The Radical Empathy of ‘Steven Universe’ (Column)

The last epic battle of “Steven Universe” isn’t one between friends and foes, but between Steven Universe and himself. After six years and nearly 200 episodes, both the show and character took the time to ask themselves some crucial, existential questions: What happens to a hero after they’ve already saved the day? Who is Steven Universe, and what makes him so special?

Steven’s ensuing spiral into self-doubt, and the gorgeously intuitive way the series guides him out of it, is heady stuff for any show, let alone a kids’ cartoon awash in pastels and uplifting musical breaks. But it’s also a typically ambitious arc for “Steven Universe,” and therefore a fitting one for it to end on — even if watching it wind down with such expert care makes its departure all the more bittersweet.

“Steven Universe” began as a sweet series about a boy (voiced by Zach Callison) and his three “Crystal Gem” alien guardians — Amethyst (Michaela Dietz), Pearl (Deedee Magno), and Garnet (Estelle) — and quickly transformed into an astonishingly intricate saga of resilience and hope. It built a world in which aliens and humans support and learn from each other, in which true love crosses binaries and galaxies, in which the hero of the story’s most powerful weapon is his emotional intelligence. As Steven and his friends faced down their fears and shared in their joys, Rebecca Sugar’s deeply empathetic show became one of television’s smartest, period. It also became more and more complicated as Steven, half-human and half-Crystal Gem, discovered the often disturbing truth about his powers and ancestry. In between heartwarming stories of friendship and sharing donuts came bittersweet victories and hard lessons about what it means to survive. With the preternaturally compassionate Steven leading the Gems, though, they always managed to pull through. As the theme song put it: they’d always save the day, they’d always find a way. 

But in the final 20 episodes of the Cartoon Network series — a coda to the main series arc collectively called “Steven Universe: Future,” which ended with Friday night’s series finale — the show made clear that it wasn’t about to take the easy (or at least more elastic) way out of its own cataclysmic events. Unlike many cartoons made for children, its characters wouldn’t bounce back unscathed like nothing had ever happened. Instead, “Steven Universe: Future” explored the aftermath of the show’s game-changing adventures and how its characters would adjust to the new normal of not having to find a way to save the day. In doing so, it also allowed Steven the room to have a true crisis of faith by giving him nothing to do — no wars to fight, no friends to rescue — but be himself, whoever that may be.

After teasing us with a few idyllic episodes about the peaceful new status quo, “Steven Universe: Future” plunged face-first into Steven’s confusion and trauma with the kind of consideration typical of the series. Used to being the one who helps everyone in their time of need, Steven refused to let anyone help him in his own. Confused by his debilitating depression during an objectively stable time in his world, Steven blames himself for not being able to cope better, even when a doctor gently suggests that he’s still dealing with a whole lifetime of trauma. Lost without a defined purpose, Steven loses his grip on who he is and what he wants. 

Putting the show’s hero in this kind of precarious position, and showing some startlingly unflattering sides of his psyche in the process, is a huge risk that, in the show’s final four episodes, pays off. The “Steven Universe” team is very aware of its audience — a cross-section of starry-eyed kids and adults — and trusts them to understand Steven’s struggles, having followed him to the ends of the galaxy and back again. Just like Steven’s friends and family on the show, we want nothing more than for Steven to understand that he doesn’t have to shoulder everyone’s burden, that he’s more than enough on his own, that he is worthy of love even when he doesn’t believe it himself. 

That grace of extending an open mind and sympathetic hand — not just to your friends, but to your enemies, and to yourself — is the legacy of “Steven Universe.” It put love first, not just by saying so (as is easy enough to do), but by doing so (as is sometimes harder than we’d care to admit). In taking its characters’ feelings seriously even when they couldn’t, it assured its audience that we, too, deserve the kind of compassion we might be more likely to extend to others. In finding hope in the darkest places, it showed how crisis can lead to catharsis. In assembling chosen families that showed up every day to care for one another, it showed us how to support each other, and how asking for help isn’t a weakness, but a necessity. In making its heroes powerful by virtue of their generosity rather than their physical force, the series flipped convention on its head and heralded the kind of emotional fortitude that too many take for granted or dismiss out of hand. “Steven Universe” imagined an innovative world in which the biggest strength a person (or gem) can have is kindness. It might sound simple, but as “Steven Universe” proved over and over again, it’s the kind of future that’s worth fighting for.

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