“Where did we go? What did we do? I think we made something entirely new.”
—Ruby and Sapphire (Episode 74)
The end of the final season of Legend of Korra felt, to me, at once triumphal and frustrating. Korra and Asami, after two seasons of what I’d been increasingly reading as—desperately hoping was—flirtation, decided to walk into the spirit world to spend time together, hands clasped, looking with intensity into one another’s eyes. It was obvious. So obvious! Especially as the TV show’s creators’ almost immediately confirmed it and later released official artwork of Korra and Asami cuddling: a couple. Yet it happened at the end of the final episode of the final season.
Hey, at least they lived.
Recent figures compiled on Autostraddle show the pernicious problem of lesbian/bisexual female characters dying or being sidelined in TV shows. A separate list gives the ever-increasing number of dead lesbian/bisexual female TV characters. Representation, where it happens, is not the end of the problem.
One of the bigger issues across all LBGTQIA+ representation—and, indeed, all representation of non-dominant groups—is plurality of characters. A dead lesbian hurts, but when she’s the only lesbian character or one half of the only lesbian couple, her death is more significant. When three other lesbians are still alive, still doing all the things their characters do, it hurts but it has the potential to belong to the TV show’s usual death rate rather than being a microcosm for the entirety of lesbian—often the rest of the LBGTQIA+ spectrum, too—representation. Even TV shows with LBGTQIA+ characters rarely have a lot of them.
Enter Steven Universe.
“I am their fury, I am their patience, I am a conversation.”
—Garnet (Episode 52)
Steven is a young half-human, half-gem boy living on Earth, raised by his human father and three sentient space gems who fought alongside his dead (more or less) gem parent for millennia. Over the course of the show, further gems on Earth and in space join the cast as allies and enemies. The initial premise of Steven Universe is seemingly episodic fun, but it develops to cover subjects such as grief and war and the strains these place on people and relationships. It is also full of queer characters.
The gender of the gems is not made entirely clear, but we do know this: they appear to have only one gender—or none—and they all use female pronouns to refer to themselves and each other. They all present in ways that could be read as female, from Rose Quartz’s pink skirts and ringlets to Jasper’s butch build and uniform, although as any outfit and body type can be female that’s a secondary point to their pronoun usage.
Here, Steven Universe somewhat recalls Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series, where the universal use of the female pronoun is chosen for ease rather than accuracy. However, in the context of an Earth setting, where the gems are surrounded by humans who do not use only one pronoun, in Steven Universe it functions to have the gems read as female characters.
Thus, relationships between them are profoundly queer-coded.
The most visible queer relationship on the show is that represented by Garnet, who is revealed to be a fusion of the gems Ruby and Sapphire. On the occasions they are un-fused, they typically cuddle, kiss, and flirt intensely. Garnet sings an entire song about their love for each other. Separately, Ruby and Sapphire sing about that love’s beginning. They have their disagreements, as in any relationship, but the joy and strength of their love is shown repeatedly. That this central relationship is a lesbian one is one of the show’s delights.
A considerable amount of emotional weight in Steven Universe is also given to the past relationship between Pearl and Rose Quartz. While its nature has not been clarified, it appears to be either an ended romantic relationship or unrequited. Pearl’s longing for Rose Quartz is clear, from the priority she gives to her place at Rose’s side during the war to the way she grows jealous of Rose’s later relationship with Greg and steps in to show off their fusion in front of him. What exactly Rose Quartz felt and did in return is not stated, as the relationship is seen through Pearl’s eyes, but talking of it in terms of queerness is not out of place. Moreover, Pearl is certainly not interested in men, judging by her reactions to being around several human men, especially Mayor Dewey. And Rose Quartz, given her possible relationship with Pearl and definite romantic and sexual relationship with Greg, is surely bisexual.
A more subtle past relationship is hinted at between Amethyst and the human woman Vidalia. So far, Vidalia is a very minor character, but we learn that she and Amethyst used to be very close, and her house is full of paintings of Amethyst. It’s subtext, but “Paint me like one of your space rocks!” is pretty compelling subtext, especially in a show that centres other queer female relationships.
Fusion is one of the most important tools that Steven Universe uses to discuss relationships. It does not equate to romance or sexual feeling. Garnet talks of “love” as being the best basis for a fusion, and that can take many forms: familial, friendly, romantic, or sexual. The gems try to fuse with Steven out of familial love. Pearl and Amethyst’s fusion is a living embodiment of their turbulent but increasingly strong friendship. The Cluster is . . . complicated. Steven and Connie fuse with the love of friendship and burgeoning romance.
Jasper and Lapis Lazuli fuse with none of these things.
Describing Malachite as a relationship is difficult. The show depicts it as a fusion of power. In fan interpretations, this has taken on numerous sexual interpretations—the use of Lapis Lazuli’s water-chains provide an obvious BDSM direction—but there’s some use in looking at their relationship, such as it is, from this angle. Of course, such a relationship in a romantic or sexual sense would be abusive, lacking enthusiastic consent from potentially either party—Lapis Lazuli wanted to be Malachite for a control she didn’t enjoy, Jasper wanted to be Malachite for a power she very quickly wanted to get out of—and causing only pain. However, relationships like this exist in reality.
The danger of a single LBGTQIA+ character or relationship is that it becomes a stand-in for all of LBGTQIA+ representation. When the only queer relationship fails because one or both parties are abusive, for instance, it often feels like a let-down, especially if two or three or four straight relationships are continuing on their varied courses. What type of relationship do we most want to see? We only get one, so choose. Always happy? Something else from the full, real range?
What Steven Universe offers, then, is the removal of choice. Want happy lesbians? OH YEAH, THEY’RE THE MAIN ROMANTIC RELATIONSHIP IN THE SHOW. Want complicated lesbians whose possible relationship is over but, oh wow, the feelings? GOT THEM TOO. Want subtext lesbians? WELL OKAY. Want something deeply unhealthy? IT ALSO HAPPENS.
“You are not two people. And you are not one person. You are an experience.”
—Garnet to Stevonnie (Episode 37)
Stevonnie is an especially interesting character. The fusion of Steven with his human friend Connie, Stevonnie is referred to by gender-neutral pronouns—they/them/their—and perception of their gender appears to be ambiguous. They exist in the liminal state of fusions: they are not only Steven and Connie, nor are they only their own person. We see both Steven and Connie, while fused, struggle to negotiate the identity of being Stevonnie. This all complexifies their identity, but not at the cost of their being genderqueer.
In addition, Stevonnie—alongside the agender female gems—represents some of the variety of gender identity that exists beyond the binary. It is rare to have different types of queer relationships on the same show—rarer still to have different types of non-binary identities.
“The odds are against us, this won’t be easy, but we’re not going to do it alone!”
—Extended intro song
For all its queer characters, Steven Universe is not the be-all and end-all of representation. Many LBGTQIA+ identities are not represented on the show. The majority of the queer characters are not human, although Steven Universe does show that queerness isn’t only a non-human trait.
What Steven Universe gives us is multiplicity: in characters and, in turn, in responses. Not all fan reactions to the show are positive, and that’s absolutely fair, but all are varied. I’ve seen different people highlight different aspects of the identities and relationships depicted in Steven Universe as being their favourites and personally important to them. That, I celebrate. Steven Universe doesn’t make us hold on to one character or relationship and hope against hope that they survive the next episode. It gives us a complexity of characters and relationships to have a whole range of feelings about—much closer to real life than many other shows, for all that it’s a sci-fi adventure series with singing giant women, a lion-of-holding, and a whole society of sentient Steven-shaped watermelons.