How the End of ‘Voltron Legendary Defender’ Exemplifies the Quarantining of Queerness in Animation

Reading Time: 9 minutes

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.

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This post was last modified on February 12, 2019 12:07 am

"Sean Z : @ Sean Z stumbled upon internet fandom in the early 2000s, and has been reading fanfic and liking fanart ever since. When he’s not researching fandom, he enjoys listening to video game music, playing boardgames, and writing code.."

View Comments (50)

  • I dont care too much about the shipping because so many other things went wrong in terms of writing but why didnt they just let Shiro marry Keith or something? Cause those two had the strongest relationship out of all the paladins (heck that was even stated in the show it self in one scene)

    Next to Allura and Lance, those characters had the most ''oh that makes sense'' if they ended together

  • Awesome article, with some very good points. It really would have been better to leave things open-ended like they flat-out lied and had said they would do, and not have Shiro marry at all if they weren't planning to have him marry Keith (as they were literally the pairing that made the most sense and had the deedest bond out of anyone in the show). But instead they married him off to a rando he never even interacted with and made Shiro and Keith behave like distant work acquaintances at best the entire season, despite 7 previous seasons of their relationship and love for each other strengthening. What they did to Shiro was an insult to him, his fans, and the LGBTQ community. They horribly botched what could have been a very positive ending. I'm so disgusted with them.

  • I was worried that you were going to hail Voltron season 8 & kiss their tail about how wonderful the season was.
    I am very surprised that you're being this Frank about it. A lot of people would rather pander to networks as large as this.
    What I am upset about, is the inequality so glaringly obvious in the show. Maybe if this was 2013, it would be understandable. It was a different and oppressive time then. However it feels like this was a huge step back.
    how long do we watch hetero relationships showing affection and caring and interaction, while other orientations are treated like a dirty Secret. Why are the excuses of having lgbtq relationships the same one that was said about interracial relationships in the media during the 80s?
    I know that a lot of countries are blind and ignorant about same-sex relationships and other orientation relationships. However, it is disappointing that in a country where we've had fought hard for same-sex marriage in 2014, it is not treated equally in this show. Other shows have done it, they braved it, and they are breaking ceilings. But when another show as big as this, treats same-sex relationship as a dirty secret that shouldn't be shown to Children. (Even though, we have children that have same-sex parents that could be watching the show... well if they were interested still after season 3).
    Then them Making Excuses of "six year olds shouldn't be exposed to that"? Or... more like...
    They shouldn't see how all relationships treated equally.
    Oh but hey...
    They can show a burnt corpse, child abuse, genocide, violence, physical violence, gun violence... even space politics that borders hidden agendas that became more complicated further into the season....
    However, can't show a relationship between two men. Having them talking or flirting or interaction.... that'll scar their minds & make them... want to be gay too (heard that from some folks).
    But hey....
    We're given crumbs & told... we sympathize...
    But then when we think there are two males are interested in each other in passing, we are told that we are seeing things.

    After being conditioned most of our Lives to be in secret and have to search for little gestures and hints that gave a nod to representation.
    We grew up with Dumbledore being gay but never shown... just told in passing outside the show.
    It was always something of a secret if they were.... "that way".
    Then when we ask publicly. We're told that we're seeing things...
    Yeah... we've grew up with characters in the media, mostly bad guys being gay coded and then told that it should have been obvious when it comes out... oh ueah... so not confusing or misleading...or, we're wrong again (side whisper, "We're right but you know....keep it in the DL.)

    When are we going to stop looking for little hidden gestures and hints and whispers in secrets or told outside the circle, just so we can feel as if we were represented?

    Why when we hope to be part of a show... they tell us we are... but not too much.
    How many times are we going to be treated differently?
    How many times do we get to see two hetero people showing open affection to each other (Allura & Lance dating)
    ... But not us? Because some countries would rather see us killed than be beloved?
    Because we are living in a trump era where we are told that trans were not supposed to be given rights (real quote was "...wrongfully extend civil rights protections to people who should not have them")? Or being open can get us killed? And you wonder why we look for Clues? Hints? Hope?

