Chester Bennington's Widow Breaks Her Silence

'Steven Universe': How Rebecca Sugar Turned TV's Most Empathetic Cartoon Into an Empire

"I thought that it would resonate like a secret message, not something that so many people had been waiting to hear," she says

To hardcore 'Steven Universe' fans, some of the details of Rebecca Sugar's life are essentially mythic. Credit: Jeremy Freeman, Cartoon Network

Over the past few years, Rebecca Sugar has learned to steer a very large spaceship. Five seasons in, Steven Universe, her Cartoon Network show – the channel's first created by a woman – is enormously popular with both kids and their parents, attracting a vast, fierce fandom. (It's frequently at or near the top of the various rankings on Tumblr's Fandometrics page, and has a large following all across social media platforms.) 

The series is consistently lauded for its emotional intelligence, its musical numbers (including songs sung by Estelle and Patti LuPone, who Sugar wooed with roses), its nuanced character development, and especially its insistent queerness – one major character is the literal and metaphorical embodiment of a lesbian relationship, and almost no one in its central family is related by blood.

With her mop of black hair, indefatigable smile and seemingly boundless energy (she'll turn 30 in July), it's not hard to see Sugar in her creation. But series protagonist Steven – a relentlessly kind, goofy boy at the center of a millennia-old galactic war between the Earthbound Crystal Gems (Garnet, Amethyst and Pearl) and the parasitic Gem Homeworld – has a lot less going on in his life than his creator.

Steven Universe isn't just a TV show: It's a sprawling, many-tentacled property that includes comics, an upcoming console video game, a just-released soundtrack album, a New York Times best-selling children's book and merchandise recreating most of Steven's clothes. Most of these run through Sugar personally in some capacity – she wrote The Answer (the children's book), made editing passes on the companion volume Steven Universe's Guide to the Crystal Gems, oversaw the tracklisting and remixing for the album, and contributed dialogue and artistic guidance to the game, Save the Light.

The scope of her job both excites Sugar and, occasionally, pains her. "When I don't have time to be really involved, it's definitely strange to see something come into existence and know that I…" She cuts herself off. "But it's hard to stay away." Letting anything go is difficult for Sugar, whose life and relationships, in a sense, are the show.

Steven is something of a tribute to Rebecca's brother Steven Sugar, a background designer on the show. The show's exploration of romantic relationships (particularly in the character of Garnet, the living embodiment of a romantic relationship) is informed by her own with long-term partner Ian Jones-Quartey, a former executive producer on Steven Universe and the creator and showrunner for upcoming Cartoon Network series OK K.O!. "My time with them is trapped inside the show," Sugar says. "That's what makes it special."

To hardcore Steven Universe fans, some of the details of Sugar's life are essentially mythic. That Beach City is an amalgam of several beaches in Delaware her family visited frequently as children. That she created Lars and Sadie, two of the show’s more popular human characters, when she was in college and added them to Beach City. That she came up as a storyboard artist and writer on Adventure Time, and is responsible for that show's heartbreaking early episodes and its most popular songs, like "Bacon Pancakes" or "Daddy Why Did You Eat My Fries." This sort of apocrypha surrounds most popular entertainment, but with Steven Universe, history and emotions are consciously embedded into the show.

Sugar's personal investment in Steven Universe – the extent to which she is willing to unmask herself in her creation -is part of why the show has become so popular, and in particular why it has become a lifeline for many LGBTQ teens and young adults. But letting yourself be seen can have consequences. "Sugar Mama," as some of the show's fans affectionately call her, is at the center of a community that is often remarkably warm and supportive, but has also become a breeding ground for bizarre harassment, which is sometimes directed at the crew.

At Steven Universe's New York Comic-Con panel last year, several questions began with tears. One fan in particular was too overcome to fully express their feelings about the show, other than sharing an experience familiar to fans: "I've learned to accept myself more." This type of raw, public connection isn't out of place in an environment like Comic-Con, which is literally fueled by pop culture fandom. But Steven Universe, which takes on a role in viewers' lives that is frequently as therapeutic as it is aesthetic, is especially likely to inspire this kind of devotion. Sugar's response was fast, warm and genuine: "Thank you so much."

