A brief history of LGBTQ depictions in animation, and how the final season of Voltron failed queer fans.
By @Sean_Z_Writes and Aria C.
Caution – this article discusses Voltron season 8, and includes major spoilers.
A month and a half before the last season of DreamWorks Animation’s Voltron Legendary Defender dropped on Netflix, a leaked image was posted to Tumblr depicting Shiro, one of the lead characters and one of the the only gay male characters in western animation, getting married to an unknown man in the series epilogue. Chaos ensued. When the dust settled (the fandom further shaken by three consecutive days of series finale leaks), discord among fans of the ’80s mech reboot was at an all-time high. Some were happy that Shiro, a character faced with constant adversity in his story, might get a happy ending, but the show’s large queer audience tossed around words like “betrayal” and “dread.”
As a gay Voltron fan, I hoped these leaks were fake. But with the release of the final season, they have been confirmed as accurate, and Shiro abandons his hard-won title of Defender of the Universe to find “happily ever after” in the arms of a barely-named incidental. Though this should be a significant milestone for queer depictions in media, the first gay wedding between two men in a western animated show now feels like an ill-placed Band-Aid. Voltron was supposed to be different. It was breaking down social barriers and children’s action show tropes left and right, and the show-runners were adamant that any romance in the series would be given proper development, rather than hastily shoved into the space between fights like its genre’s predecessors. Instead, DreamWorks fell back on the old tactic of relegating gay relationships to a few seconds in epilogues without any accompanying story development, and in doing so, they dealt a devastating blow to queer Voltron fans.
In the last decade, creators have begun using “epilogue representation” as a way of broadcasting their progressive credentials to audiences. The practice, in which queer characters and queer romances are quarantined in short disconnected side stories, epilogues, or comments from show-runners at conventions, allows creators to declare, “yes, we have gay representation” and take credit for diversity without having to include queerness or a queer romance in their main story.
This isn’t novel–animation has a complex history when it comes to queer characters. Until the last few years, positive depictions of LGBTQ characters in animated media were effectively nonexistent. Disney villains were often “queer-coded,” typically to signify audiences “this character is different” (think effeminate male villains like Hades and Scar, and corrupting female villains like Ursula). These traits were designed to contrast with those of the heroes, who rarely strayed from the societally-imparted vision of heterosexuality.
Near the turn of the millennium, show creators made efforts to challenge audience assumption of protagonists’ sexualities. Greg Weisman, creator of the ’90s cartoon Gargoyles, confirmed that he and the animation team believed main ensemble character Lexington was gay, while Static Shock creator Dwayne McDuffie commented about earring-adorned deuteragonist Richie Foley, “It’ll never come up in the show because it’s Y-7 but as far as I’m concerned, Richie is gay…The way I dealt with Richie’s homosexuality was to write him aggressively and unconvincingly announcing his heterosexuality whenever possible (‘Wow! Look at all those girls in swimsuits! I sure like girls!’), while Virgil rolled his eyes at the transparency of it.”
These early strides were daring in their time, but fell disappointingly flat as animation moved into an era charged by diversity, feminism, and LGBTQ rights as mainstream social issues. Animated queer rep was stuck–either restricted to unnamed background characters or still relying on posthumous “word of god” confirmations, i.e. comments from production staff following the show’s run. In 2014, it took a Tumblr post from The Legend of Korra‘s Bryan Konietzko and Michael DiMartinez to announce main characters Korra and Asami were in a relationship but only after fans were left hanging with the ambiguity of the series finale’s unexpected last shot. Creator Alex Hirsch publicly lamented his failed attempt to include visibly queer characters in a 2014 Gravity Falls episode, recalling to EW, “we immediately got a note from the network saying two women falling in love is not appropriate for our audience…The truth is they’re scared of getting emails from bigots and they’re cowards.” He ultimately caved to studio pressure. It wasn’t until 2017 that Star vs The Forces of Evil brought the first gay kiss to a Disney show, but in the form of background characters hardly apparent within the throngs of a large group shot. Even for a medium known to err on the side of social conservatism, this pace was agonizingly slow.
