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

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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)

  • Is it perfect? No, but it's a hell of a start and damn good to keep pushing forward with so one day we'll get to see a gay relationship develop over the course of a kids tv series, just like any straight one would. This is a win and LM and JDS deserve kudos for it.

    Honestly, you sound like the salty Sheith shippers on social media.

    • I would agree if it was a start, with what other shows have done is not even a to middle, we have akready seen gay relationships develop over the course of a kids tv series, they do not get kudos for a pasted scene they ordered like a month before they relased the show. People shouldn't be grateful for crumbs

      • I agree with Leela. As a queer person, I'm pissed because it was shitty representation, not because of ships. You see, the EPs did not want to add the epilogue in the first place nor was it their idea, they were forced to by DW because of the Adam backlash to make DW look good. The epilogue boils down to being a Dreamworks PR stunt and nothing more.

        We have seen gay relationships develop over the course of a story. The same should go for here. Not to mention it shits on Shiro's character, because it reduces him to being a trophy husband and give up his passions in life. The series would be far better off without it. (Also, it says that Lance is a farmer and makes it official that Allura died, so there's that.) People shouldn't be grateful for crumbs. We, as queer people, should receive far better representation then that.

  • No one else ended in a relationship, except Shiro, and they reduced his happiness to being in a relationship. Everyone else had a fulfilling path but Shiro, the only gay character found a relationship. It was incredibly disappointing to me. I would have loved to see some development between Shiro and the man he marries but we get none, not even a conversation. I would have preferred if they'd let him be single like everyone else, being an ambassador to Earth and happy with his friends. This show has also taught me that you cannot put faith in the words of writers, as they'd said there would be no abrupt relationships for the sake of romance.

  • The writers, some of the animators and the directors were not only getting hate mail but also death treats by fans if they did not make certain popular pairings cannon in the story line. It's one of the reasons the show was ended so suddenly instead of keeping it going. I think they decided to pair off Shiro with someone else that wasn't those pairings to not give more fuel to one side or the other pairing wise. Also the man has gone through so freaking much, what's wrong with wanting to have a simple life and be happy now that you can? He have up a relationship that could have been a happy and supportive one to go and do something he felt was meaningful and worthy of his life that was being cut too short by his body failing in him. He got a second shot at life now that he has a body that is not deteriorating and dying, what's wrong with wanting happiness??

    • The irritating part of this argument is that if they had given half a thought about this particular character's happines outside their sexuality, they would have animated Shiro and Random exploring space, fliying around kissing with gold rings.

      We were told Shiro was HAPPY flying, he dreamed of exploring the vast space, are you really telling me all his drive came from his illness? And without that just wanted a guy?

  • I wholeheartedly agree. I was defending some of the decisions that was made in s7 as up until then they had been doing an OK job. Then s8 happened and I was utterly disappointed in what they did to everyone. It felt rushed and disjointed and the ending was a tacked on PR stunt and they even handled that as an after thought. All the characters deserved better and the fans, even though I still think the fandom is one of the worse, deserved a little better than that.

    There's a lot of things DW could have done better, personally I feel like they should not have revealed ANYTHING about the upcoming seasons because that's where all this stemmed from. They told the fans one thing and did another. If they had told them nothing, I don't think this outcome would have been as bad because it's clear some changes were made to appease the rabid fans and in making those changes the messed a lot of things up. I hope DW learns from this mistake and do better. Don't tell us, SHOW us because clearly their words can't be trusted.

  • Could you please stop saying "queer" so much? It's a slur and is really offensive to some people - this is coming from a trans bisexual man who has been called it many times in my life.

  • Not only did they throw together a romance for Shiro, but they did the same thing with Allurance. Allurance had no romantic buildup until a random blush from her half way through s7. Then when Lance asked her out she had to be convinced to go. There was no proper build up to their romance, and Lance completely changed himself so that she’d like him and that’s so disappointing cuz he’s such a great, goofy, smart guy. If she was gonna “fall in love” with him then it should have been as he was, not as she wanted him to be. That’s what we should be teaching kids and teens.

