story about a young man growing up and trying to find his place in the world. In this episode we discussing how Steven’s empathic superpowers function as a subversion of traditional boy hero tropes.

This video was made possible by support from viewers like you! If you’d like to see more videos focusing on the intersections of entertainment, politics and masculinity, please head over to my Patreon page and help fund this web series.

Below is a full transcript of this episode

TRANSCRIPT– The Subversive Boyhood of Steven Universe

[Clip—Steven Universe “Back to the Barn” (2015)] Stop! Giant robots shouldn’t fight!

Steven Universe is an adventure show about a boy with super powers derived from an interstellar gemstone in his belly. But in many ways it’s also a coming-of-age story about a young man growing up and trying to find his place in the world.

[Clip—Steven Universe “Gem Glow” (2013)]

Steven: My gem!

Amethyst: Quick! Try and summon your weapon.

Steven: I don’t know how. Ah! It’s fading! How do I make it come back?

Pearl: Calm down, Steven. Breathe. D—

All: *sigh*

Steven: Aww! I was really close that time.

Coming-of-age narratives for boys usually involve an education in sex, sports, hunting, or fighting.

Jonathan: These activities are framed as a sort of rite-of-passage.

In stories set in sci-fi, fantasy, or superhero genres, combat is almost always the mechanism through which young men must prove their worthiness.

This is usually not framed as outright aggression on the hero’s part, but is instead justified as the ability to “fight back.”

There are accompanying characteristics like wit, determination, cleverness or confidence, but learning how to be “tough” and proficient in dealing out violence is consistently framed as a necessary step for boys to complete their journey into manhood.

As the series begins, Steven Universe appears to be following in the footsteps of these well-worn conventions. Steven wants his own gem-powered weapon to help fight off monsters like the other Crystal Gems. But when he finally does conjure his weapon, it isn’t a weapon.

[Clip—Steven Universe “Gem Glow” (2013)]

Pearl: Steven, it’s a shield.

And this is where the series begins to depart from classic genre expectations. Rather than being disappointed at not getting an offensive or aggressive skill, Steven wholeheartedly embraces his new defensive superpower.

[Clip—Steven Universe “Gem Glow” (2013)]

Steven: Aw, what? I get a shield? Oh, yeah!

[Clip—Steven Universe “Friend Ship” (2015)]

Steven: Hey guys, over here!

Garnet: This way!

The show continues its subversion of boy hero tropes when we find out that Steven is a healer.

[Clip—Steven Universe “An Indirect Kiss” (2014)]

Steven: What?

Connie: I can see without my glasses!

Steven: Did I heal your eyes? But, how?

Jonathan: His mother had healing tears, whereas Steven has…

Steven: the juice box! I don’t have healing tears. I have healing spit!

…Yeah, maybe a little gross. But when you think about it, that essentially means that Steven possesses healing kisses, healing affection.

[Clip—Steven Universe “House Guest” (2014)]

Steven: Yeah! Here goes something new and exciting. Hmm… and GO! Okay, you should be better now.

So, Steven’s a healer and his gem power is centered around shielding others from harm.

Now that’s especially interesting because in many fantasy stories and video games, those are both considered to be secondary or support skills.

Medics and other protective spell casters have often been gendered roles. They’re roles that have been filled by women who stand back and supplement the other warrior classes, who have traditionally been men.

This convention has begun to change in recent years, which is a really good sign, but the gendering of these types of roles still remains a pervasive pattern in media.

Giving these kinds of support powers to the male protagonist is a fun if pretty straightforward inversion. But I’d argue that Steven has another superpower. Something that’s even more important and even more fundamental to his character and to the show’s values as a whole. You see Steven is empathic. You might even say he’s super-empathic.

[Clip—Steven Universe “An Indirect Kiss” (2014)]

Garnet: Steven, your mother had healing tears that flowed from her gem. She felt real love for those around her. She felt real sorrow when they were hurt. You have the Rose Quartz gem now. I know that power is in you too.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings or emotions of another person. But empathy is not just feeling bad for someone else. It’s actually feeling what they feel, and that’s an important distinction. It’s what separates sympathy from empathy.

[Clip—Steven Universe “Horror Club” (2015)]

Ronaldo: Spirit, show yourself!

Steven: It’s close. I can feel it. It’s hurting and obsessed.

[Clip—Steven Universe “Chille Tid” (2015)]

Pearl: Wait, how do you know?

Steven: I don’t, but I could just feel it. She was yelling, and she was really freaked out.

As season one begins the show’s structure seems to be following a fairly standard “monster of the week” adventure show formula.

But then in episode 23, which is appropriately titled “Monster Buddies,” we start to get the sense that this is not just a show about going on fun adventures and fighting baddies, like a lot of other shows in the same genre tend to be.

