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.”
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.
There are hints of Sugar's prior gig in Steven Universe. Sugar says that she learned a lot from Adventure Time creator Penn Ward and her storyboard partners on the show. “Penn would really push us to be honest in our writing,” she says. “That world of those characters are so abstract that if you don't ground them in some sort of emotional reality, there is very little to grab onto.”
Like Adventure Time, Steven Universe maintains a sense of reality in the midst of a fantasy world. A lot of that has to do with the look of the characters. Steven isn't your typical boy hero. He has chubby cheeks and a gem stone stuck inside the bellybutton that he frequently flashes. His personality is more gleeful than serious. Similarly, the Crystal Gems are not built like typical teen heroines. Garnet is tall with wide hips and long legs. She is soft-spoken, but a born leader. Amethyst is short and curvy and extremely energetic. Pearl has a lithe frame and ballet perfect posture. She appears to be the most methodical of the Gems.
“It was always really frustrating when you see a cartoon and everyone looked the same,” says Sugar. “I really wanted them to represent people that I knew, that I had never seen represented in a cartoon before, personalities and body types.”
Steven Universe smashes the archetypal characters found in action cartoons. “Action shows tend to want to have really idealized characters across the board that are cool and perfect,” says Sugar. “I always found that really uninteresting.” Sugar is more interested in the “normal” person attempting extraordinary feats. “When that person achieves something, it always means more,” she says. “They can't do what the hero can do, but they try anyway.”
That Sugar is the first woman to create a show solo for Cartoon Network is a big deal in an industry where there are few females in top creative positions. Sugar pauses to carefully craft her response when asked about the situation for women in animation. “I think that things are shifting and have shifted since I was a teenager,” she says. She mentions access to comic books and animation has been increasing for young women thanks to the Internet. At 26, Sugar is part of a generation who grew up with unprecedented access to media. That's how she was able to develop her own interests. “You can find all this amazing art and you can draw from it and you can be as good as you want to be as long as you don't let anything discourage you,” she says. “I really think that things are going to be different in the future.”
Curtis Lelash, vice president of comedy animation for Cartoon Network, seems to agree with Sugar. “I think there's a lot more women who have grown up watching cartoons, reading comics, watching anime, playing video games who aspire working in animation,” he says. “We have way more women working in the studio than we have in the past.”
Like Sugar, Lelash believes that we will see more women creating and running animated shows in the near future. “I think it's taken a while to get here, but I think that the second [solo female show runner] is going to happen a lot faster,” he says. “It will be way more of a balance moving forward.”
Sugar says that she hasn't experienced any sort of discrimination as a woman in the animation world. She does, however, understand the concerns of female comics and cartoons fans who have discussed the pressure to defend their interests. This goes back to Sugar's childhood and SWAT Kats and why she created Steven Universe. “I didn't want to feel that it was something that I wasn't supposed to like. That was definitely something that I had to do, that I had to decide,” she says. “I'm not going to defend this because I have every right to have access to this and I can do this.”
She continues, “I think that there is definitely a need to defend it, but I hope that's becoming less and less true. Everyone should get to enjoy what they enjoy and not make a case for it.”
Steven Universe premieres on Cartoon Network tonight, Nov. 4, at 8 p.m. (7 p.m. Central time.)