Voltron Partners Not Responsible for Failures in Gay Inclusion; Sources Dispute Claim From DreamWorks Staff

DreamWorks, Joaquim Dos Santos, and Lauren Montgomery, after claiming to make content “as inclusive as possible,” failed to follow basic best practices on handling diverse characters respectfully, ignored clear warnings that their depictions were harmful, and attempted to blame external partners to hide their studio’s mistakes.

“Each and every one of [the staff of the show] has been a champion of inclusivity and acceptance…”
—Joaquim Dos Santos, Voltron Executive Producer

With a 5% audience score for the last season on Rotten Tomatoes and countless messages on social media from upset fans, no one can deny that DreamWorks’ Voltron failed its audience. The animated show about giant robots, which was directly marketed to LGBT individuals with rainbows on its Netflix title cards and a cast and crew that spoke constantly about the value of diversity, delivered a marginalizing ending that left queer fans hurt, angered, and confused. Since then, many people have been asking, “What happened?” How did a show with so much promise fail so spectacularly?

Despite claiming the show’s staff were “champions of inclusivity and acceptance,” and having multiple resources within the studio to tell an inclusive story, showrunners Joaquim Dos Santos and Lauren Montgomery failed to follow even the most basic best practices for depicting minorities during their tenure at DreamWorks. At the same time, the studio ignored warnings from LGBT individuals that Voltron’s story, one that the Dos Santos would later declare was “an animated olive branch” to the queer community, would have a profoundly negative impact on real people in the queer community.

After seeing the negative reactions, the showrunners attempted to shift blame onto the intellectual property holder, World Events Productions (WEP), by claiming they were hamstrung in telling diverse stories by the show’s status as a licensed property. However, GeekDad has confirmed that the showrunners’ claim that the license holder put up roadblocks to depicting queer characters is utterly false. Voltron’s diversity problems are the fault of DreamWorks management and the showrunners themselves.  

So what happened?

Gay fans have spoken on how the ending of Voltron sent a clear hurtful message: you could be gay, or be a hero, but not both. As we discussed in our previous article, Shiro (the sole gay hero) was, before the final season, a complete character, one defined by more than just their queerness. Shiro is significant not in that’s he’s just gay, but that he’s a hero. He’s a main character in an action show. He’s respected and admired by his peers. He faces significant adversity throughout the show (as queer people often do), but he survives and triumphs over it. That narrative of overcoming obstacles, of earning respect and becoming a leader, a hero, is so important—before the final season, we have a glimpse of what it looks like to see a queer man succeeding.  

In the last season, after being revealed as gay, Shiro’s friendships, dreams, and career are all sidelined. His role in the story, despite being a leading character for the previous seasons, is greatly diminished. His friends barely interact with him. Though we see him find fulfillment in his job as leader for eight seasons, we’re told (though not shown) he “finally finds happiness,” by abruptly retiring in his late twenties, abandoning the admiralship we saw made him happy, and marrying a guy he’s never spoken with in a five-second epilogue.

The loss of the sole gay male hero in western animation was a devastating blow for queer fans. After waiting decades to see themselves represented by a hero who was more than just a gay person, queer fans saw their hero tokenized and taken from them in the final seconds of the show. Further, the gay wedding to a random character, after the showrunners had repeatedly claimed that any relationship would be developed over several seasons, dripped with insincerity. While straight relationships were, as promised, developed over time, the showrunners haphazardly threw a gay one in at the last minute for points, as though they were far more interested in getting the credit for a gay wedding than actually writing respectful (but potentially less flashy) stories about queer people.

But how was this allowed? DreamWorks had diversity consultants that existed to prevent this kind of hurtful depiction, and the studio acknowledged they had multiple gay writers on staff for other shows, any of whom could have easily been called in to consult.

The answer, unfortunately, appears to be simple arrogance. DreamWorks does not mandate that showrunners use the resources available to them, nor provides oversight at the studio level to ensure diverse content is handled respectfully (something they acknowledged in our interview with She-Ra executive producer Noelle Stevenson).

The showrunners did not seek review on the first animated gay male wedding from a single gay person. A source familiar with the events confirmed to GeekDad that the two straight showrunners wrote the the ending without involving the people they claimed to represent, or their own diversity consultant, in the process. Ultimately, when Dos Santos and Montgomery set off to depict the first gay male wedding in western animation, they chased their own ephemeral idea of “what’s good for gay people,” instead of actually speaking to gay people.

