Steven Universe has been a feminist fan favorite since it debuted in 2013 because it’s fun, worthwhile, and offers revolutionary queer representation as well as critiques of colonization. Over the last seven years, the show’s creator Rebecca Sugar has expanded Steven Universe to include the 2019 film Steven Universe: The Movie and Steven Universe Future, a spinoff in which Steven (Zach Callison) is all grown up and he and the Crystal Gems are living a new, harmonious life together.
While Steven Universe has always dealt with mental health and trauma, Steven Universe Future is shining a brighter light specifically on Steven’s mental health. He’s been traumatized by fighting an interstellar war, narrowly escaping death dozens of times, and bearing witness to a lot of death and loss. Steven’s spent a great deal of time questioning his own role in the universe and orienting himself around his ability to help others, which comes to a head during Steven Universe: The Movie: Steven becomes responsible for saving the world again when the people he loves and cares about develop an amnesia that makes them lose their personalities. Throughout all of the obstacles he’s encountered, Steven has been smiling, laughing, and making sure others are okay. But now, he’s forced to face the most difficult thing of all: his own pain and trauma.
In Steven Universe Future’s first episode, Steven becomes so frustrated that someone won’t allow him to help them that he begins to glow pink, a new sign of his internalized pain. “At this point, Steven’s been in so many life-threatening situations that his gem is responding as if his life is in danger,” Sugar recently told io9. “It’s making him stronger. It’s making [him] faster. It’s making him heavier. It’s making him whatever he needs to be to get out of a life-threatening situation. The problem is that he’s not in a life-threatening situation, but his body has learned to react that way.”
In the second episode, “Guidance,” Steven tries to tell everyone what to do based on what he thinks is best, which causes the city he lives in to go awry. In “Snow Day,” the Crystal Gems try to intervene and help Steven when they realize he’s about to boil over. And, in “Dreams,” Steven is scolded by his house in a dream: “Steven, no one needs your help,” his house says, “so why are you still here?” These moments culminate into “Growing Pains,” the first episode where Steven’s pain is verbalized, and he’s diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Some of the Bitch team came together to discuss the way Steven Universe and its subsequent spinoffs have handled mental health, and why it’s so revolutionary for an animated series delve into such serious topics.
What did you think about “Prickly Pair,” the episode where Steven’s stress and anxiety is embodied in a cactus a.k.a. Cactus Steven?
Marina Watanabe, senior social media editor: I was a little surprised when the show’s writers chose to end Season 1 of Steven Universe Future on such a seemingly uneventful note. There’s no life or death threat or potential world-ending crisis; instead, “Prickly Pair” focuses solely on Steven’s ability to express emotion, and the shame that accompanies it. Throughout the original series, we see young Steven constantly attempting to see the good in others and having a positive outlook during crisis. Now that he’s a teenager, the audience learns this natural disposition hasn’t always manifested in healthy ways. Steven struggles to express negative emotions, including fear, anger, and disappointment.
Rachel Charlene Lewis, senior editor: Steven has faced so much trauma without ever really voicing or naming it. We’ve watched him almost die several times. We’ve watched the people around him die, even if they’re resurrected later. We’ve watched him break and come together time and time again with the fate of an entire universe (and, sometimes, multiple) relying completely on him. And he’s a kid! Steven is still learning, growing, and figuring out who he is (sometimes literally), but he’s doing all of that under an impossible amount of pressure. In “Prickly Pair,” Cactus Steven finally voices all of that trauma.
MW: After spending so much time continuously saving others and putting out fires, his life doesn’t have a clear path, and he feels a sense of betrayal and resentment toward his loved ones who are seemingly moving on with their lives and finding their callings. Instead of expressing that he feels like his support system is leaving him behind, he buries his feelings, and they essentially manifest in the form of Cactus Steven. Cactus Steven begins growing in size and gains the ability to speak, repeating all of the negative things Steven has said about his friends and family. Initially, Steven tries to hide his cactus self in a box out of shame, but at the end of the episode, he realizes an act of self-love is the only way to solve the problem. Steven apologizes to Cactus Steven and hugs him, even though it hurts. Unlearning our toxic coping mechanisms may be painful, but it’s the only way to heal.
RCL: Though Steven feels betrayed by Cactus Steven—after all, Cactus Steven is sharing his deepest thoughts and feelings with the rest of the Crystal Gems—he also realizes just how intensely he’s buried his pain.
Let’s talk about the Steven Universe Future’s standout episode: “Growing Pains.”
MW: Ahhh! It was so good. I’ve watched it twice now and ugly cried both times. To see a children’s show explain trauma in depth (but in a way anyone can understand) feels like a privilege.
RCL: I also teared up while watching it because so much of the episode focuses on Steven’s relationships with the humans in his life (his dad, Connie, Connie’s mom). It felt so human and so real. It was like Steven Universe Future briefly lost its layer of surrealism and put itself in our world: Steven’s just a teenager who’s facing his trauma head on.