The cowardice Hirsch described is pervasive within the industry’s executive circles. When a friend asked a representative from one of the largest global toy and media companies if they would include queer characters in their storylines, they responded that they would happily be the second brand to introduce a queer character into a children’s property, but they would not be the first. Though it was just an off-the-cuff remark, it is unfortunately emblematic of the leadership within animation studios and other media ostensibly for children. Though including heterosexual romance is normal, networks view simply showing gay people existing in their stories as a controversial risk.
Finally, three years after the United States legalized same sex marriage, Steven Universe, helmed by an openly queer woman, became the first major western children’s show to prominently feature a same sex wedding. After aspects of their relationship had been explored throughout the series, main ensemble characters Ruby and Sapphire got engaged and tied the knot over a week’s worth of episodes, and a full-blown lesbian wedding was (perhaps strategically) set in an episode vital to the show’s main plot.
Only months later, Adventure Time followed suit with an on-screen kiss between Princess Bubblegum and Marceline the Vampire Queen–two characters whose history and chemistry fueled fans to champion the ship “Bubbline” over the course of the show’s eight year run. While the kiss was partially obscured and took place in the very last episode, fans were overjoyed, as the two characters’ relationship was arguably the most complex and deeply explored within the show.
That, ultimately, is what made those moments in Steven Universe and Adventure Time so meaningful to queer audiences, and marked a major turning point in LGBTQ representation in animated media. After years of well-meaning animators “hiding” gay characters in their shows to bypass studio censors or rights holder vetoes, “Rupphire” and “Bubbline” were thoroughly developed, given realistic and relatable interactions, and were prominent in their respective series. We, as viewers, were finally given room to become emotionally invested in queer stories and queer relationships, and in return, queer relationships were lovingly made part of the shows’ stories.
The reveal of main ensemble character Shiro as a gay man in Voltron’s 7th season this summer continued the sudden rapid progress of featuring LGBTQ protagonists, rather than just hinting at them. Shiro’s queerness, though understated, is handled respectfully in the show. There isn’t a “big reveal;” viewers simply learn Shiro had an ex-boyfriend, Adam. It’s subtle, but powerful; Shiro is a queer character–a hero–who isn’t defined by his queerness. Instead, it’s just another attribute of who he is. The show’s executive producers were clear this was their goal, as they told EW, “we don’t want to pitch this as a gimmick of representation. It’s an aspect of Shiro but it’s not his defining aspect.”
In fact, Shiro’s defining aspects are his leadership, compassion, and devotion to a greater cause–qualities that lead to his breakup in favor of pursuing dreams of space exploration. Shiro, above all else, finds meaning and fulfillment in piloting one of the Voltron lions (and in later seasons, the IGF Atlas), so to hand over an epilogue where he is suddenly perfectly content in domestic, wedded bliss to a Random feels like a disservice to not only the character, but also to queer fans who found themselves represented in him. No character, regardless of their sexual orientation, needs to be in a relationship to be happy. We’re not in the 1950s anymore. And no queer character needs to be in an explicitly queer relationship to prove their queerness either.
The “hero gets the love interest” ending might be a Hollywood staple, but even straight romances suddenly shoved into epilogues without proper development feel disingenuous. Executive Producer Lauren Montgomery agrees, at one time stating, “We’re not going to try to just put [a relationship] in there for the sake of needing romance in the story,” while Joaquim Dos Santos, the show’s other EP, commented in the same interview, “For us these characters should stand on their own without the romance.” Yet Shiro’s “endgame” contradicts both statements. Shiro and his new husband get absolutely no development. They never share a single conversation before the wedding, completely depleting this significant moment of the same satisfaction and engagement that made Steven Universe and Adventure Time’s comparable queer scenes so progressive. In fact, it would be better queer representation if Shiro did not end the series in a gay wedding with a Random. Without any straight couples sharing the same fate, the move exposes DreamWorks as being more interested in receiving positive press surrounding the “first gay male wedding” than actually writing said wedding–a sought-after PR victory after the series’s troubled 7th season.
