Many of you have seen the Steven Universe episode “The Answer”. Many of you had the same reaction I did which was an unequivocal “this is the sweetest thing ever!” Some of us were surprised (and impressed) that they’d been allowed to “get away” with it, even in a show like SU. But what was it about “The Answer” that was so groundbreaking? It was a seriously cute love story about two immediately likeable characters; a fairy tale romance that was as innocent as it was beautiful. It was also the first fairy tale most of us had ever encountered where the two star-crossed lovers were both female.
If ever there was an example of innocent (and insanely adorable) love in a cartoon, this was it. It’s a storybook romance about an aristocratic seer and an impulsive soldier falling in love and defying the established order to be together, becoming rebels fighting for the survival of Earth in the process. That is the kind of story that seems like it would be a natural fit for a Disney movie. It’s the kind of story kids are exposed to on a regular basis and it’s considered appropriate, healthy, and even necessary. But none of those stories have queer characters, especially not in the leads.
The fact that Ruby and Sapphire are depicted as women is what made this groundbreaking, even though it is the kind of story most kids grow up watching over and over. By featuring two female characters instead of a heterosexual couple, this episode pushed boundaries—boundaries that make no sense to begin with. I mean, this isn’t an Adult Swim show we’re talking about. We’re not seeing or hearing about anything that could be considered remotely explicit; there’s not even a kiss in the episode! It’s a cartoon that no parent would consider objecting to if it told a heteronormative story with the exact same plot and dialogue. The simple fact that the two leads happen to be women made it seem taboo; or at least “edgy”. It often feels like these stories can’t exist in children’s media.
But, like all inclusive stories, the people being included gain while nobody else loses. Everyone who watched got to see a fairy tale romance about two of our favorite characters, and girls realizing that they love other girls got to see that their stories are just as beautiful and inspiring and normal as any other. It is precisely the lack of stories like this that give them the air of controversy and sometimes make them feel… different.
That is what Rebecca Sugar and SU’s other creators attempted to address with The Answer and in adapting it to book form, they have taken an incredible (and incredibly cool) new step in that direction.
The new book version of The Answer not only maintains the innocence and inclusiveness of the episode, it makes brilliant use of the storybook medium to convey some complex messages in a very straightforward and accessible way. The writing style employed by Sugar and the breathtaking illustrations by Elle Michalka and Tiffany Ford make The Answer the kind of picture book that younger kids would want to read over and over with their parents, one parents would actually enjoy, and one that older kids would analyze and dwell on as they grapple with some of the subtext and draw creative inspiration from the narrative style and imagery. In simultaneously subverting the medium of a picture book and being a perfect example of it, The Answer is a universally appealing fairy tale and a valuable tool in creating a more inclusive pop culture mythos.
The story is told in two ways simultaneously: the tale of Ruby and Sapphire is told in the middle 2/3rds of the page as Sapphire narrates from a floridly decorated top margin and Ruby reacts from a similar decoratively bordered lower margin. In some small way this almost echoes The Princess Bride, where we get both the actual story and simultaneous commentary from characters in the work. But as the main story progresses we become more invested in the margin versions of the characters as a proxy for the reader.
When the story reaches the point where Ruby and Sapphire first fuse, the margin version of Sapphire becomes confused as the story she’s telling is no longer the one she started telling and she no longer knows how it will play out. She goes from saying things like “Only five pages left” and “thank you so much for reading our book” to “I don’t know what to say. This doesn’t happen!” and “This page shouldn’t exist.” Not only does this make the main story seem more significant and the book itself feel a bit magical by breaking the fourth wall, it addresses the confusion many young LGBTQ+ people face when first discovering their feelings and the seemingly insurmountable barriers to properly representing their stories as mainstream rather than an oft-stigmatized subgenre.
It does this by having Ruby and Sapphire physically break through the page’s barriers.
When the two marginalized heroines (having the characters narrate from the margins is arguably a brilliant meta pun) are feeling lost and confused about the nature of their situation, they realize they need to figure it out together and support each other through it. This is difficult as Sapphire is in the top margin and Ruby the bottom. Ruby asks Sapphire to throw something down to her, so she pulls some of the flower covered vines from her margin’s border out and Ruby literally climbs up the page to reach her. This happens on a page where the main story is discussing how these two gems are exploring their relationship and wondering how they were able to do things that they were never “meant to” do.
