Sexualized Saturdays: Steven and The Doctor; Gender Identity and Role Models in Steven Universe

Since its premiere, Steven Universe has meant a lot of things to a lot of people. The representation of numerous gender identities, sexualities, ethnicities, and creeds has been a phenomenal example of how diversity can lead to better storytelling and has provided many fans of all types with new fictional role models. The recent remarks by former Doctor Who lead Peter Davison, however, have had me thinking about one group that some say is overlooked in discussions of how this diversity is having an impact: straight white men.

Now, before anyone says anything, the reason this group is “overlooked” is that they have occupied a widely disproportionate number of the roles that need to be diversified in the first place; they aren’t overlooked, they’re usually the group being looked at. This demographic is the exact opposite of an underrepresented minority, and the overwhelming number of complaints I see about their exclusion are, as sixth Doctor Colin Baker says in his reply, “absolute rubbish.”

“Straight white male” has been the default target demographic for a wide majority of western mass media in the last century, and that identity is one that is effortlessly validated by a seemingly unending parade of straight white male heroes (even just ones named Chris). There is, IMHO, absolutely no argument whatsoever to be made that straight white men are underrepresented in media, let alone solely within the subgenres of animated kids shows featuring aliens or British time travel franchises. But the result of this debate was that I got to thinking about the nature of what messages these shows send, and how the identity of the messenger can impact the way it is received.

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He can show you how to be strong. (screenshot from Steven Universe)

Which, of course, led me to Steven Universe. SU is a show with a straight male protagonist, but also one in which the bulk of the show’s main characters are women and many are (essentially) queer women of color. The show demonstrates both that a straight white male can deliver a highly inclusive message and that characters with a different identity can deliver messages that are particularly important for those same young boys in need of a role model—the same ones that Davison is worried about. By validating that a straight white man can in fact be a messenger for diverse audiences, SU simultaneously demonstrates why straight white men can and must begin to learn more of those messages from messengers of other identities.

(Note: while the racial component to the “default” hero identity is equally important, this article will obviously focus primarily on the gender and sexuality components.)

Mr. Davison seems to believe that young men and boys are only able to find role models in other males. He even remarks:

“If I feel any doubts, it’s the loss of a role model for boys, who I think Doctor Who is vitally important for. So I feel a bit sad about that, but I understand the argument that you need to open it up.”

In thinking about all this, I came to the conclusion that Mr. Davison was ineptly trying to express that there are specific messages (about compassion, fairness, aversion to violence, etc…) that a young straight white male audience needs to hear, and that the Doctor is a very good vehicle for those messages. This demographic has been conditioned by rigid gender-based stereotypes and is often seen as more likely to be receptive to messages countermanding those stereotypes when they’re delivered by someone who looks like them—someone like the Doctor.

Rather than delve into the Doctor Who casting debate itself (Whittaker’ll clearly be solid), let’s look at some of the positive messages that Steven Universe delivers which are specifically important for these young men to hear in countering negative paradigms and how it accomplishes this through a deeply inclusive narrative. Along the way, I hope to show that while Steven seems to validate some of Davison’s argument, he actually shows why that argument is a fallacy when applied to a character like the Doctor.

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Group hug! (screenshot from Steven Universe)

Even given the diversity of the cast, Steven himself is ostensibly a straight white male. While he is shown to be gender nonconforming on several occasions (and there are numerous episodes that explore what gender even means when applied to a gem/human hybrid), visually speaking, Steven is a boy and one who is shown to be romantically attracted to girls. While the message of SU is not crafted exclusively for any one demographic, its chief messenger is not an underrepresented minority. This would seem to play to Davison’s argument that the identity of the messenger is crucial to the effectiveness of the message when aimed at boys.

But while Steven is initially presented that way, the people in Steven’s life are nearly all female and are diverse in many ways. Like everyone else, Steven is struggling to learn how to live and how to measure up to what’s expected of him, and in the first few episodes, all of Steven’s role models are female. In these early episodes, we already get a subtle yet vital message: Steven doesn’t need a role model on “how to be a man,” he needs a role model to help him figure out who and what he is and what he actually wants to be. Ironically, the message this straight white male is delivering is that straight white males are perfectly capable of learning from people who do not share that identity.

