Heroizing Restorative Justice: Steven Universe and Rewriting Justice Narratives through Superhero Cartoons

Heroizing Restorative Justice: Steven Universe and Rewriting Justice Narratives through Superhero Cartoons

From Spider-Man and Batman to The Avengers and “cops and robbers” shows, children’s media often model a form of justice based on retributive frameworks. In these retributive justice frameworks, “good” and “evil” form a static binary, violence is legitimate when directed against evildoers, and the primary solution to problems created through conflict is the punishment and incarceration of villains. Steven Universe, a cartoon that follows the lives and adventures of the eponymous half-human, half-alien protagonist and his family of intergalactic space aliens, “the Crystal Gems,” disrupts the retributive mediascape. By modeling restorative justice principles—empathetic, dialogue-based communication, non-punitive conflict resolution, and communal healing—the show breaks from the retributive mold and rewrites the justice narratives available for young viewers.




Children’s cartoons, like every other media, create worlds replete with meaning, texture, and cultural significance. In the worlds constructed by children’s superhero cartoons, “justice” takes on a particular form—that which conforms to retributive justice models and “warrior” narratives. From Spider-Man and Batman to The Avengers and “cops and robbers” shows, these media teach children static, uncomplicated notions of “good versus evil” in which the incarceration, incapacitation, and punishment of “evildoers” resolves the problems created through conflict. Steven Universe, a children’s cartoon that follows the lives and adventures of the half-human, half-alien boy Steven Universe and his family of intergalactic space aliens, “the Crystal Gems,” upends these narratives, instead modeling restorative justice principles—empathetic, dialogue-based communication, non-punitive conflict resolution, and communal healing—for children.

Part I of this Article will discuss why children’s television is an important subject for critical examination when theorizing modalities of justice. Part II will explore retributive justice—its parameters, generally, and how mainstream children’s superhero cartoons instantiate these parameters. Part III will analyze the textures and folds of restorative justice, both by unpacking how scholars and advocates define restorative justice and how Steven Universe offers an example of restorative justice principles in action. Finally, Part IV will discuss the significance that cartoons like Steven Universe carry in the larger justice mediascape.

I. Why Superhero Cartoons? Justice Mediascapes in Children’s Television Programming

Children’s cartoons may seem a strange subject for sociolegal interrogation; many reading an article devoted to critical inquiry of this subject may wonder, “why children’s cartoons?” While others may share this skepticism,[1] children’s cartoons merit serious and careful consideration. The media, and particularly television, often serve as the public’s primary frame of reference for issues relating to crime—what “criminal behavior” looks like, how the “criminal justice” system operates, and which value systems the “criminal justice” system upholds and protects.[2] In fact, the principal theme of adult crime-related television programming is “justice”—often defined, in these shows, as “the capture and punishment of offenders.”[3] Children’s superhero shows, many of which heavily feature criminal justice dynamics and processes, are no exception. [4] By functioning as “mediated processes of visual production and cultural exchange”[5] that “constitute the experience of crime, self, and society,’’[6] superhero cartoons produce, reflect, and refract models of justice, injecting “crime images” into our cultural and political imaginaries. These images, in turn, act as primers for understanding messages about criminality and criminal justice.[7]

Mediatized “crime injecting” effects are not simply theoretical abstracts.[8] Cultural criminology research widely indicates the norm-inculcating influences of the media, and specifically television, on children consumers. Particularly, because few nonmedia sources of information about justice issues are readily available for young audiences, television media can play a large part in shaping early cultural understandings about crime and control.[9] One 2006 study conducted by Phillips and Strobl found that even the passive consumption of media can play an active role in shaping viewers’ beliefs and attitudes toward crime and justice.[10] Moreover—and perhaps contrary to popular notions of childhood naïveté—research has found that preschool children’s moral reasoning is sophisticated enough to detect and interpret moral meanings.[11] Another 2002 study found that children, when presented with both hypothetical and real-life situations, could differentiate moral transgressions from transgressions of social conventions, and could further identify moral transgressions as “more deserving of punishment.”[12] A later 2008 study found that children watching animated media were able to understand which acts in a given storyline were “moral transgressions,” why these acts were “moral transgressions,” and which types of punishment were considered appropriate for those transgressions.[13]

Research also suggests that children often look to media-facilitated cultural icons as role models.[14] In a study of 9- to 11-year old subjects, education scholar Justin Martin found a positive association between children’s self-reported moral values and their assessment of superheroes’ moral values.[15] Because ideas about morality and justice intertwine so closely in the superhero genre, children’s identification with superheroes’ moral values and television shows’ messages about justice and crime are likely intertwined, as well.[16] Children’s superhero cartoons can thus function as an imageries-saturated resource through which young audiences develop their earliest understandings of crime and justice.[17] In summary, children’s superhero cartoons carry ponderous cultural and political weight in the socialization of young viewers; as such, they merit commensurately ponderous examination and, where appropriate, intervention.

II. Retributive Justice in Children’s Television and Beyond

A. What is retributive justice?

Underpinning conventional Western criminal justice systems is the notion that punishment is the primary means of addressing injustice and transgression.[18] Within these systems, courts impose punishment on offenders; once a punishment is imposed, justice is considered done.[19] While there may be other goals at least putatively motivating the use of punishment—specific deterrence or incapacitation of the offender, or general deterrence of the wider public, for example—punishment is imagined as part and parcel of the justice itself. Within the retributive framework of “just desert,”[20] an offender not only deserves to be punished for violating the rules or laws; in order to reestablish justice, the offender must be punished in proportion to the severity of the wrongdoing.[21] Kevin Carlsmith succinctly captures this framework in his article “Why do we punish? Deterrence and just deserts as motives for punishment”:

“[W]hen an individual harms society by violating its rules in some normatively unallowable way, the scales of justice are out of balance, and sanction against the individual restores this balance. . . . [T]he perpetrator deserves to be punished in proportion to the past harm he or she committed.”[22]

Thus, the suffering and humiliation implied by the offender’s punishment is per se necessary to reinstate retributive justice.[23] Because the offender has violated the accepted rules and disturbed the moral balance, the offender not only deserves to be punished—their punishment is necessary for the restitution of justice.[24]

