INSPIRATION DRAWS ON EXPERIENCE
Ground-breaking US animator Rebecca Sugar never quite felt comfortable growing up. The creator of the award-winning Cartoon Network series Steven Universe and Steven Universe: The Movie was obsessed with cartoons but never saw anyone to identify with.
It wasn’t until years later — well into adulthood — when Sugar began identifying as non-binary that things started to fall into place. l (When asked how they would like to be identified in this story, Sugar says ‘they/them’ but stresses they also use she/her, something she thinks some non-binary people don’t know is an option.)
“It never quite fit and I could never quite describe why — it was just something I preferred not to think about,” Sugar tells Insider of their childhood struggle with identity.
“Now that I’ve found there’s a community around this and there are other people who don’t identify with female or male but fall somewhere outside, it’s really exciting for me because I can now talk about who I am instead of talking about what I’m not and that’s a big change in my life.
“I find it freeing to suddenly realise that I haven’t been a woman incorrectly, I have been myself correctly all the time,” they add.
It is this kind of freedom Sugar hopes Steven Universe helps young people achieve.
Lauded for its gamechanging representation, Steven Universe is, in a nutshell, a sci-fi fantasy comedy that centres around Steven, a boy who lives with three powerful ‘gems’ — genderless aliens that have moved to Earth from their war-torn planet.
Steven, who is half-gem himself, helps his guardians protect Earth against monsters and other evil. It’s a beautifully animated series and movie that is fun and lively — especially given it’s jam-packed with catchy musical numbers throughout (especially in the movie). But it’s also much more than this.
Throughout its five seasons and into the movie, which is set two years after the final episode, Steven Universe has tackled some of the most complex topics on television, some that adult shows struggle to effectively address. Sexuality, mental illness, gender and domestic violence are just a few. The concept was initially based on Sugar’s childhood adventures with their younger brother Steven, who is also an artist on the show. By opening up the character development and story arc to real lived experiences and struggles, it ensures Steven Universe doesn’t fall into the trap of presenting these topics as a generalisation or stereotype.
“I feel a responsibility to make sure that all the marginalised individuals on my staff have an opportunity to express themselves through animation,” Sugar says.
“I feel that strongly because I really believe that it’s so ... there’s no single non-binary experience, there’s no single queer experience, everyone is so different.”
In much of the literature promoting the movie’s release, Sugar, who started their career on the hugely popular Adventure Time, is described as the first female creator and showrunner in Cartoon Network’s history. As someone who identifies as non-binary, this distinction is slightly strange for Sugar, although they can see why it’s important.
“It’s uncomfortable,” they say. “At the same time I understand that I did not have the same experience that a male show creator would have and I know that that’s a part of who I am as well, a part of what I’ve been through.”
But more than accolades and awards — Steven Universe this year won the Peabody Award and became the first animation to win a GLAAD Award — Sugar hopes the franchise will inspire other young artists.
“I hope that will be inspiring to other artists who have never seen their story,” they say. “I hope that will excite them to draw and move them to get into this field. I really want to inspire artists to draw and there’s nothing that would make me happier than to find out that a generation of kids are saying something only they can say through this medium.” STEVEN UNIVERSE: THE MOVIE, SCREENS ON FOXTEL’S CARTOON NETWORK ON OCTOBER 12, 10.25AM
A scene from Steven Universe: The Movie.