Nonbinary characters in Steven Universe
Steven Universe has been (rightly) praised for its inclusion of nonbinary gender characters. We live in a world where media almost exclusively presents characters who are men or women (and often treats binary trans people, when they’re even included, as if they are an additional “middle” gender even if they don’t identify that way). So of course, characters who are agender or nonbinary are long overdue and worth celebrating.
Steven Universe includes two forms of nonbinary characters, and they both involve aliens. We have Gems who come from space and are largely femme-presenting nonbinary aliens (who use she/her pronouns, but that does not make them female), and we have Fusions whose gender and pronouns are shifted to neutral or undetermined when Steven is included.
While it’s still great to have such a cool science fiction show that’s got nonbinary characters, presenting their nonbinary gender as a consequence of “mixed” genders or extraterrestrial origin subtly associates nonbinary gender with being nonhuman.
Stevonnie is referred to canonically as “they/them,” and it sets a great example, but we know they are a Fusion of Connie (she/her) and Steven (he/him).
Smoky Quartz has been referred to as “they” in a context where it was unclear whether it was them or their components being talked about, but given the precedent, I assume Smoky is also they/them: another Fusion of a she/her and a he/him. Fusions of Gems who both use “she/her” are also referred to as she/her, so these pronouns are not reserved for Fusions.
I know several nonbinary, trans, and otherwise gender-atypical people who relate really hard to Stevonnie and/or Smoky, and are thrilled to have this kind of representation. It’s so excellent to see Stevonnie, with their femme-leaning androgyny and their clear attractiveness to guys and girls on the show, developing confidence and never dragging the audience through a Very Special Episode where they feel required to disclose and discuss their gender. They’re worried about other things, but this gender thing? It just is, and people in their life don’t make a big deal out of that part of it. But I think we need more, and I think Steven Universe is just the show to do it.
We currently DO NOT HAVE any known nonbinary characters in the show who are not either aliens or Fusions. If we continue to represent nonbinary characters as having a nonbinary gender only because they’re a mixture of male and female or influenced by nonhuman gender concepts, we’re presenting it as a concept but not as one that might be applicable to someone in the non-magical, non-alien, everyday Earthly world.
But nonbinary humans are everywhere, and I would love to see someone show up in the show with casually referenced nonbinary representation–so we know this isn’t a gender concept we can only accept in association with fantasy concepts.
What’s interesting is the Steven Universe COMICS are already doing this. First, in Issue 1 of the ongoing comic series begun in early 2017, Steven, Peridot, and Lapis find a baby bird. Steven automatically defaults to they/them pronouns for the bird, and after they argue about the bird’s name for a while, they settle on naming them Susan.
Susan is a name pretty heavily coded as female in Western society, but they set a great example here by NOT having Steven change to she/her pronouns to refer to the bird just because they have a traditionally feminine name. There is no discussion of what pronouns to use and no justification of this. It’s just there for you to accept, casually, as it should be.
In Issue 2 of the ongoing comic series, we have Stevonnie going to prom with Kiki. There is plenty of weirdness associated with this because Kiki doesn’t know Stevonnie is a Fusion of two kids and they’re both struggling with teen awkwardness that has nothing to do with Stevonnie’s Fusion status, but what’s significant about this is Kiki’s automatic, consistent use of they/them pronouns for Stevonnie when introducing them to her friends.
Plus, Stevonnie and Kiki use the same dressing room when trying on dresses, try on a variety of clothes (some of which are traditionally gendered either male or female), and don’t completely ignore the issue.
Kiki asks Stevonnie if they prefer to lead or follow, and that’s a really nice acknowledgment that the expected gender roles have to be redefined for a dance couple like them.
If you just present a nonbinary character where no one’s ever confused about how to treat them, you’re ignoring programming nearly everyone in our society has, and it’s inevitable that someone like Stevonnie would sometimes confuse people if they’re trying to squeeze them into a gender box–and unfortunately, that also sometimes means being misgendered, like when Kevin called Stevonnie “girl” during their first appearance on the show.