Many kids feel pressure to conform to predetermined gender roles and social norms based on an external perception of what they should be. While this is harmful for everyone and not a problem unique to gender (the historical lack of heroes of color, for example, is similarly harmful), it can be particularly insidious in perpetuating a patriarchal worldview and a hierarchical gender binary in young men who would otherwise not necessarily be thinking in those terms. It is often remarked that patriarchy harms men too, and this pressure to conform is a perfect example of how that is true even in childhood and how it perpetuates harm to all genders later in life. Steven’s role models (Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl) are incapable of helping Steven Universe figure out what it literally physically means to be a human male, as they are female aliens, so they focus on trying to help him figure out what he thinks it means. If Steven wants to wear a dress and dance his heart out at Beachapalooza, he can; if he wants to be a burly gym dude, he can. The adults in his life do not limit him in any way and seek only to encourage and support him. When kids are told “be a man,” what they are usually being told is to suppress their emotions or endure some form of burden — to “toughen up.” Most parents seem to view this as an attempt to prepare their kids for the harsh realities of adult life, but the gendered nature of the message is particularly harmful. In showing both that it is perfectly normal for a boy like Steven to be interested in stereotypically feminine things and that those messages about toughness can be presented by a parental figure of any gender, we see that the conflation of gender and messages about toughness and emotional wellbeing harms the very boys it is supposedly meant to help; along with everyone else.

While there is no pressure on Steven to “be a man” in the harmful sense used above, even (perhaps especially) from his one male role model Greg Universe, there is some pressure on him to live up to expectations and to prepare to physically defend himself and others. However, the figure against whom he is to measure his success is his legendarily compassionate mother, Rose Quartz, and his three female gem caretakers, who are ferocious warriors fighting a centuries-long interstellar civil war. Not only, then, has SU shown that nobody has to live a certain way because of the letter on a birth certificate, but it has demolished the notion that gender actually has any connection to those ways of living in the first place; all three women are perfectly capable of showing someone how to “be a man.” SU shows that conflating a message about toughness and compassion with male and female is a dangerous false equivalency, and it shows us that the identity of the person delivering a message of either of those things is irrelevant in the success of the message.

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Pearl could kill you with a flick of her wrist. (screenshot from Steven Universe)

Pearl is a particularly excellent example. She is one of the most stereotypically feminine Gems we’ve seen, both in terms of her appearance and her mannerisms. But while she is the most apparently feminine of Steven’s role models, she is also a literal legend for her battlefield skills. She is shown to be just about the best sword fighter on Earth and better than a vast majority of gems, even being implied to have (directly or inadvertently) had something to do with the founding of ancient warrior codes like bushido or chivalry. In short, Pearl shows that the whole idea of pushing AMAB kids or anyone else to “be a man” when teaching them to fight for what’s right is absurd and harmful, and that a woman can provide the exact same example cited when invoking that particular cliche. She doesn’t know what it means to be a human man, but she can show him how to be strong “in the real way”. If Steven needs to learn how to be tough, he can learn that from a woman just as easily as anyone else; a point not often made in pop culture programming.

Which brings us back to Steven himself. From very early on, we learn that Steven is half gem, and all gems are female. Steven is half Greg Universe’s genetic material and half Rose’s gem. He even says at one point “Everyone thinks I’m my mom and… I guess I sorta am?” As a result of all this, it can be argued that Steven is simultaneously male, female, and intersex (it is not made entirely clear how the gem impacts his human physiology). He can represent any birth-assigned gender because he “sorta is.” Anything that makes him different is a result of whatever the gem is doing to his human body: literally a case of “it’s what’s inside that counts.” But while Steven can be seen as a “stand-in” for any gender, visually he is still a male. That concept of external vs internal gender is taken to an entirely new level when we are introduced to Stevonnie.

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Probably not the first impression Steven was going for. (screenshot from Steven Universe)

Connie Maheswaran is Steven’s best friend and first crush. When he finally works up the courage to talk to her, a rock slide nearly crushes them. Steven’s drive to protect her activates the Rose Quartz gem and leads him to discover his ability to summon a protective bubble… which they can’t get out of. They then end up making a series of failed attempts to pop the bubble and ultimately falling to the bottom of the ocean. So in talking to his crush for the first time, he accidentally kidnaps her and repeatedly almost gets her killed due to his bad decisions. But far from being an extreme parody of toxic masculinity, it provides an opportunity to see what he really wanted from Connie: a chance to get to know her. They end up talking and do genuinely hit it off and become friends, at which point Steven feels safe and the bubble drops.

From that point on, their friendship/low-key romance is portrayed as one of respect and mutual trust; they’re partners, they’re jam buddies. That concept is ultimately explored in the form of Stevonnie, a fusion of Steven and Connie. SU creator Rebecca Sugar describes Stevonnie as “a metaphor for all the terrifying firsts in a first relationship.” The message here, then, is that that physical intimacy isn’t something you do to someone but rather something you do together. When Steven and Connie dance, they are able to fuse, because, in the words of Garnet, they see each other as “someone [they] can trust with [their] light.” As a message, that is a perfect counterpoint to toxic masculinity.

