Masculinity in Steven Universe: A Matter of GEMder?

Steven Universe is an animated show airing on Cartoon Network that has drawn much praise for its representation of femininity, women, people of color, and of LGBTQ relationships. If you don’t already know, It follows the story of Steven, a boy, half human and half gem being raised and trained by three gems, magical alien rock women who have various powers, in a small ocean town. It has become a safe haven for many of those seeking that representation. As such, it has also been praised as a role model for young girls and promoting girl power. But what message does a show like this have for young boys? The titular character, Steven, is male after all. Where can a viewer find masculine traits in and among all this girl power? This article aims to trace the presence of traditionally male or masculine traits throughout the show, and what the appearance of those traits says about the creation of fully rounded, complex, characters.

To begin it is useful to define what traits or characteristics are traditionally “masculine” and which are “feminine” and also to define gender. “Gender” is a complex word that covers a series of topics. It identifies one’s status as man, woman, boy, girl, or otherwise in social and legal terms. It also identifies one’s personal feeling and expression of being more masculine and more feminine. Society defines what is masculine and what is feminine. Some traditionally feminine traits are being emotional, passive, sensitive, quiet, graceful, weak, passive, nurturing, and self-critical. Some traditionally masculine traits are being independent, stoic, aggressive, competitive, clumsy, warmongering or eager to fight, active, physically large and strong, and being self-confident.

Sugar, the creator of the show
Rebecca Sugar

It is also important to note that the gems, aliens from another planet, are actually described as sexless and non-binary by the show’s creator, meaning they have no inherent sex and a fluid, self-described gender. Rebecca Sugar, stated on Reddit that “Gems are gems” and that there are, really, no female or male gems. These beings choose to present their physical bodies (which are explained in the show as “holograms with mass,”) with feminine traits and use she/her pronouns, simply because that is what they choose to be. Steven, being half gem and half human, is the only gem to use male pronouns and identify as male, thanks to his human DNA.

HuMan

With that in mind, one can begin to look closer at the presence of gender and gendered traits in Steven Universe’s human and gem characters and the show’s male and female characters. First, a look at the show’s human characters, which is where all the show’s male identifying figures (except for Steven) can be found. A majority of these characters are only side characters, but a few make regular appearances, and thus are better known. It is actually quite difficult, near impossible, to find one male character in the show who fits all the traditional roles of a masculine figure. Steven’s biological father, Greg, portrays a near equal balance of masculine and feminine qualities.

If one were an avid fan, one would be able to pick out two or three of the lesser male characters that filled this role. Yellowtail, the rarely seen father by marriage of another side character named Sour Cream fills the role of the distant disapproving father. He is often at sea, leaving his wife Vidalia to fill a traditional housewife position. He also appears disapproving of his son’s dream of DJ’ing, though he comes around to accepting his son’s dream.

Marty expresses his opinion on women
Marty expresses his opinion on women

Another side character connected to this story is Sour Cream’s biological father Marty. He is disrespectful and rude, especially towards women, and not in touch with his feelings or the feelings of others. His defining trait and goal in life is greed.

This is the closest one will come to finding something typical for the men of Steven Universe. The remainder of the characters range across the spectrum of masculinity and femininity in both directions.

Two of the more masculine characters are Lars and Peedee, both Steven’s friends from the town of Beach City. Lars tends to be cynical, rude, and insulting to the point of aggression, displaying a more masculine side. He also doesn’t often think on other’s feelings, or express his own very well. However, he has a softer side brought out by those he cares about, and is deeply invested in how others see him in a near feminine self-consciousness. Peedee is very minor character, but, despite his age, he embodies the breadwinner or the business man. He is serious, cynical, and completely devoted to his family’s business, all masculine traits. He does, however, express his fear and anxieties, in a feminine willingness to appear weak.

Greg and Steven Universe
Greg and Steven have a father/son moment

A more balance character os Steven’s father Greg. Greg is overall kind,  and honest about his feelings. He expresses these feelings in particular towards Steven and his former partner Rose Quartz, but also is generally friendly and open. As a human so closely involved with the gems, he is afraid and says so, again appearing feminine. Often, though, he puts on a brave face, and tries to act as Steven’s protector, showing his masculine side. As a young man he lived the masculine life of the rock star, and still maintains the role of breadwinner for Steven by running his own business.

