In 1934, the Motion Picture Association of America began to enforce a strict code of moral guidelines across major studio releases as a right-wing reaction to the perceived hedonism and scandals of the roaring 20s. Named after the organization's then-president, the Hays Code was responsible for setting the standard of what was and wasn't acceptable viewing for the American public. Created by a Catholic man and a Jesuit priest with a few revisions from studio heads, the Hays Code ranged from banning the use of curse words to forbidding the depiction of interracial relationships.
It shouldn't come as a shock, then, that the Hays Code had a particularly puritanical view of sex, promoting "traditional values" and forbidding depictions of extra-marital affairs as well as all forms of "sexual perversion" (including homosexuality) unless they were depicted in an unquestionably negative light. There was a big emphasis of the corrupting effect films might have on children, which if left unchecked would allow "the possibility of a cinematically inspired thought crime."
While the Hays Code would eventually be replaced in 1968 by the film rating system we have in place today, many of its arbitrary moral guidelines have still managed to persist for decades. Queer characters continue to be portrayed primarily as villains, or otherwise tragically end up taking their own life as a result of shame for their sexuality. These tropes have permeated deep into the fabric of American film and television and despite meaningful strides made by the LGBTQ+ rights movement in the past half century. Historically Hollywood has struggled to keep up with the pace of progress; up until the last few decades it was an incredibly rare occurrence to see a queer character outside of a background or supporting role, and even rarer to see them not treated as the butt of a joke.
But things are changing. From Brokeback Mountain to Moonlight, from Will & Grace to Pose, the past two decades have seen a sizable amount of progress in terms of positive, visible queer representation, although that progress has not been felt evenly across all areas of the industry. In 2018, Sesame Workshop went out of their way to deny and dispel a queer reading of Bert and Ernie's relationship after writer Mark Salzman seemed to confirm what viewers always secretly suspected.
In 2017, Disney for the first time dipped its toes into telling queer stories, including a coming out episode on Andi Mack and brief moment in the live-action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast that amounted to barely a hug. (The following year they also cast a straight actor to play a gay man, so baby steps.) Last month, Nickelodeon sent Twitter into a tailspin after including Spongebob in a Pride month post with the network's only two other canonically queer characters, drawing attention to the little-known fact that, according to the show's creator, he's asexual. This is all to say, the bar for queer representation in media aimed at younger audiences is so low it's basically buried deep in the Earth's crust right now.
All of that being said, arguably none of those conversations would have even happened if it weren't for Steven Universe. Created by Adventure Time writer and storyboard artist Rebecca Sugar, the show follows the adventures of Steven and the Crystal Gems, a trio of magical aliens who have sworn to protect and defend the Earth. Incredibly earnest and thoughtful in its approach to story-telling, Steven Universe's ability to tackle complex and nuanced topics like mental health, family and relationships made it beloved among both younger and older audiences, quickly building a massive following at the peak of the Tumblr fandom era.
Early on Sugar established that despite being read or coded as female, all of the Crystal Gems were in fact nonbinary, which was pretty unheard of at the time. But given that the characters were technically aliens from another world, they were able to get away with it without causing too much of an uproar. (Should probably go ahead and put a big spoiler warning in effect for the rest of this piece.) Sugar also introduced the concept of "fusion" as a way of queering the characters' relationships to one another, notably seen in Steven and Connie accidentally fusing to create the much beloved Stevonnie. One of the show's leads, Garnet, is later on revealed to be a fusion herself, embodying the lesbian relationship between Ruby and Sapphire. Not only was this kind of representation a first for a show of this kind, but what was truly remarkable and gave a lot of LGBTQ+ viewers hope is that the show's queer characters were front and center. Their identities and relationships were integral to the plot, and not some token background character haphazardly thrown in at the last second.
Sugar set precedent with Steven Universe that queer characters and queer stories are not only valid but viable and even desirable by viewers. Carrying the torch, Noelle Stevenson sought to build on the progress made by Sugar with her own adaptation of She-Ra for Netflix. The series, which just finished its final season earlier this year, basically centers on a lesbian love story. It follows the evolution of the show's two main leads, Adora and Catra, as they go from childhood friends to bitter enemies who finally admit their feelings for one another in a climactic kiss that could make even the most cold and jaded of hearts swoon.
