From Vampire Queens to Gay Space Rocks: The Relevance of Rebecca Sugar

Of all the animated series currently airing on Cartoon Network, two stand above the rest as truly belonging to everyone; there is no animation age-ghetto for Adventure Time with Finn and Jake or for Steven Universe. These cartoons, ostensibly created for children, have touched a wider audience, finding fans of all ages, backgrounds, races, genders, and sexual orientations – and this diversity throughout the fandoms for these shows comes largely from the involvement of one Rebecca Sugar.

Sugar, herself an artist and music composer, is currently the only female creating and directing her own series for Cartoon Network. Beginning as a storyboarder for Adventure Time, she became well-known for creating some of the most memorable, and heart-wrenching, storylines the show has ever tackled. Perhaps her most defining moment was in breathing life into the backstory of the show’s most tragic character, the Ice King, and his past relationship with Marceline the Vampire Queen when she was just a little girl, following the great Mushroom War that ravaged the Land of Ooo. The beautiful sensitivity and tenderness with which Sugar addressed these characters and the almost filial relationship between them during a time of great hardship for them both earned her a place in the hearts of many an Adventure Time fan – but it was upon branching out with her own series that Sugar showed her mettle as a creator, and proved that she is one of the most profoundly relevant women in the world of animation today.

Rebecca Sugar serves as creator, executive producer, head writer, and music composer for the groundbreaking Steven Universe, an animated series focusing on a boy named Steven (named after Sugar’s brother, Steven Sugar, who also works on the show) who, as a member of a team of intergalactic heroes called the Crystal Gems, finds the greatest strength in empathy and kindness as he slowly learns about the Gems’ past, the war that tore apart their colony civilization on Earth thousands of years ago, and his role as the half-human, half-Gem child of their former leader, Rose Quartz and what that means for him as a completely unique being. It is a program that centers on the importance of being unapologetically oneself; on their original planet, Gems are expected to do only one type of job and act only in certain ways based upon what type of gem they are, but as Steven befriends even his enemies, some of them learn that “Earth can set you free!” as exclaims Peridot, a new addition to the Crystal Gems who is learning to shed her original social programming to become more than she ever thought possible.

Sugar’s relevance comes from the amazing diversity with which she imbues her world-building; a roster of the voice cast of Steven Universe, a glimpse at character body-type designs, and a look into the relationships between many of the characters on the show prove that Sugar believes that everyone deserves a voice. Those who are and have been consistently marginalized, beaten down, treated as “less than” – these are the people to whom Sugar, through her open acceptance of different kinds of characters, is intent upon reaching. The message of Steven’s journey seems to be a resounding “it’s okay to be yourself, and you deserve to be the person you want to be no matter what anyone else may think of that.” As a character, Steven Universe himself is a beacon of positivity and hope, proving that sometimes, even when violence is necessary, it is empathy and love which will always win out in the end.

Without really trying, Sugar has created a group of heroes which speaks for people of color, LGBTQIA individuals, people with disabilities, and so many other groups that have a strong desire to be really heard in popular culture. She has given them a voice in the cast and in the stories of her Crystal Gems and their Beach City friends and neighbors. With positivity, love, and honesty, Steven and the alien space rocks who are raising him to save the Earth are bringing light and laughter to generations of people who never really felt they fit in. There is a sense of family, of belonging, in these characters – and with such warmth and heart as Rebecca Sugar and her team of artists and composers have endowed Steven Universe, it’s easy to see why the show is a modern classic, and gaining popularity even as it begins its fourth season.

Artists like Rebecca Sugar are necessary. They bridge the gap between races, classes, genders, sexual orientations and walks of life with a genuinely open, honest view of what it means to be human – even when their characters are vampire queens, ice elementals, or gemstones from outer space who take on holographic humanoid forms. Understanding what it means to feel a lack of belongingness throughout the cornucopia of current popular culture, they open doors for new ways of approaching stories and characters that lend a voice to the voiceless and say “you may not feel as though you belong anywhere, but you belong here.” They are the misfit lunch table, offering a seat and a sandwich to anyone who feels left out of popular discourse.

Much has already been written lauding Sugar’s work for its positive take on feminism, its body positivity, and its niche in the annals of Queer culture – so let the work speak for itself, now, and let Sugar’s legacy remain one of quiet rebellion, wherein the Peridot and the Pearl can agree to be important, and each of them can build a voice and a realm of dreams to suit their own shapes.

And then, let all of those who have felt that Rebecca Sugar’s work is dear to them personally, who have found representation and hope through all her characters exemplify, give a resounding “WOW, THANKS!”

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 -Dana Culling