Steven Universe, the Emmy-winning Cartoon Network series from creator Rebecca Sugar, follows a half-human, half-Gem boy who helps his super-powered alien family protect the Earth. But though Steven is at its center, it's hard not to see the show as a celebration of womanhood.
This is owed to the fact that Gems are an alien species who, while not technically women, all use feminine pronouns — Steven, a half-human hybrid, being the single exception. There are the Crystal Gems who raised him: Pearl, a graceful fighter and careful planner who is unfailingly loyal and strong in all the ways that matter; Amethyst, a rough-and-rowdy shapeshifting jokester who dominates in the wrestling ring; and Garnet, an even-keeled leader whose existence is the literal embodiment of the love between two other Gems — a seer and a soldier. There's Steven's mother, Rose Quartz, a warrior and healer who led a rebellion against Homeworld's oppressive dictators and eventually gave up her corporeal form to birth Steven. And then there are the Gems Steven meets along the way, each with unique and impressive abilities, like Peridot (a tech whiz with metal-manipulation powers), Lapis Lazuli (who can control water and fly), and Bismuth (a superstrong blacksmith who can forge powerful weapons), to name a few.
They're all superheroes, to be sure, but the show's unsung hero might be Steven's best friend, Connie Maheswaran (voiced by Grace Rolek), who has no magical abilities to speak of and appears in less than half of the show's episodes. She's an ordinary human girl — which is to say, she is extraordinary by definition; but in the company of Steven and his otherworldly Gem family, it might be tempting to view Connie as uninteresting or underpowered. It's an insecurity she deals with herself in her second episode. "Everything in your life is so awesome and magical. The most exciting thing in my life is tennis practice," Connie laments to Steven, later adding, "I don't know why you hang out with me!"
The reasons are plenty: She's brave, smart, conscientious, and kind, and her growth throughout the series is arguably unparalleled by any other character, except perhaps Steven.
When we meet Connie, she's a shy kid, reading a book alone on the beach. After she gets stuck with Steven in his magical bubble shield, a series of failed attempts to escape find them on the ocean floor. "Now we're going to suffocate or starve at the bottom of the ocean, and only my parents will notice because no one else cares about me!" Connie wails. "I'm going to disappear without ever making a single friend!"
She makes a friend in Steven, of course, and it's not long before she gets swept up in the millennia-old war Steven and the Gems are waging to protect the Earth from destruction at the hands of the Diamonds, Homeworld's tyrant leaders. Unlike the Gems, Connie can't summon a weapon from a magical gemstone in her body, but she relies on her tennis moves, wilderness survival skills, resourcefulness, and courage to be an ally and an asset to their cause. In Season 2, she persuades Pearl to train her for battle.
"I want to learn!" She begs. "I don't know what will happen in the future, but if something dangerous comes along, I don't want to be a burden. I want to be there for Steven, to fight by his side. The Earth is my home, too. Can't I help protect it?"
Connie trains with single-minded dedication and becomes an impressive fighter. Later in the season, she overcomes her fear to tell her overprotective mother the truth about her newfound sword-fighting skills and desire to use them — and to be honest about what she wants her life to look like.
Along the way, Connie and Steven's relationship deepens from first crush to best friends and partners who share each other's burdens, celebrate each other's victories, and save each other's lives. Connie's level-headed reason complements Steven's emotional and sometimes goofy impulsiveness. (On her first official mission in Season 2, Connie announces: "I've got this backpack filled with everything we need to survive in the wilderness!" Steven adds: "And I brought board games in case we get bored!")
They also discover that, like the Crystal Gems, they can physically fuse into a single entity, a corporeal amplification of their individual strengths. The episodes featuring Stevonnie, who is effervescent on the dance floor and also can grow a mean beard, provide some of the most joyful moments of the series — piloting a spaceship, cartwheeling beneath the starry sky, speed-racing down a mountain.
Stevonnie can only exist because of their deep trust, which is why Steven's misguided Season 4 decision to turn himself in, alone, to the Diamonds is such a betrayal — of Connie and of their partnership. "You just gave up," Connie admonishes him after he escapes from Homeworld. "But what about our training? Stevonnie? Jam buds? I believed in us. We could have done it together!" It's a painful mistake, but it's one they learn from. Connie gives herself the time and space she needs to process her hurt, and then she ultimately forgives Steven in Season 5.
Their newly mended relationship is soon battle-tested. The Diamond overlords attack Earth, and Steven returns to Homeworld to grapple with the reasons for and consequences of the rebellion his mother started. This time, Connie is at his side. She reminds him who he is beyond his mother's legacy, and along with the Crystal Gems, she courageously fights White Diamond. When the Gem empress rips Steven's essence from within him, leaving his body incapacitated, Connie physically carries him to be reunited with his inner self. It's a show-stopping, tear-jerking scene that highlights Connie's strength, and the strength of her love for Steven.
Connie, the space warrior, may seem a long way off from Connie, the girl reading alone on the beach, but the truth is all the things that make Connie, Connie have been there from the start: her adventurous spirit, her logical nature, and even her battlefield aggression — remember the tennis move she made up? "Forehand, backhand, overhead, death strike!"
Long before Connie began fighting monsters and fearlessly defending the Earth, and long before Steven understood the breadth of the war he inherited or even the extent of his abilities, Connie revealed her loyalty to her friend, and her own self-regard, in a tender moment in Season 1.
"Everyone expects me to be like my mom," Steven confides. "What if I never get those powers?"
"You don't need any powers to be here with me," Connie responds. Steven can count on her friendship, whether he inherits a dangerous magical destiny or, as he fears, no magical abilities at all.
"Then you'll be like me," she tells him. "That's not so bad."
No, it definitely isn't.
This week, TV Guide is celebrating some of TV's most underrated female characters. As part of Women's History Month, we're breaking down why Breaking Bad's Skyler White deserved better, looking at how Doctor Who's Martha Jones paved the way for the future of the show, and more. You can check out all our Women's History Month content here.