Steven Universe by Rebecca Sugar has a surprising (or perhaps unsurprising!) amount in common with Early American Literature. To be honest, I’m analyzing this because it’s one of few contemporary American texts that I know extremely well. Steven Universe is a cartoon series on Cartoon Network. It follows a half-human boy named Steven Universe who lives with the Crystal Gems, a group of alien space gem people. He needs to cope with his non-human side, his mother’s death, and a myriad of other things throughout the series. This introductory paragraph serves as your obligatory “spoiler warning” for the analysis ahead. I’m going to use the whole series for this.
Early American Literature has a lot of aspects across vastly different books. The themes of these stories are rebellion, freedom, humanity, slavery, conformity, and colonialism to name a few. They all bring certain issues into the spotlight whether they mean to or not. The Heroic Slave purposely brings up the issue of slavery, but The Female American unintentionally brings up issues of feminism and erasure. Steven Universe brings up a lot of issues about America on purpose as stated by its non-binary creator.
Colonialism and Slavery are two reoccurring themes that are brought up frequently when Homeworld is mentioned. The Diamonds, leaders of Homeworld, use their troops to conquer other worlds, draining their resources and killing all life there. This is literally a textbook definition of colonialism. It’s justified by the gems until they see that, sometimes, the planets have nice things on them (like humans). This parallels a lot of Native American stories. When Pink Diamond first comes to earth, she falls in love with the humans. She finds them to be delightful and wonderful- absolutely something worth preserving rather than destroying. That is why she protects them. She suddenly sees that what the diamonds are doing is wrong and tries to put a stop to it. It’s similar to what happens when Listwell sees Madison ranting. In fact, she even proclaims then and there that she doesn’t want to colonize other worlds anymore. She changes her form to become Rose Quartz and start a rebellion. This is also similar to the writings of Bartolome De Las Casas and Cabeza De Vaca. In both of these stories, they see how the Native Americans (or in Steven Universe’s case- other worlds) suffer because of colonial invasion and try to make it known to people higher up.
The parallels to slavery in Steven Universe are flooring. The loss of identity and sense of self, dehumanization, and being forced to a life of servitude are glaringly present with certain gems. The best representation of this are Pearls. There is Pearl, the Crystal Gem, but there are also hundreds of other Pearl gems being forced into slavery. They are created to serve gems of high ranking, such as Sapphires and Diamonds. They’re created to perform any task from door holding to secretary work to being an attendant. They are required to be completely obedient to their owners. A good example of a Pearl’s obedience is in the song “Do It For Her,” where Pearl is teaching Connie how to sword fight, but covertly singing about her obedience to Rose Quartz. Pearls can be awarded or given to a gem as if they were simply a piece of merchandise. The Pearls don’t have a personality of their own, but if they do they disregard it, saying that it’s unimportant. When Steven asks Yellow Pearl if she ever does anything she wants to, she responds with “Oh, of course not! My feelings are irrelevant” (Alone Together). When Pearl’s owner dies, she falls into a depressive desperate state of loss. This is seen very well in the song “It’s Over Isn’t It?” which is sung in the episode “Mr. Greg.” Years and years drift by while she feels as though her use died with her owner because that’s what she was brainwashed to believe. She believes her entire being only existed for Pink Diamond.
When gems start to act unique and not how they were intended to, they are hypnotized by White Diamond to become obedient once again. The best example of this is when Pink Diamond’s first Pearl, Pink Pearl, stops acting like a Pearl. She starts to have her own unique personality and rebel, speaking when she’s not told, etc. As punishment, and to set an example to other gems, White Diamond hypnotizes her, stripping her completely of personality and making her absolutely obedient. Sometimes gems are also “cracked.” This creates a permanent scar on the gem’s form no matter how long they are in respite. This is similar to how slaves are punished in our history (and literature). It’s unnecessarily cruel and brutal.
Dehumanization is also touched upon in other ways, too. For example, the episode “The Zoo,” follows human characters who are descendants of humans that were captured by the diamonds and put into a zoo. They’re happy and don’t know any better. It’s not until another human from Earth is captured that they even realized another way of living existed. They aren’t treated as humans with feelings but rather animals that make for fun pets. Blue Diamond even refers to one of Steven’s human friends as his “pet” in the episode “Alone Together.”
It’s the lack of freedom, dehumanization, and careless colonialism that really sets off the Gem Rebellion. One could say this is a parallel to the Civil War. The Diamonds and their underlings are the oppressors, taking the place of slave owners, while the Crystal Gems and their allies are the oppressed, taking the place of rebelling slaves and abolitionists. Freedom and uniqueness are values that the characters frequently uphold.
Steven Universe reads a certain way as an animated, colored series. Film itself differs heavily from written works. Instead of focusing on the words used to describe a scene, the crew needs to focus on the colors and shapes in a scene. The themes of early American literature take on a more abstract and subtle form when in an animated series. In books like The Heroic Slave and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it’s explicitly stated that they are talking about slavery. It’s never explicitly said they are talking about slavery in Steven Universe, but rather, one comes to the realization that gems are something like slaves when they think about it. This abstract way of showing people morals and values seems to work better because people don’t realize they’re being taught how to think. With texts like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, people know what the text is trying to accomplish, but with texts like Steven Universe, people need to realize the underlying motives as they watch it.
- Homeworld- Where the alien gem people are from.
- The Crystal Gems- ragtag group of stray gems and Steven who live on earth.
- Rose Quartz/ Pink Diamond- Steven’s mother
- The Gem Rebellion- Rebellion of gems that was started by Rose Quartz and ended in disaster, shattering (permanently murdering) millions of gems.
- The Diamonds- The leaders of Homeworld who enslave the other gems and rule over them with an adamantium fist.
“Alone Together.” Steven Universe, written and storyboarded by Hilary Florido, Katie Mitroff, and Rebecca Sugar, directed by Ian Jones-Quartey, Cartoon Network, 2015.
Deedee Magno-Hall. “It’s Over, Isn’t It?” Soundtrack: Volume 1, 2016
“The Zoo.” Steven Universe, written and storyboarded by Lamar Abrams and Katie Mitroff, directed by Joe Johnston, Cartoon Network, 2017.
Steven Universe. Cartoon Network, 2013-2019.