Inextricable from the retributive justice focus on punishment is its reliance on the carceral state to mete out this punishment.[25] Incarceration is “widely assumed to be the legal punishment of choice for serious criminal offenders” in the U.S. political imaginary;[26] as such, the retributive justice model’s reliance on punishment is interwoven with a reliance on the carceral machineries of the state. The U.S. Sentencing Commission, the agency tasked with creating prison sentencing guidelines for federal crimes, perfectly represents this punishment-incarceration convergence by stating its primary mission as establishing “sentencing policies and practices for the federal courts, including guidelines to be consulted regarding the appropriate form and severity of punishment for offenders convicted of federal crimes (emphasis added).”[27] As criminologist Richard Berk writes, incarceration is justified as a form of punishment in the U.S. criminal justice system “in part by moral prescriptions that individuals convicted of crimes owe society reparations for the harm they have caused. When the severity of punishment is thought to be appropriate for the severity of the crime, offenders can be seen as getting their ‘just deserts’.”[28]

Another feature of retributive justice is that punishment can be, and often is, imposed unilaterally.[29] The offender does not have to agree to the imposed punishment or show contrition for her actions; conceptually, remorse is not essential for retributive justice.[30] Because the retributive justice framework contemplates crime as the domain of the state and remorse as non-essential for retributive justice, the framework highly limits stakeholders themselves—both those were harmed and those who have harmed—in presenting their sides of the story, expressing their feelings, asking and answering questions that are important to them, or offering an apology or forgiveness.[31]

Linked to the retributive justice framework is the “warrior narrative.”[32] From Hercules and Beowulf to Superman and Batman, warrior narratives swarm our mediasphere. These narratives depict a stereotypically hypermasculine figure as “the warrior, the knight-errant, the superhero” good guy; this “good guy” is defined by being embroiled in a raging conflict with a “monster, a giant, a villain, a criminal” bad guy.[33] In the worlds created by the warrior narrative, “violence [is] legitimate and justified when it occurs within a struggle between good and evil.”[34] Retributive justice is linked to the warrior narrative in that both paradigms contemplate adversarial aggression—whether in a courtroom or onscreen—as the primary means of conflict resolution. They consider violence—whether in the form of state-sanctioned methods of domination, or in the superhero’s conquest of an enemy—as justified so long as the violence is directed at those deemed to be “evil” wrongdoers.

B. Retributive justice in children’s television shows

In the world of superhero cartoons, retributive justice and warrior narratives often converge. Research confirms that superhero cartoon programming is informed by the dominant conservative ideologies about crime and control.[35] By focusing attention on certain conflicts and offering interpretations for how to understand them, mainstream superhero shows “reproduce[e] and reinforce[e] the assumptions that legitimate the present criminal justice system.”[36] In particular, the discourse of fear bolstered in this programming not only encourages public reliance on a “tough-on-crime” punitive form of social control; it represents this punitive model as mere common sense.[37]

Furthermore, many superhero shows draw their characters from comic books, whose depictions of justice often conform to dominant ideologies about justice.[38] In an analysis of a contemporary sample of Superman and Batman comics, researchers Reyns and Henson found that storylines in 87% of the sample focused on crime control, compared to 13% that focused on due process.[39] Reyns and Henson also found a “justified use of force” narrative to be approximately 1.5 times more common than an “unjustified use of force” narrative.[40] In another analysis of Batman and Superman comics, criminal justice scholars Scott Vollum and Cary Adkinson concluded that the representations of crime and justice within these narratives closely aligned with the conservative orientation to criminal justice.[41]

In her article “Justice League? Depictions of Justice in Children’s Superhero Cartoons” sociologist Lisa Kort-Butler identified and analyzed the narrative patterns that emerged from observing a sample of three popular superhero television programs: Batman: The Animated Series (1992–1995), Spider-Man: The Animated Series (1994–1998), and Justice League of America/Justice League Unlimited (2001–2006). Kort-Butler’s study identified a number of elements widely pervasive in a retributive justice model: namely, the shows regularly promoted a “might makes right” logic, a representation of superheroes as being “in league with the criminal justice system, supporting both rule of law and [] forms of punishment,” and an assumption that villains are beyond rehabilitation.[42]

Kort-Butler’s study found that Batman, Spider-Man, and Justice League underscored a “might makes right” logic in which physical superiority and moral superiority were interconnected and might was justified when directed against “evildoers.”[43] Although the threat or use of bodily force took various forms across shows, the programs’ messaging shared key similarities: force was not only justified, but pivotal to the heroes’ victory.[44] Writing that the antagonist “going down hard” plot point supported a “sense of just deserts,” Kort-Butler’s study further indicated the “might makes right” narrative reinforced a retributive justice framework.[45]

The superhero cartoons at the heart of Kort-Butler’s analysis also underscored carceral logics. Despite the flaws depicted in the criminal justice system, all three cartoons took pains to remind viewers that this system ultimately had the moral authority to enforce and maintain social order.[46] The superheroes in Batman, Spider-Man, and Justice League typically expressed respect and support for their working relationships with law enforcement;[47] when captured by the superheroes, antagonists were turned over to the police or other authorities.[48] By modeling this working relationship with police officers, prosecutors, and other agents of the criminal justice system, these story-worlds placed carceral state actors on the same side as the superheroes—the side of “good.”[49]

Moreover, in the three cartoons, social control was equated with bodily control;[50] to this end, the shows’ storylines were front-loaded, with the goal being capture and little focus given to “what happens next.”[51] Thus, the climactic victory in these superhero stories was often presented as the moment when the villains, who were always handcuffed or restrained, were escorted to police vehicles.[52] In short, the message of these cartoons was this: when crime is perpetrated by “bad guys,” superheroes can make things “good” by equipping law enforcement with the arsenal needed for physical incapacitation through incarceration.[53]

Furthermore, the superhero cartoons of Kort-Butler’s study evidenced a highly critical perspective toward rehabilitation.[54] Besides a rare few exceptions,[55] the cartoons’ villains—easily identifiable by sinister costume, soundtrack, or animation style[56]—were not portrayed as capable of reform.[57] Because rehabilitation was “nearly impossible and largely unthinkable,” [58] evildoers were instead banished from society, usually via incarceration or institutionalization.[59] The message in these shows was resounding: the criminals of the cartoon worlds cannot change and rehabilitate, and thus must be physically controlled through incarceration.[60] Related to this rejection of rehabilitation, the superhero shows in Kort-Butler’s study forwarded messages about the moral value of punishment, which lies at the heart of the retributive justice ethic.[61] As rehabilitation was tacitly rejected, a “just deserts” orientation was either explicitly or implicitly promoted.[62]

