We owe it to kids like us to make sure they have stories all their own. That way maybe they’ll know who they are before they’re grown.
When I was a little girl, I had an obsession with Robin Hood — the character in general, but the Disney film in particular. You know the one; every character is an anthropomorphic animal, with Robin Hood and Maid Marian portrayed by red foxes. Robin was everything I wanted to be — dashing, heroic, and genuinely good, placing himself at risk to help people with nothing, and doing it all without the brooding and snark of other movie heroes. I loved Marian, too, with her patient kindness and utter grace.
I wanted to marry Robin. I wanted to be Robin. I wanted to marry Marian. I wanted to be Marian.
I suspect a lot of gay kids have felt this sort of conflict. There are characters we loved, but they were never quite right. I wanted to be Robin, but I couldn’t be, could I? Robin was a boy. All the characters like Robin were boys. I wanted to be like Marian, but I never could manage that much quiet femininity either. Instead, I was the kind of girl who ran in the woods with my best friend, and, when I cut my finger while sharpening stick “arrows” with her brother’s pocket knife, told my parents I’d sliced it on a thorn.
By the time I was in my late teens, I’d been called a dyke by more than one person, and more than one friend had innocently assumed I liked girls, only to be rebuked by me. I dressed in boys’ carpenter jeans and shapeless t-shirts, almost never wearing makeup, but I had crushes on boys, never requited. I didn’t understand the rush toward dating, sex, and love my peers were feeling. I wanted to date, but in my own time. I felt almost no pull toward sex.
By the time I reached college, I at least knew I was attracted to girls. I was a theater major, after all, raised by classical musicians — it’s not like I was some sheltered country kid who’d never come across gay people before. We were friends with couples named Susan and Kari; Bruce and Jason. I had gay and bi friends in high school, and in college, of course, I was surrounded by musical theater actors and costume designers. I had begun to see this difference in myself, too. While acting at a Renaissance faire for a couple of seasons, I’d make out with boys at cast parties fueled by underage drinking, and once or twice, a girl would join in. I congratulated myself on being bisexual. I still dated no one.
When a long-time friend confessed she was in love with me, I told her the feeling was mutual, and finally got to feel the swell of relief and joy that comes from loving and being loved. I moved across the country to be with her. It was not a good experience, to cut a long story short. Four years later, a different person entirely, I moved home again to my little Pennsylvania town. I watched romance movies sometimes, but it took years before I ventured tentatively back into the dating pools.
I dated only men, once bitten and twice shy of women. Nothing lasted. I enjoyed their company, but when it came to sex, that was the line at which I tended to end the relationship. I felt no draw toward it, and told myself these were simply the wrong men. It’s not like I had no sex drive, merely that these particular men didn’t activate it.
And then, sometime in the midst of all this, one of my closest friends persuaded me to watch a cartoon show.
I’m not averse to watching kids’ shows. I have depression, and when I’m in the grip of a depressive episode, sometimes that’s all I want to watch. The show my friend turned me on to was Steven Universe, on Cartoon Network. Within five minutes of the first episode, I was hooked.
Here was everything I could have wanted from a cartoon when I was a child. Here were all kinds of women, not just The Girl, that archetype that had no room for me, with her flowing hair, impeccable makeup, and personality that revolved entirely around the men surrounding her. Here was Garnet, the mysterious and powerful loner who still fiercely loved her found family. Here was Amethyst, the irreverent and impulsive troublemaker. Here was Pearl, the insecure perfectionist who could be grating, yet ultimately so vulnerable and heartbreaking. Here was Rose Quartz, their lost leader, fat, beautiful, and inspiring loyalty and love in everyone she came across.
It wasn’t just the gems, though they and the titular Steven are the focus of the show. There are so many good female minor characters, too — Sadie, the kind doughnut shop girl, and Barb, her butch mail carrier mom. The Pizza twins, Kiki and Jenny, and their grandmother, Nanefua. Vidalia, the indulgent, artistic mom with a wild past. Dr. Priyanka Maheswaran, the overprotective, ambitious, but loving mother of Steven’s best friend, Connie.
