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