By now you may have heard of the Steven Universe petition currently circulating the Internet. Fans aren’t asking series creator Rebecca Sugar for more episodes, or specific story, they’re not asking for a movie or live-action series. No, a petition was posted on change.org asking Cartoon Network UK to end the ‘homophobic’ editing/censorship of the beloved cartoon. For the first time since the show began nearly two and a half years ago, fans are angered by a decision to edit out scenes depicting same-sex affection, in one of the most diverse and queer friendly cartoon shows airing right now.
What is Steven Universe? If you haven’t seen it then you should probably start watching the US episodes to get the full impact of just why everyone loves Steven and the Crystal Gems. A team of alien gem beings who possess amazing powers have become the sole guardians of Earth against others of their kind who would use the planet for its resources, destroying it in the process. As well as guarding our world, they’re also guardians to Steven, a young boy who is half human, half gem and guide him safely between the perils of both worlds. The show loudly echoes themes of love, loyalty, friendship and family and that’s before you get down into its heart, where gender and queer identities are never set entirely in stone. When CN UK decided to remove a scene depicting a ‘fusion’ (Gems can combine to become more powerful) between Pearl and Rose Quartz, fans were very disappointed and annoyed.
The show had been praised by fans, both straight and queer for its amazing characters and portrayals of women and relationships, personal development and growth. Spearheaded by its creator, Rebecca Sugar, Steven Universe has never shied away from telling these stories, lovingly embracing the love between friends, the love that might blossom from that relationship, the power it can give and even the damage it can do – regardless of whether it was a straight couple or a gay one. Steven and Connie, Lars and Sadie, Greg and Rose, Ruby and Sapphire – all of their stories have been told and the episodes have been met with acclaim from its loyal legion of followers and critics. When the show’s producer Ian Quarterly-Jones confirmed that gems Ruby and Sapphire were a lesbian couple, fans were hysterical with joy and were afforded the chance to explore the relationship in more detail in episodes like ‘Keystone Motel’ and ‘The Answer’. They are a celebrated couple and their fusion form, Garnet, is one of the most loved characters on the show, with her unique identity which is intertwined with Ruby/Sapphire standing as a representation of their love.
So why would Cartoon Network UK decide to edit out scenes from a fusion dance between Rose Quartz and Pearl?
The petition organisers are aware that names on a list don’t always have the impact they should, but the creators of the petition pushed for those who felt strongly affected by the editorial decision to call out the network in the hopes of a response. It worked but, disappointingly, it only cemented the network’s decision to censor the episode and scenes with petty excuses for foundation.
“In response to recent complaints about Steven Universe:
Cartoon Network (in Europe) often shows amended versions of programs from US originals.
The US broadcast system requires that shows are marked with a rating –in this case PG (parental guidance necessary). In the UK we have to ensure everything on air is suitable for kids of any age at any time.
We do feel that the slightly edited version is more comfortable for local kids and their parents. We have an ongoing dialogue with our audiences and our shows reflect their preferences. Research shows that UK kids often watch with younger siblings without parental supervision. Be assured that as a channel and network we celebrate diversity – evident across many of our shows and characters.”
By deconstructing the statement, you can get to the crux of why exactly they made their decision and it’s not because “we have to ensure everything on air is suitable for kids of any age at any time” and “UK kids often watch with younger siblings without parental supervision”. If this were the case, the Network would have surely edited the other fusion performances:
Amethyst has fused with Garnet and Pearl, who have in turn fused with each other on the show. These episodes haven’t been edited yet despite the fact that many could deem their ‘fusion’ as unfit for children of a certain age. Surely children couldn’t take anything from these scenes? No, because the fusion dances aren’t a problem, they’re funny and entertaining and that makes them okay.
The performance between Rose and Pearl shows them almost kiss… almost! So why edit it if they don’t even do it? Well “the slightly edited version is more comfortable for local kids and their parents”. Clearly it makes some adults feel uncomfortable. In a cartoon series that has the heart and honesty to show love in all shapes, sizes and forms, some adults are uncomfortable with the idea that children could discern from a kiss THAT DIDN’T HAPPEN that queer people might really exist even in the 21st century. You can explain away Ruby and Sapphire if you choose to as just very good friends, you can pretend they’re love is platonic and nothing more but, trust me, your kids are smarter than you give them credit for and they understand more than you hope they do.
Our generation grew up with Sailor Uranus and Venus, Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy; while we weren’t exposed to the ins and outs of their relationships or their nature, we watched from an innocent perspective – they like each other and that’s cool.
What could children discern from a dance between a giant pink lady and a skinny pale lady? What kind of questions could they have about a kiss that didn’t even happen? A quick few frames of colour that means little to nothing to a casual viewer but the world and more to fans – how can you judge one scene without understanding the context, unaware that all Pearl wants is to embrace the gem she loves? Unaware that Rose has no romantic feelings for her companion? What that means and does to Pearl as a character or how it affects how she sees and regards the series’ main protagonist? No, it’s an almost kiss between two gems that look like women and that might be awkward or difficult to explain (if it had actually happened) to a young child who, when confronted with a new relationship, must be forced to understand the complex make-up of that pairing!
No, it’s easier to hide, to censor and to pretend the kiss that didn’t happen, didn’t even happen to happen!
What does censoring those frames accomplish? Who does censoring the no-kiss scene really affect? This isn’t about fans, queer or straight who embroil themselves in the rocky entanglements of the gem relationships. This isn’t about the parent fumbling for a remote just in case it might happen. This is about those kids out there who might grow up and be gay. This is about the message that censoring this scene sends. In a show that has never censored heterosexual scenes of affection, kissing, the ones that happen and even the ones that almost happen, why now hide away gay relationships?
In the last few days news broke that ISIS threw a 15 year-old off a roof for being gay (did we censor that news for kids, just in case they decide to run off and be rampant militants?) and a 15 year-old in India set fire to himself after being bulled for being gay (was this censored just in case children overheard?).
Why does a cartoon for kids matter in the context of all that?
It’s simple! The magic of Steven Universe isn’t found in the powers of Steven and the Crystal Gems. It isn’t in the ability to fuse, wield powerful weapons and do battle with intergalactic villains. It is the truth it tells about love, it’s power, it’s impact, it’s intoxicating memories and strangling control, it’s sharing your true self and it’s consumption of all things. More importantly, it’s in the universal truth that love knows no race, gender, sexuality, limits or bounds.
Take that away from Steven Universe and you take away more than a few frames, you take away the show’s heart.
Editor-in-Chief, part-time super villain and hoarder of cats. If you can’t find me writing, I’m probably in the kitchen!