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Steven Universe, the First Cartoon Network Show Created Solely by a Woman

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Mon, Nov 4, 2013 at 9:19 AM

click to enlarge IMAGE COURTESY OF CARTOON NETWORK
  • Image courtesy of Cartoon Network
There was a show that Rebecca Sugar used to watch. It was called SWAT Kats and it ran on cable television in the first half of the 1990s. "They were cats, in planes, blowing up stuff," Sugar says. Once, young Sugar wrote in her diary that she loved the show. She wrote that entry, she says, as a "confession" and admits that, at the time, she was embarrassed to make the proclamation.

Today, Sugar is the first woman to create and run a show solo for 21-year-old Cartoon Network. (A previous Cartoon Network show, My Gym Partner's a Monkey, was created by the female/male duo Julie and Tim Cahill.) Sugar's show, Steven Universe will make its debut on Cartoon Network tonight. It's a show where the heroes are male and female, where action and humor mix with stories about friendship. Steven Universe is as much for girls as it is for boys. "I'm coming at this because, when I was young, I really loved boys' shows and I did feel the need to defend it," she says.

In cartoons, the distinction between shows geared towards boys and those geared towards girls may not be expressly stated -- but there is a distinction. You watch the characters, the plots, maybe even the commercials and eventually pick up social cues indicating that this cartoon is made for your gender. That message might stick, whether or not you agree with it.

"I felt that boys' shows were inclusive in a way that girls' shows weren't," says Sugar. "I never watched girls' shows. I couldn't relate to them at all. Most of them were commercials for toys."

click to enlarge IMAGE COURTESY OF CARTOON NETWORK
  • Image Courtesy of Cartoon Network
Steven Universe blends the concepts and artistic sensibilities associated with boy-centric and girl-centric cartoons. The look of the show is unusually pretty. Soft pastels and sublime sunset hues make up a good chunk of the color scheme. The action is frequent and, often, intentionally funny. Steven, who is based on and named after Sugar's brother, is a young boy who inherited magical powers from his mother. He joins forces with the Crystal Gems, a trio of girls (Garnet, Amethyst and Pearl) who are charged with protecting the world from all sorts of madness. The Crystal Gems become Steven's mentors, teaching him about their gifts with a sort of sisterly compassion. It's a reversal of the team of heroes premise, where the predominantly male group is typically rounded out by a lone female.

"I want to make a universal show and that, by default, makes it a more quote-unquote boys' show because those are the more universal shows," she says. "The boys' show side is the side where I think the gap could be bridged."

In Japan, anime and manga is often labeled in gender-specific ways. There are shonen stories marketed to boys and shojo stories marketed to girls. Since Sugar was heavily inspired by anime, these genres come into play with Steven Universe. "I'm interested in blending the two, the genres that are so gendered," she says. "The fights would be very shonen inspired, but the aesthetics could also be shojo inspired."

Making cartoons and comics were Sugar's ambitions. She studied animation at the School of Visual Arts in New York. At the same time, she was making independent comics and taking those to conventions. The comics caught the attention of some people involved with the animated series Adventure Time and she was invited to take a storyboarding test for the show.

She got the job and worked on Cartoon Network's hit series for several seasons as a storyboard artist and writer. She also wrote plenty of songs for the show, including fan favorites like "Fry Song."

Two years ago, she began work on Steven Universe, which is made at Cartoon Network's Burbank studio.

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