She-Ra also features a whole host of queer characters, from Bow's dads to Netossa and Spinnerella and the Jacob Tobia voiced nonbinary shapeshifter, Double Trouble, all shown living their best lives even as they fight against the forces of evil to save the universe. Like Steven Universe, She-Ra tackles a wide range of topics that resonate with queer viewers from exploring identity to responsibility and the importance of chosen family, but merely being queer is never the cause of conflict or contention. Considering that a century ago you were only able to portray an LGBTQ+ individual as a scourge of society and an affront to basic morality, the idea that queer people are not only allowed to live but thrive is the radical change we need.
With Steven Universe and She-Ra both having ended this year, PAPER invited showrunners Rebecca Sugar and Noelle Stevenson to sit down with one another and reflect on the legacies of their respective series, getting their start in comics, the state of representation in the animated field and where things go from here.
PAPER: Since you're both wrapping up your respective series', looking back at what each of you have accomplished, in those series what are you proud of, what do you wish you could have improved on or pushed further?
Rebecca Sugar: Okay, well looking back on everything, I'm really proud of what we were able to do with the characters of Garnet and Ruby and Sapphire. It really goes all the way back to the time I spent on Adventure Time and when I got a chance to do some of the earlier episodes with Marceline and Bubblegum. This was 2010 so Don't Ask Don't Tell was still a national policy. It would be half a decade before same-sex marriage was legal in The United States and I wanted to do something with the characters of Marceline and Bubblegum but figure out how to get it on TV. The strategy at the time that I pitched was that because they're both centuries-old, millenniums-old, had a relationship sometime in the past and they're unpacking that in a way that would be apparent. That was the only way to be able to do something with these characters and their relationship on screen.
As I was entering my show, I really wanted to find a way to be able to show characters actively in a relationship happening in real-time. We strategized the concept of fusion to be able to explore relationships and include queer relationships. Central to that, one of the things we were excited about was to have the character of Garnet have a ton of screen time and be a main character. There were a lot of things I wanted to explore with an active relationship to parallel my own relationship. I was inventing these characters with my co-executive producer Ian Jones-Quartey, who is also my partner. We wanted to explore an active, queer relationship that would parallel a lot of our experiences with bigotry as an interracial couple.
Around 2012 and by 2014 when we actually introduced Garnet's components, the characters of Ruby and Sapphire, the studio started to understand what we were doing. They told us point-blank, "you can't have these characters be in a romantic relationship," but at that point Garnet was so established that audiences could instantly understand what the relationship was, the song had already been written, the episode had already been boarded so we were already in full production. I'm really proud of the patience we had and the time that we took to fully explore these characters at a time when that was not necessarily possible.
Back in 2014, 2015, 2016 I was told that I couldn't discuss it publicly. They basically brought me in and said "we want to support that you're doing this but you have to understand that internationally if you speak about this publicly, the show will be pulled from a lot of countries and that may mean the end of the show." They actually gave me the choice to speak about it or not, to tell the truth about it or not, around 2015/ 2016, by then I was honestly really mentally ill and I dissociated at Comic Con. I would privately do drawings of these characters kissing and hugging that I was not allowed to share. I couldn't reconcile how simple this felt to me and how impossible it was to do, so I talked about it. The show survived in a large part because of the support from fans. I'm really proud of the choice we made and what we were able to accomplish together. I'm so proud of my team who supported me through all of this, crafted the show and navigated this with me. The way they put their mental health on the line to tell stories that were personal to them. It seems absurd to think that only a few years ago and really now, that a person's job, their ability to make cartoons, could hinge on their sexual orientation, it's profoundly unfair and ridiculous but true. That really needs to shift and is still in the process of shifting. I only understand what I saw from inside the framework of Cartoon Network and Turner, so Noelle, if you'd like to speak about this I completely respect and understand the difficulty of talking about going through something like this so definitely only share what makes you comfortable.
Noelle Stevenson: Yeah, we began production towards the beginning of 2016 so honestly, even the conversations that we were having at the beginning of our plans for including queer characters and relationships was only possible because Steven Universe had done it first. We can point to Steven Universe, what you were doing there and be like "look this is working, this is getting support, fans are into this and it's getting this reaction." At first it seemed like we were going to get this from the company, we were really excited about that and so we were setting things up in season one, we had the "Princess Prom" episode, then the election in 2016 happened and everybody got really scared. It was immediately, like Rebecca said, the same kind of pushback where we were told point-blank we would not be able to do this. Across the board, no romance. That was how broad it got! Let's just be extra-safe, no romance whatsoever. [laughs] We fought really, really hard for the "Princess Prom" episode, I kind of pulled some dirty tricks to be able to keep the dip and everything in it, but our lead time working on a show for Netflix was a couple years before it would actually come out so much of the show was already done before the first season came out. We were banking on that reaction from fans to turn the tide in our favor and be able to make these things canonical.