The superheroes offered in mainstream children’s cartoons thus fit within a theoretical universe that supports retributive justice. As Kort-Butler writes:

“In the fantasy worlds of superhero cartoons and in our present mediated social reality, criminal justice equals incapacitation, punishment prevails over rehabilitation, and those in the position to influence the processes of justice have the moral authority to do so.”[63]

Rather than engaging a dialogue-based process, mainstream superhero cartoons champion the hypermasculine “good guy” who, per the retributive model’s unilateral imposition of “justice,” acts on his own notions of justice by serving as judge, jury, and executioner.[64] In these story-worlds, violence, punishment, and incarceration are normalized as the appropriate method for subduing “bad guys” in order to achieve “justice.”[65] Both hero and villain remain static in their moral worldview, largely unaffected by outside world events or life experiences; viewers are likewise encouraged to espouse these rigid paradigms.[66]

III. Steven Universe and Restorative Justice

A. What is restorative justice?

In the 1970s, mounting frustration with court-based, retributive justice systems impelled U.S. practitioners to begin experimenting with alternative practices and ideas.[67] Drawing from Black, indigenous, and people of color restorative justice practices from around the world and throughout history,[68] practitioners built the U.S. restorative justice movement from a core set of grounding principles.

One of the grounding principles of restorative justice is that punishment of the person who caused harm is not sufficient, or even necessary, to restore justice.[69] Rather than punishment, restorative justice prioritizes and emphasizes healing: healing the person who was harmed by recompensing the hurt; healing the person who caused harm by rebuilding her moral and social selves;[70] healing the communities torn apart by mending social relationships.[71] Thus, while restorative justice solutions may ask obligations of the person who caused harm, these obligations are not motivated by a desire for a “just deserts” infliction of suffering, but rather the reparation of relationships. Accordingly, restorative “punishments” may oblige the responsible party to do something for the harmed party (or to those who have suffered similar harms), provide some service to the community, or take part in an educational program.[72]

Another restorative justice principle is that acts of harm are conflicts that rightfully belong to those who were harmed, those who caused harm, and their communities; as such, these parties ought to participate in the resolution.[73] This principle flows from the fundamental restorative justice premise that “crime” is a violation of people and relationships[74] rather than merely a violation of law.[75] By meting out punitive “resolutions” to conflicts without the input of the affected parties, restorative justice advocates argue, criminal justice institutions steal these conflicts—and their resolutions—from the affected parties, robbing them of their opportunity, right, and duty to learn and grow from their conflicts.[76] To this end, central to restorative justice is its definition as “a process whereby all the parties with a stake in a particular offence come together to resolve collectively how to deal with the aftermath of the offence and its implications for the future.”[77]

In practice, then, restorative justice is rooted in deliberative interaction, where parties are given a voice to vent their feelings and present their sides of the story.[78] Ideally, this process culminates in a shared understanding about the harm that has occurred, the values it violated, and what can be done to restore a sense of justice.[79] In the course of this deliberative process, the responsible party is encouraged to take accountability for her actions, express a sincere apology to the harmed party, and commit to actions that will restore dignity to the harmed party, the responsible party, and the community. The person who was harmed is encouraged to express willingness to forgive the person who caused harm and show them respect as a human being generally capable of redemption and moral transformation.[80] Justice is restored when the relevant principles and values that have been violated by the harm are re-established and re-validated through social consensus.[81]

Restorative justice processes can take the form of: “victim–offender” mediation, which is a mediated discussion between the harmed and responsible parties in a safe and structured setting; family conferences that also involve family, peers, or supporters of both parties, or; circle sentencing, where other members of the community join to represent wider interests.[82] These measures can also include direct compensation to the harmed party, compensation to individuals who have suffered similar harms, or compensation to the wider community.[83] These measures ideally result from both parties bilaterally deciding, after deliberation, what suitable accountability for the person who caused harm and suitable compensation for the person who was harmed would entail.[84] The Conflict Solutions Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting non-adversarial methods of conflict resolution, offers the following helpful graphic to differentiate retributive and restorative justice:[85]

Retributive Justice Restorative Justice
Crime is an act against the state, a violation of a law, an abstract idea; community is on the sideline, represented abstractly by state Crime is an act against another person and the community; community is a facilitator in restorative process
Accountability defined as taking punishment Accountability defined as assuming responsibility and taking action to repair harm
Punishment is effective because threats of punishment deter crime and punishment changes behavior Punishment alone is not effective in changing behavior and is disruptive to community harmony and good relationships
The harmed party is peripheral to the process The harmed party is central to the process of resolving a crime.
The responsible party is defined by deficits The responsible party is defined by capacity to make reparation
Emphasis on adversarial relationship Emphasis on dialogue and negotiation
Imposition of pain to punish and deter/prevent Restitution as a means of restoring both parties; goal of reconciliation/restoration
Response focused on establishing blame and on responsible party’s past behavior Response focused on problem solving by looking at harmful consequences of responsible party’s behavior; emphasis is on the future

B. What is Steven Universe?

Rebecca Sugar’s Steven Universe offers justice narratives that playfully but powerfully subvert retributive paradigms. After premiering on Cartoon Network in 2013, the show has become widely popular, developing a highly devoted and active fan base.[86] The Steven Universe world is one shared by humans, intergalactic aliens called “Gems,” and other magical creatures.[87] “Gems” comprise a female[88] alien race of beings made of light-based-bodies sourced by—as their name suggests—a particular “gem.” Each gem gives its Gem a particular set of characteristics and abilities. Steven Universe, a half-human and half-Gem child, is the product of the union between his human father, Greg Universe, and Gem mother, Rose Quartz.[89] Rose Quartz relinquished her form so that Steven could come into existence, entrusting Steven’s care to her best friends, Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl, also known as the “Crystal Gems.”[90]

In addition to being Steven’s loving family, the Crystal Gems serve as defenders of Earth. Long before Steven’s birth, Rose Quartz led the renegades in staging an uprising against the colonizing antagonists known as “the Diamonds” (comprised of four beings, White Diamond, Yellow Diamond, Blue Diamond, and Pink Diamond), and particularly Pink Diamond, who was midway through colonizing Earth when the Crystal Gems revolted. Steven’s best friend Connie, his father Greg, the Crystal Gems, and a panoply of idiosyncratic supporting characters all live in a small town called Beach City. Every episode features Steven and the Crystal Gems adventuring through Beach City, the universe, and beyond.[91]

Within the Diamonds’ “Homeworld”—the society against which the Crystal Gems rebelled—each type of Gem adheres to a strictly delineated hierarchy, with an oligarchy of Diamonds ruling from above. Sitting upon her Homeworld throne, each Diamond uses her Gems to colonize the cosmos. Additionally, there is a Diamond hierarchy within the larger Gem hierarchy: Yellow Diamond and Blue Diamond rule their respective Gem societies on Homeworld (as well as their own intergalactic colonies), and White Diamond rules them all. Pink Diamond used to complete the tetrad ruling class until she was “shattered” during the uprising led by her erstwhile subjects, the Crystal Gems, on Earth.