At the beginning of that episode, we see the Gems fighting a monster just like they have many times before…

[Clip—Steven Universe “Monster Buddies” (2014)]

Pearl: One more attack should do it.

Jonathan: …but this time Steven reacts a little differently.

Steven: Yikes! Your arm.

Jonathan: Did you see it? No? Okay. Let’s rewind and watch it again. Ok. So, notice that the creature’s arm is damaged during this encounter.

Steven: Yikes! Your arm.

Jonathan: And seeing this, Steven expresses concern for her well-being, while grabbing at his own arm.

Essentially Steven is super sensitive to others. He possesses the capacity to vicariously experience other people’s feelings. When someone is hurting, Steven hurts. He feels their pain as if it were his own.

This kind of super-sensitivity is especially rare for boy heroes because, in our culture, emotional intuition is still stereotypically associated with women. And as such media often frames it as overly sensitive “girl stuff.” But on this show, things work very differently.

[Clip—Steven Universe “Rose’s Scabbard” (2015)]

Steven: Well, I think you’re pretty great.

In this universe, it’s common for male characters to act in caring and emotionally sensitive ways.

You can watch my full episode about that right here.

Later, Steven makes friends with another monster and names her Centipeetle. At first they’re both afraid of each other. But remember from my last video that being afraid is not a negative trait on this show. And Steven’s fear is reasonable; the monster is indeed dangerous. But Steven is resolute in his conviction that monsters are not all bad, that there is still good in them.

[Clip—Steven Universe “Monster Buddies” (2014)]

Steven: It looks so scared. Uh, hi. Aw, it’s okay. Look. Please don’t be scared of me. See, I’m not going to hurt you.

Now critically, Steven’s belief that his new monster buddy can be redeemed is not framed by the show as childish idealism. Instead it’s looked upon as honorable and commendable.

[Clip—Steven Universe “Monster Buddies” (2014)]

Steven: Stop! You don’t need to fight! This isn’t you. You’re not a monster anymore. You’re more than that.

The larger lore of this universe also works to validate Steven’s empathetic convictions. Recall that the Crystal Gems all have extraterrestrial superpowers because of their gemstones. In the episode “Ocean Gem,” we learn that all the monsters our heroes have been fighting each week are actually gems themselves, or more accurately they once were gems but they’ve been corrupted.

[Clip—Steven Universe “Ocean Gem” (2014)]

Steven: I can’t believe Lapis would do this. Gems shouldn’t fight each other.

Pearl: We’re always fighting gems, actually.

Steven: What?!

Pearl: Oh, how do I put this? All gems aren’t necessarily good.

Amethyst: All those monsters we fight used to be just like us! Right, Pearl?

Pearl: Yes, but they’ve become corrupted and broken. We have to take care of them, subdue them, contain them. It’s the best we can do for them for now.

This also illustrates one of the core values of the show, which is the belief in the possibility of transformative redemption.

[Clip—Steven Universe “Monster Buddies” (2014)]

Garnet: The truth is Rose Quartz had tried to use her powers to save these monsters too. But she was never able to heal them.

Steven: Never? But if she couldn’t do it.

Pearl: Who knows. Maybe when you have better control of your powers, you might help them in ways even your mother couldn’t.

Garnet: Even this one.

Steven: I’ll keep it safe.

Jonathan: And Steven, along with his supercharged empathy, are often the voice of that message.

Steven: Wow… wait for me Centipeetle. I promise I’ll heal you up someday.

He sees the redemptive possibility in everyone and everything, even when the much more experienced gems may be a little skeptical. For Steven, no one is unworthy of compassion or empathy, even monsters.

[Clip—Steven Universe “Earthlings” (2016)]

Amethyst: Steven, be careful.

Steven: But this just happened. Maybe I can do something. Jasper, it’s okay. I’m here. I just wanna try and heal you.

It’s uncommon to see this kind of empathy on television, especially when expressed for the “bad guys.” While it is true that most “good guys” in media do demonstrate some empathy for their friends, their family, and their allies, those feelings are very rarely extended to their enemies. And it’s almost unheard of in programming aimed at children, which tends, more than most, to break narratives down into simplistic good versus evil, easy to digest lessons.

[theme song]

In most animated shows, the “bad guys” simply can’t be reformed. If you look at everything from, say, Duck Tales to the Batman universe, you’ll notice that the villains are by and large framed as evil by nature. Villainy is not just something they do. Villainy is what they are.

[Clip—Batman, The Animated Series “Trial” (1994)]

Judge: The prisoner will stand.

Jonathan: So any attempt at rehabilitation is ultimately doomed to fail. And the belief in the possibility of redemption is therefore often framed as foolish or naive or worse—something that can actually endanger society itself.