    • Gotte disagree, Lance had feelings for Allura since season 1, and it was hinted big time since season 7 that Allura liked him back

    • Oof, no, he didn't change for her, he grew for her. He went from trying to force a relationship on somebody who wasn't interested (bad pickup lines, always with the innuendo, general obnoxious eyebrow-waggling) to genuinely respecting her. For the first four seasons I couldn't stand the idea of Allurance because that kind of behavior should not be rewarded in fiction when it's such a problem--and sometimes a dangerous problem--in real life. But then he backed off, his perspective of her demonstrably shifted from object to be obtained to valuable team member and treasured friend, his behavior shifted accordingly, andddd I'm fully team Allurance at this point.

  • The male he got married to was Adam his boy friend and also for the wedding picture it looked like Hunk and Kenkade we're together. If you try to argue that because Adam had died. Well so did many other things. For example the many universes, Adam and Two planets.

    • Um sadly, no its not. Its the communication ex machina guy in episode 5. And that just proves how sad this ending is when we can't even tell who the heck Shiro married DX
      I had first thought that it was some random, but truthfully, this isn't much better.
      I honestly would have been happy for them if we had even a shred of actual interaction, some kind of development. But nope. I don't think the guy ever raised his head from the console. I feel like I watched a turkish drama where they gave away a child in a forced arranged marriage. Heck, I would have been ok if it was Rolo, at least we get SOMETHING in character bio, not some "out of left field and smacks you in the face" thing.
      P.S.: Hunk's hugging Lance XD
      P.P.S.: If you're happy, then by all means, I'm glad for you, and I don't wish to seem aggressive by any means. But for me, I'm forgetting the last bit. Enjoying the rest of what the season had to offer.

  • Thank you. I'm sad and hurt and disappointed. I don't know why I believed Voltron would be different.....

  • Thank you for this article so, so much. You explained everything thoroughly and fairly in a way I have been too upset to. I've been in tears and a deep depression for two months, ever since the leaks came out. I only pulled myself together by hoping the leaks were fake.

    To see that not only were they real, but that Shiro's role throughout the final season preceding the epilogue was so reduced, has been extremely upsetting. I have trusted and supported this show for two years throughout the hardest points in my life--it helped me when my father died unexpectedly at the beginning of this year. And all of that trust and hope and love is gone.

    I feel so betrayed and humiliated. I feel like the last two and a half years of suffering through the pain anti fans infliced on the actual fans of VLD weren't worth going through. I feel like a "bad queer" for being so devastated by how the last season, and especially the finale, took away everything that made Shiro the strong, caring fighter who never gave up that I fell in love with for the first six seasons.

    Shiro "found his happiness and left the battle behind"? Shiro, who left his relationship with Adam to go on the Kerberos mission? Shiro, who suffered PTSD and yet used those painful flashbacks to help the team strategize in seasons 1 and 2? Shiro, who flew without food or fuel for seven days to reach the team in season 3? Shiro, who spent seasons 4-6 leading the team in Keith's absence when he had placed so much confidence in Keith's ability to take over as leader? Shiro, who fought Sendak on a crashing ship then left the med bay to get right back to piloting the Atlas despite his injuries in season 7, because the job wasn't done?

    People joked about how the clone in seasons 3-6 was "not my Shiro" and I never thought that was fair. I still don't. Because this--THIS is not my Shiro. Whatever this is, whether it's a PR stunt forced on the creative team by executives as a half-assed apology in response to the Adam situation, or just a complete miscalculation of what made this character so inspiring and interesting to begin with--this isn't my Shiro.

    Thank you for this article. Thank you for helping me see that I'm not crazy or just a dumb shipper for being so devastated by this ending. As a fan of the character Shiro used to be and the show VLD used to be, and a queer person who foolishly hoped that the "I love you" from season 6 would be reciprocated, thank you. Thank you so much. I am heartbroken.

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