The Queer Ecology of Steven Universe
In Steven Universe, queer feelings and environmentalism are explicitly intertwined, and together they inspire revolution. The show has been widely praised for its LGBTQ+ representation—such as the first same-sex wedding and the first nonbinary character to use gender-neutral pronouns to appear on Cartoon Network—but its environmental messaging has received far less attention, despite their clear connections. Steven grows up on an Earth that exists only because of an uprising against extractive imperialism that took place thousands of years before his birth; there remains serious planetary damage, some of which may never be undone. The show breaks out of black and white environmentalist narratives that pit total success against abject destruction, choosing instead to highlight the importance of interspecies care and an insistence on better futures. The epilogue series to Rebecca Sugar’s popular cartoon ended in March 2020, ending Steven’s story for good and leaving behind a queer ecological legacy.
Steven lives on a present-day alternate Earth shaped and scarred by an intergalactic empire of Gems—magical humanoid aliens who attempted to colonize the planet long ago. Steven is half-Gem and half-human. His mother, Rose Quartz, led a group of Gems in a rebellion to protect life on Earth from their own species’ destructive resource extraction. After Rose sacrificed herself to bring Steven into the world, he is raised by several members of the Crystal Gem rebellion as well as his human father. The remaining Crystal Gems still protect the Earth from magical, often environmental threats. In one episode, another Gem steals the planet’s oceans. In another, Steven descends into the Earth’s mantle to stop a Gem monster about to tear the planet apart.
Steven Universe represents what Nicole Seymour has called a “queer ecological imagination” that centers radical care work and environmental efforts without guaranteed results. The planet the Crystal Gems are fighting for is one that’s been left damaged by an incomplete invasion. Even so, they find value in protecting the life that remains and in creating a place full of greater queer possibilities for themselves.
The Gem rebellion began as a solely environmental effort to protect life on Earth from the devastation of unchecked extraction, but over time it also became an effort to protect the Earth as a place of queer possibility and liberation for Gems1. On their Homeworld, Gems are created fully-formed and expected to serve within a strict caste system, so the freedom of organic life seems like its own kind of magic to them.
In a flashback, we hear it in Rose’s own words: “You’re never the same, even moment to moment. You’re allowed and expected to invent who you are. What an incredible power.”2 Here, “you” can be understood to mean not only humans but all organic life, and it’s this power that first inspired Rose’s rebellion. Ultimately, Steven Universe connects the collective rights of human and nonhuman life to a healthy environment to the individual right to be self-determining and, by extension, queer.
Garnet, the leader of the Crystal Gems after Rose, is a queer figure whose very existence chafes against Homeworld’s control. Garnet is a fusion—two Gems living as one body, one mind, one identity. In a Homeworld context, fusion is intended to be temporary, militaristic, and limited to Gems of the same “type”. Yet Garnet is a permanent fusion of two different “types” of Gems—Ruby and Sapphire—who fell in love. Garnet is queer not just in her embodiment of same-gender love but also in her refusal of normative relating.
Through Garnet, queerness becomes entangled with the original environmental mission of the rebellion. Rose wants to protect life on Earth and also the lives of Gems like Garnet. Ruby and Sapphire’s courtship and their decision to become Garnet is set against a scene of them exploring the planet together, admiring the life that lives there. In one iconic shot, they stand at the top of a verdant, flowered hilltop, looking out at the valley below and mountains beyond, the moon setting as the sun rises. This shot sets up their decision to become Garnet permanently. Steven Universe often sets moments of character growth and self-discovery like this one against beautiful landscape scenes, visually affirming the message that two of its core values—environmental protection and the right to (queer) self-determination—are enmeshed.
Steven Universe shows us the kinds of care acts and ethical relations that bring queer and ecological values together, regardless of one’s identity. Queer environmental feelings are not necessarily about being queer as an environmentalist but about caring for other beings in ways that don’t center your own self-interest and enact the “empathetic, ethical imagination” that Nicole Seymour describes as a tenet of queer ecology.
