LOVE SONGS: Rebecca Sugar’s Queer Melodies and Metaphors

In late November of last year, the adults behind the critically acclaimed post-apocalyptic cartoon Adventure Time attempted to revitalize the show with an eight-part miniseries entitled “Stakes.” The main series revolves around Finn and Jake—an idealistic child knight who may be the last human on Earth and his adoptive brother, a magical talking dog—but “Stakes” transfers the spotlight to one of the show’s most complex supporting characters: Marceline, a thousand-year-old vampire frozen in a state of perpetual teen angst. (More accurately, she’s a G-rated version of that once-sinister creature—she feeds by sapping the color red out of objects, and occasionally other characters.) In the miniseries, Marceline decides to regain her mortality with the help of Princess Bubblegum, who performs scientific experiments when she’s not busy governing the anthropomorphic desserts that inhabit her kingdom. Bubblegum’s procedure successfully restores Marceline’s humanity, but also unleashes five vampires of the usual blood-sucking variety whom she first vanquished as a teenager, forcing her to track down and defeat each one again—this time with the help of Finn, Jake, and the princess.

It’s not a bad premise, but any member of the show’s target demographic could guess how it all turns out. To compensate for the predictable plot, the miniseries relies on frequent flashbacks to Marceline’s long backstory. The most effective of these scenes introduces the character’s mother, singing a lullaby. “Everything stays right where you left it,” the mother sings to the child. At the end of the series, a more mature Marceline expands the song. “Everything stays,” she sings over a montage of characters returning to status quo, “but it still changes.”

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Promotional art for “Stakes”

Both the lullaby and the voice that sings it were supplied by Rebecca Sugar—creator of Steven Universe, another well-reviewed Cartoon Network original. The cameo was a homecoming for Sugar, who joined the Adventure Time crew as a storyboard revisionist during the first season. Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward encouraged the young artists he recruited to bring their passions to his show. Sugar’s contribution was her ukulele, which she used to compose catchy ditties that often reveal the inner worlds of seemingly one-dimensional characters, but just as often simply liven up a lacking scene. Examples of the latter include “On a Tropical Island/As a Tropical Island,” “I’m On a Boat,” and the popular earworm “Bacon Pancakes,” all sung by Jake, who is voiced by the ubiquitous John DiMaggio. But the blessings of Sugar’s best compositions most often fell upon Marceline, the moody singer-songwriter equipped with a battle-axe bass and a gifted voice actress—Olivia Olson, known for playing the little girl who sings “All I Want for Christmas is You” in Love Actually.

In the first season, the audience’s perception of Marceline develops in tandem with Finn’s increasing comprehension of moral ambiguity. He and Jake initially assume the vampire is evil, but soon realize that, while she is incredibly powerful and occasionally callous, Marceline’s most threatening trait is a penchant for pranks. Sugar’s work in the later seasons invites the viewer to see through Marceline’s eyes, which are often focused on one of her two father figures: Hunson Abadeer—a Lovecraftian Satan from whom she inherited her pointed teeth and affinity for black clothes—and the Ice King, who no longer remembers caring for the abandoned young Marceline in the aftermath of the apocalypse. “The Fry Song,” the first tune to make its way from Sugar’s ukulele to millions of TV screens, addressed Marceline’s doubt of her father’s love with an anecdote about the demonic dad swiping his daughter’s fries. In “Not Just Your Little Girl,” Marceline expresses her reluctance to fulfill her father’s dream of seeing her succeed him as ruler of the underworld. “Nuts” and “Remember You,” two songs from a poignant episode in which the Ice King asks Marceline for help writing a song, portray the impact of dementia on its sufferers and their loved ones with more subtlety and empathy than can be found on most shows made for adults.

No controversy erupted over the alienation, parental abandonment, and senility explored in those songs, but that harmony came to an end with “What Was Missing,” a third season episode written and storyboarded by Sugar and frequent collaborator Adam Muto, and an accompanying promotional video posted on YouTube. The plot compels Marceline, Princess Bubblegum, Jake, Finn, and their robot pal BMO to form a band and take turns singing their hearts out. The ensemble is tested by tensions both silly—like Jake’s admonition, after a single afternoon of collaboration, that they’ve all “forgotten about the music”—and serious. The freewheeling Marceline and perfectionist princess bicker and compete with realistic adolescent intensity, but Marceline’s solo reveals that their antagonism is more than a clash of personalities. After Bubblegum recoils at a threat from Marceline (“I’m gonna drink the red from your pretty pink face,” she croons), the vampire launches into a bitter ballad culminating in the words, “It’s like I’m not even a person, am I? I’m just your problem.” Marceline’s crosshairs shift inward as she wonders aloud why she wants to repair her relationship with the princess, but she soon remembers her audience and screams, “Stop staring at me!”