In the meantime [we were] trying to build a framework into the very DNA of the show so that when the time came it would be like, "look it's all there, it makes sense." I didn't know what you were going through in Steven Universe or what the executive structure was like but I was really inspired by the strategy that you had going into it which was just, it makes sense ... That was a strategy we adopted as well which was to build it into the world so that it feels natural. Just keep bringing so much queer content into the show that eventually it did get normalized within that executive structure. Saturating the show at a ground level until even the executives that are looking out for it aren't picking up on it all the time. The conversation really, really changed as soon as we started promoting the first season and people immediately started picking up on the themes, even things that were subtle, which I don't think were that subtle. We hadn't been as explicit as we wanted to be so we were disappointed but then the first season came out and everybody was like, "no, no you got it, we can see it." The support for that was so overwhelming and exactly what people within the company needed to see to boost that bravery a little bit more to make it what this needed to be, what it was expected to be in that media landscape.
From there, the path was based also on what was happening on other shows at the time with queer representation. What's succeeding and failing, we found that window where this request would hit at the perfect time and at the right way. It was like biding your time, trying to build the foundations of what you're going for from the start and making sure it worked either way if this very integral part of the story has to be removed or censored, which is sad, but making sure that it is still a satisfying story which I'm not sure we would have been able to honestly. It's such a big part of what the show is. It was the perfect time to be able to go back and ask for that permission, which we did end up getting. That was really exciting. It felt like with that last season we were able to be open and clear about what we were doing whereas in past seasons we had to obscure it with other language. I think that all of us, even if we're not working together on the same productions, everything is connected. Whenever a show manages to incorporate a really powerful piece of representation that clears the way for other productions. At the same time, I think when we have conversations about harmful trends that keep popping up over and over again that are not as helpful as we want them to be. Those conversations, which can have a negative tenor, can be really powerful tools for change because executives, showrunners, everybody sees that conversation and tries to figure out how to build on that in a positive way. Steven Universe laid the groundwork for our path and gave us a platform to be able to build the story we wanted to tell and were passionate about. I can't give you enough credit for that because honestly it changed everything for us.
"I couldn't reconcile how simple this felt to me and how impossible it was to do, so I talked about it." —Rebecca Sugar
Rebecca: Right. I really understand what it takes to be in that situation where people are asking you to only express a fraction of yourself in your art in a way that other creators are not being asked, it's not right. It's absolutely not right. One of the things you're saying that I find really interesting, that I experienced to, is because there are so few queer content creators, especially queer animated showrunners, the studio couldn't recognize a lot of the queer experience being expressed through the content. They could tell me these two characters can't kiss on the mouth, but they couldn't understand that what I was describing about anxiety was really related to my queer experience; The way these characters interacted with each other as individuals was a part of the queer experience. It's something I learned all the way back when I was working on Adventure Time and people began to recognize Marceline as a bisexual individual based on what we had written about her interactions with other people, but also her feelings about herself. I had never seen that before — audiences recognize that behavior being a part of who she is. That was a revelation to me. I think often when shows are being reported on people highlight these tiny moments without understanding the way the whole show breathes is a reflection of who we are. I'm excited about more of that existing in the future, in addition to the wedding episodes. [laughs] Just the whole entire expression of it is so critical.
Noelle: Yeah like the fabric of the show, all of these things are connected. I have a lot of thoughts about representation, even the word representation and what we think of when we think of that word, because I do think having the wedding episodes are really important. Having it be very recognizable even to viewers who aren't queer, here are two people getting married in this way. That matters because kids can be like "oh I could marry a girl. I could fall in love and get married just like anyone else." The importance of that is so huge.
At the same time, the more subtle representation that is not always recognizable to viewers outside the community is also important: creating this environment and world where queer viewers feel very accepted and understood. Again, I was really inspired by Steven Universe's ability to have both of those things. You couldn't deny what you were watching, even if straight viewers who weren't as well versed on the more subtle themes interwoven in the show [didn't pick up on it] but it's not a show just aimed at straight viewers like, "oh we're going to make the background characters the gay characters." Those are the stories I want to see more of. Not just the very clear straight-forward, incidental representation but the more complex, subtle, nuanced stories that play out over time and reflect more aspects of ourselves other than just the right to get married. There's so much more wrapped into our experiences.