As the show progresses, Steven—and the viewer—come to learn that Rose Quartz, the fierce leader of the Crystal Gems, was in fact Pink Diamond in disguise. After falling in love with Earth’s variegated life forms, Rose Quartz went undercover, staging a fight for Earth’s self-determination and ultimately faking her own death as Pink Diamond. After sabotaging the colonization of her would-be colony through this sleight-of-hand, Pink Diamond lived as Rose Quartz until sacrificing her gem to create Steven.[92]

C. How does Steven Universe teach restorative justice?

Steven Universe’s storyline begins after the central conflict and resulting harm have, for the most part, already happened. Pink Diamond has been “shattered,” many Gems have been “corrupted”—a process whereby they lose lucidity and become violence-craven monsters—and most of the original Crystal Gems have been destroyed, all in the battle over Earth. In a turn that already distinguishes Steven Universe from many of its mainstream counterparts, the show’s central plotline focuses on how this harm is resolved post-combat. Along the way, the cartoon subverts the retributive justice framework and embraces restorative justice concepts.

Steven Universe initially establishes itself within a typical hero warrior narrative—Steven originally plans to fight and conquer the Diamonds in order to prevent further attempts to colonize Earth. However, the show ultimately contests and rejects these familiar tropes. For while Steven possesses Herculean strength, a magical shield, and other superhuman fighting capabilities, Steven’s arc—and more broadly, the arc of the eponymous cartoon—is ultimately one that emphasizes the power of communication-based healing.[93] Along his journey, Steven changes and grows; in doing so, he not only subverts the Gems’ worldview, but our own.

First, Steven Universe rejects “might makes right” notions and their underlying patriarchal gender norms. Although Steven’s mother, Rose Quartz, appears many times in flashbacks as a prototypically feminine and soft character—a cascade of giant pink ringlets frame her face, which is characterized by full glossy lips and often star-struck eyes, and she wears a flowing pink ball gown—she was known to all Gems as the strongest fighter and the leader of the rebellion.[94] Steven is a pre-teen boy who is gender fluid in his presentation and affect: he is sensitive and compassionate, cries and sings, and wears dresses and makeup. Rather than becoming the subject of scorn or derision for these traits, Steven is treated with loving care in the show; in fact, his tenderness is often shown to be his biggest strength.[95] Connie, a human girl and Steven’s best friend, is strong, smart, and opinionated. What’s more, her strength is complemented by her own caring sensitivity.[96] Connie is often seen rescuing Steven from any number of perils, and is even trained to fight in the battle to protect him against the Diamonds.[97] Together, they use the weapons that Steven has inherited from his mother; Connie spars with her sword and Steven parries with her shield.[98] Thus, Steven Universe disrupts the hypermasculine warrior narratives that often accompany and compound retributive justice storytelling in mainstream superhero cartoons.

Second, Steven Universe rejects notions of “evil” as static, inherent, or obvious; rather, the show portrays “evil” as socially conditioned and “villains” as capable of becoming good when provided with the proper support and care. In fact, the cartoon’s creators removed the line “we’re good and evil never beats us,” from the first draft of the Steven Universe theme song in an effort to reflect the show’s shift away from calling anyone outright “evil.”[99] This understanding of nuance and context forms the bedrock of the show’s restorative-justice-inspired paradigm.

One powerful example of the cartoon’s investment in teaching nuance can be seen in the story arc of the character Lapis Lazuli. Lapis is first presented as a Gem so embattled with bitter hatred toward the Crystal Gems that she will stop at nothing to vanquish them with her fearsome water-bending abilities. When everyone else in Steven’s family is content to dismiss Lapis Lazuli as irredeemably bad, Steven refuses such unbending notions of her inherent evil. After taking the time to learn more about Lapis, Steven—and the viewers—come to discover that she is a survivor of centuries-long abuse, wartime conflict, and immense personal loss. When we learn of these facts, Lapis is no longer understood as intrinsically evil, but suffering from PTSD and severe trauma. Over the course of the show, Lapis does come to a place of healing, eventually becoming one of Steven’s closest friends and joining the Crystal Gems family herself. Peridot, a Gem originally introduced as the Crystal Gems’ primary antagonist during seasons one and two, and Bismuth, a former Crystal Gem that had turned against Rose Quartz eons ago, also enjoy parallel, former-foes-turned-friends storylines.

Similarly, although Yellow, Blue, and White Diamond are the Crystal Gems’ nemeses for the bulk of the cartoon, when Steven realizes they are his family members, he tries to learn more about them. In doing so, he—as well as the viewers—come to realize that they, too, are suffering from oppressive norms (either imposed by White Diamond on Yellow and Blue Diamond, or by White Diamond on herself), and that their “evil” behavior is not inherent to them. In the final episode of the show, they change, becoming communicative and peaceful rather than remaining vengeful and violent.[100] Thus, unlike the unidimensional villains of Batman, Spider-Man, and Justice League—and the retributive justice paradigms they underscore—the “evil” in Steven Universe is not inherent and no one is beyond the redemptive power of empathy, communication, and healing.