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Promotional art for “What Was Missing” by Rebecca Sugar

The song’s simple musical line and unabashedly emotional lyrics epitomize Sugar’s style. Eric Thurm, writing for Pitchfork, summarizes the songwriter’s trademarks thusly: “There’s a simple, stripped-down melody that doesn’t call attention to how stripped down it is so much as it doesn’t take more than it needs. There’s a lot of healthily-expressed pain and often uncomfortable earnestness.” There is often also, although you wouldn’t know it from Thurm’s reading, a whole lot of lesbian subtext.

Frederator Studios, the first production company to throw its support behind Adventure Time, promoted the show with a video series featuring short recaps of recent episodes and solicitations for feedback from fans. The series, dubbed Mathematical! after one of Finn’s quirky exclamations, was produced by Dan Rickmers for broadcast on the Frederator Studios blog and YouTube with no input from the Adventure Time crew. The recap for “What Was Missing” rushes to shed what little subtlety it begins with, like a two-minute strip show. “In this episode, Marceline hints that she might like Princess Bubblegum a little more than she’d like to admit,” the narrator explains, adding “maybe a little more than Finn,” whose unrequited crush on the princess induces much of his maturation in the show’s early seasons. Over a slideshow of drawings by Natasha Allegri, another artist on the Adventure Time team, depicting Marceline and Bubblegum intertwined and nearly kissing, the narrator asks, “Do you see where I’m going with this?” The video prompted Frederator Studios to end Mathematical! and fire Rickmers, which did little to stem online speculation about Marceline and Princess Bubblegum’s relationship.

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One of the drawings by Natasha Allegri included in the video recap

“What Was Missing” ends with the characters reclaiming their prized possessions from behind a magic door, having unlocked it with the power of honest songwriting. Bubblegum’s stolen treasure turns out to be one of Marceline’s shirts. In a later episode, Bubblegum wakes up wearing the shirt, buries her face in it, and inhales deeply before stowing it in a closet decorated with a picture of her with Marceline. In the “Stakes” miniseries, Marceline dreams of growing old with the princess. As the show goes on, the romantic connection between these two characters will likely only grow more obvious. The Mathematical! controversy seems to be forgotten. But none of these increasingly heavy-handed hints reflect the messy reality of love between young women—the constant stumbling over the borders between friendship and romance, love and hatred—as truthfully as Sugar did in two minutes of song.

Sugar described pitching her first song to Cartoon Network executives as a “super terrifying” experience, but the ordeal paid off. “It Came from the Nightosphere,” the second season opener that featured “The Fry Song,” and the first episode to credit Sugar as a storyboard artist, earned a 2011 Emmy nomination for Outstanding Short-format Animated Program. Her last episode as a full member of the Adventure Time crew—“Simon and Marcy,” another tearjerker about Marceline’s history with the Ice King—received the same nomination two years later, when Forbes included her in their “30 Under 30” list alongside Issa Rae, Lena Dunham, and Aziz Ansari. Buoyed by acclaim, Sugar became the first woman to singlehandedly create a show for Cartoon Network in its twenty-one years of existence.

Steven Universe is the story of a family. The eponymous character is an energetic, cheerful only child growing up under the loving supervision of three maternal figures—Garnet, Pearl, and Amethyst, who together make up a superhero team known as the Crystal Gems. The family isn’t united by blood, but they do share a distinctive feature: embedded in each of their bodies is a gem, the locus of each character’s unique magical powers. Brainy, polished Pearl’s gem takes up much of her forehead. The mysterious and tough Garnet has one of her namesakes in each palm. Amethyst’s gem shields her heart. Steven’s rose quartz, inherited from his mother, protrudes from his belly. The beach town in which they live is also home to a diverse cast of supporting characters, including Steven’s father, former rocker and current van-dweller Greg Universe, Steven’s playmate and crush, an Indian bookworm named Connie, and Ronaldo, the oddball blogger who is the only local who pays attention to the supernatural havoc wrought by Steven and the Gems.