Rebecca: Back when I was working on comics, I started thinking of making art as a conversation. I had this blind date theory of storytelling: you don't necessarily know who your audience is, but you'd want to speak to them like you'd speak to someone in real life, across the table from you. You don't want to just say what you think they want to hear, you don't want to just say something only you care about, you want to speak to someone. As I was working on Steven, these theories began to evolve because I started to realize that if the vast majority of animated content is being made by cis, heterosexual white men then millions of children, the conversations they're having is always with someone with a very similar experience. This person is speaking very genuinely, but the story that we're all hearing during our formative years is the story of his dreams and his hopes; the story of the women he finds attractive, these are the stories we're growing up on. I began to think about what a difference it would make to have an LGBTQIA role model on the other side of the table — having a conversation about what it takes to have self-respect in a world that wants to kill you. What a difference it would make to grow up knowing that someone out there wants to talk about that, is experiencing that in the way that you're experiencing that in real time, the way we experienced that when we were kids. That would have a huge impact. You can't help but be part of what you talk about if that's what you've been through. It takes a lot of work to bend yourself into the shape of another person, their experience. Also, it's art, you shouldn't have to. I wouldn't want other people to do that either. I would want their honest experience, I would want to know their hopes and dreams and the women they find attractive, I found that very interesting. We should be able to have access as young people to a lot of different points of view. I've been honored to get to have those conversations through the show.
Noelle: Yeah it's interesting too because I think telling a lesbian romance is not the same story as telling a straight romance. The dynamics are very different and it's not something that I think can fit into the classic, straight romance archetype. Early on, when we weren't able to be open about the nature of these characters' relationships or what the story was, we just kept getting branded with the word "sisters." As any woman who loves women knows, it's something that's very hurtful that comes up a lot. Straight people have trouble wrapping their heads around the nature of a lesbian or Sapphic relationship in any way. It's like "oh these two women have very strong feelings for each other," I'm going to translate that through the lens of sisterhood because that's what I understand. Letting that happen or think that's how these two characters can have that intense connection, this level of caring about each other, that's the easiest way to get it to that point where that relationship has the weight it needs to have.
"I really understand what it takes to be in that situation where people are asking you to only express a fraction of yourself in your art in a way that other creators are not being asked; it's not right." —Rebecca Sugar
Of course, I didn't want to do any of that. It's not easy to play into that. It feels like a betrayal. It is something that'd be difficult to explain in nuances or how different it is to be in love with a woman instead of being in a straight relationship. Who you're in love with, the way that you're in love with them, it changes depending on who you are, there are so many different points of view that change the dynamic of that relationship. Like Rebecca said, we've been fed only the same limited scope of stories, that's the idea of what everything has to fit into and so we get harmful assumptions like "which one is the man, which one is the woman," or "oh, these two women must love each other like sisters." It's interesting trying to play within that field because you can't fight every single one of those assumptions and sometimes you have to work with them in a weird way. It's cool to be able to talk about it openly after it's all over because I know I've been keeping this secret for so long. To have the show out there and have everyone know exactly what we were doing, it's honestly a huge relief, I feel lighter than I have in years. It's cool to be able to have this conversation.
Rebecca: Yeah it used to feel to me a bit like staring straight into the sun, kind of dangerous. Once you start to see what they think, in these positions of power in animation, you start to understand how all the animation you've consumed is related to that opinion, it can exist inside of that framework. Then you are hearing directly from people what they think you can and can't do or what you're doing means and it's like you're just being blasted with this radiation, getting horrendous sun-poisoning. [laughs] To understand it is extremely valuable: To be able to rearrange that and hopefully prevent some of that from hitting kids.
You both have touched on how the relationship with the community that formed around your respective shows allowed you to take certain risks or go places that you wanted to and have support. I think it might be interesting to talk about your shows' relationships to its fans.
Noelle: When you're talking about being blasted with that radiation, some of that is also coming from the expectations of fans and people who are tuning in and watching. That can be a terrifying responsibility. I've noticed this first with Steven Universe and later when She-Ra came out: the She-Ra fans and young LGBT fans — I don't want this to sound condescending because it really isn't and I'm honestly impressed by this — is they think this is easier than it is. I love that. I think that optimism, that expectation where every time it's like "look, here's this thing, this character, this relationship," it's gay, they're like "cool, do more now, do better," and I'm like, "you don't even know how hard this was, you don't know how impossible this was up until less than 10 years ago" and that's kind of awesome, actually. It makes me believe a little bit more because we are limited by our fear and what we know to be possible, what we've experienced as being possible. When you see it happen to someone else and they don't succeed in having that explicit storyline they wanted to have and you're like, "I guess I can't either." I appreciate the younger fans not remembering or knowing how hard it was to do these things or how absent this was from our stories up until very recently. They have a clearer hope for the future that I try to draw inspiration from. I still believe in our ability to do better and to keep raising that bar. It's a huge responsibility to create stories for young queer kids. Every time they ask for more I try to take that to heart and try to believe in that future that they believe in. It can be scary but also it can be a good thing too.