Time and time again, Steven Universe teaches its young viewers that justice is achieved through dialogue-based healing rather than punishment and incapacitation. In one of the mid-point climaxes of the show, the “Cluster”—a giant mass of shattered Gems left by the Diamonds to coat the Earth’s core and one day detonate to destroy the planet—threatens to explode. As Steven drills down to the Earth’s core to confront the Cluster, the show’s pace slows instead of snowballing into a climactic battle scene: rather than launching into a full-blown offensive, Steven closes his eyes and listens. By listening, Steven is able to access his inner consciousness as well as the Cluster’s consciousness. As Steven’s consciousness touches the Cluster’s, he is able to hear, for the first time, the voices of the Gem shards that comprise the Cluster. In a moment of empathetic connection, Steven realizes that the Cluster is not vicious or hell-bent on destroying Earth; rather, the Gem shards, which still maintain a fractured consciousness, are trying to break free of the Earth’s core because they are looking for the missing pieces of themselves, the pieces they lost in their fragmentation.

Once he understands their plight, Steven is able to teach the Gem shards to take solace in each other, easing their pain and loneliness by speaking with one other and finding community together. Once the Gem shards start to follow Steven’s advice, their entropic, volatile energy—the energy that had threatened to detonate—becomes quieted. As the show progresses, the “Cluster” even becomes a force for good, aiding Steven and the Crystal Gems in their later missions. The storyline thus resolves with a powerful message to its viewers—even our biggest foes are not beyond the reach of empathetic communication. This communication can create harmonious solutions to conflict and is the real superpower.

The last episode of Steven Universe, “Change Your Mind,” culminates in a stunning display of restorative justice principles in action. The episode opens with Steven being held in captivity, a familiar setting in the retributive justice cartoon world. As the episode continues, flashbacks reveal that in the past Pink Diamond was repeatedly imprisoned by her Diamond sisters, causing a deep trauma that Steven can access through memories embedded in her gem (which he now holds in his belly). These trauma-laden flashbacks point to the deep harm created by retributive justice modalities of conflict resolution. Despite this chilling and retributive-justice-inspired start, in “Change Your Mind,” the Crystal Gems’ climactic clash with White Diamond is largely non-combative. Rather, in the final showdown with White Diamond, Steven declares, “I don’t want to fight, I just want to talk. If we can fix our family, we can fix everything . . . all we want you to do is listen.”

In the spirit and likeness of a restorative justice family conference, the Steven Universe thus stages the final conflict resolution as a family discussion between Steven, Yellow Diamond and Blue Diamond (both of whom have now aligned with Steven’s perspective), and White Diamond. The show’s storytellers ground the viewers, through Connie, in the notion that healthy resolution of family conflict is rooted in open and honest communication. At the beginning of “Change Your Mind,” Connie shares that after she communicated with her mother about how her mother’s high expectations were making her feel badly, things “got way better between [them].” By foregrounding Steven’s desire for justice through a dialectical process, offering Connie’s story as an example of a successful family conference, and showcasing the highly negative effects of punitive, carceral justice, the show’s finale models the notion that healthy conflict resolution is resolution grounded in restorative principles.

“Change Your Mind,” also embraces a restorative justice understanding of harm and forgiveness. Namely, White Diamond’s harms are not couched in legalities—instead, harm is understood as damage to relationships and community harmony. Steven models this framework by communicating the error of White Diamond’s ways in relational terms, saying, “there are so many Gems that are hurting right now, even Blue and Yellow, you should hear what they have to say.” Steven Universe thus rejects a carceral, fear-mongering definition of harm and instead opts to define harm as relational.

As the episode progresses, it becomes clear that the relational harm is not only external, but also internal. The show teaches that, by harming other Gems and planets, the Diamonds not only imperil Gems’ relationships with each other but also their relationships with themselves. At one point, Blue Diamond cries to White Diamond, “I know you’re suffering in silence, too.” It becomes increasingly clear that White Diamond is, in fact, also suffering. As tensions rise, she says to Steven and the memory of Pink Diamond, “You’re a part of me, the part I always have to repress.” White Diamond, the viewers come to understand, is suffering under the weight of self-repressive perfectionism—and that this weight is the driving force for her oppressive conduct over the eons. In response, Steven exclaims to White Diamond “If you just wipe away everything you see as flawed”—namely, through the Diamonds’ retributive justice tools of domination—“you lose all the things that make you happy.”

In a tide-turning moment, Steven teaches White Diamond the power of self-compassion in the face of imperfection. After breaking a moment of high tension with a joke, Steven’s pink energy spreads to White Diamond in the form of a blush, symbolizing the power of embracing imperfection and self-forgiveness. After this moment, White Diamond finally releases herself to communication over combat, healing over punishment, embrace over repression. Thus, Steven Universe teaches that empathy and (self-)forgiveness are key to healing harm, and that no one—not even one’s arch-nemesis—is beyond these restorative powers. These insights serve as striking lessons in restorative justice for the children who have come to love this cartoon.

Even as Steven Universe demonstrates the power of forgiveness and empathy, accountability is also centered as an indispensable ingredient to healing and resolution. As Yellow Diamond reflects, “in order to fix [the oppressive system the Diamonds have created], we have to admit that it’s broken.” In the first step of this process, Steven brings the Diamonds to confront their abusive treatment of his mother, and they ultimately express remorse and apologize for this harm.

The cartoon later shows Steven and the Diamonds sitting in a circle and discussing the harms for which they are responsible. Steven eventually introduces the Diamonds to the corrupted Gems on Earth. In doing so, Steven brings them to confront the direct harms they have inflicted on the corrupted Gems and the broader relational harms they have caused by tearing this piece of the Gem community fabric apart. The episode culminates in Steven, White Diamond, Yellow Diamond, and Blue Diamond working together to make reparations for these harms: they combine their powers to create a curative bath that restores the corrupted Gems to their former selves and make commitments to upending Homeworld’s oppressive elements. In one of the final shots of the episode, Steven, the Crystal Gems, the restored Gems, and the Diamonds bathe in the curative bath’s healing water together, laughing, talking, and splashing together in a moment of joyful restoration.