Steven exemplifies precisely this kind of “empathic, ethical imagination” throughout the show (one of his magical abilities is empathy), most notably in his determination to connect with “corrupted” Gems. Corruption is the result of an attack on Earth from the Gem Homeworld, which gave the Gems exposed to it monstrous forms and “tore the fabric of [their] minds.”3 Steven’s family are the only Crystal Gems to survive the attack unscathed, and now they find themselves battling and then capturing the corrupted Gems in a kind of stasis. Steven’s quest to undo the damage done by Homeworld is one of the principal arcs of the show, but he makes his first empathetic connection to a corrupted Gem before he even knows they’re Gems.
When Steven accidentally releases one of the corruptions, Nephrite, he’s initially frightened. The “centipeetle” as he calls her spits acid at him, hair raised. After a moment, though, Steven is able to see what the other Crystal Gems cannot—she is frightened and attacking in self-defense. He drops his voice and lays down on the ground, showing her that he isn’t a threat. Eventually, Nephrite’s growling quiets and she visibly relaxes.4 Here, Steven is doing care work that expands “not definitions of humanity, but . . . definitions of what deserves care.” Rather than accepting that Nephrite must be contained, Steven sees her inherent worthiness of care in the same way his mother once did for the organic life on Earth.
The episode ends with Steven agreeing to re-contain Nephrite after she attacks once again out of fear, a disappointing close. Steven promises to heal her, and it’s this episode that begins his quest to heal the corrupted Gems. From the perspective of queer ecology, Steven’s attachment to “cure” and “corruption” may seem at first to echo familiar environmentalist investments in purity that have exclude disabled, queer, and racialized lives from nature. In Brilliant Imperfection, Eli Clare examines cure and restoration in many forms, uniting critical disability studies and the environmental humanities. His critique makes space for our desire to restore landscapes harmed by capitalist violence and prevent future harm by environmental injustice while resisting other forms of “cure” that would involve eliminating people with disabilities. Clare calls for “a broad-based grappling” with his subject. Steven Universe does its own grappling.
Homeworld’s corruption of the rebel Gems is the result of the same kind of destructive logic that it uses to turn whole planets into sacrifice zones for extraction. Like so many Gems, the Earth remains harmed by the invasion. The Gem empire’s resource extraction sites (called Kindergartens) remain hollowed out and barren thousands of years later, having been wholly stripped of liveliness by the early stages of colonization. In the show’s final season, Steven and two friends, Amethyst and Peridot, attempt to restore one of these Kindergartens. Believing that they’ve found a flower growing there, the three of them hopefully plant a whole garden of sunflowers. This attempt at land restoration, just like Steven’s efforts to heal the corrupted Gems, comes from a desire “to undo the damage, wishing the damage had never happened.”
These efforts are further complicated by being implicitly contrasted against Homeworld’s desire for uniform Gems. Like the prohibition of mixed-Gem fusions like Garnet, Homeworld has strictly enforced expectations for how Gem body-minds ought to be. We first learn this from Peridot, originally a Homeworld technician stranded on Earth. When we meet her she wears “limb enhancers,” a set of artificial extensions on her legs and arms required of Gems below “regulation” size. Later, Steven meets the “Off-Colors”—Gems whose different physiologies and capacities mark them for death on Homeworld—hiding in the planet’s hollowed out interior. Here, elimination functions as “cure,” enacting harm rather than undoing it. Clare connects such violent forms of “cure” to an ongoing history of attempts to eliminate real-life difference in the forms of queerness and disability. The Off-Colors demonstrate that queer lives and embodiments exist on Homeworld, not just Earth, so long as they can remain hidden and resist its violent structures.
Unlike Homeworld’s forms of “cure,” Peridot, Amethyst, and Steven’s decision to plant a garden in the Kindergarten’s damaged soil is a hopeful act of interspecies care. And yet it is ultimately unsuccessful. When the three would-be-gardeners return, they find that the flowers they’d planted have withered and died overnight, unable to withstand the inhospitable terrain. What they thought was a “flower” is actually just a part of a corrupted Gem protruding from the soil—another sign of the harm done by Homeworld.
