The first time I ever saw merchandise for Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe, my immediate reaction was absolute surprise. The main character, a little boy with a gemstone for a bellybutton named Steven, was fat. He had black, curly hair, a t-shirt that looked a little snug, and sandals. He didn’t fit the pop culturally-defined look of a hero, and when I saw him on that comic book — with the tiny Steven plushie sitting next to it — I had a hard time believing he was the titular character.
I didn’t know much about Steven Universe at the time.
In fact, I only recently started watching, in an effort to consume media that represents LGBTQ people in a more positive light. As a self-identified fat, lesbian feminist, my media consumption is often lacking in characters who are like me. That’s not entirely my fault — but when TV shows and movies come around that do feature characters like me, I feel obligated to make an effort to watch.
To say to the creative teams behind these projects, “Hey! I see this happening and I appreciate it!”
Steven Universe makes that really easy.
The series, run by show creator Rebecca Sugar, follows half-human, half-Crystal Gem boy Steven and his totally non-nuclear family as they protect the universe from harm. His three “older sisters”, Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl are Crystal Gems like his mother, Rose Quartz. Steven’s father is a human, who lives in his van and makes ends meet by working at a car wash in town.
In addition to Steven, three of the five characters just mentioned are also fat. Rose Quartz, Steven’s mother, is canonically over eight feet tall and barely fits into a size XXL t-shirt. His father, Greg, has a big belly and a farmer’s tan. Amethyst is smaller and rounder than either Garnet or Pearl.
Remarkably, not one of these characters is used solely for comic relief.
They’re messy and complicated at times — the episode “On the Run” dives deep into Amethyst’s self-image, including her deepest insecurities and her most incredible victories — but they’re beautiful.
Powerful. Open-hearted and good.
Steven Universe is lightyears ahead of series like Gilmore Girls, which treated Sookie St. James (Melissa McCarthy) the same way as it treated its skinny characters. At the time, that seemed radical. Sookie had a long-lasting, loving relationship, which boggled my mind as a pre-teen watching the show.
I was young enough to believe that fat people didn’t deserve romantic love because pop culture told me again and again that they didn’t. Then Sookie came along, and I thought, “Wow. Fat women can be loved, too.”
In Steven’s universe, fat people are literally the biggest heroes on Earth.
His mother Rose Quartz is revered by every character on the series, including her enemies, for being utterly beautiful inside and out. She is huge and hugely comfortable, and her presence on a popular children’s show is vital in a way that I cannot quite put into words. Equally vital is Steven himself, whose unflinching optimism even in the direst of circumstances should seem trite or disingenuous, but is, in fact, neither of those things. He helps the Crystal Gems by thinking outside the box, offering a perspective none of them have because none of them are human.
Amethyst isn’t as comfortable in her skin, and that’s okay. A lot of the stereotypes that get pinned to fat people — messy, loud, and always eating — are applied to Amethyst in big ways. But she’s still a hero, and she acknowledges her flaws without using them as excuses for her more brash behavior.
Greg, likewise, is pinioned with lots of fat stereotypes. He’s a little goofy, technically homeless, and eats a lot of fast food. But Steven Universe focuses more on his bombastic love for Rose Quartz, his love for his son, and his ability to help save the day even though he doesn’t have any of the same powers as the Crystal Gems.
This show’s representation of fat people is complex, layered, and realistic.
It portrays its fat characters as people rather than plot props or punchlines, and as an adult watching this show, it makes me feel seen. It gives me hope for all the kids who, like me, feel unrepresented in their favorite shows or — worse — like they’re destined to be third wheels forever because of how they’re represented on TV.
Steven Universe is a children’s show that’s working hard to dismantle stereotypes in so many ways.
Its portrayal of fat people is especially stunning, and the magic of that will never, ever go away.