In this way, these male characters serve as the background against which Steven grows and learns. He himself is the most balanced of the men in his masculinity and femininity. Numerous articles and videos have been written and made on this topic, so there isn’t much reason to linger too long in exploring Steven’s character. (A few of these can be found through BitchFlicks, through LadyGeekGirl and through The Pop Culture Detective Agency.)

StevenWhat can be said, though, is that Steven is his mother’s child. He is a force of love, caring, and kindness everywhere he goes. He protects those he loves with all he has (a defensive shield) and heals them when they’re hurt (both emotionally and physically with a healing spit power). His confidence, independence, and adventurous spirit classifies him as masculine, but his deep nurturing core makes him feminine. Despite his willingness to fight back, and even risk his life for the cause in a masculine passion, and his fair fighting skill, he would rather reach a compromise or friendship with the forces that affect planet earth.

Also important to note that the few times he does become outright aggressive and masculine, taking on a wrestler persona in one episode, he ends up causing more harm than good. Steven, true to his nature, though, apologizes for it. He ends up returning himself to balance.

Masculine in the Feminine

These humans, however are not the only source for masculine traits throughout the show. Many of the gems possess a balance of masculine and feminine traits, as do many of the shows other female (and male) human characters. It is simpler, though, to study the gems as they have much more presence in the show than any of the other human characters.

The gems can be divided into two groups, loosely. The Crystal Gems are the group defending earth and caring for Steven, and other gems are from Homeworld, the home planet of all gems. All of the Crystal Gems are generally considered to be Steven’s “moms” as his biological mother, the original leader of the Crystal Gems named Rose Quartz, gave up her body in order that he might live. Rose Quartz herself has come to embody many traditional maternal and feminine traits. Rose quartz as a gemstone is the love stone after all. However, Rose was also a fierce fighter, wielding a sword and shield with great skill, and has served as a distant and mysterious parental figure, much like a distant father might, throughout the show.

Amethyst, Garnet, and Pearl
Amethyst, Garnet, and Pearl

The other members of the Crystal Gems display this same balance of masculine and feminine. Pearl, though graceful and ballerina like, uses that grace in the art or swordplay. Pearl serves as a mentor and teacher of sword fighting as well. Pearl is portrayed as extremely logical and fills the role of strategist or planner, which would usually be the role of a “nerd” man or male tech guru in other works. Pearls within the world of the show are created to be beautiful, much like one might say women are taught to be. However, Pearl overcame that expectation and became a fierce fighter.

Amethyst, another Crystal Gem, has occasionally even flipped her physical form to portray masculine traits. In one episode (“Tiger Millionaire”), she uses her shapeshifting ability to become a large bodied, muscular wrestler who even uses he/him pronouns. In her more feminine persona Amethyst fills the role of the slob or the party animal on the team. She is messy, sleeps a lot, eats a lot, dances crudely, and is generally irreverent. All of these traits can come across as masculine. Amethyst, however, is one of the most self-conscious of the Crystal Gems and worries often that she isn’t good enough, a lack of confidence which is distinctly feminine.

JasperOne of Steven Universe’s most fierce antagonists is the gem Jasper. She is not part of the Crystal Gems, and shows significantly less caring traits than gems who are. She actually can be read as one of the most hyper-masculine characters within the show despite her gender. She is a soldier, physically strong, huge, headstrong and unrelenting. Her position of power is one often filled by men, and she often bullies others to go along with her thanks to her size. She is the most avid opponent of fusion often quoted saying that it’s “just a cheap tactic to make weak gems stronger,” and really only supports fusion in terms of war. Fusion is the process by which two gems come together with their powers to become one larger being with increased strength and abilities. It is often used as an analogy for or extension of romantic or otherwise intimate relationships between two people. This can be read as a disdain towards feelings or emotional closeness, a typically masculine trait. She has no interest in anything outside of combat, and victory, again landing her squarely in the hyper-masculine square.

However, even this fierce fighter isn’t totally exempt from feminine qualities. Jasper has her moments of weakness and emotion. After fusing with another gem for a long period Jasper becomes addicted to the feeling of power, and, once separated, seems desperate to reform. It almost seems as if she’s desperate for closeness, a feminine quality, and even mentions she’s sad that no gem wants to voluntarily fuse with her. Additionally, Jasper expresses grief at the loss of her leader and deep hatred towards the ones who are responsible.

