Why Steven Universe Needs a Male Lead
If you’ve been living under a rock with no WiFi reception, you probably missed the sensation that is Steven Universe, an upcoming show on Cartoon Network. Not only are there three cool and powerful female characters in the cast, it’s also the first Cartoon Network show created by a woman, the very talented Rebecca Sugar.
As excited as we all are for what looks to be an awesome show, at the same time there’s been this little annoyance. Despite having the very cool Crystal Gems as important characters, the show still seems to focus on the lone boy: Steven. The show is even named after him! Why can’t we have a show that focuses on woman and lets them be bad ass main characters?
Girls are very underrepresented on TV, with an average of 2.25 male characters for every 1 female character. Another study of children’s programming found that male characters spend more time on screen, about 27.5 minutes, compared with only 7 minutes for women. Male characters have more lines and speak close to 11 minutes on averages, while female characters get about three minutes of dialogue.
Beyond just time on screen, there is also the issue of what these boy and girl cartoon characters are doing. Boys were more often involved in “aggression as either the perpetrator or the victim in traditional adventure cartoons. Across genres, females more often demonstrated fear, were romantic, polite, or supportive.”
While I think it’s a very valid criticism of kids media in general to point out yet another male lead, I also think it misses the point that Steven Universe is trying to make.
So far, we’ve only seen the pilot, and any number of things can change before the final cartoon comes out next month, but let’s take a quick look at the role Steven plays and his relationship with the Crystal Gems.
According to Sugar, Steven is based on her own little brother, and he certainly plays the role of the doofy, annoying little brother in the pilot. He screws up, sings songs, and when we first meet him he is sitting at home, waiting for the girls to get home from fighting evil.
Because Steven is young and hasn’t gotten his powers yet, he’s not allowed to go on adventures. Trouble still seems to find him, of course, and lacking magic powers or physical strength, he relies on his other skills to overcome the danger.
So Steven isn’t yet as cool as the rest of the Crystal Gems… but he desperately wants to be.
This is the key part of the show premise for me. These girls are Steven’s role models. He wants to spend time with them and emulate them. He looks up to all three women, and gets angry when the character of Lars teases him for wanting to be like a girl. His love for them has nothing to do with their gender, it has to do with them being awesome as hell. Steven is clever enough to know that he shouldn’t stop admiring the Crystal Gems just because they are girls.
I’ve lamented the lack of female role models for boys on Twitter before. As girls, we’ve had plenty of male role models. I used to pretend to be Donatello on the playground, and my friend’s daughters are adamant that they are pretending to be Mickey Mouse and BatMAN, never Minnie or Batgirl.
Girls are actively encouraged to embrace male role models or masculine characteristics, while boys are very discouraged from wanting to be like a girl. Remember the controversy over SheZow? He is a male character who dresses up as a woman to fight crime. Compare that to the public’s reaction to Mulan.
Yeeeah. Google couldn’t find any fundies pissed off about Mulan cross dressing. So… yeah.
We’re encouraged to look up to men, because our society values men and masculinity. A woman wanting to be like a man is a step up, while a man wanting to be like a woman is a step down. Feminine traits are undervalued and not as desirable, especially for men. One of the worst insults you can level at a boy is to call him a “girl.” I’m sure the guys out there reading this can remember a few times they’ve been told they can’t do or have something because it’s “for girls.” Girls get that a whole lot less.
Steven Universe gives us a character that loves women, respects them, admires them, and looks up to them. One of the ways to combat sexism is to do just that: value women as people with traits and strengths that you would want for yourself. I’m looking forward to little boys on the playground pretending to be Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl the same way we used to pretend to be the Ninja Turtles. All without a single person telling them that they can’t or shouldn’t want to just because they are boys.