“There’s an awful lot of awful things we could be thinking of, but for just one day let’s only think about love,” croons Steven Universe, the protagonist of the Cartoon Network show of the same name, as he and his family gear up for the much anticipated nuptials of his aunts, Ruby and Sapphire.
Over the course of the show’s latest five-episode arc, titled “Heart of the Crystal Gems,” viewers saw Ruby and Sapphire split up and consider life apart from one another, then reunite with a dramatic proposal involving Ruby riding in on horseback. In the arc’s final episode, “Reunited,” the two commemorated their millenia-old relationship with a wedding.
Steven Universe has long been hailed as one of the queerest shows — and certainly the queerest animated show — on American television. Given that the show is aimed towards a young audience, it’s a pleasant surprise to see how visibly queer the show is, forefronting its non-traditional characters rather than relegating them to the sidelines or to “very special episodes.” And while moment’s like Ruby and Sapphire’s wedding earn Steven Universe the loudest applause, the show’s queer sensibilities extend far beyond its willingness to build an episode around a queer wedding, or to let women wear tuxedos while men don makeup and dresses. Steven Universe’s queerness isn’t just about the show’s superficial trappings, it’s baked into a core message: fight for love against all odds.
Science fiction has long been a way for writers and artists to create queer characters and explore queer themes, even in eras when the open discussion of queerness was considered far too taboo. Sometimes this representation comes in the form of alien cultures where our version of “queer” is the “normal” default. The men of Athos, a planet featured in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Ethan of Athos, see same-sex couples as natural because women are banned from their planet; similarly, the women of Wonder Woman’s Themyscira live and love and couple off quite happily without men.
In other works, queerness is explored more symbolically, through an exploration of a forbidden love that may not explicitly resemble a relationship we think of as queer. In Star Trek: The Next Generation’s 1992 episode, “The Outcast,” the crew of the Enterprise encounter the J’naii, an agender race who’ve criminalized binary gender. A J’naii named Soren comes out as female and pursues a relationship with Commander Riker, an affair that ultimately leads to Soren being put on trial and forced to undergo a form of conversion therapy.
Steven Universe makes use of both of these strategies in its celebration of queerness. Ruby and Sapphire — the couple whose five thousand, seven hundred, and fifty year (and eight month!) old love was the inspiration for the show’s wedding episode “Reunion” — readily read as a lesbian couple. They both present as women, they both use she/her pronouns, and they even embody a butch/femme dynamic, with Ruby’s aggressive, masculine aesthetic serving as a contrast to Sapphire’s gown-clad femme. (Although the couple switched things up during the wedding, with Ruby wearing a white gown while Sapphire donned a blue suit.)
Like the women of Themyscira or Ethan of Athos, this same-gender attraction comes naturally to Ruby and Sapphire. They’re both Gems, a genderless alien race whose members all present as women. Two Gems who fall in love are not necessarily two women in love; within the context of Gem society, there are no other options.
Yet even as the gender dynamic of Ruby and Sapphire’s relationship is fairly unremarkable within the social context of their home planet, the two Gems struggle against societal taboos in their quest to be with one another.
On the Gem Homeworld, Gems are created to serve a group of leaders known as the Diamond Authority, and each Gem is designed for a specific purpose. Some Gems are fighters, some are handmaids, others terraform conquered planets or work in construction or use a specialized sense to predict the future. Fusion — a process by which Gems are able to blend their bodies and minds together to form a larger, joint being — is exclusively used by Gems of the same type, who join together to more efficiently serve their leaders. Two Ruby guards might fuse together to become a bigger Ruby, but other forms of fusion are strictly forbidden.
Ruby and Sapphire — designed to be a bodyguard and a soothsayer, respectively — use fusion for a wholly different purpose, joining together to form Garnet, a third Gem who is the personification of their love. Ruby and Sapphire’s choice to almost exclusively exist as Garnet, abandoning the roles they were designed for in the pursuit of love, is a criminal act within Gem culture. Their status as rebels of the law, forced them to seek sanctuary on Earth.
It’s not that much of a stretch to see fusion as a metaphor for sex, and the sort of fusion without purpose that Ruby and Sapphire engage in as a stand-in for the non-procreative sex that queer couples have been derided and criminalized for engaging in for thousands of years. Ruby and Sapphire’s decision to fuse for love alone makes them an abomination within Gem culture — a word, it should be noted, that has been hurled at many queer couples for as long as the LGBTQ community has fought for its rights.
This dual strategy of queer representation makes Steven Universe a show that offers audiences many ways to engage with its message — and many opportunities to see themselves within its episodes. The explicit representation that comes from seeing Ruby and Sapphire holding one another, or pledging their devotion to each other at a wedding altar, is an incredibly important act of queer visibility, particularly for the show’s younger viewers, who may not have many opportunities to see queer relationships lovingly celebrated and normalized.
But the underlying message imbued in Ruby and Sapphire’s relationship, the argument that love is a thing worth fighting for, even when your culture ostracizes you for pursuing it, offers a rallying cry that queers from all backgrounds can unite behind. Not every queer relationship looks like Ruby and Sapphire’s, and we’re not all readily represented by their union, but we can all see ourselves in their fight for love.
And while Ruby and Sapphire may be the most visibly queer relationship on the show, they’re not the only way that Steven Universe stands up for non-traditional love. Steven, the show’s teenage protagonist, is co-parented by three Gems and his human father, a complicated blended family that’s held together by everyone’s love for one another. Peridot, a fusion-averse Gem who reads as asexual, still forms a close, loving relationship with her roommate Lapis Lazuli. During a visit to the Gem Homeworld, Steven encounters Fluorite, a renegade fusion of six Gems who the show’s creator has confirmed is a representation of a polyamorous relationship. All of these loves — along with the many different human relationships and families we see in the show’s beach town — are treated as valid, beautiful, and worthy of celebration.
Every queer person knows what it’s like to exist in a society that discriminates against you, that raises you to believe that you were made wrong, or that your loving relationship is somehow an affront to polite society. And Steven Universe’s commitment to the message that all of us, and all of our loves, are beautiful and worth fighting for is what makes it so undeniably and powerfully queer.
Lux Alptraum is a writer whose work has been featured in a variety of outlets including The New York Times, Cosmopolitan, and Hustler. Her first book, Faking It: The Lies Women Tell About Sex — And the Truths They Reveal, comes out from Seal Press on Nov. 6, 2018. Follow her on Twitter at @luxalptraum.