Rebecca: I think they understand that this is something they absolutely deserve. When I was younger, because this didn't exist at all, it didn't occur to me that this was something I could deserve. There is definitely a friction between what people obviously should have, what they should've had for a hundred years, and then the amount we're able to produce in the last decade. The GLAAD kids and family category didn't exist until 2018 and the reason is because this content was actively prohibited. It was being stopped from happening up until this point. That's wrong and more people are recognizing that it's wrong.
"Whenever a show manages to incorporate a really powerful piece of representation — that clears the way for other productions." —Noelle Stevenson
One thing that actually concerns me in the way I see this discussed by fans is that there's a feeling that there's an influx of LGBTQIA content in animated and children's media which is only true when you take into account that there was zero before. There may be a 1,000% increase, but it's from zero. The idea that there's suddenly a lot, I'm concerned that there will be a sense of complacency. This dam has broken but this is a pinhole. I think a lot about this thing I saw a long time ago about beer commercials. It was a study on gender disparities in beer commercials and according to this, usually there are about thirty percent women, seventy percent men in beer commercials and the result of this is if you actually have a beer commercial that's fifty-fifty, women and men, when you're watching it you think, "oh is this beer for women? Why are there so many women?" That's what equality looks like. This feels similar to that in that it feels like there's a lot but it's so unbelievably unequal. There's been almost 110 years of animated content and in terms of LGBTQIA creators, there are a few. That is so small, I really hope that that will become clearer, real equality would be 100 years of exclusively queer content by queer creators. That's equality. I don't expect that to happen, but I hope people recognize that would be what equality would look like and anything less is still going to struggle. We have benefited hugely from support, so we really need people to be vocal about wanting and appreciating this so it can continue to happen.
What are your hopes for the future of queer representation in animated media and media geared towards children going forward?
Noelle: I think 100 years of nothing but queer content would be a good place to start. [laughs]
I like that a lot!
Noelle: I have the same fear, and I see people talking about, "oh what are all these lesbians in cartoons doing, this is a trend" or "why does every show have to have the one gay character now, it's unnecessary" and I am afraid of that. The fact that with some of it there's a very real, legitimate conversation about the absence of gay male characters in animation which I think is a very good, really big conversation we need to all be having. The fact that there are enough Sapphic female characters that we can have four different images of a kiss is not a lot ... I'm really happy to see it shifting but there's so much to still be done. My hope for the future of LGBT content in media, specifically kids' media, is that we need so much of it, so much variety as well. We need to be uplifting their voices at the same time. I want to see queer female showrunners of color, queer male showrunners of color and uplift those voices ... As a community we are all moving forward to uplift each other's stories and become part of a tapestry instead of having the one gay show at a time. I want to not have to continue stacking one block on top of the other when it comes to building that future. I want to see shift from "this is a trend" or "every show has to have the lesbian couple now," I don't want that to be the conversation, I want everyone to remember we're always moving forward, that we're doing so in each other's interests and everyone who is watching [its interests].
"Those are the stories I want to see more of: Not just the very clear straight-forward, incidental representation, but the more complex, subtle, nuanced stories that play out over time and reflect more aspects of ourselves other than just the right to get married. There's so much more wrapped into our experiences." —Noelle Stevenson
Rebecca: When you talk about how shows are reduced to the boxes that they could be checking or how this or that show has essentially done the same thing means its credit is diminished; that is marginalization. What I have to say as a nonbinary person, as a bisexual person, as a Jewish person is constantly being erased from my project. When people talk about how there are "enough lesbians in animation," not only do I find that laughably absurd but also it completely erases my sexual identity. All of the characters on my show (who many people consider the fact that they're nonbinary to be some sort of ploy to get it on television) [were] really personal to me. What makes me hopeful for the future is that because artists like you, and many other marginalized artists, are coming out of the scene are dedicated to telling their very own very personal, specific stories, it will empower other people to do the same. The conversation about just how many favors you can do before you're legitimate has to stop because that's going to stop people from talking about their own personal experiences.