MW: As a whole, Steven Universe has always been great about helping younger viewers understand heavy, painful topics. A standout moment to me is when Steven is being examined by Connie’s mom, Dr. Maheswaran (Mary Elizabeth McGlynn). When Steven asks if his past trauma means there’s something wrong with his brain, Maheswaran explains the medical science behind PTSD and why he’s reacting so strongly to a relatively minor stressor. She says, “All these experiences have been subjecting your body to a harmful amount of stress, and that’s affecting your ability to respond to new forms of stress in a healthy way. You’ve been dealing with genuine threats from such a young age, your body is now responding to minor threats as if your life were in danger.” She then explains that Steven is only reacting this way now because he feels he’s losing his support system. It felt really smart and significant to have an actual doctor discuss the impact of trauma so that the information was medically accurate.
RCL: Yes. There was something so important about that information coming from someone who knows and cares for Steven. It’s also so great to see how far they’ve come: Maheswaran was once panicked about Steven, the Crystal Gems, and the magic and mystery of his world, but now she honors who he is and helps him honor himself. Though Steven is surrounded by many loving caretakers, they’re also people with a lot happening in their own worlds. Maheswaran can help take care of Steven because of the nature of her profession, and she helps him let go of his need to protect the people around him.
Steven physically embodies pain and trauma in Steven Universe Future; his body literally glows pink. Sugar told io9, “Your body is reacting in a very, very ancient way to a feeling that is extremely severe. I thought that that was fascinating, and I recognized that in some of my reactions, and I wanted to figure out a way to express that though some of the metaphorical language that we built up on the show and the heightened reality that we get to work with on the show.”
MW: PTSD specifically has really intense physical symptoms, so it makes sense the show would choose to represent that physically. A lot of folks might only understand mental illness as something that happens “inside your head,” so I’m thankful they showed and explained the physical reactions your body can go through as well.
RCL: As an animated series, especially one where someone can turn pink and swell all over isn’t out of the ordinary, Steven Universe has always made interesting choices about how it represents emotions onscreen. Garnet (Estelle) is a physical manifestation of love. Amethyst’s (Michaela Dietz) biggest struggle—the fact that she’s small and “wrong” and doesn’t look the way she’s “supposed to look”—is clearly physical. It was so jarring to watch Greg (Tom Scharpling) cut his super long rockstar hair to save Steven. Now, we’re seeing Steven get that moment.
I agree that it was important for him to visibly change. For a long time, viewers have been waiting for the moment where Steven finally gets the care he needs; turning pink was a sharp reminder of just how much he needs that care. It also signals to the people around him that he needs help, and, if it had remained internal, I don’t know if Steven would’ve ever reached out.
How does Steven Universe Future compare to Steven Universe’s portrayal of mental health?
MW: I don’t necessarily see a huge difference between the two since the original series always navigated mental health themes. The Crystal Gems and many of the major characters in the show have all experienced trauma to some degree, and a lot of episodes explore their individual coping mechanisms in response to that trauma. We see the Gems process their grief over Rose/Pink Diamond’s (Susan Egan) death in different ways (Pearl’s denial, Amethyst’s anger, and Garnet’s acceptance). We see Lapis’s (Jennifer Paz-Fedorov) difficulty trusting others and forming new relationships, Jasper’s (Kimberly Brooks) inferiority complex and self-destructiveness, Lars’s (Matthew James Moy) self-loathing and lack of self-esteem, and Sadie’s (Kate Micucci) social anxiety.
There are relatively low stakes in Steven Universe Future, so these characters finally have a chance to breathe and deal with their shit. And because Future has such a heavy emphasis on Steven’s trauma, his issues aren’t neatly wrapped up in an episode or two. The loss of his support system and what that means for his PTSD is the crux of both seasons, which means the show gets to bring home the point that healing takes time. There wasn’t time to explore that to the same degree in the original series because they were moving from one crisis to the next.
RCL: I think a part of the shifting portrayal is that the audience has, theoretically, grown older as Steven has. The show no longer has the same expectation that it’ll appeal to kids in the same way the original was meant to; since Steven is a teenager now, he gets to dive into more difficult topics in a more transparent way, and, since we’re older, too, we might have a better read on those emotions and have more of a desire to watch an entire episode where Steven sits in a doctor’s office and asks for help with his childhood trauma.
Why do you think Steven Universe has so much appeal, especially to people who have mental illnesses or struggle with their mental health?
MW: As someone navigating my own mental illnesses, I took a lot of comfort in the way the show normalized mental health issues and handled them in a compassionate, loving way. I started watching the series when I was in the throes of depression and dealing with a really toxic relationship.
RCL: My younger brother recommended Steven Universe to me; as soon as I started catching on to the show’s themes, I was hooked. I have really bad anxiety, and I love shows that feel bright, light, and adventurous but are still deep and thoughtful; these kinds of shows are so difficult to find. I have several themes and genres I will not watch (sexual violence, domestic abuse, horror) because they just don’t make me feel good and aren’t how I want to spend my time. Steven Universe navigates these fine lines perfectly. I already miss it.
MW: Steven Universe was immensely comforting because it takes trauma and mental illness seriously but infuses it with a sweet, wholesomeness (unlike grittier “adult” shows that can be more triggering or difficult to watch.) The characters in Steven Universe are ultimately so accepting and understanding of each other’s differences, and it makes their world such a joy to watch.