Author Mason Deaver is here to talk about Steven Universe, non-binary representation, and their new book I wish You All the Best.
All you have to do is look around the current political landscape to understand how important it is to have diverse representation in media.
The entertainment industry is finally making strides to put more unique stories in front of their audiences, and Steven Universe is just one of many incredible examples we can pull from.
I Wish You All the Best author Mason Deaver is here to talk about their experience with Steven Universe and what it means to see yourself represented in media.
An essay on ‘Steven Universe’s’ Stevonnie and non-binary representation in media
by Mason Deaver
Sometimes the most impactful things come to you when you least expect them. You can be sitting there, watching television, and suddenly your world can change for the better. That’s what happened to me one night when I was trying my best to catch up on Steven Universe. In a softer moment between the title character Steven and his best friend Connie, they both open up about their insecurities. Steven feels as if he isn’t up to the task of being a gem. Connie is anxious about dancing and performing in front of others.
When they’re alone, when Steven is brave and offers a dance, when the two are allowed to simply be themselves with one another, we see this moment of pure joy between them. They both begin to glow pink, and Steven and Connie fuse for the first time. This is the moment that would change me forever.
In Steven Universe, Steven helps protect humanity from danger, along with the Crystal Gems, aliens who draw their form from gemstones. He is half-human, half-gem. Throughout the show, two or more characters whose love and respect for each other is especially strong can achieve “fusion,” forming a larger and more powerful character incorporating their strengths. The various fusions stand in as metaphors for different kinds of relationships and intimacies (like Garnet, a fusion made up of fem-coded gems Ruby and Sapphire who are so deeply in love with one another that they hate to be apart).
Stevonnie, the fusion of Steven and Connie, was the first time I saw a non-binary character in any media. I was 20 years old and still coming to terms with who I am. The first time I saw Stevonnie was the first time I saw myself.
I have to wonder where I’d be if I’d had non-binary representation growing up. If things would be different, if I’d be in the same place I am now, if I’d be a little more well-adjusted to things happening in my life. If there had been something around when I was young to tell me that the things I felt were okay. That the discomfort I felt with my body and how I perceived myself versus how others saw me was a natural feeling, something that nearly ever trans person feels at some point in their journey.
I think if I’d had a show like Steven Universe, if I’d had a character like Stevonnie in my life much earlier, things might’ve made more sense back then. Steven Universe has been a life saver for many. An animated show that seems to radiate pure joy, with catchy and meaningful musical numbers, accurate portrayals of anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses, and on-screen queer relationships. The show brings about so many strong emotions for its viewers, and especially its queer ones.
From the moment we see them fuse together, we’re made to believe that Stevonnie is a special character. Up until “Alone Together,” the episode where they make their debut, we’d never seen Steven fuse with another character — in fact, neither viewers nor Steven were sure it was possible for a half-gem to fuse. Stevonnie, in the context of the show, is an unheard of thing. A human and gem fusion is something never seen before.
In the context of media, they’re also a rarity: there are very few non-binary characters on television or elsewhere. The creators of the show don’t directly refer to Stevonnie as non-binary; and unfortunately, that seems unlikely to happen explicitly, given the limitations animators and story-tellers are given by corporations. But the metaphor is clear, and it’s easy to read into the fact that Steven Universe creator Rebecca Sugar is non-binary as well.
To be completely honest, Stevonnie’s gender identity not being explicit doesn’t really matter to me. Beyond being the first character I saw who uses singular they/them pronouns, they’re the basis of many story lines that discuss anxiety, which is something that I struggle with daily. To see two aspects of my experience that are rarely addressed at the heart of one character has been incredibly powerful for me, and I’m sure many others.
For instance, in the episode “Mindful Education,” Connie is dealing with having accidentally hurt another student, which makes her and Steven’s fusion unstable. Garnet sings to them a song called “Here Comes a Thought,” which explains that our anxieties don’t control us, and sometimes all we need is just a spare moment to ourselves, to relax, and to let it go.
Ever since the episode aired, the song has been something that has stayed with me. It’s a thing I constantly replay to myself when I feel my anxiety is getting to be too strong. That Stevonnie, the character I most identify with, is the one going through these things, experiencing these real, raw, human emotions that many animated shows never touch on really made it stick with me.
In another episode, “Jungle Moon,” Stevonnie finds themselves stranded on an alien moon for several days. During that time, they being to grow stubble on their face. I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that the first time I was shocked that they’d actually made that choice. Because it never really entered my mind as a possibility.
It may seem like such a small detail, not something to be worked up over. But it meant so much to me to see. Within the episode, the facial hair is just something Stevonnie deals with. It doesn’t cause them dysphoria or discomfort like it might for other non-binary people (like myself), but seeing it simply as a part of them was enough to reaffirm something in myself. Suddenly, this thing about my body that made me feel gross, disgusting, it made me feel almost empowered. I could decide this thing about myself. It didn’t make me any less non-binary to have facial hair. I don’t have to conform to anyone’s idea of what non-binary looks like to express my identity. I’m allowed to simply be. Just like Stevonnie. I’m allowed to be myself.
When things start to feel bad or rough, I always feel like I can go back to these episodes and find comfort in what I’m watching. It’s because of Stevonnie that I have confidence in who I am. It’s because of Stevonnie and Rebecca Sugar that I was inspired to write books about trans and non-binary kids, because I want to be to someone what Stevonnie was to me. I want my debut novel I Wish You All the Best to show young trans readers that things may be complicated, and that not everything is easy, but that they’re fine just the way they are.
When Stevonnie first reveals themselves to the gems, Garnet embraces them, overjoyed at the idea of another fusion. She tells Stevonnie “you are not two people, and you are not one person, you are an experience. Make sure you’re a good experience.”
These words stick to me, as an affirmation. Because I am allowed to be me, I can just be myself and not have to worry if I’m being trans enough or non-binary enough. I am who I am. I am an experience.
And I want to make it a good one.
More about ‘I Wish You All the Best’
When Ben De Backer comes out to their parents as nonbinary, they’re thrown out of their house and forced to move in with their estranged older sister, Hannah, and her husband, Thomas, whom Ben has never even met. Struggling with an anxiety disorder compounded by their parents’ rejection, they come out only to Hannah, Thomas, and their therapist and try to keep a low profile in a new school.
But Ben’s attempts to survive the last half of senior year unnoticed are thwarted when Nathan Allan, a funny and charismatic student, decides to take Ben under his wing. As Ben and Nathan’s friendship grows, their feelings for each other begin to change, and what started as a disastrous turn of events looks like it might just be a chance to start a happier new life.
At turns heartbreaking and joyous, I Wish You All the Best is both a celebration of life, friendship, and love, and a shining example of hope in the face of adversity.