Noelle: I think the things I grew up loving like sci-fi and fantasy that had these tropes, so many of us find comforting because they're familiar. With She-Ra, I didn't only want to raise visibility for queer characters, relationships or storylines, I just wanted to see the stories that I loved reflect me in that way. I wanted to have fun with it, I wanted lasers, spaceships, asteroids and everything; To have queer characters be a part of that. Of course I care about young LGBT kids who are seeing this and how they view their futures, it's a huge part of it for me, I think also that ties into seeing yourself in the fun, melodramatic, action-packed, all of these stories that we love. There is so much work to do still to expand those stories into what they can be to the people who love them and want to see themselves reflected in them, the ability to have fun.
Noelle: I want to see it reflected in more genres.
Rebecca: Yeah, that would be great.
Both of your respective shows have been hugely important in regards to nonbinary representation. Rebecca, you basically set the precedent for that, I'm curious as to your thoughts on that?
Rebecca: Right. [laughs] What was exciting to me while working on Steven is, and I know that it's subtle, that a lot of audience members assume the gems in general are women but the gems themselves don't think that. That is very much how I've felt. I don't really mind if people are perceiving me as a woman, but it's something I personally don't feel is true. What was exciting with Steven was to have an entire planet of people that feel that way so that's just the default setting. These characters, all of the various gems could have these different sensitivities and feelings about themselves and the world they're interacting with but questioning that is not one of them, that's just the baseline for them. That was really exciting for me, it allowed me to put myself into a lot of gem characters.
In a more direct way to the audience, I was really excited about the character of Stevonnie for a few reasons; one was because you'd have a very clearly nonbinary character. When we were first coming up with Stevonnie the only thing I wanted was for them to be great, and not a punchline. I had never seen a character like that that wasn't a joke. The bar was so low. I just wanted this character to be great, you're glad to see them and excited that they exist — that's all I want. The other thing I was excited about was because of the nature of Fusion and because the show is always from Steven's point of view, whenever Stevonnie exists in the show, Stevonnie is the main character of the show. So any kid who relates to Steven or Connie, now gets to experience the point of view of a nonbinary character who is the main character of the show. You'd get to have full Stevonnie episodes where it's just the Stevonnie show. That was really exciting to me to suddenly get to write a nonbinary character that would be central and ask you to put yourself in this person's shoes. Not only in the moments where they're thrilled to be alive and being adventurous and exuberant, but also in the moments that they are being harassed, experiencing panic — things that I find extremely relatable. Stevonnie is really built around that concept. Towards the end of the show, I was excited to create the character of Chev and cast my friend Indya Moore. They're absolutely amazing and to feature a fully human, nonbinary character felt perfectly intuitive because this is my life, but it was nice to make it absolutely clear within the show that it is not an uncommon thing.
Noelle: My views have certainly evolved. Nonbinary representation in all media is so underrepresented and under-explored that all of us are learning about what that can look like and what role that can take. I really appreciate the conversation around it because we introduced the character of Double Trouble, who is a reptilian shapeshifter, which I love because I think my own gender is a shapeshifter. I always relate to the shapeshifter characters, they're in everything that I do. We got a lot of feedback from fans who were really really hungry for a human, nonbinary character. It is so interesting because I think when your gender doesn't conform, you tend to feel like an outsider in ways that I always related to aliens, monsters and robots. That's how those emotions represented themselves to me: to explore those through a shapeshifter, someone who has absolute control over their presentation to the world at all times, I found that was my absolute dream. It is important to show for children who are also exploring their own gender identities and relation to the fullness of what gender can be, how broad the exploration of gender can be for each person in the world. It is something that is so exciting — to show that kids of today don't have to relate to the robots, aliens and monsters the way we did. They can also see normal people who are just like them expressing their gender. It's amazing that Steven Universe has all of those different expressions of nonbinary characters, something that both has alien fantasy and also just here's your friend who you love who is nonbinary and it's not that big of a deal. It can not be that big of a deal but also exciting, heightened, aspirational, magical and all of those things. It's important to have the full range because we're so early in this conversation that to focus on only one of those expressions risks cutting out nonbinary itself.
Who are your queer heroes or role models that you look up to or have inspired you along the way?
Rebecca: For me, I was really inspired to learn about Brenda Howard. It was around the time I was studying, 2015/ 2016, when I was feeling very lost and unsure of what to do or how I could talk about this. I started learning more about groups like Queer Nation; I read the Queer Nation Manifesto and started to learn about the people who had been really involved in that movement which included Brenda Howard. People call her the mother of Pride and people credit her as the reason that Pride is celebrated in June. She was Jewish, bisexual and had a really longterm male partner. I had never known that someone who was really not that unlike myself was such a huge part of even inventing the concept of Pride.