IV. Steven Universe Offers a Blueprint for Rewriting Our Way To A More Just Future

The world has met the metastatic growth of retributive justice systems with increasing horror. The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other nation in the world; although the U.S. population represents only 5 percent of the world’s population, it comprises nearly 25 percent of its prisoners.[101] The dramatic increase in the jail and prison population over the last fifty years—from less than 200,000 in 1972 to 2.2 million today—has led to rampant human rights violations, inhumane prison conditions, and tremendous strain on state budgets.[102] In the face of these grim statistics, the carceral world is becoming increasingly responsive to restorative justice interventions. Research has found that restorative justice programs are a more effective method of improving the satisfaction of both harmed and responsible parties, increasing responsible party compliance with restitution, and decreasing responsible party recidivism when compared to retributive criminal justice responses.[103] Strong positive evidence supports the notion that “restorative justice offers a strategy for holding more offenders accountable, with many more victims helped, with more crimes prevented, and with the costs of government reduced.”[104]

Despite this growing understanding of the failures of retributive justice and the merits of restorative justice, our television programming—especially the type that children regularly consume—has not caught up to reflect these critical interventions. The mainstream superhero genre remains as popular as ever, as are crime-related media that rely on retributive imageries and fear discourses.[105] By disrupting the current mediascape and its super-saturation of retributive justice imageries, Steven Universe offers a mapping to alternative worlds—ones where the restorative justice principles of healing, forgiveness, and dialogue-based communication guide our responses to conflict and harm.


Media reflects and refracts image-laden meaning at the intersection of crime and culture.[106] Mediatized representations are thus crucial in sustaining, shaping—and ultimately, subverting—socially shared understandings of justice.[107] In this vein, critical to our rethinking of justice systems is the rewriting of justice narratives for future generations to come. By modeling the power of dialogue-based, healing-centered, empathy-driven conflict resolution, cartoons like Steven Universe broker new meanings, imageries, and understandings of justice—ones that open young minds to the world of possibilities in restorative justice.


Monica Ramsy: Litigation Fellow, Immigrants Rights’ Program, Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus. Dedicated to Nikki and our “flexibility, love, and trust.”

           [1].     See Lisa A. Kort-Butler, Justice League: Depictions of Justice in Children’s Superhero Cartoons, 38 Crim. Just. Rev. 50, 50-51 (2013) (“Most research focuses on television news and adult programming, while few studies have explored the images and messages about justice present in children’s programming. . . .Despite the popularity of the superhero genre in comics and film, few scholars interested in mediated constructions of justice have analyzed the images and meanings associated with televised superhero cartoons.”); see also id. at 64 (“Although the superhero genre has a long-standing presence in children’s television programming, little research has explored what messages about crime and control are conveyed.”).

           [2].     See Gregg Barak, Media, process, and the social construction of crime: Studies in newsmaking criminology 3-48 (1994). See also Kort-Butler, supra note 1 at 50 (“In particular, television has become a primary medium through which cultural ideas about justice are disseminated and reinforced and through which justice-related policy debates are shaped.”)

           [3].     See Mark Fishman & Gary Cavender, Entertaining crime: television reality programs 1-15 (1998).

           [4].     See Kort-Butler, supra note 1, at 51.

           [5].     Keith Hayward, Framing crime: Cultural criminology and the image 16 (2010).

           [6].     Id.

           [7].     See generally David Altheide, The news media, the problem frame, and the production of fear, 38 Soc. Q. 647 (1997).

           [8].     See Kort-Butler, supra note 1, at 64 (“As cultural criminology suggests, children’s shows can contribute to the infusion of crime ideas and imagery into a cultural environment where such images have become more real than the actual processes of crime and justice.”)

           [9].     See id. at 51, 54.

         [10].     See Nickie D. Phillips & Staci Strobl, Cultural criminology and kryptonite: Apocalyptic and retributive constructions of crime and justice in comic books, 2 Crime, Media, Culture 304, 307 (2006).

         [11].     See Kristen Peterr & Fran Blumberg, Cartoon Violence: Is It as Detrimental to Preschoolers as We Think?, 3 Early Childhood Educ. 143, 146-47 (2002).

         [12].     See id.

         [13].     See Fran Blumberg et al., Does cartoon violence beget aggressive behavior in real life? An opposing view, 36 Early Childhood Educ. 101, 103 (2008).

         [14].     See Kort-Butler, supra note 1, at 54.

         [15].     See Justin Martin, Children’s attitudes toward superheroes as a potential indicator of their moral understanding, 36 J. Moral Educ. 239, 247-48 (2007).

         [16].     See Kort-Butler, supra note 1, at 54.

         [17].     See id.

         [18].     See Michael Wenzel et al., Retributive and Restorative Justice, Law & Hum. Behav. 375, 378 (2007).

         [19].     See id. at 375 (“[E]vidence suggests that justice restoration, not behavior control, is the dominant motivation underlying people’s calls for punishment”).

         [20].     See id.

         [21].     See id.

         [22].     See Kevin Carlsmith et al., Why do we punish? Deterrence and just deserts as motives for punishment, 83 J. Personality & Soc. Psych. 284, 284 (2002).

         [23].     See Wenzel et al., supra note 18, at 378.

         [24].     See id.

         [25].     See, e.g., Marie Gottschalk, The Carceral State and the Politics of Punishment, Handbook of Punishment and Society 211-18 (2012) (detailing the structure and effects of various punishment-oriented carceral models across the United States); Donald Hermann, Restorative Justice and Retributive Justice: An Opportunity for Cooperation or an Occasion for Conflict in the Search for Justice, 16 Seattle J. Soc. Just. 71, 71 (“For over a quarter of a century criminal punishment has emphasized the retributive as the principal justification with an emphasis on the degree of deprivation as a significant measure of the appropriate sanction. This approach has resulted in extended sentences for many offenders, as well as an increase in the population of incarcerated individuals.”).

         [26].     Richard Lippke, Retribution and Incarceration, 17 Pub. Aff. Q. 29, 29 (2003).

         [27].     About, U.S. Sentencing Comm’n, https://www.ussc.gov/about-page [https://perma.cc/Y96S-CT95]. See also Kort-Butler, supra note 1, at 51-52 (“Since the mid-1970s and accelerating during Reagan–Bush years, the dominant ideological position has coalesced around a decidedly neoclassical (in terms of revisiting the ‘rational’ offender) and conservative orientation, which has continued to shape the rhetoric and policy of conservatives, centrists, and liberals alike. This shift in the state of Americans’ ideas about crime and social control has been variously described as changing ‘sensibilities’ about penal culture, the new ‘culture of control,’ and a ‘culture of fear’ . . . the ideology advocates for harsh punishment of offenders to protect potential individual victims and society at large. The resulting policies, as illustrated by the Sentencing Reform Act, patently rejected the rehabilitation model and revived punishment philosophies centered on deterrence, just desserts, and incapacitation.”) (internal citations omitted).

