Eli Boonin-Vail – Queer Proteus: Towards a Theory of the Animated Child

The animated body, as opposed to the photographed body of traditional cinema, shunts aside notions of indexicality, and in doing so presents theoretical scholarship with a variety of corporeal problems. Its plasmatic need to mutate, stretching as back to the origins of animation, assures the animated body of a tether to the child’s realm of phenomenology, rooted as it is in a world of hidden spaces and bedroom fantasies (Bukatman 2012, p. 95-105). The animated bodies of children in particular call identity into question through a complex matrix of queerness, hybridity, scale, innocence, nostalgia, and hauntological presences. And there are so very many cartoon children, all of them innocent in character yet queer in form. Much as with animation itself  constitutes “a medium strongly identified with the popular culture of early childhood” that “has also proved its capacity to catering to the sado-erotic fantasies of an adults-only audience,” the elastic children of the toontological screen suggest an imbrication of innocence and knowledge.[1] This sacred binary is violated by the queerness of a child, or what Kathryn Bond Stockton (2009) describes as the death of an innocent figure perpetrated through retroactive knowledge. The question thus arises: what happens to children when they are animated into plasmatic cartoon life, and is this process queerer than the phenomena that occur when we film them with a camera? The animated television series Steven Universe (Cartoon Network, 2013-present), becomes a useful lens through which we can answer this question.

Our inquiry is best answered indirectly, via a detour through current theories of the digital cinema. Seizing on the emblem books of Europe’s mid-16th century, Kristen Whissel has given us a roadmap for exploring what she terms the “digital effects emblem” (2014); or, the use of the digital to reinforce the thematic notions preexistent within a given cinematic image. Whissel notes further that one of the initial digital emblems to take over films was the “morph” – the use of effects to “allow characters and creatures to shapeshift their surface appearances from a source image into a target image in single scenes” (2014, p. 131). The computerized image allows for a cinematic transformation of the body devoid of the strategic cutting and perspectival trickery required of previous generations, granting audiences access to unbound images of flesh bending, melting, pooling, and escaping the shell of its original corporeal form. Whissel draws our attention to the relationship between these elastic bodies and their overwhelmingly carceral surroundings in the digital cinema, drafting a dialectic between the plasmatic digital body and the hard body of the world. Most importantly for our purposes, Whissel dwells not solely on the implications that the morph has for the body, but on its temporal meaning. Citing the Grecian myth of Proteus, an unwieldy shapeshifter who grants visions of the future to those who can wrestle him into submission, she contends that films featuring digital effects emblems of the morph “not only place their protagonists in closed or carceral settings… but also burden them with problematic relationships to time and history” (p. 137). Proteus can thus be read as the monster of history, as he is a formless and illegible shape to be eternally contended with in order to comprehend both present and future. His myth extends legacies of historical illegibility and doubtful futurity to the plasmatic forms of the animated vision. In this way, Proteus gives us a window into the queer time of animation, animated bodies, and animated children.

Within the world of animation, there is no means by which we can distinguish the special effect from anything else within the body of the moving image. The gigantic explosion and the quiet interior are both composed of the same lines and colors, regardless of the presence or absence of a digital intervention into the animating process. Conceptual effects emblems have always been woven within the fabric of animated forms, and the morph especially is a vital part of animation’s grammar. In Winsor McCay’s first animated short film, Little Nemo (1911), the caption “Watch Me Move” appears above the character Flip’s head before the eponymous and iconic Little Nemo appears and subsequently elongates and compresses the animated bodies of Impy and Flip before “he seems to become the artist’s alter ego, and picks up a crayon to make a lightning sketch of a princess […] who comes to life” (Crafton 1982, p. 103). This sequence implies that movement in the animated world is synonymous with bodily mutation and plasmacity, and its chronological ordering implies that the plasmatic mutation of the body is even more important than the drawing of the body in the first place. Little Nemo’s need to draw and manipulate the body of a princess further foregrounds notions of the animated body in a Proteus-like self-mythology of futurity, wherein wrestling with plasmatic forms connotes striving for a desired future (heterosexual coupling and the reproduction this implies).