Around 2015 there was a lot of talking about taking the 'B' out of LGBT, there was a lot of bisexual erasure happening, even within this Steven fandom, so I was afraid if I spoke about it I would disappoint everybody, if I were to tell the truth. Learning about Brenda Howard made me feel so much strength, like I had a right to talk about this. Because I was the first woman to create a show for Cartoon Network, people would tell me constantly that I was a role model for little girls and women in the industry which felt extremely important to me to the point where I didn't feel like I could talk about the fact that I didn't identify as a woman. I felt like a fraud through a lot of that time. I felt that it was critical that I'd be that person.
"You don't want to just say what you think they want to hear, you don't want to just say something only you care about, you want to speak to someone." —Rebecca Sugar
When I started learning about Brenda Howard I suddenly felt for the first time, someone like me had done this, so I could do this. I'm grateful to her for everything she did but also just for who she was. It's incredible when you look at the gay rights movement, not just that there was a bisexual presence and Jewish presence, that there was Black and Jewish solidarity, there was so much that's in what Steven Universe is that is reflective of the movement that I wasn't aware of. I really feel strongly that this should be taught in schools. I don't understand why I couldn't have learned this as a child. I think my life would have been radically different if I had entered this understanding that the people involved in this movement were not unlike myself. I just didn't get an opportunity to know that so I really hope to talk about her and her incredible achievements.
Noelle: I haven't heard of her, I want to check it out, that sounds awesome. I think my influences have definitely been within comics, Emily Caroll is a huge influence on my art, comics and storytelling style. She's a cartoonist who does a lot with horror, actually. She has a very beautiful, illustrative style that gets into some very, very dark places with her work. With horror there's a lot of fear about including queer characters, showing them being brutalized or endangered for obvious reasons. It's a very sensitive subject, but she does it so beautifully and in such a powerful way. As a recent arts graduate she was one of the first out creators I looked to — I think she identifies as a lesbian, she's married to a woman — I was immediately so transfixed by that and that possibility because I honestly didn't know very many women who were married to women. This is definitely maybe a little bit more of a stereotype but Alison Bechdel who is so, so many young lesbians' very first time seeing themselves reflected in a book and especially a lesbian coming from a somewhat complicated background or an upbringing that is very repressed. I think when I saw Fun Home on Broadway I started crying in the first number and didn't stop until the show was over. When the show was over and everyone was leaving I was just sitting there, sobbing until the two older lesbians in front of me turned around and handed me Kleenex. It also inspired me the way her work has influenced the world. I mean, there's the Bechdel Test which we still talk about constantly! Having her memoir become this really successful stage play, showing the ways that these stories can be adapted into different mediums and be successful is very exciting as well. Those are some of the very first important steps that I took and I didn't find myself and who I was and finding narratives I related to or felt like I understood before I was even ready to identify as a lesbian.
Both of you were comic artists before you moved into animation, I'm curious what sort of lessons about representation and the medium in general did you take away from that? It feels like there is a huge amount of queer creators in the indie comics scene right now.
Rebecca: Yeah I think that's become true. What's been great about it, I come from underground comics, so for me, printing and stapling my own zines and stuff was always a great place for anybody, especially a marginalized person, to express themselves because nobody can stop you from doing it. You don't have to worry about publishers, it's all you. I grew up close to the Small Press Expo in Maryland. Noelle, did you ever table there?
Noelle: Yeah I did! That was our local Con because I went to MICA [Maryland Institute College of Art].
Rebecca: Oh you went to MICA? I didn't know that!
"I began to think about what a difference it would make to have an LGBTQIA role model on the other side of the table — having a conversation about what it takes to have self-respect in a world that wants to kill you." —Rebecca Sugar
Noelle: Yeah! [laughs]
Noelle: That place is the best.
Rebecca: Are you from Maryland?
Noelle: No, I'm from South Carolina but I went there for illustration.