    They use Shiro as a PR stunt. They use them at the end credits so he could be censored out, they didn't have them interact with him because it would be too difficult to cut those scenes. Or maybe it was just a last-minute slap on so they could be featured on Entertainment Tonight and GQ and the entertainment industry, as a breakthrough?
    So they can be hailed as Heroes and wave a rainbow flag? Yet still be appealing to the folks at Fox News?
    A lot of people say to me, why do you look for hints? You're such a social warrior or snowflake (or Worse). Or say, "Stop pushing your gay on characters... you got enuff rep & rights"... (that equality is too much to ask....)
    Well, what are we supposed to do? The entertainment media tells us on the side, yeah this guy is gay yeah this might happen, hint hint, elbow nudge. But it's our little secret... then deny it in some circles... or become evasive.
    Maybe I shouldn't bother to hope... maybe I should give up... maybe the best advice kids can take is... keep it a secret until you are by yourself.
    Maybe we are just good just for PR & tokenism?
    Maybe seeing all romantic orientations being treated equally was an exception & not the rule... cuz the rule is... (we're too gross for kids)? Two girls or guys kissing? Oh no! (Here... you can wash that from your mind with torture & dead bodies)
    maybe we should pander to countries that stigmatizes us... maybe having Shiro cut out in most countries is the right thing to do to make everyone happy... while robbing all of us of being treated the same in a stupid wonderful kids show...
    but hey... a burnt corpse & abuse... good on you.

    Let me ask this... apply the same treatment to any other characteristics... and how does it seem?

  • I'd say it was pretty good. Look, we always knew there were forces beyond the creators controls *ahem, management of dreamworks* that held things back. I'd say while this may not have been perfect, it is a good start! Hell, one of my friends joked Shiro wasn't actually gay and was only best friends with Adam. I think this will convince him otherwise :P

    As for the Keith/Shiro pairing, I am somewhat glad it didnt end up happen, if only because their relationship was better as a brothers in arms things, as oppose to boyfriends.

  • As much as Dreamworks mishandled the situation, considering the circumstances, having Shiro get a happy ending with a husband was the best thing they could have done. Most Shiro fans just wanted the poor guy to find peace, and getting married is a good way to show that he's done with fighting.

    Besides, the last thing the audience sees before the credits roll is the first gay male kiss in Animation. That has to count for something. It may not eb the most ideal, but to say that this season "failed" queer audiences is a bit of an overstatement if you ask me. The Voltron crew had a story in mind, and the fact that they heard our criticisms of Adam's involvement last season and at least ATTEMPTED to make it right is huge. I mean, I'm certain Voltron's story was mapped out a long time in advance, so there wasn't any room to wedge in a romance for Shiro in this last season, so putting it in the epilogue was the only way TO do it.

    Not saying you don't have a point, but saying that this show "failed" its queer audience is basically the "I'm not mad, I'm dissapointed" of word choices.

  • So I’ve been watching Voltron since day one and have followed everything going on with it pretty closely. I’m pretty sure nothing with Shiro’s sexuality was planned. The creators said that Bex Taylor-Klaus(Pidge’s voice actor) had to fight for Shiro to be LGBTQ+ rep. That’s why it seemed so rushed and wasn’t very thought out. Personally, I’m pretty happy with the way the show ended. It’s rated Y-7 so it’s surprising to get any rep at all! I have a feeling that the creators might make a spin off or at least give us more details about Shiro and his new husband(his name is Curtis, btw. He appeared in the background of season 8 a bunch).

    • As I mentioned in my other comment, Random Husband was a last minute addition. The only time we ever see him with anything that could be seen as a Shiro moment was during Clear Day, and they forgot to delete the animation where Random Husband was actually hanging out with the people from the Garrison.

      Random Husband doesn't even have a name—they say it is Curtis, but the only reason anyone has any idea is because of the Captions. No one can even be sure if that's his first or last name.

      This was thrown in ham-handedly.

    • Thing is, that's not what happened. DW forced them to add that ending in after the Adam backlash as a PR stunt and it wasn't planned at all. LM came out and said that they never planned out that epilogue and even the actors or even the Studio Mir directors had no clue of its existence. So, no. It wasn't a last second rush to give Shiro a happy ending, it was a flat out PR stunt that DW forced the creators to add. I don't know about you, but DW using queer rep to make themselves look good at the expense of Shiro as a character (because it's OOC for him to retire in his 20s and reduces him to trophy husband status) and irl queer people is flat out shitty.