         [28].     Richard Berk, Do We Incarcerate Too Many People?, https://crim.sas.upenn.edu/fact-check/do-we-incarcerate-too-many-people [https://perma.cc/HT9C-8KZH]; see also Peter Rossi, Richard Berk, & Alec Campbell, Just Punishments: Guideline Sentences and Normative Consensus, 13 J. Quantitative Criminology 267, 268 (1997) (“[T]he Commission was directed to set up guidelines for the federal courts prescribing appropriate sentences for convicted felons. The guidelines were to reflect a wide range of sentencing goals; just punishment, deterrence, selective incapacitation . . . ).

         [29].     See Wenzel et al., supra note 18, at 378.

         [30].     See id.

         [31].     See id. at 378.

         [32].     See Ellen Jordan and Angela Cowan, Warrior Narratives in the Kindergarten Classroom Renegotiating the Social Contract?, 9 Gender & Soc’y 727, 728 (1995).

         [33].     See id.

         [34].     See id.

         [35].     See Fishman & Cavender, supra note 3, at 1-15.

         [36].     Kort-Butler, supra note 1, at 52.

         [37].     See id.

         [38].     See id. at 51.

         [39].     Bradford W. Reyns and Billy Henson, Superhero justice: The depiction of crime and justice in modern-age comic books and graphic novels, 10 Sociology of Crime, Law, and Deviance 45–66 (2010).

         [40].     Id.

         [41].     See Scott Vollum and Cary Adkinson, The Portrayal of Crime and Justice in the Comic Book Superhero Mythos, 10 J. Crim. Just. & Popular Culture 96, 104-05 (2003). See also Kort-Butler, supra note 1, at 52 (“Batman comics experienced a reinvention in the 1980s, most notably in Frank Miller’s portrayal of Batman as a ‘right-wing moralist,’ which coincided with upward shifts in the crime rate and more punitive approaches to justice. In these comics, Batman’s acts of violence are seen morally ‘good’ because only ‘good’ violence can save the weakness of liberalism from the strength of evil criminals.”) (internal citations omitted).

         [42].     See id. at 66.

         [43].     See id. at 59 (“Heroes often used force or threat of force to gain information and compliance from the antagonists and their accomplices. A display of force was usually required to capture the main antagonist in each of the shows. For example, Justice League’s Orion, discussing how to find the four villains attempting to kill Flash, ponders, ‘If there was some way to hunt them down, we could eliminate these dogs before they strike again’.”).

         [44].     See id. at 60. For a particularly salient example of a “might makes right” plotline, see id. at 58. (“In a showdown between the Justice League and a government team led by the sly Amanda Waller, Waller gives the order to raise weapons against the League. Dramatically, Batman leans in and threatens, ‘Mine are bigger than yours,’ as the animation pans to the heroes with muscles flexed and powers at ready. Waller instructs her team to stand down.”).

         [45].     See id. at 60 (“For instance, while apprehending bank robbers in one scene, Wonder Woman grabs a robber by the collar, picks him up, throws him against a car, and pins him down, intent on hitting him again, until interrupted. When confronted by Martian Manhunter regarding her tactics, she emphasizes, ‘Those thugs got exactly what they had coming!’ Similarly, Wildcat emphasizes to Black Canary that he ‘only fights guys who have it coming.’ For the viewer, a distinction was thus made between wanton use of violence and the use of force for stopping deserving criminals.”).

         [46].     See id. at 61; see also id. at 62 (“In Batman’s Gotham, captured villains were frequently sent to Arkham Asylum for the criminally insane, which was visually depicted as a dark prison rather than a hospital.”).

         [47].     See id. at 61 (“For example, in one episode of Justice League, several of the nonpowered heroes, including Green Arrow, Vigilante, and Shining Knight, participate in a Metropolis parade. On their float, labeled ‘Heroes One and All,’ ride police officers, firefighters, and other first responders. A police officer thanks the League members for joining in the parade and extends his hand to Green Arrow who promptly shakes and replies, ‘We can’t thank you enough. You’re the real heroes.’”).

         [48].     See id. at 58.

         [49].     See id. at 61-62 (“The familiarity between Batman and Commissioner Gordon resulted in Batman assisting in the investigation of crimes and the apprehension of the offenders. As he tells Batman during one such request for assistance, ‘I guess if anyone can pin something on him and make it stick, you can.’”).

         [50].     See id. at 59.

         [51].     See id. at 63.

         [52].     See id. at 61.

         [53].     See id.

         [54].     See id. at 62.

         [55].     See id.

         [56].     See id. at 63.

         [57].     See id. at 62.

         [58].     See id. at 62-63 (“In separate episodes of Batman, both the Riddler and the Penguin are released from confinement (Arkham Asylum and prison, respectively). The Riddler is released for good behavior (and by his own admission because he fooled everyone), while the Penguin is freed because he ‘learned his lesson’ and ‘paid his debt to society.’ Batman, of course, doubts they will stay straight and confronts each of them to remind them he is watching. Both villains paint the veneer of legitimacy but quickly turn to crime again, are captured by Batman, and returned to the justice system. Similarly, in the Justice League episode ‘Clash,’ when Lex Luthor makes an attempt at reform, building homes and a playground for low-income families and running for president, Captain Marvel lauds his change of character. The rest of the Justice League reprimands Captain Marvel for his naivety, as they are all doubtful of Lex’s change. They are right: Lex, as the viewer learns, has had no change of heart and is instead plotting against the League once again.”); see also id. (“The twin themes—the improbability of reform and the merits of incapacitation—came together in Justice League ‘Task Force X.’ In the opening scene, following an exterior shot of an Alcatraz like prison, a shackled inmate (the assassin Deadshot) is being escorted by a guard and a priest down a shadowed corridor. In response to the priest’s offer of prayer, Deadshot smirkingly quips, ‘[I]f it comforts you Padre, by all means.’ At this point, it is clear that the offender has not changed, despite his time in prison. When they enter the execution chamber, someone is sitting in the middle of the room, and Deadshot comments ‘my chair’s already taken.’ This mystery military man offers Deadshot a deal, a role in a top-secret task force to subvert the League, but when he balks, the man plainly tells him ‘then you can go and take your seat tough guy.’ Later, after the initial mission is completed, Deadshot resists further involvement but is told ‘if you don’t like, there’s a warm seat waiting’ back in prison. Despite his utility in the operation, his actions during the mission indicate he is still a dangerous criminal, so Deadshot cannot be redeemed.”).

