The Moral Bonds Between ‘Steven Universe’ and ‘BoJack Horseman’

With key differences, the two shows tackle some of the same issues head on.

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Steven Universe (Zach Callison) and BoJack Horseman (Will Arnett) Cartoon Network, Netflix

Observation Points is a semi-regular discussion of key details in our culture. (Note that this post contains spoilers for both Steven Universe Future and BoJack Horseman.)

Many of life’s moral quandaries are best explored through animation. The medium’s combination of technological wonder and picture book boldness leaves an audience open in a childlike way: desperate to be dazzled, eager to be surprised and ready to learn a thing or two. It makes sense then, that two of the most acclaimed animated television shows in recent years—BoJack Horseman and Steven Universe—both make a strong case for accountability and moral justice through their characters.

While one show is aimed at adults and the other at children, both feel intrinsically linked in how they grapple with moral dilemmas through their protagonists. BoJack (Will Arnett), is a mess of a horseman. When we first meet him, he’s a well-enough-known actor in Hollywoo/b/d and also an addict, often rewarded for his bad behavior instead of chastised. At first glance, it feels odd to even begin to compare a character such as BoJack to half-human, half-alien Gem Steven Universe (Zach Callison), who starts his the series as a tender-hearted 13-year-old, eager to figure out his powers and his place in the world. What brings them together is their past.

Both Steven and BoJack are legacy kids, coming from famous (or infamous) families. The more you watch Steven Universe, the more Steven’s mother, Rose Quartz slowly develops into the villain of the series. First portrayed as a selfless, sacrificing free spirit, the show steadily reveals her part as leader in the rebellion against the alien Gems’ authoritarian class, the Diamonds, culminating in the episode “A Single Pale Rose,” where it’s revealed that Rose is in fact a Diamond herself, part of the very system she fought against. After she leaves a trail of wreckage behind her, Steven and her former comrades must account for her mistakes. Similarly, in BoJack Horseman, BoJack repeatedly reckons with a childhood defined by alcoholic, distant and abusive parents. Like Steven, the only way he can even begin to attempt to move on with his future is by acknowledging this inherited trauma and attempting to break the cycle.

Initially, this seems to work for both characters. By Steven Universe: The Movie, Steven has indeed dismantled the oppressive Diamond Authority with little to no casualties, and has helped to establish a Little Homeworld on Earth for displaced Gems. By BoJack’s later seasons, Horseman finally attends rehab and gets a job as an acting professor at the university of his newfound half-sister Hollyhock, eager to maintain a family relationship with her that he never had with his parents. Both characters seem to have emerged from their own literal and metaphorical wars unscatched, even going through a wardrobe change in the process. Steven dons a fresh start in the form of matching pink, and Bojack wears khaki bomber jackets and stops dyeing his hair. But just as they start to feel comfortable in their new normals, the past comes back with a vengeance.

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From “Intermediate Scene Study w/ BoJack Horseman” in BoJack Horseman‘s final season. Netflix

“Acting is about leaving everything behind and becoming something completely new,” says BoJack in the final season’s episode “Intermediate Scene Study w/ BoJack Horseman.” Like Rose Quartz, BoJack has attempted to start fresh, feeling he has earned a new beginning and will make amends in this new chapter of life. But as the season progresses, the show takes him to task one last time in episode “Xerox of a Xerox.” He has reverted back to his old ways as he denies involvement in former castmate and friend Sarah Lynn’s overdose when questioned by a reporter. At the very last minute though, BoJack reconsiders, telling his long-suffering manager Princess Carolyn, “I don’t think we can get around this… we have to go through it.” They then work up a plan to admit to his part in the tragedy, on television.

But by the time the exclusive interview comes around, BoJack’s staged sincerity on camera is framed as a heroic feat by the media, earning him free coffee and support from the general public. The entire show acts as a grim indictment of celebrity culture and the role the media plays in these affairs—before the tables turn and BoJack is in fact finally hung out to dry when he goes against Princess Carolyn’s advice and does a second interview. Little does he know, a conversation between talk show host Biscuits Braxby and the reporter he spoke to, Paige Sinclair, is what brings about his social destruction. It’s an important and purposefully unsubtle scene in the show, where these two women in media reclaim the responsibility of exposing the truth.

The story of BoJack Horseman then, is one not just of the individual, but of the people around him. BoJack is surrounded by people who try to support him, with each pulling away and coming back to him as his behavior ranges from bad to worse to moderate. BoJack is unable to plead ignorance because there are constant reminders of his failings in the faces of those he loves. Steven Universe and its followup show Steven Universe Future present a more hopeful scenario, Steven finds encouragement and pride in the faces of his nearest and dearest, something BoJack never received growing up. Steven’s community is where his strength comes from. Even now, in Steven Universe Future’s epiloguous run of episodes, as he starts to feel less needed while everyone grows up and moves on around him, Steven’s support system remains intact and will surely be there for him as they always have been.

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The character Volleyball reminisces about her own abuse in Steven Universe Future‘s episode “Volleyball.” Cartoon Network

In Steven Universe Future, Steven, much like BoJack, is dealing with the realization that the journey to self betterment is continuous. That yes, you may have won the war but there are other, internal battles to fight. As Future shows Steven come of age, the tone has matured to match him. In the episode “Volleyball,” Steven is unable to accept yet another one of his mother’s failings, as he finds out she was the one who irreparably harmed one of the minor characters, not the more straightforwardly menacing White Diamond as it had previously been assumed. The result is a literal explosion of magic power from Steven, who is unable to control his emotions—another inheritance from his mother. But at his side is Pearl, a maternal figure in his life there to comfort him and help him come to terms with who his biological mother was and who he currently is. It’s not enough for the individual to go it alone, you need a community to sustain harmony.

Steven Universe and Future remind us you can be who you want to be, despite what society says you are, and that we can dismantle the systems that hold us back. BoJack Horseman’s lesson is similar, albeit more pragmatic and pessimistic, focusing on the harsh realities of attempting personal and public reform. In the end, BoJack finally pays for his mistakes as he loses his relationship with Hollyhock and ends up in prison. But in typical BoJack fashion, he’ll be released in a month with a new movie out, reputation bruised but mostly intact. The show never lets us forget the type of society we live in. Steven Universe on the other hand, shows us what kind of society we could live in if we continue to support each other and hold each other accountable. The show never leaves you with the thought that things won’t work out, Steven’s growing pains aside. And isn’t that what’s needed right now, in this world we live in? To know that after everything we’ve endured and will continue to endure, here we are in the future and it’s bright?

Steven Universe Future will begin airing its last set of episodes tonight, March 6, 2020 at 7pm ET on Cartoon Network.

The Moral Bonds Between ‘Steven Universe’ and ‘BoJack Horseman’