  • All the focus was put on Shiro and the two second picture at the end, when Ezor and Zethrid were coded as your typical "gal pal" lesbians. They had more of a relationship than Shiro ever did, and it's almost worse because they were queer coded villians. Zethrid got a short redemption arc, but Ezor's was done off screen,and the last time she was on screen she tried to torture Pidge.

  • Eh. I put much less thought into it than that. As a military vet myself, making Shiro's sexual preference NOT his defining trait was quite welcome. And as the show (mostly due to Executive Meddling) made Shiro the Universe's chew-toy, I thought the epilogue was a nice touch, to show that this guy, who's been through so much, did get his happy ending. I didn't care that there was no back-story to explain it, no build-up to it, etc. In-Universe, Shiro didn't have a whole lot of time to meet eligible singles; he was a professional officer who didn't fraternize (esp. with minors) with junior personnel within the Chain-of-Command, or with those in Allied Forces (Voltron Coalition). And, as Captain of the Atlas, it would have been MAJOR inappropes for him to fraternize with ANYONE on-board. For a show that was generally "Mildly Military," they got this right. The show-runners focused on the larger story, and handled a major character's secondary (or even tertiary) characteristic with appropriate dignity and respect.

    • He clearly marries one of his subordinates on the Atlas (whom he has no dialog with). Considering your comments about it being inappropriate for him to fraternize with anyone, how is this acceptable?

      • No on-screen explanation is given; for a real-life analogy...Shiro may have retired from the Galaxy Garrison for medical reasons (we know he has some neuro-muscular disease), and as a civilian, would have no legal/military regulation prohibiting a relationship with Curtis. He may have stepped down as Captain of the Atlas for a Ground assignment (maybe go back to being an Academy Instructor), taking him out of Curtis' direct Chain-of-Command. The U.S. Armed Forces doesn't prohibit relationships between people of different long as they aren't in the same Chain-of-Command.

        • Seriously this is a lot of make believe for the audience to come up with to justify nothing. Based on his rank and his peers he is placed with there is more eveidence that Curtis is the same age as the MFEs and very much shiros subordinate. If this is your argument then Keith is at least his equal as he his the leader of voltron. I kinda think that’s funny cause all the bitching about age he likely married someone just as young.

  • Hey, you may want to edit this in. Someone on tumblr watched Clear Day again, and the scene where the Random Husband is cheering on Shiro must have been added way after production, because he's show multiple times with the Garrison people at the same time. They must have added this singular scene where there isn't even animation just to try to say that there was a scene with them, but the fact is...

    They forgot to delete the damn animation that says the opposite.

    This ending was so, so bad. Just.. horrible.

  • Really after everything coming out with the leaks having “Curtis” originality as a guest in the back ground, him somehow being in two places at once, his body type/face shape being completely different in the wedding/cheering scene then the rest of the show, being called Adam in the subtitles, to never having even a conversation with Shiro, or a spoken names. How anyone can pretend that this is good “rep” is beyond me. After staff saying multiple times that Shiro, didn’t need to be in a relationship to be good rep, which is true, anyone who is defending this choice is just being willfully ignorant of what happens here. “Finding his happiness” has to be the biggest blow if we don’t get to see that happiness develop it may as well not be there, plus he was always happiest doing his work that he loved, which is stressed in the show. Rep isn’t a rainbow sticker you can slap on somthing and say it’s good cause it’s gay. Is lgbt folk want a story we can relate to and enjoy, see ourselves in. That’s not a cardboard cutout without a name. The truth is there was only one good strong male relationship that had potential and regardless of if people want to see it as romantic or not there was no way any other character can have a stronger relationship with shiro then keith and if they weren’t going to take the time to show somthing stronger then that with a different romantic partner it’s always gonna fall flat. Not even sure what the deal is with why “sheith” was written so bizarrely intense but if they were gonna just pair shiro with a rando the audience has to make up a story for they should have just left it ambiguous and people could see things how they’d like instead of sidelining the strongest most developed relationship in the show.

  • I'm sorry you're ready to settle down for crumbs.
    My gay ass is tired of that and of being said "oh be grateful", so shut up.

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