Sean Griffin locates within the history of the animated body a long-running discourse on queerness, positing that the animated cartoon presents the viewer with “a perfect instance of multiple discourses swirling within one text, exposing the constructedness of gender and sexuality through parodic redeployment” (2004, p. 109) and further argues that these multiple discourses are enabled by “using the technique of metamorphosis” 2004, p. 110). Though Griffin’s analysis is largely centered around the drag aspects of classical Hollywood animation (notably the iconic gender-bending performances of Bugs Bunny), his arguments have far-reaching implications for the animated form itself. Analyzing the use of drag in Rabbit Fire (1951), Griffin notes several distinct layers of performativity within Bugs’ duplicity. He is both a rabbit performing as a human (specifically Clark Gable in It Happened One Night) and he is performing a gender to entice Elmer Fudd. The result is a doubling of drag to incorporate what Griffin terms not simply anthropomorphism but “species drag” (2004, p. 113), a common component of many animated parables. I would add a tertiary layer of drag to Griffin’s theory, in that animation itself can be considered a form of drag in which lines and colors enact a performance of human (or non-human) forms.[2] As the future of the cinema becomes increasingly digital and ever-morphing, it is vital that we recognize the ways in which this performative and plasmatic aspect of the animated form influences images themselves.

Scholarship in film and new media theory has come to privileging animation in the age of the digital cinema. Lev Manovich argues that “cinema can no longer be clearly distinguished from animation. It is no longer an indexical media technology, but rather a subgenre of painting” (2001, p. 295). Tom Gunning, primarily a scholar of the earliest and indexical ages of the moving image, uses Alan Cholodenko’s argument that “every encounter with film is an encounter with animation” as a preface to his own argument that “cameraless animation highlights [a] dialectic relation of the continuous synthesis of movement and the discontinuous parsing of time at the heart of cinematic animation” (Gunning 2014, pp. 37-38). Here the value of animation theory is prefaced upon the ways in which film theory may exploit it or otherwise relate it to itself. This should surprise few scholars, given the chronology of theoretical discourses that have led to animation theory’s development. Nonetheless, this “discontinuous parsing of time at the heart of cinematic animation” (Gunning 2014) proves invaluable to achieving a greater understanding of the ways in which morphing from source to target images within time occurs in animation. The lines and colors that make up the embodied performances of animation exist because of the discontinuous parsing of time that allow for bodies to be stretched, flattened, or otherwise transformed in astonishing and identity-bending ways. Deleuze recognized this as far back as 1983, writing in Cinema 1 that if one “attempts to define the cartoon film,” they will struggle to integrate it effectively into a theory of the traditional moving image, since “the drawing no longer constitutes a pose or a completed figure, but the description of a figure which is always in the process of being formed or dissolving through the movement of lines and points taken at any-instant-whatevers of their course” (2009, p. 5).

What of children in the animated space and instant? Accepting that the animated form in the any-instant-whatevers is not “pose” but “description” (a term which we might substitute with “drag”), what is to be made of animation’s descriptions of the child, from Little Nemo to Peanuts to the present? Kathryn Bond Stockton reminds us that Freud could not help but feel the presence of a “ghost in the nursery” when studying children, which is to say that he viewed childhood and its traumas as only reconcilable retrospectively through a “belated understanding” (2009, p. 159). Expanding on on Derrida’s notion of an “afterwardness” that builds out of Freud’s thoughts on children, Bond Stockton models a system of discerning childhood motivations and rationality in relation to queer and murderous children, but her work may help us work backwards in relation to the forms and movements of animated children. In analyzing the murderous motives of queer children in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994), she identifies the animated and Claymation fantasy sequences of the film as “Jackson’s own hung time for the queer child, his way of answering, through a set of layered, fantastic inclinations, what kind of feeling is a motive for murder” (2009, p. 177). Bond Stockton believes further that a slippage from the indexical into toontological forms allows for a playful sort of Lacanian misrecognition in an animated mirror, which shatters when the Sapphic children carry out a heinous murder at the film’s conclusion.

In this fashion, the power of animation is its ability to lend the viewer a visual portal into the phenomenological world and time spaces of children, even going so far as to helping a viewer understand how children might be capable of queerness and murderousness, both of which violate our cultural understanding of children as innocent. Walter Benjamin, taking up a study of color, noted that “Children’s drawings take colorfulness as their point of departure. Their goal is color in its greatest possible transparency, and there is no reference to form, area or concentration into a single space”(1996, p. 51). When looking into “the world of children’s books,” Benjamin similarly placed an emphasis on children’s habits as both consumers and producers of art: “When children think up stories, they are like theater-producers who refuse to be bound by ‘sense’… At a stroke, the words throw on their costumes and in the twinkling of an eye they are caught up in a battle, love scenes, or a brawl. This is how children write their stories, but also how they read them.” (1996, pp. 435-36). Thinking of words as animated actors, bending plasmatically to the commands of childhood imagination, can allow us to rethink animation as a system of image production which is invested in narrative and color as children perceive them. In this conception of the animated form, line and movement are subservient to a color which pushes beyond form. To center an animated child within an animated space, then, is to give animated form to a specific kind of subjectivity, one which is grounded in a specific perception of time and space. Though neither Benjamin nor animators are themselves children, the presence of a child within an animated narrative exists to recognize childhood phenomenological precepts. Time and space are in animation distorted and made subservient to colors, narratives, and forms that belong to the child.

