Upsetting the Balance: Queerness, Censorship, and ‘Steven Universe’
Fans of Cartoon Network's Steven Universe were disappointed to discover that the episode We Need to Talk, which first aired in the US in June 2015, was apparently re-edited for its UK broadcast, removing the most intimate shots of the fusion dance between Pearl and Rose Quartz, replacing them mostly with Greg Universe's slackjawed reaction. Tumblr user officialkurapika has made a side-by-side video that displays the changes.
It's an odd move, because removing the shots doesn't do anything to dissuade an attentive adult viewer that there's something going on between Pearl and Rose, especially since the dance is motivated by Pearl's jealousy of Rose's growing closeness with Greg. And it's not as if they go so far as to kiss in the moments that were excised, although as you can see in the screen shots, they do seem to come very close.
This might be the first time the incredibly delicate balance that is Steven Universe's queer representation has been upset. Fans of the show, which has a large queer following, have long praised its casual portrayal of queer characters and relationships. And the storytelling was so deft, that nobody ever seemed to mind that Pearl never actually says to Rose Quartz, "I'm in love with you," even as she's making that very clear. Or that the existence of Garnet is never actually defined as a marriage, even though symbolically that's what it is. Or that Sapphire kisses Ruby on the eyelid and Ruby kisses Sapphire on the neck, but they never quite make it to each other's lips.
There's always been a compromise inherent in what Steven Universe is doing. An acceptance that, outdated and bigoted as their standards might be, all-ages TV cartoons just don't yet have a place for overtly stated queer themes. Steven Universe was able to slip through the cracks by showing a whole lot without showing very much. The show has certainly gone farther than Adventure Time's subtext-heavy portrayal of Marceline and Princess Bubblegum, or even the relatively chaste hand-holding that ended Avatar: The Legend of Korra.
When you watch Steven Universe, at least as a queer viewer, it feels like the queerest TV cartoon you've ever seen. But a part of that is still a matter of connecting the dots and seeing more than what's being directly portrayed.
Steven Universe has done a better job than perhaps any other show at striking a balance between what's allowed on Cartoon Network and the kind of representation they're clearly aiming for. The writers and animators have done such a good job striking it, in fact, that the balance is all but invisible to many viewers. But now, thanks to a different standard being enforced in the United Kingdom, the balance has been upset, ever so slightly, and what was invisible has become visible, and the result looks more than a little ugly.
I want to live in a world where TV cartoons feature overtly, unapologetically queer characters. Until we can have that, I at least want Steven Universe to keep doing its thing. It would be wonderful to see Pearl state the nature of her feelings for Rose Quartz, but just seeing her have those feelings and act on them is still really important.
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