The anxious environmentalist might have cause to relate to Peridot’s rage after the failed Kindergarten restoration. “Nothing’s ever going to get better. Everything is just ruined forever. We can’t get any of it back… this crummy planet… we might as well just throw it all in the garbage and throw ourselves in after, because it’s all just hopeless trash”5. In this moment, Peridot sees failure as a sign of hope’s worthlessness, devaluing the work hope inspired. The episode’s ultimate message though, is that while the Kindergarten may not be salvageable, there is a whole Earth still worthy of our tenderness and care. These attempts are efforts rooted in a genuine care—what Clare describes as “stretching hard toward the future, working hard in the present”—and don’t require guaranteed results. The show’s environmentalism, its queer, interspecies acts of care, centers a willingness to fail and a belief in the necessity to try for a better way of being. It makes meaningful distinctions between restoration as a resistance to harm and “cure” as a form of harm. It’s the impulse that first inspired the rebellion against Homeworld and it appears here in the form of an attempted garden.
Queer ecology must be anti-nostalgia, Nicole Seymour tells us, because we cannot go back. Some environmental problems will stay with us regardless of our attempts to heal them through restoration projects. Steven Universe highlights the importance of trying without letting failure send us into despair. It is a queer ecological ethic that is, in Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands’s words, “both about seeing the beauty in the wounds of the world and taking responsibility to care for the world as it is.” When the Kindergarten restoration fails, Steven and his friends acknowledge the limitations upon the care they can give and look for new opportunities to care.
Steven Universe ends with hope. In the finale, the corrupted Gems are healed, and Gems universe-wide are about to have the chance to live in new, self-determined ways. The epilogue series, Steven Universe Future, ends with Steven finally turning his capacity for care inward after the traumas of a childhood spent fighting catch up to him. What their futures will look like is uncertain and the past isn’t undone. Gems who were once corrupted retain markers of their former selves—horns, discoloration, queer physiologies—the Kindergartens are still lifeless, and Steven himself is recovering—but the world has been made better because he and the Crystal Gems acted hopefully.
Steven Universe offers a narrative of living with without resignation: living with failure, living with damage, and living with hope. Its queer ecological ethic demands action and imagines efforts that aren’t perfect and are still better than what we had before. To be an environmentalist in 2020 is to feel deeply that we have already failed. Our environmental problems seem insurmountable, and much of the harm that’s been done cannot be undone. The kind of environmental ethic posed in this show isn’t one where healing requires or even allows a return to the past—instead it imagines a future where harm is undone as well as it can be and new harm is prevented. What Steven Universe offers us is an alternative way of being in which we have more options than environmental failure or utopia.
Featured image: Ruby and Sapphire share a moment on Earth before they decide to fuse into Garnet. Image from YouTube.
Bio: Gardiner Brown grew up in Austin, TX and now lives in Salt Lake City where he’s studying Environmental Humanities at the University of Utah. The majority of his research is about disaster events, and he’s currently working on a research project about hurricane Harvey. He grew up without cable but has always loved cartoons. Contact. Twitter.
Steven Universe, season 5, episode 19, “Now We’re Only Falling Apart,” directed by Kat Morris and Liz Artinian. Written by Lamar Abrams and Christine Liu, aired Jul 2, 2018, Cartoon Network. ↩
Steven Universe, season 3, episode 20, “Greg the Babysitter,” Directed by Joe Johnston and Jasmin Lai. Written by Lamar Abrams and Katie Mitroff, aired Jul 19, 2016, Cartoon Network ↩
Steven Universe, season 3, episode 14, “Monster Reunion,” Directed by Kat Morris and Jasmin Lai. Written by Raven M. Molisee and Paul Villeco, aired Jul 27, 2016, Cartoon Network. ↩
Steven Universe, season 1, episode 23, “Monster Buddies,” Directed by Ian Jones-Quartey and Elle Michalka. Written by Lamar Abrams and Hellen Jo, aired Sep 11, 2014, Cartoon Network ↩
Steven Universe, season 5, episode 8, “Back to the Kindergarten,” Directed by Ian Jones-Quartey and Elle Michalka. Written by Lamar Abrams and Hellen Jo, aired Sep 11, 2014, Cartoon Network ↩