Steven Universe is an animated series which not only engages with the toontology of plasmatic forms that have been central to animation from its origins, but provides us with a roadmap towards tying these morphing shapes to queer understandings of the body, time, and the child. The titular Steven is, to borrow from Bond Stockton, a queer and haunted child (2009, pp. 17-22). Steven Universe takes place in a world where, thousands of years ago, immortal mineral-based alien lifeforms colonized Earth, but were repelled by an internal rebellion. A hybrid child between a human father and a “gemstone” mother, Steven has a gem embedded in his pudgy belly which grants him numerous, ill-defined powers, among them shapeshifting. This gem is the final remnant of his mother, Rose Quartz (leader of the rebellion), who gave up her physical form to birth Steven. Steven contains a dead person within him, and her presence within the show is entirely hauntological.[3] In her absence, Steven is raised by the Crystal Gems, Rose’s comrades in arms who continue to carry out her mission to protect humans, and his slacker father Greg Universe, who lives nearby. Episodes usually revolve around Steven and the Crystal Gems’ quest to protect the earth from “Home world” gems, though many are slice-of-life portraits of characters and moments from the tiny Beach City, where Steven resides.

It must be noted that all gem-based lifeforms in the series have no pre-determined forms or genders, yet all of them use female pronouns and are visually coded as female when they adopt hard-light embodied forms. Additionally, gems are capable of performing “fusion,” a temporary synthesis of identities achieved through emotional intimacy and rhythmic motion that mirrors queer romance (and pays tribute to Dragon Ball Z). Garnet, one of Steven’s three caretakers, is a near-permanent fusion between Ruby and Sapphire while Pearl, another member of the Crystal Gems, is revealed in the episode “We Need to Talk”to have been romantically attached to Rose Quartz. Because they have no definitive form save for what they chose to make, Gems are theoretically capable of morphing into anything. Amethyst, Steven’s youngest and most playful caretaker, is the only Crystal Gem who does this, having in previous episodes taken the form of a cat, a seal, a helicopter, a shark, a bouncing ball, a musclebound masculine wrestler, Steven himself, and, in a dramatic moment from the episode “Maximum Capacity,” the long-dead Rose Quartz. The first ten episodes of the show prominently feature scenes and storylines wherein Amethyst teaches Steven how to morph his body as she does (“first, think of what you want to be, and then just shake it out”). In “Cat Fingers,” Steven tries to turn himself into a cat but ends up with individually minded appendages which threaten to consume him, letting loose the plasmatic and species-drag elements of animation on its own child protagonist in a manner that ultimately becomes threatening. In “Tiger Millionaire,” Steven discovers that Amethyst sneaks out of the house at night to perform as “Purple Puma” in a local wrestling circuit. Steven joins Amethyst in her masquerade and discovers that this form of performativity allows people “to be wild and free, and body slam each other, and wear cool costumes, and make up nicknames.” Wrestling, like the plasmatic body in animation, becomes another colourful drag show.

Morphing in Steven Universe is abrupt and magical. The subject’s body is suddenly a mere silhouette of pure white light, which melts and stretches into the form of a target image before gaining the colours and features of that animal or object. The process, which lasts less than a second over the course of only a handful of frames, is accompanied by a sound similar to the teleporters of Star Trek, and also occurs in roughly the same fashion whenever gems commit fusion. Pulsating, elongating, and throbbing, the animated body presents itself as an amorphous blob of queer energies, capable of shifting taxonomies from human to animal forms at the whim of a playful and capricious animator. The transformations of Steven Universe descend from a legacy of unruly automatons and playful anima that Scott Bukatman has found in animation as early as Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) and which children inherently understand (2012, p. 6). Recall that Sergei Eisenstein, in locating the power of the rhythmic and pulsating images of Walt Disney claimed that “its hero is fire,” for “what, if not fire, is capable of most fully conveying the dream of a flowing diversity of forms?” (1988, p. 24). The transformations of Steven Universe are those of an Eisensteinian pale fire, an illuminated and embodied animus of total morphing freedom in keeping with the show’s queer themes.