“We are honored to have been embraced so tightly by the fandom, more specifically the LGBTQ segment of the fandom.”
Joaquim Dos Santos, Voltron Executive Producer

While there were gay writers on other shows at DreamWorks, the source confirmed they weren’t consulted. Additionally, GeekDad would like to stress that simply having queer staff within the company doesn’t lessen the problem of showrunners failing to use readily-available resources. Expecting non-show staff to step up and offer feedback for issues in representation, especially when it’s outside their core role, means asking them to give unsolicited criticism on behalf of their entire group (and create more work for the studio, potentially harming their career for failing to be a team player). The entire purpose of having dedicated diversity consultants is to avoid asking any individual at a company to speak on behalf of their group at risk to their career.

Leaked image of Voltron’s Ending, from translation firm BTI Studios

Despite their failure to do basic review, DreamWorks was given a clear opportunity to correct their mistake. In late October, several days after the showrunners reported they had completed work on Voltron, but still months before the final season would air, screenshots of the ending leaked from BTI Studios, one of the localization firms DreamWorks hired to translate the final season. The leaks, shown above, depicted Shiro marrying a parody character resembling Roy Falkner from Macross (another animated show about giant robots, and one the showrunners are known fans of).

Fan reaction was swift and intensely critical, and fans reached out to DreamWorks, as well as Montgomery and Dos Santos, to discuss how destructive this ending would be. While at this point the studio’s options would have been limited given the show was technically complete, they could have trivially cut the hurtful epilogue, or they could have modified the text underneath the still of the wedding to prevent the gay hero from retiring, potentially softening the blow.

However, DreamWorks remained confident in their vision of gay representation, and despite the feedback from the leaks that the epilogue, that a sudden sloppy wedding, that the retirement of the sole queer hero, would be injurious to the queer community, the studio and its staff again prioritized their own idea of “what’s good for gays” over the opinions of the real gay fans who reached out to them.

The show’s final season aired on December 15, 2018. Unsurprisingly, queer fans hated it—the show, which had been explicitly marketed to LGBT consumers, quickly saw its approval rating tumble into single digits on Rotten Tomatoes. Many queer fans expressed confusion and hurt on Twitter. One fan would later recount to me, “The ending of Voltron, specifically season 8’s ending, left me feeling empty. There was an intrinsic thought that enveloped me, reminding me that no matter what, people like me don’t get their stories to be told.” This sentiment of hurt and exclusion, that Voltron wasn’t for everyone, was echoed again and again on social media.

Dos Santos and Montgomery were silent, and would not give an interview for the next three months. DreamWorks refused interview requests, and did not release a comment, but instead released a small clip on Twitter entitled “our heroes” that showed every major character except Shiro, they gay one they stripped of his hero status. Afterwards, they posted the entire epilogue to their social media in a tactless attempt to advertise the gay wedding, further antagonizing queer fans.

In stark contrast, fans on Twitter reported that Bob Koplar, the president of World Events Productions and Voltron’s IP owner, was reaching out to individual fans, returning calls to his office to personally apologize to people that were upset or felt lesser at the end of Voltron.

Many fans steadfastly refused to believe the wedding was the product of Dos Santos and Montgomery, who had made repeated prior statements that romances would be developed over time, and that the Shiro’s queerness would not become his only defining trait. More than thirty thousand fans signed a Change.org petition asking for DreamWorks to release the ending that the showrunners wanted, believing the released epilogue must have been a result of DreamWorks changing the planned ending by the showrunners.

It hurts so much to have gay marriage weaponized against us this way. It hurts so much to see straight fans tell us to shut up and be grateful for the wedding when it was done for the wrong reasons, all because they don’t understand why it hurts and don’t care enough to listen.
—C. Smith, queer critic on Twitter.

When they finally emerged months later, Dos Santos and Montgomery explained on AfterBuzz TV (a YouTube talk show) and on Let’s Voltron (the official Voltron podcast) that they had wanted to tell a more inclusive story, one that involved Shiro potentially reconnecting with his former boyfriend Adam. The showrunners claimed that, because they “didn’t have the position of being the creators of the IP” and because Voltron wasn’t “creator-owned,” (claims they made on AfterBuzz and Let’s Voltron respectively), they were unable to add in the fact that Shiro was gay until very late in production, after they already planned to kill off Shiro’s ex, Adam.

Confusingly, they also stated in multiple interviews they were given complete freedom to craft the epilogue as they saw fit. By their own admission, nothing was impeding them from writing a respectful conclusion in the epilogue, only that they could not pair Shiro with his (now dead) ex.

