Steven Universe is about a boy called Steven who is half human, half alien. He lives on Earth, in a picturesque beachside town, and on the side, he goes on heroic missions with the alien freedom fighters, the Crystal Gems. As the series progresses, Steven learns more and more about his lineage and a thousand-year-old Civil War, which still has effects on the present.
From its vibrant animation to its deeply relatable characters and masterful storytelling, Steven Universe, created by Rebecca Sugar, has earned its place in the hearts of millions worldwide. The series, hailed for its celebration of diversity, its inclusive, queer-driven narrative, and its willingness to delve into complex themes, does an excellent job when viewed through the lens of LGBTQ+ families.
However, when it comes to handling the weighty issue of fascism (i.e., to simplify, when power is concentrated into a narrow set of hands, and a mythology around those figures is created) there is a problem. The aliens (i.e. the Gems) that Steven shares his biology with are ruled by a fascist government called the Diamond Authority. The show's approach to this subject often oversimplifies the painful reality of this creed in favor of a problematic “kill them with kindness” approach.
And so, let’s grab our guitars and take a deep dive into the brilliantly animated world of music, friendship, and interstellar, genocidal space rocks.
A metaphor for estranged family
To begin with, it is necessary to recognize how Steven Universe wonderfully portrays dealing with estranged conservative family members. A recurring motif in the series is the protagonist, Steven’s ability to reach out to those harboring misguided views, offering compassion, patience, and open dialogue to change their perspectives. This approach, though tedious, is often (though not exclusively) an accurate depiction of the slow, painful work required to bridge ideological gaps within families.
A striking example is how the show handles the character Peridot, a cog in the Diamond Authority who came to Earth to destroy it by activating a McGuffin called “the Cluster.” Steven and the Crystal Gems are able to not only foil this plan but deradicalize Peridot to the point where she rejects The Diamond Authority and joins them on Earth.
Another example of this is the episode “Gem Harvest,” where Steven meets his estranged cousin, Andy DeMayo. Despite initial misunderstandings and Andy’s xenophobia, presented through a thinly veiled metaphor as he rants against “illegal aliens,” the episode ends on a hopeful note. Steven and his Gem family’s persistent efforts to connect with Andy successfully break through his prejudices. It is portrayed as a heartwarming narrative that champions the transformative power of empathy and dialogue.
However, the success of this approach in such a context reads largely as fan fiction for how liberals want to convert their conservative family members during Thanksgiving. Deradicalization is a painful process that can take months or years, if at all. As I write in You’re Delusional if You Think Queer People Are Responsible for This Moral Panic:
“While some people do change, many do not, and it’s not on you to be responsible for how other people think. Part of fighting for social progress means recognizing that some people will never accept you. They will go to their graves bitter and hateful. There are countless politicians, family members, and former friends with whom we will never receive closure, no matter how palatably we frame our words.”
This deradicalization also doesn’t translate to larger, more systemic issues, especially when the series ventures into the domain of fascism. The show’s portrayal of the Gem Homeworld, a civilization steeped in hierarchy and domination, is one that cannot be defeated through kindness. This society, with its preordained roles and worth assigned based on gem classes, effectively embodies the strict hierarchy fascism relies on. The “Diamonds,” leaders of this society, are dictators that have perpetrated countless atrocities against those they deem “lesser.”
Here’s where the series starts grappling with its approach to handling this heavy theme. While there are snippets of these brutalities, as well as remnants littered throughout the Earth of the Gem Rebellion or the “Gem War,” Steven Universe often opts for a softened representation. The Diamonds, despite their oppressive reign, are humanized excessively. Episodes are devoted to their long and profound sadness of the loss of their sister Pink Diamond, including the fabulous song What’s the Use of Feeling (Blue)? sung by Patti LuPone.
This humanization kicks into overdrive after we learn that Steven’s mother, the leader and cause of the Gem Rebellion, was Pink Diamond. She was a member of that fascist Diamond Authority, and so this makes the entire plot of dealing with this empire a familial one first and a political one second.
This is not to argue against the character depth of awful people, even that of genocidal ones, but the sympathetic portrayal of these dictators often overshadows the horrors of their actions. They’re seen grappling with guilt, loneliness, and emotional turmoil, inviting the audience to empathize with their plights. However, the same time is not devoted to the active horrors they committed.