         [59].     See id. at 63.

         [60].     See id. at 62.

         [61].     See id. at 63.

         [62].     See id.

         [63].     Id. at 64.

         [64].     See id. at 52 (“Superman never has time for the regular, due process procedures of criminal justice, and the violence with which Superman and Batman carry out their missions is often unrelenting. As Newman described, Batman does not appeal to a higher authority for justice. Batman is justice. The police of Gotham City know this . . . A fair trial, sentencing, and subsequent punishment of crooks are of peripheral importance. Rather, the punishment and judgment are mete out at once, through Batman’s violence (Newman, 1990); Newman, 1993).”).

         [65].     See id. at 53 (“Data from the National Television Violence Study revealed that 97% of superhero shows depicted violence. In these shows, ‘‘good’’ characters were compelled to use violence to protect or save others. Relative to other types of children’s shows, the characters’ use of violence was often portrayed as justified or morally correct. For heroes, devotion to justice prevails over devotion to law, yet they maintain loyalty to the state. Heroes are thus both vigilantes and symbols of the dominant cultural attitudes about justice. And the symbolism is clear: When enacting justice, the end justifies the means, so long as in the end what is morally right prevails. Batman’s justice may involve violence, but he knows who the guilty party is and just how much fear and force are necessary to bring him or her down, without going so far as to do irreversible physical harm.”) (internal citations omitted).

         [66].     See id. at 64.

         [67].     See Wenzel et al., supra note 18, at 377.

         [68].     See, e.g., Julena Jumbe Gabagambi, A Comparative Analysis of Restorative Justice Practices in Africa, GlobaLex (Oct. 2018), https://www.nyulawglobal.org/globalex/Restorative_Justice_Africa.html [https://perma.cc/P4BU-FXE9]; The Indigenous Origins of Circles and How Non-Natives Learned About Them, Living Justice Press, http://www.livingjusticepress.org/?SEC=0F6FA816-E094-4B96-8F39-9922F67306E5 [https://perma.cc/H8G6-BBP6]; Minnesota Department of Education, Restorative Mindset: An Overview (Jan. 3, 2020), https://education.mn.gov/mdeprod/idcplg?IdcService=GET_FILE&dDocName=MDE089457&RevisionSelectionMethod=latestReleased&Rendition=primary [https://perma.cc/J5WP-4YJG].

         [69].     See Kort-Butler, supra note 1, at 64.

         [70].     This Article uses the terms “person who was harmed” or “harmed party” rather than “victim,” and “person who caused harm” or “responsible party” rather than “offender.” This terminology follows the guidance of restorative justice practitioners seeking to move away from criminalizing, totalizing language in favor of labels that focus on the relationship between parties. See Ahimsa Collective, Victim Offender Dialogue Program, https://www.ahimsacollective.net/vods [https://perma.cc/L4HD-KQJ7].

         [71].     See id.

         [72].     See id. at 377.

         [73].     See id.

         [74].     See Hermann, supra note 25, at 82.

         [75].     See Jeff Latimer et al., The Effectiveness of Restorative Justice Practices: A Meta-Analysis, 85 Prison Jour. 127, 128 (2005).

         [76].     See Wenzel et al., supra note 18, at 377.

         [77].     See id.

         [78].     See id. at 376.

         [79].     See id.

         [80].     See id. at 378.

         [81].     See id.

         [82].     See id. at 377.

         [83].     See id. at 376.

         [84].     See id. at 378.

         [85].     Retributive vs. Restorative Justice, Conflict Solutions Center, http://www.cscsb.org/restorative_justice/retribution_vs_restoration.html [https://perma.cc/7Y7T-56XS]. The graphic has been modified for concision and ease of reference.

         [86].     See Caroline Framke, How Steven Universe, a joyous cartoon about love and aliens, used music to evolve, Vox (Jun. 2, 2017), https://www.vox.com/culture/2017/6/1/15714096/steven-universe-soundtrack-rebecca-sugar-interview [https://perma.cc/TKU9-X3KS].

         [87].     See Eric Thurm, Steven Universe censorship undermines Cartoon Network’s LGBTQ progress, The Guardian (Jan. 12, 2016), https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/tvandradioblog/2016/jan/12/steven-universe-censorship-cartoon-networks-lgbtq [https://perma.cc/B4U8-JLFT].

         [88].     I use “female” as an imperfect shorthand here. Although the Crystal Gems (and the other Gem characters) are technically sexless—and present with varying degrees of feminine, masculine, and androgynous characteristics and appearances—they all use “she/her” pronouns.

         [89].     See Patricia Martin, What Steven Universe can Teach us about Queerness, Gender Identity, and Feminism, Black Girls Nerds (April 11, 2017), https://blackgirlnerds.com/steven-universe-can-teach-us-queerness-gender-identity-feminism/ [https://perma.cc/9HDM-YTHV].

         [90].     See id.

         [91].     See id.

         [92].     See id.

         [93].     The majority of the cartoon’s plot is not devoted to Steven battling, but rather to him resolving interpersonal conflict amongst family members and loved ones—always with the message of encouraging emotional vulnerability and open communication (consider watching, as one of many examples, the episode “Mr. Greg”).

         [94].     See Martin, supra note 89.

         [95].     See id.

         [96].     See id.

         [97].     See id.

         [98].     See id.

         [99].     See Framke, supra note 86.

      [100].     Even the “corrupted” Gems that the Crystal Gems fight throughout the entire duration of show are not beyond salvation. Steven insists, despite otherwise unanimous skepticism, that the corrupted Gems can be healed, and he is ultimately successful in healing these corrupted Gems in the program’s finale.

      [101].     Mass Incarceration, Equal Justice Initiative, https://eji.org/mass-incarceration [https://perma.cc/JZ6N-3TLQ].

      [102].     See id.

      [103].     See Latimer et al., supra note 75, at 138.

      [104].     See Lawrence Sherman and Heather Strang, Restorative Justice: The Evidence 24, 88 (2007).

      [105].     See Kort-Butler, supra note 1, at 64-65.

      [106].     See id. at 53.

      [107].     See id.

Recommended Citation: Monica Ramsy, Heroizing Restorative Justice: Steven Universe and Rewriting Justice Narratives through Superhero Cartoons, 11 Calif. L. Rev. Online 417 (Oct. 2020), https://www.californialawreview.org/heroizing-restorative-justice-steven-universe.

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