Balance is the Key

With Jasper (and even Marty) as antagonistic, the message appears to be not that all masculine traits are bad and to be scorned, but rather that too much of one makes for unhappy unfriendly people. The characters who contain the greatest balance of traits, like Steven, seem to be the happiest. None of this touches on the various other messages the show contains about happiness and mental illness, which also influence individual’s happiness, but as an overall trend the message is there. To be the best, the strongest, the happiest, it is better to be whole and well-rounded than to conform to all the parts of any one norm.

Perhaps the best analogy for the balance of and representation of male and female traits in the show can be found in the character of Garnet. Garnet is a member of the Crystal Gems, one of Steven’s caregivers, and also a fusion of two gems. In this case, Garnet is the embodiment of a romantic relationship between two gems, Ruby and Sapphire.

Ruby and Sapphire reunite before fusing
Ruby and Sapphire reunite before fusing

These gems, though both female, can be interpreted as representations of the masculine and the feminine. Ruby is hot, while Sapphire is cold. Ruby is a fighter, Sapphire is a wise woman as well as a noble. In filling one of the most basic stereotypes, Ruby wears pants and Sapphire wears a dress. Sapphire is caring, compassionate, and patient. Ruby is angry and fierce, usually expressing this in outbursts and rages. Sapphire is the more calm, cool, and collected of the two. These two qualities in particular could be swapped, masculine for feminine, as being emotional is a more feminine trait and being logical a more masculine one, but it is the nature, the outgoing versus the restrained, which gives them gendered qualities.

The gem formed from these two, Garnet, is the strongest of the Crystal Gems, as well as the leader of the team. She is a marvelous fighter, using gauntlets on her fists to crush anyone that stands in her way. But she chooses to apply that strength towards the protection of the planet earth and the protection of Steven, whom she cares for greatly, even to the point of becoming visibly distressed when he is in danger. She is silent and stoic but she also possesses a deep inner knowing and an uncanny awareness of the emotions of others around her. She is literally made of love, but has never been made weaker by that love.

Garnet and Steven
Garnet and Steven

As such, she herself represents the greatest strength of the show: the ability to balance the masculine and feminine, traits found in all people, to create something stronger. This is what Rebecca Sugar and her team do with each of their characters. They disregard the traditional roles of what it is to be a man and what it is to be a woman and instead just create people, or aliens, with real complex depth. And that, in the words of Steven, is what it means to be “strong in the real way.”

References

Ian Jones Quarterly’s Tumblr Response

Reddit AMA with Rebecca Sugar 

Steven Universe Wikia

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Mariel Tishma is a student at Columbia College Chicago where she is studying creative writing. She firmly believes that everyone and everything has a story to tell.

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27 Comments

  1. Anabel
    0

    It’s rare to have a show of this caliber establish itself from the onset and refuse to lose its steam all throughout.

  2. Brynn
    0

    All the traits traditionally associated with masculinity,strength,stoicism,endurance,leadership, protection,judicious usage of force. As well as the roles played by men,the warrior/champion,the builder,the authority/judge, are still present in the show and are still held up as thing to be admired and respected.

    However the show transfers all those masculine attributes and roles to female and feminine characters. Masculinity is soft in Steven Universe because the it’s harder aspect have been removed and folded into the this show’s image of femininity.

    Don’t get me wrong I like the show, but I also see what it’s doing.

  3. ritt
    0

    It’s a great show, and great analysis, I’m looking forward to future episodes.

  4. Tijerina
    0

    Such a good topic. Great discussion!

  5. Tom
    0

    When we watch Steven Universe, my wife and I often pause to discuss different ways the show subverts any number of problematic aspects of society.

  6. KAkE
    0

    Steven Universe is undoubtedly a show dedicated to showing that our lives do not have to be ruled by rigid, heteronormative gender roles.

    • Andrea C.
      0

      Yes. Steven Universe is a reminder that boys and men can be good and kind and powerfully loving, instead of just plain powerful.

  7. susi
    0

    Very different exploration of masculinity compared to other cartoons.

  8. cake
    0

    I absolutely love this show!

