Rebecca Sugar didn’t set out to be an entertainment trailblazer. Growing up as a bisexual adolescent, sitting in her suburban Washington home and watching TV, she simply absorbed who was represented in kids’ mainstream media — and who was not.
Sugar launched “Steven Universe,” the main series that spawned “Future,” in the fall of 2013. While making the coming-of-age fantasy/sci-fi show about gem-powered superheroes, she and her team sought to express themselves honestly, even as that came to mean challenging her network’s history of not overtly depicting same-sex marriage.
Long before “Steven Universe’s” Emmy nominations and a Peabody Award, the animator didn’t think her bisexual journey was relevant because “I had been so isolated from anyone who would understand" her experience. She says there wasn’t fodder on kids’ television to bond over, while growing up in her Silver Spring, Md., neighborhood before attending New York’s School of Visual Arts.
The animation connections she made at SVA led her to Hollywood, where she landed work as an artist and songwriter on the Cartoon Network hit “Adventure Time.” She became a creative standout on that series partly for her ukelele-strumming tunes that soundtracked a same-sex attraction between a vampire queen (Marceline) and a princess (Bubblegum).
Those songs caught the attention of Rob Sorcher, chief content officer at Cartoon Network, who considers Sugar an animation “genius.” “Steven Universe” launched several years later, making her the first woman to be a solo show creator in the network’s history.
The main series, which concluded last year, centered on three Earth-guarding superheroes — Amethyst, Garnet and Pearl — who guided the sweet and buoyant half-human boy Steven, who was gradually growing into his powers. The title character was based on the showrunner’s own brother, Steven Sugar, an artist on the show, and the creator says the three heroic female-coded non-binary aliens were based on facets of herself as she sought to be “a role model to him as his elder sibling.”
“Steven Universe” was set in fictitious Beach City, partly inspired by the Delaware shores that the Sugar siblings visited as kids. But it was real-life events that occurred in Rebecca Sugar’s 20s that especially affected the trajectory of the series.
Two years into the show’s run, Sugar pitched the idea of marrying two characters named Ruby and Sapphire — who fuse to form Garnet — but she encountered network resistance. In 2016, though, Sugar’s significant other, Ian Jones-Quartey (creator of the Cartoon Network show “OK K.O.!” and a “Steven Universe" writer-supervising director), proposed, spurring her urgency to do a same-sex wedding episode. “I refused to wait any longer. If we can get married, then these characters can get married,” says Sugar, adding that she could not "wait for things to get better or easier.”
On “Adventure Time" years earlier, Sugar had been excited to write Marceline, who long pined for Princess Bubblegum. (They eventually got together.) Yet at that time, Sugar also understood how the industry operated: Most children’s network animation had dealt with same-sex couplings only in coded ways, she says, so any allusion to a gay relationship “had to fly under the radar.”
Sugar’s sense of the business was partly formed by what she saw during her senior year in high school, when a cultural controversy erupted in 2005 over PBS’s partly animated “Arthur” spinoff “Postcards From Buster.” An episode titled “Sugartime!” showed real-life Vermont families, including two lesbian couples. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings decried the episode as inappropriate for children’s programming and a misuse of public funding — a denouncement that Sugar calls “absurd.”
“I was carrying that with me," Sugar says, "as I was entering this field and trying to figure out how to navigate that.”
By the time she was an experienced showrunner on “Steven Universe,” she “had a front seat to the ideas that I had been fed indirectly as a child. It felt like I had all this radiation from a distance, and now I was right up close to the sun.”
When Cartoon Network would flag dialogue or moments for removal, it "would often be the most down-to-earth simple interactions,” she says. “Not so much the fantasy aspects, but just Ruby and Sapphire saying a kind word to one other or wanting to be close to one another.”
Sorcher says that when making content decisions, Cartoon Network had to factor in that “Steven Universe” was airing in nearly 200 countries, including some culturally conservative markets.
“On a personal level, as a gay executive, I was taking extra pains to be sure that inside my company, I’m being completely neutral — really listening to all the business issues going on around the world,” Sorcher says. “And that there’s not the optics of me coming in with an ‘agenda’ to drive through the content.”
So when Sugar pitched the same-sex ceremony, she had to convince the network that it was organic to the show’s evolution. The wedding arc, a double episode titled “Reunited,” aired in 2018, marking a shift in network policy that rippled across its other shows. After that, Sorcher says, "It just became the policy” for Cartoon Network to treat gay relationships like heterosexual couplings.
That episode reflects just one issue that Sorcher believes resonated with a devoted audience across “Steven Universe,” plus “Steven Universe Future” (in which Steve is a 16-year-old coping with ongoing changes in his powers) and last September’s “Steven Universe: The Movie,” which drew more than 1.5 million viewers in its original telecast.
Sugar dealt with what were perceived to be “very difficult themes around youth television: mental health, issues of gender orientation, sexual orientation, trauma,” Sorcher says. “And I think that she handled all of those issues with a grace and an elegance that made all the difference."
Sugar says that during the run of “Steven Universe,” she also began seeing a therapist who helped her understand the lasting emotional and physical effects of an assault she had endured in her early 20s — insights into her own anxiety that she says informed the latter half of the show.
Response to trauma became a recurring theme not because Sugar wanted “Steven Universe” to be “a didactic cartoon,” she says, but because “I really wanted it to be an expression of us as artists.”
Such expression kept young fans engaged, as they looked up to Sugar. “To have people respond to these little details in the show and relate to it and find me and say: ‘I’ve never seen that before,' " she says, “it was so moving to realize that there are so many of us out there."
“I’ve been moved to tears at so many [fan] cons by kids who are there with parents,” Sugar says of families who have bonded over her show’s representation of marginalized groups. “That’s something that so many people have been denied for so, so long.”