The Fascism Ignored
The genocides the Diamond Authority has committed are only seen in retrospect and are very brief. Since Steven has some of the memories of his mother (Gem biology is complicated), we see a Pink Diamond flashback where her family member Yellow Diamond is engaging in a planetary terraforming operation that will wipe out all organic life on the surface. This terraforming process is, in fact, how Diamonds reproduce, as planets, irrespective of whether they have organic life on them, are hollowed out for the inorganic Gem life to emerge.
We are led to believe that the Diamonds have done this process dozens if not hundreds of times across the galaxy, and yet we do not have moving songs devoted to the victims. There are no pieces about the cruelties that were inflicted. Everything is done through the perspective of the Gems. The closest we get to an under caste being represented is “illegal fusions” living in the underbelly of the Gem Homeworld (note — Gems can fuse with each other to create a unique entity, but it's a taboo to fuse with another type of Gem). These are people within the Empire being oppressed, not outside of it.
Furthermore, the show’s resolution to the Diamonds’ fascist regime is concerning. Steven manages to dismantle their rule, not through collective resistance or military action, but through personal dialogue and emotional understanding. He makes White Diamond laugh by telling a joke, and her facade of control breaks.
This plot beat is where the series, while maintaining its theme of love and acceptance, strays into problematic territory. In the real world, such systemic issues are rarely, if ever, dismantled through dialogue alone. They require collective action, resistance, and significant sacrifices. We didn’t defeat the Nazis with humor, and kindness and understanding have done little to chip away at America’s own brand of fascism.
By excluding these elements from its narrative, Steven Universe risks giving an overly idealistic and naive perspective on combating fascism. It’s essential to question the potential implications of such a portrayal, especially on younger audiences, who might walk away with an oversimplified understanding of societal change.
Moreover, the narrative’s failure to hold the Diamonds accountable for their actions is another significant misstep. After centuries of oppressive reign, and biological and cultural exterminations, their only real consequences are self-imposed. The Diamonds inverse their powers to have positive effects on the population, and they turn Gem Homeworld into a Democracy. There are no Nuremberg Trials. No conversations about ceding over land or paying reparations. The Diamonds give up power, and then the show skips ahead five years when everything is better, avoiding the messiness of dismantling such regimes.
This lack of repercussions feels inappropriate and dilutes the severity of the Diamond's actions. In this context, the show’s broad narrative themes of redemption and change can be misleading. Instead of focusing on the Diamonds’ path toward change, the narrative should have given equal weight to justice and reparations for their numerous victims.
Going back to the episode “Gem Harvest,” we see a similar pattern. Andy’s xenophobic views are resolved neatly within the confines of a single episode. While this quick resolution aligns with the show’s positive themes of conversation changing people’s minds, unfortunately, it also presents an overly simplified view of tackling deep-seated prejudices. Just as with the portrayal of the Diamonds, the series fails to acknowledge both the harm such figures enact as well as the systemic efforts needed to address the issue of xenophobia.
The painful reality is that some people will never be won over by such conversations, a point Steven is unable to acknowledge until the show's epilogue (see Steven Universe Future), well after the battle against fascism has been won.
The natural rejoinder to all this will be something along the lines of “Who cares? It's just a kids' show.” This logic feels strange given that we are currently undergoing a moral panic where people are claiming to be very concerned about the content children are watching. It's also important to note that no one made Rebecca Sugar talk about fascism in a kid's show. It's a serious theme, and it being handled respectfully is even more important when your audience is younger and less able to pick up on the nuances of certain arguments.
Steven Universe, while a gem in the realm of animation for its explorations of diversity, inclusivity, and complex themes, falls short in its portrayal of fascism. Its approach, although beautiful in the context of personal relationships and bridging ideological differences within families, fails to translate into larger systemic issues. Its portrayal of fascist leaders as redeemable figures who face minimal consequences for their actions is deeply problematic, as is the idea that these oppressive regimes can be dismantled through dialogue alone.
While it’s important to remember that Steven Universe is a children’s show, and certain elements are simplified for this demographic, this doesn’t absolve it of its responsibility to address these themes accurately. Ultimately, while we celebrate the series for its positive impact and narrative brilliance, it’s also crucial to critique its shortcomings. Such discussions, after all, pave the way for more nuanced and responsible storytelling in the future.
About the Creator
I write long-form pieces on timely themes inside entertainment, pop culture, video games, gender, sexuality, race and politics. My writing currently reaches a growing audience of over 10,000 people every month across various publications.