Returning to Whissel’s conception of the morphing body as a Protean emblem of historic reckoning proves useful. Given that Steven contains a ghost within him and that his body is constantly a site of unruly bodily transformation within the animated space, it is not a stretch (if you’ll excuse the pun) to consider the animated child in this show as existing at a queer nexus of any-instant-whatevers and any-space-whatevers. His constant bodily transformations can be viewed as a corporeal response to his mother’s legacy, which he carries in his chest. Living in a house with three queer aliens, all of whom loved his mother in different ways, Steven is burdened not only with the protection of the planet Earth but with an endless protean wrestling match between himself and the ghost of his mother. Steven’s body is a site of what Michael O’Rourke terms “phantomosexuality” – “a queer history which is haunted by the past, the endlessly contested and contestable present, and the undecidable and unmasterable future” (2011, p. 58). Steven Universe, by virtue of containing within his body the gem of his bisexual mother, embodies the notion of haunting. As queer Proteus, the animated body of the child in Steven Universe presents the viewer with both a time and a space that are unruly. Furthermore, Steven’s present is constantly in flux both corporeally and in relation to his own destiny, since he is constantly fending off alien attacks and searching for his own identity. Moreover, the show consistently thematizes a threat to futurity in the form of alien takeover which will destroy Earth. The show’s lore supposes that aliens actually colonized the planet thousands of years ago, leaving a dormant colonizing weapon in the earth’s core that, like a giant embryo inside an egg, threatens to grow too large and crack the Earth’s shell. In this sense, futurity is weaponized at an apocalyptic scale by the show’s antagonists.

O’Rourke, responding to Lee Edelman’s anti-heterofuturity conception of queerness in opposition to the child, proposes a “phantomohistoriography” or “historiopitality”:

an ethico-affective history that is not about exorcizing the ghosts of/or the past but to make them, as Derrida puts it in in Spectres of Marx, ‘come back alive, as revenants who would no longer be revenants, but as other arrivants to whom a hospitable memory or promise must offer welcome without certainty, ever, that they present themselves as such. Not in order to grant them the right in this sense but out of a concern for justice.  (2011, p. 58)

Thus Steven Universe is not about exorcizing ghosts but instead welcoming and embodying them, learning to live within, among, and through the ghost of Rose Quartz, Steven’s mother who is also permanently him.[4] As Rose Quartz puts it in the episode”Lion 3 Straight to Video,” (an episode that adopts a technostalgic VCR aesthetic to frame its mode of address):

“Steven, we can’t both exist. I’m going to become half of you. And I need you to know that every moment you love being yourself, that’s me, loving you and loving being you. Because you’re going to be something extraordinary. You’re going to be a human being.”

She is a revenant who would no longer be revenant, made non-phantasmagorical by the plasmatic flesh and queer energies of her son and his companions. Her statement to Steven fulfills the ethico-affective promise of O’Rourke’s phantomohistoriography, affirming a queer love between not only mother and son, but past and present made possible by the plasmatic genealogy of animation. Steven Universe, like O’Rourke, locates the child and futurity within queer space and time as opposed to outside of it, as Edelman did when he sought to construct “a queer oppositionality” to “the Child as the emblem of futurity’s unquestioned value” (2011, p. 3-4).

Moments of intense and bright transformation are present throughout Steven Universe, but even when an overt morphing is not present, the show’s relationship with the child body of its protagonist is constantly in a state of flux owing to the show’s storyboard-driven methods of production. Unlike traditional Warner Brothers Looney Toons, there is no Chuck Jones-led house style for Steven Universe. Series creator Rebecca Sugar has her own style of drawing the characters, but storyboard artists like Lauren Zuke, Jeff Liu, Ian Jones-Quartey, Kat Morris, and others all take their own subtle approaches to animating the bodies of the show. Noses move up on the face, eyes gain or lose wrinkles, become rounder and are spaced further apart, chins become flatter, and the heights of the characters fluctuate depending on who is storyboarding a given episode (Clemente 2013, n.p). This is not a result of carelessness or indifference on the part of the show’s producers and animators, but is instead an intentional philosophy of artistic creation in keeping with the show’s themes surrounding identity and the body. Cholodenko asserts that animation is concerned primarily with life and with movement, and that both of these characteristics often lead to an animated pursuit of an “élan vital” (Cholodenko 1991, p. 16) wherein the body must be exaggerated and moved beyond the limitations of a biomedical reality (skeleton, muscles, organs). However, in the storyboarded variety of vitalities that we see throughout the whole of

Steven Universe, we are witness not only to an animated body stretched in key moments (as is traditional), but to an animated body that is never fully settled in regard to scale. We know that in any given episode Steven will be a fat little boy with sandals, curly hair, and a red shirt with a yellow star on it, but subtle elongations and distortions may characterize his body and face from episode to episode. In some episodes he may appear to be roughly the height of a regular child, while in others he becomes so squat as to present as cube-like. Scalar instability is made bedrock.