  9. Angelyn
    0

    When kids see people like them portrayed positively in media they are positively impacted.

  10. Donya
    0

    Steven Universe breaks a lot of social barriers like.

  11. MON
    1

    When it comes to modern feminist views, the show is “so awesome” and “special” but it’s really just spitting in your face and you don’t even realize it. The show is nothing more than vulgar, childish takes on and use of very serious topics. In fact, I would go so far as to call it directly propaganda. Propaganda is defined as; information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.

  12. Maryanne Farrar
    0

    Great article. I’ve been watching it since it started airing.

  13. Huong
    0

    This is a great character who embodies the possibility of turning away from simulated and toxic masculinities to a movement toward one that is deeply rooted in love and compassion rather than domination.

  14. Wentworth
    0

    Rebecca Sugar successfully provides quirky, harmless humor that avoids poking fun at anything in a cruel degrading way.

  15. nadia
    0

    I think masculinity can, and should, manifest in different, healthier ways: emotional strength, bravery, and above all, love.

  16. This show is rare in that it truly expresses gender equality in both male and female terms-it doesn’t say one is bad the other good. A lot of American culture puts special emphasis on a certain gender,This is one of America’s greatest problems right now…if we didn’t have any issues with gender equality than homosexuality would be accepted more. This is all theoretical, but if people were more willing to accept both types of personalities we would be a more stable socieity and people.

  17. Great article. I was afraid it would be too focused on the show as part of the genre, but it appealed to me as an academic with an interest in Gender Studies, it was well thought out and clearly written.

  18. I cannot tell you how relieved I was to see a female villain that wasn’t typecast as catty and underhanded. It lends a lot of depth to the portrayal of women in media.

    Your article is definitely something I am saving. Women in media is a fascinating topic and I appreciate how you’ve taken the time to highlight its importance!

  19. Travis
    0

    Steven Universe is really an awesome show.

  20. Cope
    0

    Love this show. The common tropes used for male characters are flipped on the head and given so much dimension.

  21. A great Dragon Ball Z style celebration of feminism, family, and love in its many many forms…

    Also, Steven Universe is probably the best kid’s show about sex and intimacy ever made.

  22. Paul A. Crutcher

    Great show and article. Yet I wonder if “subversion” is the most accurate way to describe what the show and Sugar are doing. If, as Tishma writes and as scholars and psychiatrists and geneticists generally agree, gender fluidity is “found in all people,” the only subversion is of a cultural binary. Why we continue to perpetuate binaries in our world is difficult to understand – outside of a conceptualization of humanity as basically simple, thought-avoidant. Noting that aggression is a “masculine” trait normalizes the variety of derisions girls and women face (and that everyone else does who doesn’t meet a gendered expectation). We all know these derisions – the wrong side of the virgin/whore binary, of the crone or B, and more. The recent election in the US included rhetoric about Clinton, about the way she performed her expected gender.

    And the gender neutrality of the gems *becomes* gendered once it’s contextualized. English as it’s currently constituted doesn’t offer an alternative singular pronoun to the gendered s/he binary. Feminists, queer scholars, LBGTQ activists, and trans persons have all proposed lexical revisions, from using new words (e.g., “xir”) to appropriating existing words (e.g., “they”), but none has been taken up by the broader culture. Gender parity and normalization of gender fluidity in the US and most of the world faces a deep linguistic problem. Like associating caring or empathy with the “feminine” and therefore “girls” and “women” and “her” or “she,” and certainly not “boys” and “men” and “him” or “he,” we are constrained by the structures of language, and deserve a serious project toward reconstituting the language to better reflect the changing culture. Or to study its possibility. The staggering linguistic death across the globe suggests any task of this sort will be immensely challenging, as we move ever and ever closer to a mostly homogenous English.

  23. Fenton
    0

    Steven Universe is truly groundbreaking and I hope it holds up as a strong example for the future generations of cartoons and animation.

  24. My favorite show!

  25. I really didn’t think about it in this way, when the stronger than you fight happened I tied it to the strength of their relationship making them strong but its definitely a balanced personality that makes Garnet strong as well.

  26. Interesting analysis! Your points on Jasper are very true and insightful. In the show, I also appreciate the poisonous relationship between Lapis and Jasper. All in all, great article!

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