To many people, even those in the public eye, the sort of emotional labor and openness this demands would be unnerving. Where other celebrities might be asked for a selfie or an autograph or to perform on command, Sugar is asked – and told – about topics like gender identity, depression and abusive relationships. It's one of her favorite parts of the job.

Sugar tells the story of a fan who discussed their experience with panic attacks, unprompted. "It's not something you could just talk to anyone about, because if you don't understand that, and if somebody writes that off, that's really hurtful," she says before a pause. She continues, beaming: "And they knew I wouldn't. They knew I would understand." Remembering her own experience as a cartoon and comics devotee, she frequently adopts the perspective of an excited fan herself.

When it comes to thinking about fandom, Sugar is nothing if not thoughtful. She is, perhaps, the only TV showrunner who will go out of her way to reference Roland Barthes' A Lover's Discourse, a book she credits with shaping her understanding of fandom (both others and her own) through the concept of an image-repertoire – a series of images that become inexorably linked to a person you love, and that essentially become the thing you fall for. The concept struck Sugar, long a comic obsessive. "I know that that's strange, but I feel like I know them," she says of artists whose work she herself admires. "I've shared an image repertoire with them, and that's what their book is."

Sugar describes these as the "gender-expansive" aspects of the show, using a Human Rights Campaign term intended as a catchall to refer to people who eschew the male-female gender binary and prefer not to use a single, more specific label. Steven Universe’s approach to gender is a sort of pillowy playground, where you can play however you want, surrounded by a nurturing community.

As a child, Sugar felt alienated by the limited options for kid's entertainment during her childhood. "I watched shows as a kid that were supposed to be for little girls or for little boys, and I could not understand where I fit in that," she says. “It felt like there was nothing that was actually for me, and I didn’t know what that meant. I felt very guilty, because I loved shows for boys, and I wouldn’t tell people."

The secret of Steven Universe's universality, it turns out, is that it’s made for an audience of one. "It's not necessarily that I’m making something for everybody. I’m making something for me,” Sugar says. "And I never had a thing for me." That emotional honesty helps explain why fans respond so strongly. "I'm making something for us!" she says, excited. "There's an 'us' now. I didn't have that before, I just had a 'me' that had nothing, and now I have an ‘us,’ and we’re going to make everything for us."

Even as her creation has grown and morphed into something bigger than her original vision, Sugar has never felt more understood. "I thought that it would resonate like a secret message, not something that so many people had been waiting to hear," she says of the show’s popularity. “When people come to me and feel that too, I get it, I feel the same way. It’s this feeling of, ‘You found me, and I found you. We found each other.' There was just no way to put a signal out to say, 'Here I am.' And now we’ve found each other."

Though there's nothing to suggest Steven Universe will end any time soon, the fifth season is the last one to be fully plotted out, and it kicks off with a revealing trial that upends assumptions about the entire past of the show's world and the (brief) death of a major character, rendered in startlingly vivid detail for a show on Cartoon Network. Sugar describes this as the show's "fifth wind.” She's adamant that the show keep evolving, even into different genres: "This is a murder mystery," she says of the new season. "And it's not over."

Even amidst all of the seriousness, Steven Universe is relentlessly, unabashedly childish. Steven is successful at protecting Earth not through the use of his powers or through muscle, but by following many of the simplest rules of a kindergarten class: listen to others when they're talking, try to be helpful, share your snacks. It's part of what Rebecca Sugar and Steven have in common – why the show is so relentlessly positive, and so willing to welcome fans with open arms. And it’s why, when asked if anyone on Steven Universe is truly evil, she takes a breath and pauses before answering: "It's a fantasy show,” she says. "I think it's a fantasy that no one is truly evil. I don't know if that’s true in reality, but it's certainly true in my fantasy. Why wouldn’t it be?”