We spoke to Rebecca Sugar, Steven Universe creator and Cartoon Network's first female showrunner
Rebecca Sugar is Cartoon Network’s first female show creator. She is the woman behind Steven Universe, an animated show that speaks to its viewers — not down to them. While these titles carry weight, one could argue that they are not the most incredible part of Rebecca. No, Rebecca’s superpower comes in the form of her ability to share. Through expressing herself, the creative’s work shares significant themes that could never be talked about enough; themes such as sexuality, diversity, consent, self-esteem, and finding one’s purpose in life. And yes, Rebecca shares it all with her viewers, with kids.
To continue promoting awareness for issues that affect all of us (whether we realize it or not), Rebecca is collaborating with the Dove Self-Esteem project on six short animated films, an original song and music video featuring the Steven Universe cast, and an educational eBook that address barriers to self-esteem — bullying, body image, and mental health included. To further this discussion, we spoke with Rebecca Sugar.
HelloGiggles (HG): Your work contains incredible themes of female empowerment, which we could all use much more of today. What makes you feel empowered and gives you the confidence you need to face life’s challenges?
Rebecca Sugar (RS): For me, it’s making art. Being able to express myself through cartooning, through music. It’s really empowering to just be able to express myself through art. And also to feel just so heard, and have this platform. I feel like it’s an exciting time when you can express yourself and you can be heard and you can find your community in a way that I wasn’t able to as a kid.
HG: Speaking of your platform, with the help of Steven Universe, this Dove project has the potential to reach 20 million additional people. It’s important that creators, such as yourself, work to address these issues. What would be your advice to fellow content creators who are having trouble taking on this kind of responsibility?
RS: My advice would be that, in any moment that you start to feel defensive, just open up to learning something new. Always listen to the person who is directly impacted by what you’re talking about and how they feel about it. Listening is critical, being open to shifting your world view is critical.
HG: Thanks to this Dove project, you have access to research on body image and mental health, which states that more than half of girls do not have high body confidence. You’ve said that these are issues that you’ve personally dealt with. Can you elaborate?
RS: Absolutely. This is something that I’ve struggled with personally. I’ve struggled with eating and I’ve struggled with self-image. Growing up, it was difficult for me to really identify as a girl, and I didn’t really have access to any information to tell me what that meant. And what’s exciting to me now is to be able to speak to these experts who are really giving me a new way of looking at situations.
I learned a lot of very self-destructive habits and so one of the first things I wanted to understand was how do you counter these self-destructive habits. One of the most exciting things that I’ve been learning about, is that it’s really not so much about fighting your instincts to be self-destructive, but [about] changing your whole ideology to be a vision of the world where you have a right to exist.
I think what happens is if you subscribe to a vision of the world that doesn’t include you, you start doing the work to destroy yourself. Because once you see that you’re a part of it, you know that something’s wrong. I think that’s something that I felt very deeply. So it’s exciting to me now, the opportunity to just put a vision of reality out there that includes more kids, that includes more people, that lets someone believe that they have a right to take up space.
HG: I think that a lot of themes, such as the ones that you’re talking about, are unfortunately kept from kids because people are afraid they won’t be able to handle it, or they won’t understand it. Considering all that you’ve learned as Cartoon Network’s first female show creator, what do you have to say to that?
RS: I have always felt really honored to have an audience of kids. I think kids have no tolerance for boring stuff. And they can’t stand to be talked down to, and I know I felt like that when I was a kid. I think that speaking to kids is exciting because they are very open to so many possibilities that you learn to be closed off from when you get older, when you harden into an adult. And I think that kids are so sharp. They’re so smart. And they really deserve the truth. I think that it’s very important to just be as honest as possible to kids ’cause they’re ahead of us. I think it’s really important to listen to kids and what they want and what they’re interested in. Because there’s so much to learn from kids.
HG: Going back to the Dove project — how did you aim to approach these films? Because to me, they come off as personal and relatable, rather than as a public service announcement.
RS: For these shorts, I was excited to show these characters from a slightly new angle. I was faced with this puzzle, where the point of these shorts is supposed to be realness, the realness of these characters and the realness of people’s bodies. But the fact of the matter is that these are drawings. They’re not actually real at all. And everything is being hyper-calculated down to the frame because animation is an extremely controlled medium where we’re controlling every aspect of every moment that you see. So [I wanted to make something] that exists to combat contrived images that are manufactured of the types of bodies that are depicted constantly and are very harmful.
