IN­SPI­RA­TION DRAWS ON EX­PE­RI­ENCE

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - - INSIDER - DAVID MEDDOWS

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

Re­becca Sugar,

A scene from Steven Uni­verse: The Movie.

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