The significance of this bodily instability directly correlates to a queering of the child body.[5] Physical form is portrayed in Steven Universe as subservient to emotional identity, as indicated by the fact that the crystal gems are merely projections of their own embodied ideals. This relationship between body and identity goes beyond even a unified subjectivity when the child becomes capable of fusing with other children, as Steven does in the episode Alone Together with his romantic interest Connie Maheswaran. Forming “Stevonnie,” an adolescent genderless individual with mostly female human features, Steven and Connie’s racially ambiguous fusion suggests a late childhood sexual experimentation and liberation that moves beyond an innocence-guilt binary of sexual knowledge. Emotional intimacy, two bodies becoming one, bizarre and disorienting bodily experiences all speak to a libidinal voyage of childhood. Bond Stockton tells us that innocence queers children by making them strange to us: “they are seen as normative but also not like us, at the same time” by virtue of their need to be protected and safeguarded at all times (2009, p. 31). While Steven often presents as a model of Bond Stockton’s child queered by innocence – the adults in his life are constantly reasserting their need to protect him – here we see him and Connie queered by mutation and cohabitation of a singular body, despite their heteroromantic paring. It is also beneficial to recognize the weight that Bond Stockton gives to the fat queer child, who embodies her notion of a sideways growth in opposition to “growing up” (2009, p. 10). Both the ghastly queer child and the queer child who grows sideways are cases of “the child whose identity is a deferral” (2009, p. 11). That Steven is a fat child, whose jeweled belly often pokes out from under his T-shirt, further indicates a queer spillage of flesh outside of the perimeters of a straight timeline of growth.  By fusing, Steven and Connie are children who grow sideways into each other.

Stevonnie’s existence as a queer embodiment of an otherwise heterosexual relationship is foregrounded in both corporeal and temporal experience. Pearl, Steven’s most cautious and anal-retentive caregiver, characterizes the Stevonnie fusion as age inappropriate and demands that it stops at once. Garnet, herself a fusion, explains to Stevonnie “you are not two people and you are not one person, you are an experience. Make sure it’s a good experience. Now go have fun!” Garnet’s sage wisdom contributes to a deferential notion of queer time, wherein the queer child’s appetites and desires pause time in search of pleasure, a form of growing sideways. Fusion is thus framed as a temporary connection between two people that can be disrupted by emotional imbalance, as occurs at the end of Alone Together when Stevonnie feels uncomfortable at a party. Ben Davies and Jana Funke, in writing on the relationship between time and sexuality the British film Brief Encounter (1945), encourage us to think about the ways in which fictional narratives can “expose the potential queerness of supposedly straight sexual relations” (2011, p. 1). The queer body of Stevonnie exposes this potential queerness, forcing a contemplation of corporeal and temporal experience immediately upon its arrival. The visual mechanics of Stevonnie’s initial appearance present the viewer with a complex symphony of perspectives and subjectivities. First, we assume Stevonnie’s point of view, complete with an iris mask which mimics eyes opening, then looking down at their feet. There is then a sudden shift to a traditionally scopophilic camera, which soaks in Stevonnie’s body piece by piece. However, this roving hungry eye is complicated by the presence of Stevonnie’s own hands, which travel the body with us and touch the body as we view it. The presence of touch rescripts our gaze, suggesting that our visual consumption of the body is being matched pace-for-pace by a haptic self-discovery of the subject. Stevonnie is framed in “Alone Together”as powerfully attractive, causing everyone around them to blush and stare at them. When they enter a room, time behaves as if it were suspended. Davies and Funke argue that non-queer subjects who pursue non-future-oriented experiences of the temporal “prolong adolescence and delay maturity,” giving them access to an expansion or dilation of the moment (2011, pp. 9-10). Dancing and its resultant fusion in “Alone Together”is such a non-future-oriented experience, putting narrative on pause, restructure the scale of the body in service of experience, and queering child romance.

