When you’re an adolescent trans person living in white suburbia, it can be really hard to understand who you are when you don’t see yourself anywhere on television. I remember spending my time watching hours of cartoons; my laughter and joy clouded up my insecurities and kept me placated as a child. It can be frustrating now when I think back to how I never had a chance to learn who I was in the space I grew up in.
Now, I just remember fragments of my childhood and how clearly, I was experiencing gender dysphoria. Usually it involved my interest with anything gender variant in the media I watched, and that largely came from cross-dressing. Cross-dressing in cartoons was often played for laughs and usually seen as embarrassing or shameful for male characters, but I always remember feeling different whenever I watched the Lilo and Stitch TV series.
After the movie, Disney Channel had a Lilo and Stitch TV series that followed all the characters from the film looking for aliens in Hawaii. Two alien villains from the movie, Dr. Jumba and Pleakley, were now part of the good guys and helped Lilo and Stitch in their adventures. Whenever the aliens needed to disguise themselves in public, Jumba always dressed as a male tourist and Pleakley was always a female tourist. Not only was this one of the few times cross-dressing was never the direct target of the laughs. Pleakley was never mocked over it or judged; it was just how he expressed himself. I also see Pleakley as a positive image because, objectively, he usually wore those disguises well. Being respected and pretty was a rarity, even if he is a one-eyed green alien. This was the most positive example of gender expression I could find on TV; as much as I’m praising it, this was a very low bar. It’s why I was otherwise left with no real role models, no queer relatives, to help me understand myself. I try not to worry about the past too much, because I’m here now and I’m happy, but when I think about kids feeling those same confusing emotions and struggling to understand themselves, it makes me so sad. So, I’m glad they’re getting more help than I ever had.
let’s talk about how pleakley from lilo and stitch was constantly serving looks pic.twitter.com/nNkhcw869P
— aj 🦋 (@ajirixo) June 22, 2020
Steven Universe ran on Cartoon Network from 2013 to 2019. A young boy named, you guessed it, Steven Universe lives with a squad of feminine alien refugees called the Crystal Gems. They teach Steven how to be a hero and understand the powers he possesses as the heir of great gem power. The show was created by Rebecca Sugar, the first on Cartoon Network created by a woman (Sugar is actually a non-binary woman who uses She/Her and They/Them pronouns, if that’s confusing then just watch this). It’s equal parts coming of age story and intergalactic superhero fantasy. Featuring a predominantly female cast, the show touches on family, love, and acceptance, all of which are very visceral themes for a story with so much queer subtext.
Steven’s Mother, Rose Quartz, was a leader in a rebellion against their Homeworld, a totalitarian civilization that expanded its empire by terraforming planets. Rose leads the Gems in countless battles on Earth, defending their freedom as individuals. After living on earth for thousands of years, Rose meets Greg Universe, a small-time rock star and the father of our titular Universe. Crystal gem’s bodies are fractals of light projected from a physical gemstone, so, like anyone who’s gone through a physical transition, the details aren’t that important. But Rose is now gone, and her single pink gem, having once sat in her belly button, is now in Steven’s. If this all sounds absolutely bonkers, that’s exactly how the Crystal Gems feel. The fierce warrior they’ve spent millennia with is now a human boy, and now their hands must guide Steven as Rose once guided theirs.
The Crystal Gems loved Rose, so loving Steven comes easy. Even if Steven isn’t his mother, Rose lives inside him, physically and spiritually. Like any decent parent of a queer child, they accept Steven for who he is, regardless of what they don’t understand about him. Acceptance over one’s differences isn’t a foreign concept to the Crystal Gems. Pearl, the most senior member of the group and Rose’s closest confidant was a servant on Homeworld. Gem types are given predetermined vocations, and Rose was the first gem to show her that she deserved a better life. Amethyst, the youngest gem, was born in a soldier breeding ground on earth. She hatched late and was significantly smaller than her siblings, but Rose taught her that didn’t make Amethyst any less significant or useful. And then there’s Garnet. Where to begin with Garnet…
Garnet is the symbolic and literal manifestation of love. Gems have the ability to unify their forms to create stronger, larger versions of themselves called fusion. This was a practice used by identical gem types for battle. But after two separate gem types, Ruby and Sapphire, a soldier and an aristocrat respectively, fall in love and choose to fuse forever, Garnet is brought to life. Fusion between separate gems is considered taboo on Homeworld and she is shunned, even if fusion has brought Garnet unbridled joy. “I feel lost and scared and happy”, Garnet explains when asked how it feels to fuse with a nonidentical gem, “why am I so sure that I’d rather be this than everything I was supposed to be?” Rose tells her even though she doesn’t fit the standard, she is still entitled to acceptance, love, and a family in the Crystal Gems. A chosen family is a very popular term among queer people who have been abandoned by their birth family. Who else to accept you better than those who see your worth and love you unconditionally?
