N.C. Harrison examines an animated series that’s challenged one gender stereotype after another.
Rebecca Sugar seems to be made out of absolute, pure awesome, distilled down into human form. Sure I could be saying this because she’s got curly hair, big, brown eyes, glasses and the ability to totally kill it on the ukulele—the kind of woman, in short, that I always find myself having a crush on from near or far—and I’m not saying that these things couldn’t be a little bit of it, but mostly I find myself admiring a song-writer, cartoonist and creator of the highest caliber. Her work on Adventure Time was outstanding, including co-writing credits (usually along with Cole Sanchez) on impressive episodes like “What Was Missing,” “It Came From the Nightosphere” and the almost physically painful, especially if you’ve ever had a relative that suffered from dementia, “I Remember You” and “Simon and Marcy.” These are some of the best episodes of a show that is nearly too awesome to believe anyway, and Ms. Sugar’s writing contributed to them in no small degree.
“Johnny Noodleneck,” one of Rebecca Sugar’s earlier animation projects.
She seems to have continued in the vein of this previous, fantastic work with her new show, Steven Universe. Ms. Sugar broke ground, here, as the first female creator in Cartoon Network’s over twenty year history and has managed, in some ways, to even surpass Adventure Time. The world building on Steven Universe is not nearly so broad, at least yet, but this allows for a deeper focus on the interactions between a small cast of characters—usually just Steven, his father and the Crystal Gems, with maybe a few others to pick up the slack. The animation is smooth and moves brilliantly, on par to my eye with many animated feature movies that I have seen in the past and Ms. Sugar’s songwriting has stayed as strong as it was during her Adventure Time days, although none of Steven Universe’s songs have been quite the epitome of a character that ”I’m Just Your Problem” was for Marceline.
The most wonderful thing about both shows, better than the animation, backstory and anything else, lies in the characters and what wonderful role models they provide for young children who might be watching the shows—along with their parents or older siblings/aunts and uncles, if I’m being totally honest here. A young boy or girl could do much worse than identifying with Finn or Steven, and I think that the Crystal Gems in general present a fantastic set of heroes for a little kid, just going about learning about all of this mythopoetic important stuff. And that, because they are women (or at least a group of aliens who sort of look like human women) is what I find truly revolutionary about Rebecca Sugar and Steven Universe.
The “Giant Woman” song from Steven Universe.
I’m not exactly old and decrepit, but I remember things being a little bit different during the early nineties. We had Batman the Animated Series and it was an excellent show, but the idea of one of the ladies from it being really counted as “heroic” is hard to imagine. Catwoman tried to save the lab animals in “Cat Scratch Fever,” to prevent the evil Roland Daggett from harming them or infecting Gotham City, but she didn’t do all that well and ended up needing Batman to rescue her. There were two female Power Rangers, Kimberly and Trini, but Trini stayed in the background a whole lot (which could also say a lot, perhaps, about the depiction or performance of race in kids’ shows of that era) and Kimberly got kidnapped by monsters. Like, a lot. Tommy the Green Ranger did too, even losing his powers one time, but he was at least allowed to put up a fight instead of being sucked immediately into an alternate dimension by the Samurai Fan Man.
Most importantly, though, any kids who might have been tempted to identify with these female characters were putting themselves in the place of loving a supposedly heroic figure who couldn’t seem to fight her way out of a wet tissue box, and that kind of adulation of weakness just wasn’t going to cut it on the blackboard jungle of an elementary school playground. Hell, I got picked on for liking Billy the Blue Ranger (he had glasses and got upset if he made a B on assignments, like me) and, when no one could be found to be Kimberly that day (and thus be the Power Ranger in peril), I had to be the one who got knocked out by the freakin’ putties before the monster even showed up.
Steven’s friends and mentors the Crystal Gems, however, are a truly badass set of ladies—and two of them, Garnet and Amethyst, can be read as—and are definitely voiced by—women of color. These characters are not sexualized, even in the fashion of female characters in other shows aimed at youngsters, and are allowed to be strong, tough and aggressively heroic. And, in doing so, they are allowed to teach their young friend, Steven, to be the same. He grows as a hero under the tutelage of his three female teachers, nurtured by the tender affection which his father offers in a reversal of the usual cartoon roles of either tough man/soft woman or competent woman/foolish man. Mr. Universe isn’t a fool, he’s just not a superhero, like the Gems. And so, instead of fighting monsters, he teaches his son the important lessons that you can’t learn at war with villains.
So thank you, Ms. Sugar, for giving us such great moments in Adventure Time and a whole other show as good as Steven Universe, both of which have shown the potential to change the paradigm by which children learn to accept what is “cool.” Hopefully writers of the future will look back and say the same thing…and if they do, then you will have truly changed the world for the better and been, just like the great characters you have created, a hero.
Illustration by Chris Clavin