And then, of course, there’s Connie Maheswaran, a girl who is everything I was as a child: bookish, anxious, lonely, afraid to get in trouble, but filled with a desire for magic and adventure, fed by the books she’s devoured. She’s Steven’s equal, not in magical powers, but in loyalty and bravery.
Even the villains of Steven Universe are a diverse group of women, from the buff and sadistic Jasper, to the obsessive and abrasive Peridot, to the looming threat of the matriarchal Yellow Diamond. Then there are the fusions (I won’t spoil the surprise), and Lapis Lazuli, and the flashes we’ve seen of other gems. It’s a dizzying array of women, so rare in popular culture that I’m left groping to describe how meaningful it feels.
Most importantly of all, some of these women are in love with each other, in a way that’s outright stated rather than hinted at. Pearl loved Rose. Rose loved Pearl, in her own non-exclusive way. Ruby and Sapphire are a loving, stable couple. I could count on one hand all of the same-gender relationships I’ve seen portrayed on American kids’ TV, and all of them are from this show. None of them, of course, are from when I was a child, when I could have benefited from seeing this representation the most.
Just last week, during a panel on the show at Comic-Con, the show’s creator, Rebecca Sugar, came out as bisexual. During her talk, she explained why the relationships she created were so important:
“These things have so much to do with who you are, and there’s this idea that these are themes that should not be shared with kids, but everyone shares stories about love and attraction with kids. So many stories for kids are about love, and it really makes a difference to hear stories about how someone like you can be loved and if you don’t hear those stories it will change who you are. It’s very important to me that we speak to kids about consent and we speak to kids about identity and that we speak to kids about so much. I want to feel like I exist and I want everyone else who wants to feel that way to feel that way too.”
Steven Universe definitely made me feel that way, too. In fact, I felt very nearly electrified by the show, when it was new to me and I was devouring the existing episodes as quickly as I could. It was brand new, this feeling of looking at a screen and feeling represented by what I saw there. When Pearl cried over the memory of Rose, I cried with her. When Amethyst broke down, feeling her past made her worthless at best and dangerous at worst, I ached for her. When Garnet struggled with expressing her feelings and moments of weakness to the other Gems, I knew precisely how she felt.
None of these women were exactly me, but they all felt like someone I could be, or would want to be. None of them felt like placeholders marked “The Girl.” They felt like people. I was invested in their romances, their feelings for each other, in a way that I never had been before in watching straight media. For once, a man wasn’t the character I identified with most.
It’s almost embarrassing now to admit how much it affected me. I was so moved by these cartoon people. I was 32 years old, a business owner, crying as cartoon women hugged each other, for heaven’s sake. It opened a floodgate. I started seeking out lesbian media. I read Sarah Waters’ books for the first time. I read Fun Home. I sought out the movies and shows that most lesbians were watching in college, when they were just figuring out who they were. I figured out who I was. I wasn’t bisexual. I had never reacted to men, or stories about men and women, the way I was reacting to this show, these books, this representation. I was a lesbian.
It hasn’t been all that long since I had this revelation — less than a year, in fact. I’m 33 now, and seeing a girl I love, and who loves Steven Universe, too. We’ve talked, often, of how much this show would have meant to us as children. I don’t think I would have had to wait until I was 32 to figure out basic truths about myself if I had just had something like Steven Universe to look at, through which I could see myself reflected back at me. I might still have wanted to be Robin Hood, but I could also have wanted to be Pearl, a noble knight defending my leader and lover. I could have wanted to be pugnacious Ruby, or her serene and cool Sapphire. I could have dressed up as Rose Quartz for Halloween, instead of Obi-Wan Kenobi.
For LGTBQ kids, the value of representation is not just in feeling validated and valued by the media they consume. It’s also in seeing a possible way to be, and exploring different ways to feel beyond the heteronormative. It’s maybe the most direct way to understand what makes you, yourself, tick. We are the only storytelling species in the world, and the stories we absorb and that we tell ourselves are what make us who we are. We owe it to kids like us to make sure they have stories all their own. Maybe they’ll know who they are before they’re grown.