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Promotional art for Steven Universe

Sugar based the main character on her little brother Steven Sugar, who draws backgrounds for the show. Steven’s three guardians embody the various approaches their creator has taken toward influencing her brother, from overprotective Pearl to partner-in-crime Amethyst. The beaches that Rebecca and Steven frequented as children inspired the setting. Sugar based the lullaby from “Stakes” on another early memory, of a reunion with a lost stuffed animal in her family’s garden. But the artist’s aptitude for drawing inspiration from childhood extends beyond direct translation. Many of the episodes in the first season have the same plot: Steven develops a new, strange power and struggles to control it, often bungling an attempt to impress Connie in the process (“Cat Fingers,” “Bubble Buddies,” “So Many Birthdays”); the experience will look familiar to anyone who has survived adolescence. Steven Universe is first and foremost a bildungsroman—the story of a young boy coming of age in a world both welcoming and dangerous, learning to cope with struggles both supernatural and all too human. The same can be said of Adventure Time: Jeremy Shada, the voice of Finn, was brought on to the show at the age of twelve and has aged in tandem with his character ever since. A key component of the genius of both shows is their antidote to the Peter Pan syndrome that so often afflicts cartoon protagonists—the creation of convincing human beings who experience all the bewilderment and anxiety and joy that comes with growing up.

Although Steven Universe is in many ways a successor to Adventure Time, Sugar’s show pays homage to other ancestors in animation. The show’s sparkly aesthetic and big-eyed, oft-blushing characters proclaim its anime heritage—Sugar cites Future Boy Conan and Revolutionary Girl Utena as influences, and an attentive viewer can spot visual allusions to the elaborate transformation sequences for which Sailor Moon is known. Both Revolutionary Girl Utena and Sailor Moon began as shojo manga, a genre that appeals to teenage girls by dramatizing the interrelationships between multiple beautiful heroines (and some beautiful heroes).

As in most industries, sexism is tradition in animation, both on and off screen. Not since The Powerpuff Girls has Cartoon Network produced a show with as many central female characters as Steven Universe boasts. Entertainment Weekly crowned the cartoon “the biggest name in feminist television,” over such adult-oriented dramas as the Walking Dead and Orphan Black. (Like Adventure Time before it, Steven Universe has earned its fair share of superlative accolades.) “My goal with the show was to really tear down and play with the semiotics of gender in cartoons for children,” Sugar told EW, “because I think that’s a really absurd idea that there would be something radically different about a show for little girls versus a show for little boys.” Accordingly, Steven’s usual outfit includes a pink shirt, which he once trades for a crop top and matching skirt to perform in a talent show. But the evidence that truly backs Sugar’s women’s studies talk lies not in the appearance of her male protagonist, but in the interiority of the many women that surround him.

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Steven performing in the episode “Sadie’s Song.”

An obvious difference between Adventure Time and Steven Universe is the sheer number of songs, one clear sign of Sugar’s ascension from the orchestra to the conductor’s podium. Nearly every episode of Sugar’s show features a Disney-style musical number; the characters seem to express themselves in song more often than not. Even the video game-influenced score, composed by Aivi and Surrashu, has an integral role in the storytelling. As in an opera, each of the major characters has a musical motif: elegant Pearl is associated with the piano, sensual Garnet has the bass, and Amethyst both plays and dances to crashing drums. By dancing, the Gems can fuse together, combining to form a new character displaying physical and psychological traits from both of its constituent parts. As two characters dance, their themes merge to form a new melody.

In the twelfth episode, Steven learns about fusion and reprises his frequent role of audience surrogate, badgering Amethyst and Pearl with questions and pleas for a demonstration. When the Gems finally comply, forming the gigantic four-armed Opal, neither we nor Steven get to see the dance. That discretion disappears in “Coach Steven,” in which Garnet and Amethyst take turns wiggling their hips until Amethyst lunges into Garnet’s lap. With a flash of light, they become Sugilite, a squat purple war machine voiced by Nicki Minaj. In “Fusion Cuisine,” Steven cajoles all three of the Gems into combining to form the six-armed two-mouthed Alexandrite, who poses as his mother at a disastrous dinner with Connie and her parents. (The trio’s dance is regrettably omitted.) In a later episode, Steven and Connie, dancing playfully, accidentally fuse into the androgynous Stevonnie, who leaves both girls and boys starry-eyed and stammering.

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Stevonnie running.

Like Adventure Time, Steven Universe succeeds because it takes its cartoon world very seriously, with the rigorous internal logic required to create a convincing alternate reality. That same consistency applies to the characters, who maintain their personalities even as they metamorphose. Steven Universe is not the first show to combine characters to power them up, but no one thought to explore the symbolic possibilities of Gotenks or Vegito. In Sugar’s hands, the concept of fusion becomes a rich and versatile metaphor, its meaning shapeshifting as easily as its performers. In its first appearance, the concept facilitates a threadbare moral about cooperation, as Pearl and Amethyst set their antagonism aside to rescue Steven. In the aftermath of the dinner fiasco in “Fusion Cuisine,” Steven accuses Connie of being ashamed of his unconventional family, forcing his three mother figures to masquerade as one. In “Alone Together,” in which Steven and Connie become Stevonnie, Sugar uses the fusion device to transgress the boundaries of gender, mounting a daring assault on a wall that television has played a central role in building in the minds of generations of children.