My puzzle looks sort of like: how do I get you to feel that what you’re seeing is a real moment? And that there’s beauty in the realness of something with these characters that are drawings. So we created the concept that [these character] are being filmed and what you’re seeing is the raw footage. And there’s a version of what you’re looking at that’s probably polished and the errors and the little candid moments have been taken out of them, but you’re seeing this other footage, you’re seeing the unedited footage. And that’s what makes it so interesting. That’s the thing that I wanna get across is that the realness of it and the rawness of it and the rawness of a person, including little mistakes or things that you might otherwise be inclined to cover up. But that’s the exciting part, that’s the beautiful part of a personal interaction.
Especially now I think, when everyone is curating their image repertoires so specifically, really putting forth exactly what you want someone to see. Just to get excited about the little things you wouldn’t normally show, the little moments of vulnerability. I think that that is an extremely beautiful part of living. The pictures that we don’t post. The moments that you edited out, I want them back. I want them here.
HG: Issues like that are so universal, and a lot of your work contains content that applies to all ages. I think the same can be said of bullying — it applies to everyone, even adults. Have you experienced or witnessed a form of bullying at this stage in your life?
RS: Yes. I have…There’s a Stop Bullying “Speak Up” campaign at Cartoon Network. And when I was going through a difficult time, not only myself but also seeing a lot of bullying and harassment in the Steven Universe fan base, I spoke to one of the experts at the Stop Bullying campaign and I learned a lot. I’m continuing to learn now with the experts from Dove
I think the thing that surprised me was that there’s a huge difference between interpersonal conflict and bullying. Because a bully has the intent to hurt someone and enjoys hurting someone. So what I wanted to know is how, when you’re a victim of bullying, do you face that person? The fact of the matter is that you don’t. Because if you tell them that they’ve affected you negatively, they’ll enjoy that. The solution that I learned is to actually look to your peer group. This person will do these things in order to get a rise out of you. But the only thing that can shut them down is outside onlookers expressing that this is not earning this person any accolades.
It’s really difficult to fight the instinct to confront someone who is hurting you, or to try to do something. But you have to be solid in yourself, solid enough to continue doing what you’re doing and let this person learn that they’re wrong. Even though they can’t necessarily learn it from you. It’s such a difficult situation to be in.
The most important thing I also learned is that the person being bullied has to understand that it’s not their fault. Because the person doing the bullying will be very convincing to the victim that they have brought this upon themselves and it’s really, really hard not to believe that, especially if you have low self-esteem. So being mindful of being in that position of believing untrue things that someone is telling you about yourself. If you can realize that someone is manipulating you, it’s so much faster to get out of it. It’s really hard because you have to heal yourself first and you have to not believe when someone is saying untrue, negative things about you.
HG: What would your advice be to young people who want to be where you are today, who want to learn the things that you’re learning?
RS: My advice to young people would be to express yourself as often as possible, in as many ways as possible. I would really recommend comics. I drew comic books when I was younger. And I was always very resistant to really drawing about my own experience. I was trying to make comic books that looked like the comic books I read and liked. So I would really encourage young people today to not be afraid to write about themselves, and to tell as many stories as possible. The more stories you tell, the better you get at storytelling, the sharper your skills become.
So I would say fight the urge to be a perfectionist. Try to put out as much material as you can. Like comics are great because you can sit down and draw them and they’re done, you can do it on your own, you can do it right this second. But also songwriting, and animation, there’s so much technology now that you can use to make something. And I think, don’t wait to make something, make something immediately. Like that idea that you might wanna save, don’t save it — just do it. You can always do it again, and when you do it again, you’ll do it even better, because you’ll have the experience of having done it before. But don’t save that idea, do it immediately.
HG: What we can expect from you in the future? Is there a specific message or project that you want to take on, maybe something you haven’t tackled yet?
RS: I’m really interested in finding a way to talk to tweens and teens about consent. We’ve tackled that in Steven Universe, but that’s something that I really want to continue to pursue. I feel like people are learning that, learning the ideas around that much too late. And there’s not a lot of entertainment reflecting basic, healthy, consensual relationships. If you grow up watching entertainment, you get a very confusing sense of what a relationship is. I think that’s shifting a bit now, but I’d like to be a part of shifting that more.
We shouldn’t be in a position where somebody doesn’t learn how consent works until you get to a college campus. You should know already. You should’ve picked it up out of the air because it should be acceptable to you every moment, everywhere, but it’s not right now, it’s not. Something needs to change.