The Stevonnie character ought also to be read as a queer update of a classic superhero archetype: the child with the power to suddenly transform into and out of a powerful adult’s body.[6] The bodies of Steven Universe are not only unstable but constantly in conflict with each other. Fusion is performed in service of pleasure in episodes such as “Alone Together,”but in later episodes, such as “Crack The Whip,” Stevonnie acts in the role of a conventional superhero. Steven is able to project a shield from his body, while Connie carries a sword, naturally when they fuse they fight with sword and shield. The Crystal Gems are constantly fusing with one another: Amethyst and Pearl form Opal, Amethyst and Garnet form Sugilite, Garnet and Pearl form Sardonyx, and the three Crystal Gems combined form the giant Alexandrite. These fusions appear when the narrative demands action of gigantic proportions, but they also physically embody the complicated relationships between the characters, blending the colors and proportions of their composite identities, adding limbs and, in the case of Alexandrite, layering voices over each other. Scale of the body is thus a thematic and narrative device in Steven Universe owing to the show’s many gigantic women.[7]

Susan Stewart reminds us that the gigantic women of the Brobdingnag sections of Gulliver’s Travels are overwhelmingly described as disgusting, and that Gulliver “notes that such disgust is a matter of perspective and that the fairness of English ladies and the perfections of Lilliputian physiognomy are a matter of point of view and its restriction of knowledge” (1993, p. 88). The propriety of scale for the body is routinely flouted by animation’s plasmatic forms in Steven Universe, but the accumulation of size and features as a result of fusion brings the matter of monstrous women to a head. Steven Universe’s giant women do not hide their monstrous sides when they fight, but nonetheless embody queer affinities and strengths that lend them a sense of beauty in contradistinction with the Brobdingnagian. The tensions of scale and conformity that giant women balance on their shoulders is on full display in the episode in which Alexandrite, the most gigantic of Steven Universe’s many gigantic women, first appears. The narrative of “Fusion Cuisine” centers on a dinner between Connie’s parents and Steven’s. Connie’s parents do not understand that Steven comes from a nontraditional home, and Steven feels pressure to have a father and mother present. He convinces Garnet, Pearl, and Amethyst to fuse into Alexandrite and pretend to be his singular mother. The dinner is disastrous, a monstrous pantomime of orthodox families which attempts to press the complexities and queerness of Steven’s real life into the mold of a traditional family. The presence of a giant woman at a normal-sized dinner table upends the scale of not merely the body but the collective, throwing family dynamics off balance. If the dialectic between woman’s grotesquerie or perfection is a matter of perspective, as Gulliver suggests, then “Fusion Cuisine”suggests that family is too.

Scale of the body, conformity, and temporal experience also inform the narratives of several key episodes of Steven Universe in which Steven’s plasmatic morphology runs headlong into his child body. In “So Many Birthdays,” Steven learns that the Crystal gems are thousands of years old and attempts to make up for the thousands of birthdays they have missed. Recognizing that “your age isn’t real and your body is an illusion,” Steven tries to tie the body into a human experience of time by replicating birthday rituals, but becomes embarrassed when he realizes that at 13 he may be getting too old for birthdays. As Steven begins to feel old, his body rapidly ages over the course of a day. Limbs stretch, hairs sprout, Steven goes through puberty, adulthood, and middle age in quick succession before growing a long grey beard and potentially self-terminating by feeling old. The process is reversed when the crystal gems intervene, reminding Steven that he is in fact an innocent child and that his body should reflect that. “So Many Birthdays” relies on animation’s plasmatic physiognomies and its tether to the world and mentality of children, to envision its protagonist as queer child Proteus in the Whisselian sense, with a body rapidly fluctuating through time. Steven’s queer innocence in this episode eventually grounds him in a stable child body, but not before he faces death.