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Connie takes the lead and dips Steven, leading to their first fusion as Stevonnie. (screenshot from Steven Universe)

In addition to this portrayal of healthy sexuality though, Stevonnie is also a clear example of a nonbinary person. The creators of SU have explicitly stated that Stevonnie’s pronoun is “they.” While the creators have not directly stated that Stevonnie is nonbinary, “they” is used in the singular when referring to Stevonnie as a fusion rather than as a reference to Steven and Connie as a group. Since all other known fusions are referred to as a single person rather than a pair or group, the use of singular they with Stevonnie is, at least, a strong implication that they are nonbinary. In this way Stevonnie is also a representation of how gender identity, though distinct from sexuaity, often develops in tandem with it during adolescence. That is vital for kids to hear, no matter their gender identity or orientation. Just as Stevonnie validates a truly healthy heterosexual relationship, they also validate a receptiveness to self examination of one’s own gender identity. When they accept themself, they find that they are able to have fun, and that people of all genders find them very desirable to be around. Given that they present as a somewhat feminine androgynous person (technically Stevonnie’s 2/3 female), the people who find them attractive are clearly not that concerned with what Stevonnie’s gender actually is.

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Now go… have… fun! (screenshot from Steven Universe)

This all started with a beef over a female Doctor, and to wrap this up it’s important for me to address why. When I read Mr. Davison’s actual comments, I wasn’t angry or offended, I was (as he claimed to be) sad. The backlash, particularly anonymous online varieties, to more inclusive media stems from a fear at losing power. A lot of the online trolls who pile on the “well actuallys” feel as though they will lose role models and they feel either angry, afraid, or in the 5th Doctor’s case, sad. It is important to address that fear, but never at the expense of inflicting actual disenfranchisement on anyone else.

Steven Universe can arguably be said to benefit from having Steven be a straight male. The reason that may be the case is that it presents messages which straight white boys don’t often get from someone who looks like them; it’s okay for Steven to wear a dress and dance his heart out, or geek out at the beauty of a leaf, or cry over the thought of killing a bug. Those are messages that straight white boys have been conditioned to think can’t come from someone like them and having someone who looks like them rebut that is important. But more importantly, Doctor Who is not Steven Universe. The Doctor is not directly countering negative messaging aimed at boys. While the character does represent the value of things like a rejection of violence and a respect for all life, that is presented in the context of the Doctor being a time-traveling adventurer. He (soon to be she, or they) absolutely does present messages that are specifically important for straight white men to be exposed to, but those messages are unrelated to his own identity. Not only is the gender of the Doctor unessential to those messages, it is shown to be almost wholly tangential. We have seen a dozen different versions of the Doctor, accepting that everything about the character’s physical appearance can change except, apparently, gender and race. We are even told that these things can change during regeneration as well; we simply hadn’t seen it in this particular Time Lord. There is no reason whatsoever that The Doctor needs to be a white male, and some of his interactions with Captain Jack even suggest that he need not remain straight (though, ironically, having Whittaker’s Doctor be a lesbian would actually maintain the Doctor’s sexuality).

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Yeah… I don’t think white dudes are lacking in Doctor Who representation. (Image via Wikipedia.)

In his counterpoint to Davison’s tweet, Mr. Baker points out that straight white men have had the Doctor as a role model who looks like them for decades. That has not stopped people who don’t look like the Doctor from finding the character deeply inspiring, and the fear expressed by Davison is only of any validity if all straight white men are replaced. Furthermore, the existence of a female Doctor does not suddenly erase the decades of existing episodes; we don’t stop finding inspiration in older media simply because new media has been released. This debate was about one specific character having their identity changed; one whose identity changes very regularly and one whose genre shares numerous fandoms which retain a straight white male protagonist.

The argument that a protagonist of any identity can spread an inclusive message, while valid, ignores the obvious reality of the current state of media representation. Of course a straight white man can be a role model for, say, a pansexual Latina trans woman; but if there are literally no pop culture icons who share her identity, the overall message sent is still an exclusionary one. This isn’t about the loss of one straight white male protagonist, it’s about changing the stigma that they all are. For every Steven Universe, there are literally a dozen Doctor Whos sending an aggregate message of exclusion and defeating the argument that straight white male is okay as a default since the protagonist could be anyone. It could be anyone, but it almost always isn’t anyone but a straight white male.

When someone popular in geek culture makes a comment like this, or really anytime someone actively pushes back against diversification, they may say “why can’t you be inspired by people like me?” but what they really mean is “I don’t want to have to be inspired by people like you.”

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