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Why Steven Universe Needs a Male Lead

October 18, 2013

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.

A drawing of Steven playing ukulele in front of images of the Crystal Gems

Art by Cyclopsette

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.

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. Steven Universe doesn't quite get there... permalink
    December 31, 2013 12:20 am

    I must say that I never thought about that. The show is fantastic, but I do have one sole quip about the show in that whenever the Crystal Gems get into trouble, it’s often Steven’s misadventures that end up saving them. It reinforces the damsel in distress trope in a way in that women, whenever they get into a bind, can’t get out of it by themselves unless they get a male’s help. Whenever I see males get into similar binds, they can usually get out of it by themselves.

    • bloodshadow64 permalink
      May 5, 2014 12:41 pm

      But at the same time– Steven’s been saved plenty of times by the Crystal Gems. With Adventure Time, I can watch it, I like it…but so far, the women are always in need of saving by a man, which frustrates me to no end. However, the Crystal Gems have saved Steven plenty of times…he wouldn’t be alive without them, and they wouldn’t be alive without him.

  2. July 1, 2014 3:10 pm

    What if the adventure time hero,finn is the crystal gem’s leader and a teacher/creator?
    And Steven’s a true hero that the gem( and the world).
    Because before the whole 15 years of ooo changes,he’d(that means Finn)wanted the gems be proud and strong.
    That’s what heroes do,they’re born from created by Princess Bubblegum(which she’s recently now a queen).
    they’re the good guys(or gal)>:)and so does Steven(a true hero)!

  3. July 1, 2014 3:37 pm

    What if Tiffany(which is the last time we’ve saw the last of him in Adventure Time) goes out for revenge with unknown reason(except the fact where new villain, Phantom Quartz freed him out from the past years ago in Ooo!)?
    What if he(and Phantom)wants revenge for what Finn done to him especially an army of Ooo’s inmates from back then?
    Maybe, just maybe,Phantom was once the fan of Finn(except over the concept of being Connie’s father and all,and Connie’s small but evil derby hatted mom and her new addition of her clan is actually turning out to be a monstrous skull-faced magic user,and a well-smooth of a friend from lumpy space,which in fact,in an instant,thus turining himself into a complete fashionize goddess-like maniac).
    I’d mean, Tiffany would really be fanatic cyborg that would, in fact,bend on destroying anything;even wanted revenge against Finn and Jake for the 2nd score that they’d settled about 15 years?
    I’m just giving all comments,just curious,though.<:^(
    BUT THAT'S A NICE SHOW!!
    i'm a little bit anxious about the New Episodes of Steven Universe,that's all.<:^)

  4. July 1, 2014 3:44 pm

    I’m Jordyn Rachol!(not JBG)
    Saying, that’s a nice show on this one.
    Just say,I’d think that Older Finn and Jake(from Adventure Time #2 issue comic) is the 2 leader of the Crystal Gems;even the Four Season Gem<:)

  5. July 1, 2014 3:51 pm

    Steven is the true hero of Steven Universe!<:)
    Steven and Pearl really both got sword(which means they're both good couple):)
    Steven and Pearl really fall in love(secretly).
    Instead of Connie(because she's the Phantom's daugther,awkward)!

  6. July 1, 2014 4:27 pm

    the Phantom wore a black cloak of a cape and got a bowler hat on top of his head(Z-H 7.7,derby hat bot ‘wife’)and mostly to his wife,she’d uses her connection inside her husband’s brain and route the inhabiter chip on the backside of his neck as neurofeedback from his wife herself,and had a black phantom quartz embedded on his chest.
    That’s a perfect thinking-caps ideas for our villains.
    Since he’s a kid(before Connie’s age)he’d wanted to become a scientist and plus,a part-time job of being a cop guy(which Connie meant earlier),met a young woman,who’s got a cancer and got married;and then uses all his resources to gain even higher and agreed always work as a team to invented chemical,that which the green liquid antidote called BriX127!
    But its side effect is death,violent mood swings,and insanity until she(his wife) regain in full health,unless she’d passes out on the ground dead….at mercy.
    I’d suspects that’s how she’d transfer in the bowler hat bot that looks vaugely like DOR1-5(which is recently been seen a manipulator of a villain who’s rejected by the scientists in Meet the Robinsons on Disney Channel or on dvd).
    It’ll be a good idea to bring up this idea for the main villain for the steven universe.
    It’s not as bad as the red zircon person as we seen in the picture on tumblr<;)

  7. July 10, 2014 8:09 pm

    I think Steven is a hero for the Gems(like Pearl)!
    Because he’s got a gift… a sword… a sheild…and he’s a perfect hero(when he’s got a aging powers).
    Beside,Steven and Pearl is secretly couple(which is a good sign,for steven’s mom,i mean).
    And they’re not a bad sign<:)

  8. July 17, 2014 1:16 pm

    Steven Is the hero that the crystal gems needs him to be.
    Because He’s a half-years old gem with lots of new powers,and he’s also even got an LUVE on Pearl,oneof the prettiest member of the crystal gems and Princess B’s smartest, top star pupil(which is it’s good sign,don’t tell).
    Which is just like the day where in Adventure Time(the day after Finn as a young man married to Princess Bubblgum proposed in marraige–create the land of ooo into beach city just like it was before;a human world with no wars(or mushroom war)and create the crystal gems).
    Steven and Pearl are heroic,but interesting couple.
    Because it’s the two’s got responsiblity,and they’re both helpful and kind,and thusly,the 2’s are secretly parent-like(like his Mother,Rose Quartz and his father,Greg).

  9. USU permalink
    March 22, 2015 12:28 pm

    I agree with bloodshadow64.The Crystal Gems are pretty badass. I mean, they’re fighting against and alien army just to save Earth and protect Steven for goodness sake. I would also like to add that this post is kind of ironic, considering how Rebecca Sugar, the creator of the show is a feminist.

  10. Steven Universe & Women permalink
    January 9, 2016 3:59 pm

    My younger brother absolutely adores this show for all that it is. (I assume part of the reason is that his role models are women, me, my mom and my sister, so he can relate.) Whenever he watches it I find myself drawn to the show; it is beautifully written and drawn and has badass female characters. Anyone and everyone should watch this.

  11. Sam permalink
    August 12, 2016 10:21 am

    Jesus Christ, and what exactly does analysing this actually achieve? this might be somewhat relevant if they were still writing the pilot, but the show is done, so all the ‘what if’s’ are redundant! and claiming a show is sexist due to this or that is actually bullshit cos you are then limiting what the creator can or cant do against YOUR standards, and considering the creator is a woman, that makes your nonsense kind of sexist. Don’t you ever get tired of yourself? chill.

    • Pancakecreme permalink
      September 9, 2016 10:33 pm

      Are you stupid? The article was written in the year 2013, not recently. You need to learn to read next time.

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  1. Why you should be watching Steven Universe | Disrupting Dinner Parties

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