Steven Universe isn’t all subtext of course; we live in an age where there is more room to be more evident. Steven, being half gem, has the ability to fuse and does so regularly with his 100% carbon-based friend Connie, and together they form the androgynous Stevonnie. I watched the first season of Steven Universe five years ago, pre-transition, and only got back to it last month. In 2015, Stevonnie gave me the same confused vibes I’d been feeling all my life. After rewatching the episode five years and an entire transition later, I was in tears within minutes. The show doesn’t stamp labels on every little detail and character (although Stevonnie has been called intersex and nonbinary), but watching a gender non-conforming character not only exist but be celebrated on a mainstream children’s show is going to mean the world to so many queer kids who had been told that they should be ashamed for being who they are.
Steven Universe is just one of many in a growing wave of LGBTQIA+ representation in children’s media over the past decade or so. Adventure Time, one of the most beloved shows Cartoon Network produced last decade, flirted with a past lesbian relationship between femme scientist Princess Bubblegum and Goth Vampire Rockstar Marceline, and ended the show with the characters locking lips. The Legend of Korra, the Avatar: The Last Airbender sequel series, had a more subtle confirmation in their finale as well, confirming their lead Korra as a queer woman. Steven Universe broke ground as the first children’s show to feature a same sex kiss and eventually, a wedding. Like any responsible queer older sibling, the pride these programs have delivered on has encouraged new shows to be just as open and proud of their queer characters. Shows like She-Ra and the Princesses of Power and Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts have both gained acclaim for their representations and most importantly, just being damn good shows. As much as I love the representation on display, more than just appealing to what I want to see, they’re excellent, creative TV shows.
These shows all have something in common besides representation (to be fair, I haven’t seen “She-Ra” or “Kipo,” they’re next because I only watch gay cartoons now). When a person is queer or respects queer people, it means they probably have a conscience and a decent amount of empathy for fellow human beings (what a crazy concept in the year 2020). These creators know the responsibility that’s in their hands with these programs being many people’s first exposure to queer content. Empathy for other people and having understanding for different people and opinions are big lessons in these shows. Steven, like his mother, wants to help people, and his words are often how he fixes conflicts, not powers (and he has some crazy powers). The same can be said for Finn in Adventure Time, Korra and other protagonists. Most often accompanied with some impressive action, as it is a show for kids, after all. But it’s characters like these that so many kids will grow up with and be inspired by, and it’s no secret how powerful media can impact a person.
After five seasons and a movie, a 20-episode epilogue season called Steven Universe: Future aired earlier this year, taking the characters two years into the future and followed Steven wrestling with unprocessed trauma from the events of the original series. The subtext is gone at this point and it’s plainly text from here on out, continuing its tradition of embracing challenging themes never fully explored in the medium. The season introduces a human non-binary character with they/them pronouns and most of the queer subtext is allowed to just exist and inspire the rest of the show. “Future” was the culmination of all the times Sugar had fought the studio to include queer characters and relationships, proving that both boys and girls will find something to latch on to, and showing how these characters shouldn’t be treated any differently than their heterosexual/cis counterparts. What was once seen as a risky move for Cartoon Network is now lauded as the gold standard for the network.
Steven Universe touched me in ways I have never felt watching an animated show. Its kind heartedness being expressed through these feminine non-binary superheroes touched me during a time where I needed it most. We’re in a time where it’s no secret that LGBTQIA+ people are constantly under attack, especially trans people (even Steven Universe has had its share of censorship). When the Supreme Court ruled workers couldn’t be fired over their sexual orientation or gender identity, it was just days after Trump pulled protections on healthcare for transgender people. Things are far from perfect, but the opposition to this hate is louder than it’s ever been before. Cartoons like Steven Universe will ultimately bring about more positive impact in peoples lives than not. It’s the kind of show that makes me wish I had a niece or nephew to share it with. Regardless, we’ve come a long way from that one cross-dressing alien.
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