Dos Santos also made the misleading claim on AfterBuzz that they only had a day to make decisions about the epilogue. While the initial concept for what to depict in the epilogue may have been determined rapidly, production would not complete for at least six to eight weeks (as we know from the timestamps on the leaked animation and their own tweets about the show’s status). During this time a review could have been conducted in parallel, and they could have course-corrected by making changes to the animation storyboards, altering the text, or cutting the epilogue entirely.

The showrunners’ repeated claim that not owning Voltron is what caused issues with queer representation seemed to implicate WEP, Voltron’s IP holder. This is especially true when the claims are paired with a comment from Ty Labine, one of the voice actors on the show, who claimed that “keepers of the lore” had “kept the gates shut” regarding representation.

GeekDad’s source close to DreamWorks and WEP refuted this, and was able to confirm the IP holder was not responsible for blocking the introduction of queer characters.

Further muddying the waters, Dos Santos frequently contradicted himself in interviews. On the same episode of AfterBuzz where he claimed the issue of external ownership was part of the problem, he later stated, “To DreamWorks’ credit, the tide started changing internally… [they were] open to exploring this relationship between Adam and Shiro,” implicating DreamWorks as the party blocking queer characters.

Dos Santos also contradicted himself on Let’s Voltron. He stated that as She-Ra, helmed by the queer Noelle Stevenson, was in development at DreamWorks, attitudes within the studio began to shift, opening the door for them to have a gay hero. However, She-Ra was several months from release when Dos Santos and Montgomery got the green light from DreamWorks to say that Shiro was gay. The statement that a series in production changed minds at DreamWorks, and, by changing minds at DreamWorks, opened the door to representation seems to further confirm that forces within DreamWorks, not external partners, were blocking the introduction of queer characters. The issues in introducing a queer character were caused by DreamWorks, not external parties.

Though it is difficult to pin down exact statements since their answers constantly change (mid-interview in some cases), we can say that Dos Santos and Montgomery, as well as some voice actors, attempted to shift part of the blame onto the IP holder. In reality, the issues have always been with DreamWorks’ studio management, or with the showrunners themselves.

Unfortunately, Dos Santos and Montgomery still do not appear to understand the extent of the injury they caused. In their interview with AfterBuzz, when asked directly about Shiro’s abrupt retirement, they simply responded, “We saw it as ‘dude had been through a lot’,” but didn’t acknowledge the criticism from so many queer fans. Nor, when discussing the epilogue, did they acknowledge that they didn’t speak to a single gay person about the epilogue. Nor did they pledge to do better by involving more diverse voices in their creative process in the future. They even claimed to the AfterBuzz interviewers “we did the right thing,” despite the overwhelming evidence they did not.

As media consumers, if we’re going to claim a show is actually groundbreaking, the staff should do more than simply tell us they care about diversity. Regardless of intent, the fact that Dos Santos and Montgomery failed to follow even the most basic steps to ensure that the first gay male wedding in western animation was actually positive for gay men, and the fact that they, and their studio, ignored clear warnings, demonstrates an utterly broken content review process at DreamWorks, and a system in which executive producers and show staff are permitted to skirt responsibility for their failures by shifting blame onto external parties.

DreamWorks and representatives for Dos Santos did not respond to our request for comment. We were unable to reach representatives for Montgomery. Additionally, in retaliation for this article, author Sean Z’s interview with DreamWorks’ Executive Producer Brenden Hay was delayed indefinitely.

Sean Z would like to thank GeekDad Editor-at-Large Ken Denmead and core contributor Jules Sherred for their support on this piece, as well as the sources who shared this information with us.

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This post was last modified on May 4, 2019 10:50 am

Sean Z: @https://twitter.com/Sean_Z_Writes Sean Z writes about fandom, media, and queerness for GeekDad. When he’s not researching fandom, he enjoys listening to video game music, playing boardgames, and writing code.

View Comments (73)

  • Hey I just wanted to say thank you for writing this article. I've been more upset about Voltron than I wanted to admit and it's been really hard to let go. One of the things that made it so hard was not knowing what really happened. Thank you for giving us some real answers. Maybe it doesn't really fix anything, but I still feel a whole lot better.

  • I wish this article had touched on the blatant racism, ableism, abuse apologist, hate for mental illness, and general hate mongering. Voltron didn't just screw up lgbt+, they screwed up everything.

