Animation Superstar Rebecca Sugar and Her Colorful, Gender-Expansive Universe

ELYSIAN profiles the creator of “Steven Universe,” the first animated series to be independently created by a woman on Cartoon Network.

Growing up in as a cartoon mega-fan in the 1980s, Rebecca Sugar never liked shows with female leads. Disney princesses clad in pink? Heck no, not for Sugar. She wanted to see scrappy, imperfect girl heroes who were as compelling as the boys in shows like Transformers, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Although her perspective on gender roles often made her feel alienated when she was younger, it has informed her worldview as an adult, and at 31 years old, Rebecca Sugar is the most influential showrunner working in animation today.

In 2013, her show Steven Universe was the first program in Cartoon Network’s history to be independently created by a woman, and has since been seen by over 250 million viewers around the world. The story’s narrative is centered on three Crystal Gems (Garnet, Amethyst and Pearl) who use their magic to keep the Universe safe, and their little brother Steven who is still learning how to harness his own powers. The show’s gender-expansive storylines and vibrant design won it the 2018 Emmy for Outstanding Animation, and the series–which just completed its fifth season–has also been nominated for a dozen other media awards and accolades.

The key to Sugar’s success has always been her willingness to take chances and share glimpses of her quirky, unique self in the characters she develops. After she graduated from the School of Visual Arts in New York, Sugar found work as a storyboard artist on the groundbreaking series Adventure Time which was then in its first season on Cartoon Network. The show is about a boy named Finn and his shapeshifting dog, Jake, but the real stars are the colorful characters that Finn and Jake encounter as they journey through the post-apocalyptic Land of Ooo. Sugar injected nuance and complexity into the characters of Princess Bubblegum and Marceline the Vampire Queen, molding them into emo icons with a propensity to break into tender songs backed by a ukulele. And yes, it just so happens that Sugar is a uke player herself. She is also quite adept on the hammered dulcimer, lest we digress.

But what makes Sugar particularly bold is her stated objective to expand LGBTQ representation in G-rated programming for children. An episode during season 5 of Steven Universe (which debuted last summer), featured a same-sex marriage between two characters. The scene contains no profane or suggestive language, but simply illustrates the commitment between two individuals in love. “There can’t be only a certain group of kids who are told someone will love you by all the entertainment that they see,” Sugar said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. “By including LGBTQIA content and characters in G-rated entertainment for kids, you tell kids when they’re young that they belong in this world.”

Sugar identifies as bisexual and gender nonbinary, and her passion for creating characters that she can relate to has not only earned her a burgeoning legion of devoted fans and the respect of Cartoon Network’s gatekeepers, but she has also inspired other creators to represent a more gender-expansive perspective in animation. What was once dangerously taboo is slowly becoming mainstream. Disney’s Star vs. The Forces of Evil recently featured a same-sex kiss, and Danger and Eggs from Amazon Studios was created by trans animator, Shadi Petosky and is voiced by trans actors. There’s even a same-sex relationship between two cops on the Disney XD show Gravity Falls.

As for Steven Universe, it seems that the series’ fifth season will probably be its last, although no one associated with Cartoon Network will confirm or deny this. In the meantime, Sugar and her team are busy finishing the Steven Universe film which is slated to air on the network in the fall of 2019. The plotline is strictly hush-hush but no matter what Steven and the Crystal Gems get into, we suspect it won’t be boring. Or vanilla.

 

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