Rebecca: Oh, cool! I grew up right by SPX so I would go when I was like 15 and 16. I would trade zines with Lamar Abrams who ended up storyboarding on Steven, I got Ariel Schrag's books when I was there as a teenager. It's changed a lot but it's always been a great place because you have so much agency, once you're with a publishing company there's a little more oversight but with underground comics, you can do your real shit. I always thought my real stories would be in independent comics and then I'd be doing animation as a day job. It really wasn't until I was on Adventure Time that I realized we could do what we wanted to do in independent comics on TV, they had specifically plugged all these indie/ underground comic artists to work on that show and [Pendelton Ward], [Pattrick McHale] and Adam [Muto] were just like: "Do what you would do, don't hold anything back." To see that actually get all the way through and be on air made me realize that was possible. I think in a way some of the changes in animation which people were inspired by, what Adventure Time was able to do in terms of being very artist-driven, artists that were independent comic artists a lot of the time. I think it may have come all the way back around where independent comics influenced the animation which is now influencing independent comics again. I feel "oh, it happens so quickly," but it's been a decade so maybe [it's not]. [all laugh]
"When your gender doesn't conform, you tend to feel like an outsider in ways that I always related to aliens, monsters and robots." —Noelle Stevenson
Noelle: Oh my god. Yeah I think growing up in South Carolina, there wasn't an aspiration of being in animation because I had no idea how I would even do that or how that worked. I got into comics by accident when I was in school. I was an illustration major and at the time was struggling to express myself and tell people how I felt. I was struggling with a lot of anger, isolation, some pretty ugly personal and mental health shit. I did not know how to ask for help, how to tell people what I was feeling. I ended up in a comics class because it was the only one open and I realized that when I drew and wrote at the same time, I had the ability to tell a story that I didn't know how to tell before and be understood, which was huge.
It was this huge turning point in my life; it's one of the most positive and powerful things that has happened to me because it opened the path to be able to tell my story in a way that people understood. I went to MICA which is only about 40 minutes from Bethesda where SPX is and so it was the show that students could go to and there was an animation major at MICA, but I certainly wasn't in it. I think sometimes there's still an assumption that you have to go to CalArts if you want to be in animation which seemed very far away and not possible for most of us. At the same time, Adventure Time was starting to bring comic artists into animation, you could go to SPX and there would be people who had a foot in the animation world or taking their visual vocabulary from comics and translating them into storyboards. The precedent started getting set that people who were honing their visual storytelling skills through comics, could translate that into animation and vice versa, like Rebecca said. These two things feed each other, which wasn't super true before that. The ability to make comics on my own terms and create my graphic novel, Nimona, was what got me my first writing job in animation. That precedent was an avenue into animation for me, that's the reason that I was able to executive produce She-Ra. I would like to see more writers coming from independent comics into animation. The ability to come up in comics with heroes and role models I had, it's what made me who I am. It's how I got here, so it's incredibly close to my heart.
I want to thank you both for not only taking the time to do this but for all of the work that you two have put into the world, bringing these shows that have meant so much to so many people. As a queer person, it just makes me feel happy that the future generation has more role models to look up to.
Noelle: This has been really cool and Rebecca, it's been really awesome and honestly an honor being able to have this conversation with you and hear from you. You've been a huge inspiration for me for a while. Thank you for blazing the trail and thank you for making this possible because so much of the ground we covered in the last few years has been overwhelmingly due to you, your crew and the impact your shows had. It's been a real honor to have this conversation and hearing all of your thoughts because it has given me a lot to think about.
"Because I was the first 'woman' to create a show for Cartoon Network, people would tell me constantly that I was a role model for little girls and women in the industry, which felt extremely important to me to the point where I didn't feel like I could talk about the fact that I didn't identify as a woman." —Rebecca Sugar
Rebecca: Thank you so much for fighting the fight. I know it's an entirely different studio and I don't know exactly how things go down but I know the walls and ceilings that exist that you have been pushing on. I know what an unbelievably emotional labor that is. I hope that people understand that the people that are fighting for this are really putting their mental and emotional health on the line to make this different and Noelle, I know you did that. I really appreciate that. That is really so huge and deeply unfair that certain stories can sail through and certain creators can write about their childhood crushes, write about their everyday lives and it's no problem and then for some of us it's a delicate dance in a bizarre, furious fight. Thank you for fighting that fight, it's so critical and I hope you'll continue to do so. I know you'll continue to do so because what's the alternative? We can't be ourselves?
Noelle: I know!
Rebecca: Yeah! The other thing is, please just take care.
Photos via Getty/ Eric Charbonneau and Kevin Mazur
- Janelle Monáe on the Cover of PAPER Magazine Pride - PAPER ›
- Pabllo Vittar Strips Down for Calvin Klein Pride Campaign - PAPER ›
- Jaboukie Interviews Kaytranada for PAPER Magazine Pride - PAPER ›
- Noelle Stevenson to Develop "Lumberjanes" Show for HBO Max - PAPER ›