  • Hey as much as I want good lgbt rep in animation as the next person, you blaming 2 people out of a whole team of animation professionals and studio heads is some huge fan entitlement.
    Love to see that you care more about a Fictional lgbt character than the lives of real people. You really want the team to redo all the work theyve done in overtime?

  • Seriously? So every show HAS to pander to the LGBTQXWYZ now? Who f*@$ing cares if Shiro was gay or not? Do they not realize that in the original Go Lion he died? What would have happened if they kept that in the script? Oh the horror... His sexuality has NOTHING to do with the overlying story.

    • No, but when they keep promising it in interviews for seasons and seasons on end, they should probably make more than a token effort.

  • So people are getting mad and acting like children by review bombing the show because it wasn't gay enough for them?? Pathetic. The show was absolutely amazing and had various themes about real world issues and concerns including war, racism, sexual acceptance, leadership, technology, feminism and more that I can't remember. None of that mattered because Shiro's gayness was not explored or exploited enough for the lgbtq community? What a sad community. Imagine how black people feel when they receive real life discrimination and they don't even cry about not having enough representation in shows and movies. So sad and pathetic.

  • Shiro is still hands down my favorite animated character of all time. His ending sucked sure. Im more disappointed that he didnt get to kill sendak. But in the end, (well before the end) he was still an epic gay hero. And then the clone of an epic gay hero who was still trying to be good. I loved Adam. But I love curtis too. Neither had much, but the fandom has stepped up and created the life dreamworks failed to provide. And they didnt have to provide it. I'm ace. I dont need a 2d drawing to represent me. We all put waaaaaaay too much importance on rep in a cartoon. *i say, as my bed is coated in shiro pillows and cosplay and fanzines and shirts/buttons/lanyards/prints*

  • DW was too cowardly, WEP was overprotective, LM and JDS were ignorant and made poor decisions (DW stopped even more tbh) that wound up harmful. She-Ra didn’t begin production until Voltron’s was nearly over, so it’s not like Noelleks influence at DW could have done much by then. It’s not really a Scandalous Scoop.

  • Still gnawing away at the bone aren't we?

    We get it, you're precious *Sheith* didn't happen and its painfully ironic how you didn't catch wind of Voltron falling "apart" until S8 when Shiro got married to the rando guy.

    you didn't even express any outrage with Adam "dying" and was more worried about this type of stuff
    https://geekdad.com/2018/10/toxic-fandom-when-criticism-and-entitlement-go-too-far/

    ...because the bigger picture here is Voltron failed not just your ship, but in general proper LGBTQ+ representation DTMI, to Black women/POC color, but I guess that's too much for you to unpack here.

    • No. Can people not turn this into a ship war. Keith is not even mentioned in the article. I see this all the damn time. Whenever there's news about Shiro, it was used either to uphold ones ship or to ruin other ships. When Shiro was revealed as gay, the media rejoiced but then there's a loud noise as well saying he will guide Lance to be bi so ship klance. And then there's Adam. The protest was valid but the way it blew up with people saying "They killed 'THE' gay rep!" as if Shiro is not gay, and a main character. The feelings were valid but please do NOT erase Shiro. Then people have valid complaints about season 8 as well and part of it was how Shiro was sidelined after he was revealed gay and people say it's only about ships.

      There are other problems about vld s8 and there are articles about those as well, but this article is about Shiro so let it be about Shiro. Season 8 Shiro was weak, kept on barking orders but was pathetic with his fight with the Alteans and Zethrid, did not even stop Allura from sacrifing herself, and was even making a peace sign near her statue. Then he got married to Roy, oh sorry, they probably thought that being sued by another company is not a good idea so they had Shiro marry a character so random, whose name they didn't even bother mention that even the audio guide said Shiro married Adam. Man, everything was whack. Some might not care if he is gay, but do not deny his character was butchered and propped up as a token gay in the last season.

      • Oh I will go there,and I can call out the hypocrisy about this faux outrage the author has because all the other points you mentioned wasn't an issue until the "end of VLD" for them and ppl that share the same mind set.
        Go ahead and check the archives to prove me wrong, or show me the diehard Shiro fans before his LGBT reveal that seemed non-existent when he was just the *straight laced boring hero space dad*

        I know about the drama that happened behind the scenes so we all know Shiro wasn't even made the rep until the "last minute".

        And yes, this drive for now caring about Shiro's character is driven by sunken ships since they can blatantly dismiss the hetero relationships mentioned briefly in this article as something good when it reeks of misogyny/nice guys finish last b.s. That's like me saying "well Shiro got tortured left andright, died 2x, but at least he got married in the end".