But on Steven Universe things are more nuanced. Here, the “bad guys” don’t just do bad things because they’re intrinsically or inherently evil. They do bad things because of their history and their circumstances. Now the bad guys are no less dangerous, but it does means there always exists at least the possibility for redemption. And that possibility is what guides and shapes Steven’s actions.

[Clip—Steven Universe “Gem Hunt” (2016)]

Steven: Wait. Let me try talking to it. Hey. How’s it going? Can you hear me? Are you in there somewhere?

And this brings us to the final point I want to make in this video. A critical part of Steven’s super-empathy is that it’s always actionable. The actionable part is key. Not only does he feel for others…

[Clip—Steven Universe “Reformed” (2015)]

Steven: Oh, oh! She’s coming back!

Jonathan: …he also does something about it.

Steven: Alright, everyone be supportive.

Steven consistently intervenes to de-escalate and resolve conflicts.

[Clip—Steven Universe “Ocean Gem” (2014)]

Steven: Lapis! I don’t want to fight anymore. I said I don’t wanna fight!

Jonathan: In the episode “Ocean Gem,” we get to see Steven using all of his superpowers to de-escalate a potentially cataclysmic situation. He ends the fight and ultimately resolves the conflict by talking it out with the antagonist.

Steven: Lapis, I’m coming up to see you. Lapis.

Lapis: What are you doing here, Steven.

Steven: What? I…. No. What are you doing here? This thing, the ocean, this is crazy! Can’t we work this out? We gems should be friends.

Jonathan: Steven talks with her, he listens to her, and he treats her with empathy and kindness.

Lapis: I just want to go home.

Jonathan: In the end, he even uses his healing powers to mend her broken gem, even after she has tried to hurt him, his friends, and his family.

Lapis: Thank you, Steven.

Now it’s not all kumbaya in Beach City. The Crystal Gems are not pacifists. Our heroes are often forced into battle, but when that happens Steven still expresses his discomfort, even when he’s under attack by mutants.

[Clip—Steven Universe “Gem Drill” (2016)]

Steven: They’re all over us. They’re attacking the drill. What do we do?

Jonathan: So win or lose, the specter of violence and confrontation weighs heavy on his heart.

Steven: Something doesn’t feel right about this.

Peridot: Then use the D-pad.

Steven: No. It’s just…these things. We can’t just leave their gems out there. They’re going to form again later. If I could just bubble them, then they’d be safe. Come on. We’ve got to help them.

And of course there’s tension and discord among friends from time to time, sometimes even leading to physical fights, but on this show those issues are ultimately resolved through means other than violence and domination, often at the insistence of Steven himself.

[Clip—Steven Universe “Giant Woman” (2014)]

Amethyst: So it was all my fault? Hoho, you totally weren’t even trying to sync with my dancing. You should know how I dance by now.

Steven: STOP! Come on, guys. Please stop fighting.

[Clip—Steven Universe “On the Run” (2015)]

Amethyst: Why don’t you just leave! Admit it! I’m just an embarrassment to you.

Steven: Amethyst, please, no more! I know you’re upset, but I can’t bear to watch you two hurt each other.

It’s Steven’s undying faith in the possibility of redemptive transformation that drives his efforts to prevent fights.

[Clip—Steven Universe “It Could’ve Been Great” (2016)]

Garnet: You, listen to me now. You are talking about things that you do not understand.

Steven: Garnet, stop, please! It’s not worth it. We’re done here. Let’s just go home.

[Clip—Steven Universe “Watermelon Steven” (2014)]

Steven: Wait, don’t! Come on, baby melon. We have to stop this.

[Clip—Steven Universe “Monster Buddies” (2014)]

Pearl: If that thing hurt you, so help me, I’ll…

Steven: No! It didn’t do anything. Garnet, don’t hurt it! I accidentally let it out of its bubble, but it didn’t even try to hurt me. It’s not like the other monsters. It’s just scared and confused.

Everything that we’ve talked about in this episode is extremely rare for boy heroes on TV. But it really shouldn’t be. The world could use a whole lot more of Steven’s superpowers. We need more role models for boys where empathy and de-escalation and diplomacy are framed as brave and heroic behaviors.

[Clip—Steven Universe “Joy Ride” (2015)]

Buck Dewey: Haha, yeah. That’s what I’m talking about. You got that much needed counterpoint to our cynical worldview.

The good news is that unlike a magical shield or healing saliva, you don’t need an interstellar gemstone to practice empathic behaviors. Now it may take us some time to learn how to wield them effectively but we all have access to those very human superpowers.

I hope you enjoyed this in depth exploration of themes and messages on Steven Universe. If you’d like to see more videos related to media and manhood, you can help fund the Pop Culture Detective Agency over on our Patreon page.


Become a patron at Patreon!