Not only is this page a very cool bit of playing with the medium, it makes an incredibly significant point in a way that all audiences can grasp: that there are barriers to this type of relationship but those barriers are fictional and collectively within our control. As Ruby climbs up a page that asks “could this gem’s unthinkable courage change reality?” in order to be close to Sapphire, we are shown that courage and strength can break through any barrier to love. Older audiences can clearly see the subtext: you may have things that are scary and even dangerous standing in your way, but you can’t be prevented from loving who you love. Younger audiences are invited to marvel at storybook characters who are able to go places on the page they “aren’t supposed to” and do things they “weren’t meant to” as they consider at an almost unconscious level that those boundaries are literally just lines drawn on paper. We are shown that we make our own stories and that we aren’t “supposed to” do anything we don’t want to.
The following pages keep up this momentum. While the main story continues to show us the extremely cute process of Sapphire and Ruby falling in love, the margin versions explore the novelty and freedom of their new situation, commenting on how the story looks different from different parts of the page and jumping back down together to the bottom margin. Then just as the margin gems realize that they can make their story whatever they want, they fuse (changing the layout of the page as well as their appearance) and Garnet replaces Ruby and Sapphire both in the margin and the main story.
This continued theme of characters shaping their own reality leads to the margin version of Garnet directly asking questions to Rose Quartz in the main story area. When Rose delivers that famous tearjerker of a line “no more questions, you already are the answer: Love.” the margins are gone and they all walk off into the sunset.
While the story itself hit many of these points for all its audiences in the original episode, the book is able to do some things that would not be possible in Steven Universe directly.
First, storybooks, even in the age of tech (disclosure: I read this in the Kindle app), are a formative memory for many kids. Picture books we read with our parents form the background of our modern mythology and shape our lives in powerful ways. Storytelling, in general, has always done this and the picture book is still a major way that these key themes and concepts are embedded into our subconscious, how they shape our worldview. By turning The Answer into a picture book fairy tale, the creators are able to convey those messages in a powerful and lasting way.
Secondly, by releasing a storybook that tells the tale of a sweet yet epic love story between two female characters, they are able to show that queer romance is no different than any other type. As kids and their parents read the story of Ruby and Sapphire, they don’t see a salacious story of two diminutive lesbians, they see a fairy tale no different from many they’ve seen before. It’s a classic “soldier saves the princess and they fall in love” story; who cares if the soldier is a girl too? It’s a fairy tale about magical rock aliens from another galaxy, it’s not exactly like anyone’s going to be able to play the bogus “historical accuracy card” here to question why they don’t conform to Victorian gender roles.
Third, by separating the story of Sapphire and Ruby from Steven Universe’s continuity (and Steven himself) they are able to create a standalone story that can remain relevant even after the show (hopefully many many years from now) eventually ends. While knowing a lot about Ruby, Sapphire, Garnet, and the gems’ history may lead to a deeper understanding of the story, even someone who has never seen SU could take a great deal of inspiration and enjoyment from this book.
And finally, the medium of the picture book allows for storytelling mechanisms and subtextual threads to be presented in a particularly impactful and lasting way. Comics and picture books are processed by the brain in a way virtually no other medium is. By following a written narrative and tracking a sequential series of visual images, readers of these types of books are engaging their brain more deeply in the material. Additionally, it allows for easier comprehension of more complex ideas than young readers often have the vocabulary to process. In fact there are comics theorists who argue that the graphic novel can be the most powerful form of literature. For these reasons, a story like this is likely to lead to deeper critical thinking as a picture book than an animated show alone.
Rebecca Sugar has talked about heteronormativity by first pointing out that there’s nothing wrong with heterosexual romance stories. Sugar herself is bisexual and in a long-term relationship with a man, to whom this book is dedicated. We all know this, of course, because stories about that type of couple are everywhere. No matter if in books, television, movies or wherever else, they are represented and nobody thinks they shouldn’t be. But stories about queer couples are not represented nearly as well, especially in things like fairy tales. They are ignored and therefore seem taboo solely due to their absence from these mainstream narratives. The Answer set out to change that and making it a standalone book was the perfect way to advance that goal.
“It’s just like, the air you breathe, it’s so normal that it’s completely invisible. We are constantly reinforcing the idea that there’s a certain kind of love that’s innocent and a kind of love that’s simple and makes sense. And we are not discussing other kinds of love that are just as simple and just as incredible and make just as much sense.”
—Rebecca Sugar, interview in PBS’s Art Beat
Steven Universe is often rightfully praised for being inclusive and promoting LGBTQ+ concepts in a way that is universally appealing and connects with an incredibly diverse group of fans. It shows us that good stories are good stories and that talking about Ruby and Sapphire is no less normal than talking about Lars and Sadie. In writing an illustrated storybook fairy tale about the meeting of Sapphire and Ruby, the SU crewniverse has taken that inclusive perspective to new levels and given us a new fairy tale that is both endearing and universally appealing. It sends a message that queer youth may not get often enough but everyone needs, a message we often look to fairy tales to reinforce: love conquers all.