The issues started at this summer’s San Diego Comic Con, where the cast and crew screened the first episode of season 7–the episode revealing Shiro’s sexuality–several weeks ahead of the Netflix drop. “Outing” Shiro before the season aired for general audiences was a poor decision. Fans came away from the panel expecting a clear declaration within the show’s text that Shiro was gay, instead of the quiet, subtle break-up scene we received between him and Adam. Add that to a poorly worded tweet claiming fans would “meet” Shiro’s ex (his only scenes were the aforementioned breakup and his on-screen death several episodes later), and people both inside and outside of the Voltron fandom were quick to accuse the show of queerbaiting, or falsely advertising queer content. Though Adam’s death made sense within the plot and he was treated the same as equivalent straight characters (like many other former love interests of heroes in media, he’s introduced and fridged), people also accused the show of using the “bury your gays” trope.
For those unfamiliar with the term, this negative trope originated from the 1950s and ’60s, as Tricia Ennis wrote for SyFy, “while depictions of LGBTQ characters were frowned upon, depictions of them in [a] specifically negative light were not. You were not endorsing an “alternative lifestyle” if your gay characters always met an untimely demise. Instead, they were merely paying for their poor choices.”
Though I don’t think the show buried its gays, there is plenty of legitimate criticism about how Netflix marketed the property, such as placing it in their LGBT section, using rainbow-colored title cards, and hosting thumbnails featuring Adam on the website’s landing page. While the show’s production staff didn’t appear to intentionally misrepresent what would occur in the season, they did an exceptionally poor job of managing expectations after the reveal. Fans were loud on social media, rocketing “Shadam” and “Adashi” (Shiro and Adam’s couple names) to some of the top spots on Tumblr Fandometrics’ most-blogged-about ship list. Yet the crew, surely aware of the disparity between fans’ assumptions and the soon-to-be-released content, remained silent, and season 7 was widely met with anguish. The truth is, when you have so few queer characters, killing any of them, even for legitimate plot reasons, places you at risk for tripping over negative tropes.
There is an unfortunate dichotomy in animation. Due to networks’ fear of poor reception, studio executives are afraid to include gay content, but are well aware that adding queer characters can be an incredibly valuable marketing tool. Because the medium has almost no gay characters, when an animated LGBTQ protagonist does emerge, teen and adult fans tend to flock to them. When Voltron revealed Shiro was gay, #Shiro became the number one trending topic on Twitter.
The fact is: the wedding is a PR stunt–one that reduces queer people to marketing collateral and attempts to sell a last-ditch effort as “groundbreaking.” That is why the scene is so reprehensible: the studio expects to be rewarded for it.
Shiro matters–to me, and to every queer person who has never seen themselves in media. Gay male characters are rare, especially in animated series. That’s why Shiro’s story is so important–he’s the character that survives. The character that, despite being abducted, losing a limb, suffering from PTSD, and coming home to discover his ex had died in a war, finds the strength to give a speech on overcoming adversity. That’s such a powerful message to queer people, who face adversity in their real lives. Voltron gave us this amazing representation. And it’s so saddening that, in the last season, they tarnished it because of corporate posturing.
Dozens of people have a hand in creating a cartoon. A series’ writing team, directors, and executive producers can’t always include what they want, and can’t always challenge a note from the network to exclude what they don’t want. Studios have to navigate both domestic and international standards and practices, the veto power of production facilities, toy brands, and other consumer products manufacturers who own rights to the property, and the ultimate say of its parent corporations and distribution channels. Placing a singular blame on this issue is not only incorrect, but also demonstrates a misunderstanding of the animation industry as a whole. Additionally, the fact that we were given explicit representation in a non-original property is still a small step forward. However, I still cannot express how disappointed I am in DreamWorks for the thoughtlessness with which it was executed. Shiro was already gay–the show didn’t need to do anything more to win my support. But, by shoving a fan favorite gay character into an undeveloped epilogue wedding to score PR points, it certainly lost it.
One final note for my fellow queer fans–I know so many of you are hurt, disappointed, and frustrated. It feels like this really positive thing, a rare well-written gay character, has been snatched from us. However, as a reminder, we don’t know who made what call, so please do not harass anyone, especially the show-runners. Talk about this instead: get on social media, and explain why this was painful. This problem won’t go away until we address it–that’s why I’m writing this.