But then, most notably, in Issue 4 of the ongoing comic series, Peridot goes to a Renaissance Faire and watches a joust, with a visiting knight named “Sir Render.” And Sir Render, despite their traditionally masculine appearance and title of “Sir,” is consistently referred to with they/them pronouns.
Even though they’re a pretty beefy, hefty knight, and even while they’re getting booed by audience members who want them to lose. Nonbinary people do not have to be androgynous, and they/them pronouns can apply to people who are frequently perceived as traditionally feminine or traditionally masculine. Sir Render doesn’t HAVE to “try” to look androgynous or less traditionally masculine to have their pronouns respected. And Sir Render is a background human. Not a Fusion and not an alien. This comic also includes the phrase “Lords, ladies, and gentle-enbies.” Wow.
Some people have criticized Steven Universe for featuring so many same-gender relationships between Gems without broaching that subject with humans. Gems are not women/girls, but because of their gender presentation and consistent use of she/her pronouns, they are clearly designed to at least be very relatable to female and femme audiences. Nonbinary people are certainly supposed to be able to see themselves in the Gems, but girls and women can too–it’s amorphous and up to interpretation, and couples like Ruby and Sapphire or Pearl and Rose can be very meaningful to fans who feel their relationships are more like their own relationships than most anything on television. But when it comes to humans, the explicitly romantic relationships and crushes that include them are surprisingly straight. (And this is acknowledging that human men’s crushes on Gems are not “straight” crushes, since literally any relationship that includes one of them is a queer-coded romance by human standards, but these men are likely perceiving the Gems as women and being attracted to them for the same reasons they are attracted to women.)
Jamie crushes on Garnet. Mayor Dewey crushes on Pearl. Greg crushed on Rose and fell in love with her. Sadie and Lars have, well, something. Steven and Connie are developing a close friendship that will likely one day be a straight-up romance. Lars’s parents Martha and Dante appear to be a straight couple. Connie’s parents Doug and Priyanka appear to be a straight couple. Vidalia had a child with Marty and married Yellowtail, and those appear to be straight relationships. I of course have to be cautious here and acknowledge that characters who LOOK like straight couples may not be straight, especially since bisexual and pansexual people who “settle down” in a relationship are often misinterpreted as being an orientation they don’t identify as just because of the gender of their partner. But given no evidence to the contrary, the show does appear to be showing us humans coupling up only in cross-gender partnerships.
The only exception I can think of besides non-speaking background characters is Mr. Smiley’s relationship with Mr. Frowney. It is not explicit, but subtext certainly suggests that Harold and Quentin used to be a thing.
There is also Pearl pursuing Mystery Girl and receiving her phone number, which does suggest Mystery Girl was attracted to femme-presenting people at the very least.
Oh, and of course we also see Peridot rooting for the Percy/Pierre ship on her favorite show, even though the canon of the show has Percy being pushed toward Paulette. And Uncle Andy made a reference to one of his relatives having a “partner,” which seems like something he wouldn’t do if it was a cross-gender relationship considering he also assumed Greg had a wife and used the word “wife.” (This was offscreen, however–not even pictured characters.)
But overall, what we’ve seen is that we can have same-gender relationships as long as we can hide it behind aliens for plausible deniability. (Though at least in the United States, I think reports of Cartoon Network actively attempting to stop “gay relationships” from getting on TV is highly exaggerated.) It would be fantastic to get some explicit representation of humans having these relationships too. But at least there are some hints and some subtext, while we really don’t have much of anything for human nonbinary characters.
Like most other situations in the show, I think the usually sensitive writing and nuanced understanding of these important issues would be in reach for the Crew on this topic. I really hope we will see nonbinary characters on this show in the future when there is no “alien” or “Fusion” explanation. Plenty of nonbinary humans exist in the real world, and this show would be a perfect place to start reflecting that.