Cartoon Network is Working Towards an Inclusive Saturday Morning Experience


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// Carmen Mallia

As a child, my Saturday morning consisted of an oversized bowl of Lucky Charms, annoying my older sister, and binge watching YTV and Teletoon cartoons. As a 7-year-old, I sometimes noticed but didn’t think too much of the underlying racist, misogynist, and transphobic characters and puns in shows like Johnny Bravo, or The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy. Although, after being in a university program that has fostered my understanding of the negative ideologies that cartoons instil in adolescents, it’s clear that some of my favourite childhood characters, including Killa from Dragon Ball Z, exemplified stereotypes as a means to get a chuckle out of viewers. That is why I was reinvigorated when I heard of Steven Universe, a fictional Cartoon Network series centred around 14-year-old Steven, the youngest member of what is called the Crystal Gems, and his humanoid family of non-binary alien guardians. Steven Universe is a show that has successfully showcased intersectionality while creating a safe space for marginalized children to feel a sense of identity when they’re watching Saturday morning cartoons.

The show is centred around three aliens, Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl, that call themselves Crystal Gems; sentient stones that take on humanoid forms and protect the world from villainous monsters. The show follows these Crystal Gems as they try to take care of Steven and teach him what it means to be a Gem and control the powers he inherits from his deceased mother while also balancing his desires as a prepubescent outsider. Steven Universe starts off with a charming mix of action and emotion while Steven learns about himself and his relationship with the Gems. It conquers the notion that cartoons can’t be inclusive by introducing topics such as ethical diversity, body confidence, and LQBTQ+ rights. I am impressed that a Cartoon Network series has been able to talk about these topics with children, because I didn’t know about most of these issues until I came to university.

Steven Universe has two fundamental topics; identity and feminism. The creator, Rebecca Sugar, states in an interview, “To me, the show is specifically about intersectional feminism. The characters are very, very different from each other. What they’re struggling with is very different”. One of Steven Universe’s biggest strengths is characterization, as of the Crystal Gems have dynamic personalities that are believable because of their complexity. Part of the pleasure in watching this show comes from how Garnet’s, Amethyst’s, and Pearl’s personalities interact with each other, always creating a heartfelt plot-line.

This is an excellent show for children growing up today because it breaks the stereotypes of the nuclear family, and includes characters that are both gay and transgender, finally acknowledging intersectionality. Even though the Crystal Gems are not human, and technically do not have ascribed races, their skin tones and facial features suggest that they are people of colour. This show is important, as a proper form of representation has been needed in children’s television since its creation.

The dynamic of Steven Universe fosters comfort and identity, as it consists of real, intersectional characteristics and plots. This is necessary, as children representing all backgrounds and lifestyles watch Cartoon Network. As author, feminist, and social activist, bell hooks notes, “identity is constituted not outside, but within representation”, meaning that it is important for each individual to have representation within entertainment media. Cartoon Network did not adequately represent marginalized groups in the past, as their shows either used dangerous tropes, or did not represent at all. They have tried to fix this reputation in recent years with Steven Universe, but the fact that this is a noteworthy show for this reason, means there is still more than enough room for improvement.

 

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