In another birthday-oriented episode from the second season, “Steven’s Birthday,” Connie discovers on Steven’s 14th birthday that Steven’s body has not developed in any way since he was seven years old. Steven’s father admits to Connie and Steven that he is unsure if Steven’s body is even capable of developing past a childhood stage, as Steven is half-gem and gems do not age or change. Panicking over whether or not he will ever “grow up” with Connie, Steven uses his ability to shapeshift to develop the average height and body of a 14-year-old, passing the change off as a “growth spurt.” Steven’s adolescence is willed here, unlike in “So Many Birthdays,” but it proves both unsustainable and physically painful for Steven, who accidentally reverts back to the body of an infant when the pressure proves too much to bear. This episode was storyboarded by Katie Mitroff and Lamar Abrams, who tend to condense the bodily features of Steven and Connie, emphasizing their childish size and thus lending a further element of exaggeration to Steven’s forced growth. “Steven’s Birthday”ends on a hopeful note, with Steven reverting back to his normal sized body, but with a single facial hair hinting at a hope for “growing up” at some indistinct point in his future. However, it is Steven’s body’s refusal to grow up that ultimately lends the character significance in Bond Stockton’s sense of a queer refusal of growth. While “So Many Birthdays,” with its rapid aging and sudden death of the child, speaks to Steven as a ghostly child whose body is constantly negating its own previous stage of life, “Steven’s Birthday”figures Steven Universe as a queer refusal of growth, a child who grows sideways but not up. That Steven has a straight romantic interest matters little, since it his queer and peculiar body, with its undetermined and constantly violated boundaries, which is the center of this episode and indeed the show overall. The birthday episodes of Steven Universe give new meaning to Gunning’s claims around cameraless animation and “the dialectic relation of the continuous synthesis of movement and the discontinuous parsing of time at the heart of cinematic animation” (2014, pp. 37-38).  The continuous synthesis of bodily movement and morphing in these episodes is directly correlated with a discontinuous bodily parsing of time. Corporeal experience, through growth and shrinkage, is exposed as a Deleuzian “process of being formed or dissolving through the movement of lines and points” which describe the body’s performance not just of emotions and actions, but of time itself (Deleuze 2009, p. 5).

Even when not engaging directly with questions of scale and children’s bodies, Steven Universe is undeniably a show about childhood and the phenomenological realm of child experiences. Rebecca Sugar intentionally peppers the periphery of the show with nostalgic objects of a childhood lost, be they VCRs, old video games, or ancient record players. She has explicitly stated that she models the character of Steven on her own brother, also named Steven, thus lending the show an intimate portrait of a child drawn not simply from the lived experiences of children but specifically from memory (Smith 2015, n.p.). Additionally, the show’s choice of palette brings us back to Benjamin’s thoughts on color and the world of the child, presenting the viewer with an excess of pinks, blues, and other pale pastels that inform both landscape and character design. Benjamin observes that children “like the way colours shimmer in subtle, shifting nuances (as in soap bubbles) […] for them colour is fluid, the medium of all changes, and not a symptom” (1996, p. 50). Indeed, colour is beyond symptomatic and becomes a medium of its own right in Steven Universe. Such a fluid understanding of colour informs the show’s colour schemes, especially in scenes where characters fuse or morph. Furthermore, since the Crystal Gems are light-based entities, colour is vitally important to their presentation and identity. In this way we can see the colours that make up Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl as combining Benjamin’s notion of a child-based phenomenology of colour with Griffin’s conception of animation as performativity. Colour grants access to a performance of identity unique to animation and the child’s realm of perception. David Batchelor helps us understand how the adult realm of Western culture has shunned and displaced colour, giving it a “lowly place in the moral hierarchy of the universe” (2000, p. 25). The moral hierarchy of Steven Universe reclaims a top position for colour, and in so doing centres a Benjaminian child-perception of colour while simultaneously allowing colour to indulge in animation’s tendency towards drag.

Steven Universe’s approach to colour, the body, scale, childhood, time, and queerness is thus rooted in essential components of animation that lead us towards a more comprehensive theory of the queer child in the animated space. In the flashback episode “Three Gems and a Baby,” the Crystal Gems attempt to understand the birth of Steven and the loss of Rose that this birth entailed. Amethyst, the gem who likes to morph, believes that Steven is merely Rose Quartz performing as an infant by morphing. Garnet, a fusion, believes that Steven is a fusion between Greg and Rose who is capable of un-fusing at any time. Pearl, who loved Rose, envisions the body of baby Steven as a prison of flesh entrapping Rose, complaining that “we can all see her, she’s right there, she just can’t gain her form again because she has this baby around her.” In the episode’s climax, Pearl contemplates forcibly removing Rose’s gem from Steven’s belly, which would presumably kill him. This is a contemplation of the Edelmanian, a suggestion that queer desire and heterofuturity embodied in the child are irreconcilable, that one must terminate the other. But Pearl ultimately refuses this premise, transferring her queer love from Rose to the child Rose left behind. In this way, Steven Universe puts into practice O’Rourke’s phantomohistoriography in service of a future-positive view of the animated child. The Crystal Gems in this episode are ultimately all asking the same questions that I am: what is this queer thing called the animated child? What is its body? How does it exist in time?