In the first season’s finale—stretched over two episodes, “The Return” and “Jailbreak”—a team of invaders from the Gems’ home planet arrive to destroy Steven and his family, whom they view as traitors preventing them from taking over Earth. Jasper, the muscle of the invading group, electrocutes Garnet with what looks like a weaponized tuning fork, captures the protagonists, and imprisons them on the invaders’ spaceship. Steven escapes his cell and sets out to free the other prisoners, starting with a hotheaded Gem named Ruby, who follows the haunting sound of singing down the labyrinthine corridors of the ship to find another Gem called Sapphire. Sapphire and Ruby greet one another with anxious expressions of concern and, eventually, a kiss. Ruby lifts Sapphire and twirls her around until the two merge to form Garnet, all in front of an astonished Steven. Before their climactic battle, Jasper taunts Garnet, calling fusion “a cheap tactic to make weak Gems stronger.” Garnet’s retort is a triumphant tune performed by the singer Estelle, who voices the character. The song is both playful (“I think you’re just mad ‘cause you’re single” is a standout line) and moralistic—its chorus revolves around the repeated lines, “I am made of love/And it’s stronger than you.”

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Sapphire kisses Ruby in “Jail Break.”

In the final scene of the Nickelodeon series The Legend of Korra, two female characters, one of whom is the protagonist, hold hands and gaze into one another’s eyes. The ending was widely interpreted as the beginning of a romance. In another much-discussed moment from Cartoon Network’s Clarence—created by Skyler Page, a former Adventure Time storyboard artist—a gay man in a restaurant greets his partner with a kiss on the cheek. A later episode casually reveals that a major character’s parents are both women. These instances illustrate the increasing visibility of gay people in kids’ cartoons, but they offer only fleeting glimpses of marginal characters and untold stories. Only Steven Universe has explicitly revealed one of its major characters to be non-heterosexual and chosen not to end the story there.

In the three years that separated the premiere of “What Was Missing” from “Jailbreak,” Cartoon Network shifted from shutting down a promotional series for daring to acknowledge what it had allowed as subtext to presenting a show that concludes its first season with the disclosure that one of its main characters embodies a lesbian relationship. Perhaps the network has shed the conservatism that never fit its irreverent image, or perhaps its executives have simply realized that the children who watch its shows are growing up in a society that views same-sex relationships as less and less of a big deal—and that not all of those children will be straight. Working in entertainment, the prevailing wisdom is “to deal in generics,” Sugar told Maria Bustillos, “because that will make your jokes read, and will make your stories read. But to say something very specific that lets people know that their experience, because it’s specific, it’s not illegitimate. That’s something that I think needs to exist in television.”

The second season of Steven Universe suggests that Cartoon Network has not rethought its support for Sugar’s progressive science fiction. When Garnet tells Steven the story of how Ruby and Sapphire met, she reveals that their first fusion elicited cries of “Unbelievable!” and “Disgusting!” from a crowd of witnesses. Fusion between Gems who don’t share the same kind of gemstone is taboo in their society. In another flashback episode, in which Greg tells Steven and Connie how he first learned of fusion, Pearl is the one making familiar arguments. Jealous of Greg’s relationship with Rose, the Gem who becomes Steven’s mother, Pearl tells her human rival that he can’t be anything more than a phase because fusion, a physical impossibility for Greg and Rose, “is the ultimate connection between Gems.” In the darkest episode of the series thus far, Garnet and Steven fight a faceless amalgam of multicolored arms and legs—the result of Homeworld Gems’ experiments combining the gem shards of the rebel casualties of the war over Earth fought long before Steven was born. “Fusion is a choice,” Garnet tells Steven afterward, “Those Gems weren’t given a choice. It isn’t right. It isn’t fusion.”

If the purpose of kids’ entertainment is to inculcate the worldview that children must develop to become responsible members of a shared society, then Steven Universe represents Cartoon Network’s recent realization that the next generation must adopt an attitude toward difference that is not merely tolerant, but celebratory. In Sugar’s universe, the only true evils are discrimination and environmental degradation, empathy is the holiest of all virtues, and no problem is too big to be solved by telling the truth, preferably over a catchy tune. The latest mutations of the fusion metaphor, addressing miscegenation, rape, and consent, make her cute cartoon one of the most boldly feminist and anti-racist shows running, as well as one of the best—and that’s including all new television, not just the kid stuff. And unlike many of the queer female characters on shows made for adults—and there aren’t many—Marceline and Garnet are genuine, complex characters who are never reduced to their sexuality. Female cartoonists, thoughtful television writers, and legions of queer kids will be singing Sugar’s praises for years to come.

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