I’ve talked a lot about Avatar the Last Airbender and its sequel, The Legend of Korra. At first glance, Steven Universe seems like a completely different show in almost every way. It’s tone is different, its target audience’s age is younger, its animation style much more simplistic, its setting more modern, its main character younger, the music more video-game inspired, and the overall story much more vague. So how, you may ask, could it possibly be seen as the spiritual successor to Avatar and Korra? (And when i say ‘Avatar‘, I generally mean both Last Airbender and Legend of Korra)
I do genuinely feel that Steven Universe is one of the most important and potentially influential children’s science fiction shows on television at the moment, and it achieves this in much the same way Avatar did.
They both challenge gender roles and expectations fearlessly. They both develop deep and complex characters, and they both tackle difficult moral quandaries. But ultimately, they both operate on a fundamentally pacifist philosophy. And they take it seriously.
Steven Universe is a show on Cartoon Network, created in the USA by Rebecca Sugar (who had also worked on Adventure Time previously). It is the story of a young boy named Steven Universe and his adventures with a team of intergalactic super heroes known as the Crystal Gems – Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl. The Gems warp their way across the world, fighting monsters and defending humanity from various (apparently) magical threats as they arise.
Steven’s mother, Rose Quartz, was once the leader of the Crystal Gems, but she gave up her physical form to create Steven, with the help of a human named Greg Universe. Thus, Steven must find his place in both the human and Gem worlds, discover his ‘magical’ powers, and learn to balance it all out.
Without Rose, the three other Crystal Gems become his maternal figures; Garnet is the cool, stoic one who can stop danger before it even happens. Amethyst is the energetic, scrappy, wild child who will get Steven into trouble almost as often as she gets him out of it. Pearl is the caring, sensitive, finicky and obsessive one who will make sure everything works out, and that everything will be in the right order, clean and tidy. Greg, meanwhile, remains a supportive, if often confused, figure, helping where he can, and giving loving advice when he can’t.
The show’s strength comes from the characters, in how they grow, how they develop, and how we perceive them. We discover new depths to Pearl and her romantic feelings for Steven’s mother. We see how Amethyst’s past has defined her and how she avoids emotional connection because of it. We see Garnet’s secrets pulled apart, and just what her cool exterior hides.
But lots of shows have complex characters, you may say. What makes Steven Universe, as I say, the spiritual successor to Avatar specifically?
Well, I chose my wording fairly carefully there. Steven Universe taps into something that very few other shows have done, something that was very prominent in Avatar and Korra. A philosophical drive that paints every moment, is present in every word, and drives the whole story. A philosophy of peace and nonviolence, taken seriously, given time and space to expand and explore. A philosophy of pacifism that isn’t cynically thrown away with a smirk of ‘that’s not how the world works’, nor treated as a fairytale ending, but pacifism as a powerful and earth-shaking force to be reckoned with.
In the beginning of the show, Steven is all about fighting monsters. He wants to get out there and be one of the Crystal Gems, battling horrifying creatures and saving the world. But slowly his true nature starts to win out. He doesn’t want to fight, he doesn’t want to kill, he wants everyone to be friends. He sees a giant, acid-spitting centipede monster, and decides that she’s his friend. He shows kindness, love, and affirmation, even when his family is telling him to kill.
Rebecca Sugar said of the show’s themes of love and acceptance;
There’s a lot I want to say in terms of plot and politics, but at the core of everything is flexibility, love and trust, because it makes you able to practice these things in your life. Everything becomes simpler when you realize you can get things wrong, and the people that you love and trust will be there for you. Unconditional love is really what the show is about, that in working through really difficult situations and really making colossal mistakes, there could be unconditional love in your life that will ground you through all of it. It’s not about being correct, it’s about how love can help you live. Because you will change, and that’s really scary if you don’t love yourself and the people around you. If you do, that’s something that will ground you through everything.
A recent story arc surrounding one of the main antagonists, Peridot, captured many fans hearts. Here was a ruthless villain bent on watching the Earth being torn apart by a gigantic Gem mutant. But, through Steven’s persistent pursuit of peaceful talk and mutual understanding, slowly but surely, Peridot begins to question her own loyalties. I won’t give too much away about what happens, but I will say that there is a reason Peridot has become such a fan favourite, besides her quirky behaviour and adorable design.
Indeed, Steven’s pursuit of love, kindness, friendship and understanding has become so well known, that Tumblr user glassraptor speculated…
… my Steven universe theory is that steven’s just gonna keep befriending villains until there’s just no villains left. he’s gonna have all those gem monsters flocking around him like puppies. yellow diamonds gonna come over for dinner on holidays. Steven’s gonna hug whatever eldritch void horror created the gems. this is how galactic peace will be achieved
In one of the most recent episodes, Gem Drill, this came to a point that Dylan Hysen of the ‘Overly Animated Podcast‘ described as ‘Steven’s Aang & Ozai moment’. While the whole world is screaming at him to kill, to destroy, to maim, Steven finds another way. Steven finds a way nobody even thought possible. He talks to the enemy, he makes peace, he saves the world without spilling blood. And he makes new friends in the process.
Much like in the grand finale to Avatar the Last Airbender, the threat is defeated by finding a new way, by defying the expectation of a violent world. It is found through the hard and sometimes painful act of empathy and compassion. And in The Legend of Korra, when faced with a death-dealing beam canon of death, Korra bends its destructive power into something new, something unexpected and life giving. As the giant Lion-Turtle said to Aang…
The true mind can weather all the lies and illusions without being lost. The true heart can touch the poison of hatred without being harmed. Since the beginnings of time, darkness thrives in the void, but will always yeild to purified light.
Both Steven and Aang are thrown into a conflict of ‘magical destiny’ (as Connie would say). Both of them are expected to kill, but both of them are inherently peaceful. Aang’s martial art style is predominantly defensive, avoiding attacks, using the opponent’s strength against them. Steven’s magical “weapon” is actually a shield, both a disk-like one, and a huge bubble of protection he can summon around himself and his friends to protect them.
Both Steven and Aang see the, for lack of a better term, humanity in their enemies. It isn’t easy. Both Steven and Aang suffer for their empathy, kindness, and love. But they both stick with it, finding another way, finding a peaceful path, and finding new friends. This is a very important message for children.
I don’t know if Rebecca Sugar found Avatar specifically an inspiration for Steven Universe. But I’m sure that co-creators Mike DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko would feel honoured to think that their legacy continued in the world of Steven Universe.