Steven Universe suggests that animation’s legacy of plasmatic bodies can be put to work in service of a toontological queer theory of childhood, that there is something queer about the very act of animating a child whether they are gay or straight. The series situates its child protagonist as a queer Proteus whose bodily distortions do not simply pay tribute to the many plasmatic animated bodies that came before it, but hint at a larger historical reckoning with ghosts and time itself.  The fusion mechanic of the series goes as far as to endow a queer body to that most innocent and heterosexual of childhood nostalgias: the boyhood romancing of a girl. So what then of Little Nemo and his descendants, all the other little animated children who came before Steven and the Crystal Gems? It seems that they are queered not simply by the innocence so often ascribed to them, but by the performance of animation itself. The show forces us to consider the animated child as a fundamentally queer form performed by lines and colors, to accept the very building blocks of animation as participant in a queering of the child’s body and the child’s experience of time.


Batchelor, David. Chromophobia. London: Reaktion Books, 2000.

Benjamin, Walter. “A Child’s view of Color.” In Selected Writings, Volume 1: 1913-1926.

Edited by Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996.

Benjamin, Walter. “A Glimpse into the World of Children’s Books.” In Selected Writings,

Volume 1: 1913-1926. Edited by Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996.

Bond Stockton, Kathryn. The Queer Child: or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009.

Bukatman, Scott. The Poetics of Slumberland: Animated Spirits and the Animated Spirit. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.

Cholodenko, Alan. “Introduction.” In The Illusion of Life: Essays on Animation. Edited by Alan Cholodenko. Sydney: Power Publications, 1991.

Clemente, Zachary. “SW #23.4 – NYCC ’13 Interview with Rebecca Sugar & Ian Jones-Quartey,” AmazingStoriesMag. Last modified October 21, 2013. Accessed December 4, 2017, http://amazingstoriesmag.com/2013/10/sw-23-4-nycc-13-interview-rebecca-sugar-ian-jones-quartey/

Crafton, Donald. Before Mickey: The Animated Film 1898 – 1928. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1982.

Davies, Ben and Funke, Jana. “Introduction.” In Sex Gender and Time in Fiction and Culture. Edited by Ben Davies and Jana Funke. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema I: The Movement Image. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.

Eisenstein, Sergei. Eisenstein on Disney. Edited by Jay Leyda. Translated by Alan Upchurch. Calcutta: Methuen Inc, 1988.

Goodall, Jane. “Hybridity and the End of Innocence.” In The Illusion of life II: More Essays on Animation. Edited by Alan Cholodenko. Sydney: Power Publications, 2007.

Griffin, Sean. “Pronoun Trouble: The Queerness of Animation.” In Queer Cinema: The Film Reader. Edited by Harry Benshoff and Sean Griffin. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Gunning, Tom. “Animating the Instant: The Secret Symmetry between Animation and Photography.” In Animating Film Theory. Edited by Karen Beckman. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014.

Howe-Smith, Nia. “’Steven Universe’ creator on growing up, gender politics, her brother,’” Entertainment Weekly, June 15 2015. http://ew.com/article/2015/06/15/steven-universe-creator-growing-gender-politics-her-brother/

Jewett, Robert and Shelton Lawrence, John. “Crowds of Superheroes.” In The Superhero Reader. Edited by Charles Hatfield, Jeet Heer, and Kent Worcester. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2013.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2001.

O’Rourke, Michael. “History’s Tears.” In Sex Gender and Time in Fiction and Culture. Edited by Ben Davies and Jana Funke. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Stewart, Susan. On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993.

Whissel, Kristen. Spectacular Digital Effects: CGI and Contemporary Cinema. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014.


[1] “Toontology” should be considered an ontology not of animation as a medium but of animated forms within the medium.

[2] Steven Universe has its own episode centering on drag: Sadie’s Song, which culminates in Steven performing a song in drag.

[3] The show begins long after Rose Quartz has died. Any time we see Steven on screen, we understand that we will not be seeing Rose. Interestingly, many of Rose’s most significant appearances within the show take place in the form of grainy home-video addresses to Steven, as is the case in the episode “Lion 3: Straight to Video.” This places nostalgia and outdated visual technologies in conversation with a language of the dead who haunt the present.

[4] This is suggested by the title of the fourth season’s final episode, “I am my Mom.

[5] It should be noted that the hard body of the world remains intact episode to episode, with consistent background art.

[6] This goes at least as far back as the child fantasy fulfilment of Billy Batson/Captain Marvel. See: Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence, “Crowds of Superheroes” in The Superhero Reader, ed. Charles Hatfield, Jeet Heer, and Kent Worcester (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2013), 80-81.

[7] We first learn about fusion in an episode called Giant Woman, wherein Steven sings a song about wanting to see Amethyst and Pearl fuse into a giant woman (they are too angry at each other to do this until the end of the episode, when Steven is endangered).

© Eli Boonin-Vail

Edited by Amy Ratelle