        You just said Adam's death was blown out of proportion, and clearly left out how before S8 ezor and zethrid would have been the 2nd bury your gay death to happen before they copy + pasted that mistake.

        I hardly see any articles really addressing that, the racism in vld against the POC in the show (black girl dies, latino hero becomes a farmer, polynesian guy is not as smart as the white female, and white boy becomes stronger than the original asian leader?!) or Shiro's disabilities without once again reminding the fandom of shiro and keith dwindling "friendship" or how he married some rando. But go off I guess, which proves my point with this author and the majority of the fandom that thinks like them:

        Adam died, Shiro's no longer the BP but is confirmed Gay? SWEET!!

        Season 8:

        WAIT, he doesn't end up with Keith but married to Curtis?!

        Oh wait..I mean..

        How did VLD fall apart, why did they sideline Shiro and treat him like crap?!

        He's been benched since S3 and the showrunners been telling us since then that they wanted to kill him(with the Twitter reveal confirming the story bible being thrown out by then and their hate bone for him)or S7 your pick.

        So lesson learned, it's time to let go. VLD is never coming back.

        Now let's all move on and embrace shows that have thoughtful and wonderful creators like The dragon Prince,She-ra, and possibly gen:lock.

        • This article seems genuine to me. I didn't see any other character names that is why I'm not sure why it reminded you of Keith. Although Shiro’s relationship with everyone and, yes, especially Keith being erased IS also a valid reason. If what you said was true that they didn't plan for Shiro to be gay at the beginning and he was allowed to be close to the male characters, but then when they decided that he was the gay one, suddenly he was not close to anyone not even his best friend Keith, then that says a lot about what they think of gays. That is a new info for me.

          As for the Shiro fans, I've been here long enough to know the fandom deemed Shiro as "scramble eggs for brains" at the beginning as if it was acceptable to define PTSD like that. But I don’t think we should have this mindset of “I got here first so new fans are not really fans.” Because while the decision to reveal him as gay had me confused and angry when the same people who insulted him suddenly acted like they were his biggest fans, I also did meet new people who delved deep into Shiro's character and genuinely loved Shiro and Kuron, and Shiro's fanbase grew. I have accepted that as I have latched onto Shiro because I'm Asian, then I cannot be bitter against people who have disabilities or gay who also see their self in him. He is a great character after all.

          I didn't mention the other problematic issues about vld because the article is about Shiro so I focused on him. Not that I want the other issues to be forgotten, but because I feel Shiro's treatment is the most ignored. Because while people complain about rushed Allurance, 5 second rando wedding is forced to be seen as a big step in LGBTQ when it is not. Not even GLAAD paid it any attention. The letters of Allura got a reply from Bob, albeit not a good reply but they were acknowledged nonetheless while Shiro fans get silence. The protest for Adam got a public apology letter and saved Ezor but complaints about the Roy leaks were met with silence and didn't save Shiro from that awful ending. There's even a blog already that's loud for Lotor and his group. Granted articles about Allura and her death is not faring any better with few people’s comments saying they’re glad that Lance can move on now that she’s dead.

          Anyway, after s8 aired, I've read a lot of articles and posts that tackle most, if not all, the wrong things with vld. Like how absurd it is that Keith is only a better leader than Shiro because he has galra blood, The only POC Allura is the only one to die, Allura sacrificing everything until all that's left to sacrifice is herself, Lance treating her as a prize then ending up as a farmer, Ezor edited in on s8, Shiro and Keith's relationship erased, Lotor is an abused child yet it's the abusers who get redemption, Allura never got over her hate towards the Galras, etc. There's a lot out there. There's a blog that used to archive the links but it’s gone now, although I'm sure the articles and posts still exists if you look for it.

          But yeah, move on now if you have to. I understand it's a mess. I'm not sure about Shera but the last western animation I watched before vld was Avatar and I was lucky to see Aaron Ehasz' lessons about story telling. The guy truly is a genius and TDP is amazing.

  • I'm a lefty and I'm upset there was no lefty representation in a kids cartoon. Seriously though sick of 5 percent of the population dictating what the rest of us should be entertained by, or worse our children. You mad? Go create your own show with your own heros.

    • Where did they say that no one could be entertained by it? I see discussion of poor representation, not that you personally cannot be entertained by it. That's a misread of the article that I hope was not intentional.

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