Most of Steven Universe’s main cast is comprised of female-coded gemstone aliens, giving us, shock and awe, a children’s show not explicitly aimed at girls that stars a whole bunch of girls. Whether or not you can call the Gems women from our earthy point of view is a scientific matter, but for all intents and purposes they’re female—and it’s not as if the kids watching are necessarily going to nitpick details like that. They’re going to see a cast full of heroic women, flawed women, hilarious women, scary women… basically, a display of diversity in female character types that it’s rare to see anywhere else.
In a lot of cartoons—hell, in most media—it’s kind of assumed that unless stated and slated otherwise (think My Little Pony, Barbie or Magical Girls) the main target audience is boys, and boys will most definitely be put off by a show that has a lot of girls in it. They’re just not relatable, right? And if they were, what kind of self-respecting young man would admit to seeing himself in or looking up to a girl character? I can’t speak for the actual internal logic in cartoon studios and executives, but the outcome remains the same: most main casts in children’s shows are made up mostly of boys, perhaps with a token girl or two in there.
This leads to the Smurfette Principle, where not only does the role fall upon this token female character to represent their entire gender, but their gender becomes their defining trait. In the team she’s The Girl, before she’s The Snarky One or The Mechanic or The Wizard or whatever, often complete with a pink uniform or one that’s unusually revealing or slinky compared to the rest of the team (think the Pink Power Ranger or Black Widow) to visually code them as different for the audience’s convenience. They are, very generally speaking, an Other that often falls into stereotypes or falls apart as a consistent character because they’re trying to be the One Perfect Girl to represent all girls.
To properly represent anything you need a spectrum. Firstly, it’s realism, because in case you were not aware women make up more than half the population, and due to that an awful lot of girls watch an awful lot of TV, and many have grown up seeing themselves as a token extra. I certainly noticed it when I was a kid, though not with the analytical brain and internet soap box that I possess now. I loved Digimon to pieces, and adored the male characters… and even though maths was not my strong point (it still isn’t) I couldn’t help but notice that wonderful as they were, the ratio of girls to boys among the DigiDestined was very skewed. The Leader was, of course, one of the boys.
Steven Universe is the show that my nine-year-old self would have lost her tiny mind over.
It’s certainly diverse compared to a lot of what’s on TV, not only in a “hey, people who aren’t white exist!” and a “hey, people who aren’t straight exist!” way (though that is also incredibly important) but in that it has a large female cast and a wide variety of roles and archetypes that those characters fit into. We have cool and calm Garnet, pedantic Pearl and free-spirited Amethyst making up our main trio, each immediately different on surface level, right down to their varied designs, which are more concerned with portraying character than looking obsessively feminine or pretty. They’re all distinguishable, and tall buff girls, stick-thin ballerina girls and squat tubby girls alike will be able to see themselves in these characters who are all supportive and heroic in their different ways.
And once the story progresses and we get to know them much better, we see their weaknesses and flaws exposed, and they become so much more than their initial archetypes, each messed up, imperfect and unsympathetic in their own unique way, and possessing strengths that lie alongside their fallbacks. This goes for the human girls as well (you could not mix up Connie and Sadie and Jenny if you tried, and they’re all as awesome and messy as each other in different ways), but the Gems as our main squad are, if you’ll pardon the pun, satisfyingly multi-faceted.
What’s especially brilliant is that alongside these flawed but ultimately wonderful Good Guys, we’ve got a bunch of Gems that oppose them and are, despite most likely having their own layers that are yet to be revealed, unabashedly awful. Jasper and Peridot are both villains, but they’re villains in completely different ways, neither of them falling into the usual stereotypes for female antagonists. Jasper is a wonder in her own right simply because she comes with a body type and attitude that we very, very rarely see on girls and women in cartoons unless it’s a character that’s meant to be weird or funny. She doesn’t have the nickname Big Buff Cheeto Puff for nothing; she’s huge and muscular and genuinely scary, a bastion of brute force and ruthlessness.
She makes a lovely contrast to Peridot, who I think, for many, stood a daydream’s chance of redemption until a recent episode where she was seen calmly reporting on terrifying biological experiments. When confronted, she screamed and fought and eventually turned herself into a helicopter and whirred away into the wide blue yonder, shooting a glare at Steven and the Crystal Gems. The idea of all the Gems reconciling and ending up as One Big Happy Family is a sweet one, but perhaps best left for wishful (but not invalid) alternate universes and fanart, because damn if I didn’t love seeing that.
Basically, it’s just phenomenally rare that we have that kind of weaselly, slimy, self-serving little crap of a power nerd villain as girls. It’s rare in the first place that we have any female villains that are just horrible for their own goals and their own nature without some sort of tragic or sympathetic qualities or backstory foisted upon them. Women can be terrible people. Female-coded Gem aliens can walk all over the wellbeing of their own kind and completely dismiss whole planets to serve their own agenda. People love Lapis Lazuli, who is undoubtedly a sympathetic and tragic antagonist, but they also love Jasper and Peridot while fully embracing how awful and dangerous they are.
And because the heroes of the story are mostly women too, they don’t enforce any kind of negative ideals that a situation of female villains vs male heroes sometimes can. With a full spectrum, you can tell a greater story, and avoid negative implications while you’re at it. A good example of this, as a sidenote, is the queer relationships—Pearl’s worshipful devotion to Rose Quartz, who she literally died for multiple times, and whose boyfriend she was mercilessly bitter towards, and whose death left her in a grief that occasionally makes her a horrible and hapless person, is a complicated relationship and could be read as very much unhealthy. It could also be read as a purely platonic knight-and-queen-just-gals-being-pals relationship, but let’s just say, since the show has not so much left a trail in subtext but left behaviour recognisable and framed as romantic out in the open without actually putting it into words, that she loved her.
It’s no good, and if you wanted to, you could say they had set Pearl’s queer-coded love for Rose as a demonstration of how lesbian relationships are unhealthy and obsessive, clearly never holding a candle to the cute, sweet heterosexual affection we see between Greg and Rose, and on a more puppy-love scale, Steven and Connie. But lo! What is that? Ruby and Sapphire appear, both girls, who not only hug and kiss and express concern and love for each other, but have a romantic relationship so strong, adorable and healthy that it turns them into a giant woman. Who sings an entire song about how the strength of love will triumph over hate while punching Jasper in the face. It’s not perfect either, but it creates a spectrum, and in that it doesn’t say any one thing about gay relationships, and neither idolises or demonises them.
It’s important to show the good with the bad, and, you know, that space lesbians have the same kind of issues in their love stories that straight people do. And it’s important to show that there are all kinds of women in the world, that they can be tough or weak, gross or prudish, selflessly willing to defend the earth or willing to punch small children to achieve what they want. It doesn’t stick anyone in boxes, and shows girls that they don’t have to be the token Smurfette. And, equally importantly, it shows boys this too, and may yet raise a generation where it’s normalised to enjoy gender-equal or female-dominated cartoons, and gosh, maybe even see these girls as your heroes like Steven does.