The Cartoon Network series Steven Universe has a great cast, a rich sense of world building, and calm, stylized animation. But how it deals with gender, sex, identity, and relationships is what makes Steven Universe a powerful and remarkable show. It explores the dynamics of unique pairings through the Gems—an extraterrestrial species of feminine-coded figures who define their connections to each other through a process known as fusion. (A Polygon piece by Carli Velocci explains it more in-depth here.) It’s easy to view fusion as a parallel to sexual relationships—not only the act of intercourse, but the myriad and complex ways through which sex can be explored and experienced, whether romantically, platonically, manipulatively, or even forcefully. It’s a wildly creative examination on the importance of relationships and identity, and how the two, quite literally, come together.
So when it was revealed that Cartoon Network’s U.K. broadcast of the episode “We Need To Talk” omitted frames of an amorous gaze between two female characters, Rose Quartz and Pearl, fans rose up. After all, the edits tossed aside Steven Universe’s boldest portrayals of same-sex sensuality. The response from Cartoon Network’s European arm (quoted by multiple sources but no longer available on the channel’s Facebook page) cites the lack of content ratings for British TV, stating that “in the U.K. we have to ensure everything on air is suitable for kids of any age at any time,” and, “We do feel that the slightly edited version is more comfortable for local kids and their parents.” But that’s disingenuous. For one, this version of “We Need To Talk” still features a heterosexual kiss at the end of the scene featuring Rose and Pearl’s dance. Making matters worse, Cartoon Network’s statement closes with a meaningless claim that “as a channel and network we celebrate diversity—evident across many of our shows and characters,” which is increasingly becoming an empty marketing ploy, rather than a determined commitment to change.
This isn’t the first time Cartoon Network got cold feet with a portrayal of same-sex relations. In the U.S., the channel dropped a gay, lip-smacking kiss in the background on an episode of Clarence, opting for a peck on the cheek instead. There are also subtler, non-committal issues, like when Adventure Time actress Olivia Olson let slip that two of the show’s female characters, Marceline and Princess Bubblegum, had a romantic history, before mentioning that it’s unlikely the pairing will ever appear on screen. (On TV screens, that is: “Bubbleline,” in the parlance of Adventure Time viewers, is a popular subject of online fan art.) Cartoon Network isn’t the only culprit here, either: Disney might have approved a two-mom episode of the live-action sitcom Good Luke Charlie, but it didn’t allow some background acknowledgement of queer love and symbolism in an episode of Gravity Falls. And it would have been bold for Nickelodeon to commit to the queer ending of The Legend of Korra—if it didn’t shunt the season-and-a-half of the series to a poorly maintained streaming site.
To a certain extent, these kinds of decisions are understandable. International edits affect all media, and as much as we’d like to think we’re living in a more progressive world, homosexuality is still illegal in some countries. It’s asking a lot for a cable channel primarily aimed at children to be a global standard of progress, especially since Cartoon Network is generally so protective of its brands. Yet these minor exclusions took place in regions—the U.S. and the U.K.—that pride themselves on diversity. So why is this content being removed?
Ongoing calls for diversity in entertainment are directed at children’s animation as well; that inclusion is crucial for reasons beyond the medium’s reputation for being a straight boys’ club. I’m not a psychologist, so far be it for me to delve into how TV affects kids’ minds, but portraying same-sex relationships as normal and acceptable in animation at least brings forth the idea that two women getting close is normal and acceptable in real life. The direct sexual implication of the altered “We Need To Talk” scene may be lost to young ones, but the relationship aspect of it resonates, allowing its viewers to sublimate the connection between Rose Quartz and Pearl and acknowledge it as perfectly fine—because it is. Meanwhile, young, growing minds who struggle with their strange, new hormones and feelings can see those same struggles on screen and intelligently relate to them. Homosexual characters have been constantly regulated as hints and background signs for years now, from Hey Arnold’s Mr. Simmons to Gargoyles’ Lexington, but doing this in 2015 feels quaint, jokey, and, quite frankly, a bit troubling. It suggests that gay characters should still be hidden and backgrounded, that their love lives should be a secret. Worse, it suggests that exposure is an “adult” concern only, that the relationships and sexual identity of a person are perfectly okay in a kids’ cartoon only when they’re heterosexual.
More importantly—and perhaps the most pressing (and rarely acknowledged) reason why diversity is necessary, beyond the idea of “seeing oneself on screen”—is the generalized acceptance and understanding that comes from watching characters who are different from you. In the case of Steven Universe, it’s one thing for burgeoning young girls (or boys for that matter) to recognize a part of themselves in the same-sex relationships that fusions represent. It’s an entirely different thing for all types of kids to see these relationships, empathizing with them and acknowledging their unique, personal struggles without judging them—even if they don’t personally identify with them. (That type of empathy is the very nature of Steven Universe’s title character.) Other animated series for kids showcase heterosexual crushes and dating as parts of the human experience, even if it’s palpably uncomfortable—looking at you, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Kids get this. But kids should also “get” that those crushes and dating concerns exist among gay people (as well as other under-represented populations in television, like African-Americans, Asians, Latinos, Muslims, etc.), and that is okay.
That’s exactly what was lost when Cartoon Network cut that dance—the nuance and jealousy that can exist within a same-sex desire, which would have been portrayed without any problem if Pearl was coded male. Young people (and adults, as Steven Universe has a sizable older audience as well) can relate to that feeling, and people who don’t fit within that “queer” designation could still acknowledge those feelings as real and genuine. Empathy is universal and it trickles down; even if you don’t fit a category, you deserve acknowledgement and respect.
That’s what this cut really represents: Calls and support for diversity from broadcasters are worthless if those same broadcasters consistently remove signs of diversity from their shows. It’s the new “I’m not racist/sexist, but....” Diversity is more than just different figures on a screen or token numbers behind the camera: It also includes exploring the specific, personal struggles of these under-represented communities and exposing that struggle to an audience—young or old—in all its complexity and complications. Gay people exist, and their lives are as multi-faceted as straight people’s. Steven Universe wanted to showcase this in its own specific way, but Cartoon Network denied it. It’s only a few seconds of missing footage, but it’s significant. Those seconds would have been viewed if that relation was between a guy and a girl, and denying that statement to its same-sex counterpart clearly shows that we’re still not really advocating for diversity as much as we’re claiming.