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)

  • Thank you for bringing light into this confusing situation. People are still very hurt by all this. I do hope DW, Lauren and Dos are going to read this. I hope they will understand and that corrections will be made. To say that we hope that in the future they will do better and learn from this is not enough to me. Voltron Legendary Defender is too important for a lot of people and this also creates a precedents that opens doors for other show to do the same. VLD used to be the example of what good you could do as a representation for LGBTQ fans and other minorities and took a nose dive as soon as Shiro was revealed to be gay in season 7 episode 1, worse of all through season 8 and especially the episode. I hope with all my life and heart that they will at least remove and delete the epilogue. That they will learn from their mistake and fix it. This is what needs to be done. People are still hurt and consequences are still happening as we speak because of this mess (depression, hurt and worse). Shiro was our first real representation in the animation industry and the best we could ever hope to have. If they were to marry him, they should have done so with a character that made sense. I do think that killing Adam was the right call as to me he was there to show us Shiro being gay and show that things not always work like we hoped to, that it is ok to move on and that war do kill people that we love sometimes. So he could have been married to a character we knew, one that he interacted with through the seasons, a character that had development and caring between them. A lot of hints were given through the show, but moreover by the staff AND lauren and Dos about what the outcome was going to be in terms of gay pairing in the show. It was heavily implied, but never confirmed because they didn't want to spoil anything before getting there they told us, which totally made sense. But in the end, it turned out to be a lot of baiting to give people hope and a very hurtful maneuver that almost felt like vengeance to tell us that our hope were misplaced and 'gross'. All smoke and mirrors that they could easily hide behind and tell us that no they never confirmed such a pairing would happen. That is true, but heavily implying something is still saying and promising it. If they were not to give what they were implying, then better to have done an open ending, leave the fans decide how it ends on their own. This would have been a more acceptable options and frankly that is what most of us were prepared for, because although we hoped they would have the courage to follow with their words and promises, we knew that maybe they wouldn't be allowed to (or something like that) and make something more subtle and suggested that people not happy with the outcome could easily ignore if they wanted to. The season in itself, the fact that Shiro is removed from the black lion after fighting so hard for it, that he's ostracized entirely from his friends and even from being on the screen gave a message that felt a lot like homophobia to the fans and to the kids watching the show. This is not something we will recover easily, if ever in some cases. This is reminiscent of a lot of our daily life as a gay person, which hurts even more after all those great promises and hope given. This felt like a trap to get us to stick around. VLD is an amazing show from season 1 to 6, but to me the show died when Shiro was revealed to be gay (an amazing revealed that made me so happy) but every characters, storyline and especially everything around this main character fell downhill from there.

  • a strange and sad ending for voltron and for shiro. I hope that the feedback is listened to and changes at dreamworks are made.

  • Sean, I wanted to thank you so much for this. I always knew what we got was what they had in mind and not something edited by third parties. If one analyses the entirity of seasons 7 and 8 you see some important things: Shiro had "fulfilled" his role as getting Keith to become Voltron's true leader. So after that, he's left behing, especially after he's revealed as a gay man. He becomes the "boring" character they always said he was, when they actually made him boring after he was done "being useful" to the story. I mean, in the Afterbuzz show they confessed to not have a bible for the series, which is clearly shown in how Shiro (who has relied on his Galra arm and self combat throughout the series due the lack of his bayard) suddenly would rely on a gun (of all things) in season 8 to fight others. His epilogue showed that same unawareness of the character they had created, they forget all what made him Shiro (his drive to success and to go beyond, his passion for the space, his love for the voltron team, even his ptsd) to fit a narrative they believed would be good enough to be seen as progressive story writers. No, they did a big disservice to all of us for thinking they can speak for us. And furthermore, as you have already pointed, they had numerous opportunities to change this and yet didn't. Their egos and their hate for Voltron (yes, HATE), made them blind to all criticism.

    And I think hate and resignation were involved in this because a certain part of the fandom tried to push their own narrative (kl shippers) and harassed them and the staff constantly. In afterbuzz they mentioned they wanted at one point to resign from directing Voltron and I think it has to do a lot with it. Considering the death of Adam, I think they opted to hear the loud voices instead of hearing the voices of people who know about the issue. It's like listening to Trump because he yells, instead of listening to academics who know far better than he does. That's what they did, they didn't care enough to research, to hear others' point of view and to try to understand how their story had evolved. They were too enclosed in their hurt egos to realize what the epilogue was going to do was far worse than the outcome of Season 7, which is also why they didn't hear us when the leaks situation happened, they hated Voltron and didn't care anymore.

    All of this explains as well why, to this day, they have failed to offer a TRUE apology for what they did. They keep shifting blames and (this still hurts me) say "maybe someone else in the future will fix up what we did". NO. It's YOUR responsibility to fix YOUR mistakes, not somebody else's. That shows immaturity on another level, to tell the audience "well, if you want this fixed do it yourselves". Guess what? We already do through transformative works, but what you did to the canon source is still unacceptable. And you need to repent for that, else, the trust with your audience WILL NEVER be rebuilt.

    The loss of Shiro is one that still hurts me, months after the end of the show. Shiro is my favorite character and I really felt identified with him. I'm a bisexual woman and to see Shiro being a great leader and the best version of himself, without a care of his sexual orientation, was completely refreshing and amazing to me. I loved that he could success, joke, have friends and be accepted and trusted by everyone no matter what he liked in bed. The normalization of his queerness was something tremendously beautiful to me because that's what we need in our world, to normalize queerness, not to exacerbate it. And then S7, S8 and the wedding came and destroyed all of that. Because now it didn't matter that Shiro was his own person, now his value was completely rooted on his sexual orientation and how he could be exploited for that. It hurt so much to see that it doesn't matter who you are as a person, if you're queer, that's the crucial thing and your value comes from how your queerness can benefit us or not. I felt so used and so betrayed, especially as you mentioned before, because they kept telling all of us, their audience, that they wouldn't rush any kind of romance on the last minute. They lied to us, they threw away our faith and support. It's plain arrogance as you say, they only cared for themselves and the story they wanted to tell, not the story that was being told. After Voltron, I don't think I'll ever be able to watch western media again. I'd rather stick to eastern media like anime in which I can't interact with the authors because of a language barrier. At least I will never feel this betrayed again, I guess.

    I think the disregard to Shiro as an interesting character can also be shown by the way they insisted on wanting to explore the possibility of him and Adam reuniting. That wasn't in the original plans and for all we've seen of Shiro through the story, we get a feeling of understanding that he has possibly gotten over him. The reasons they broke up were very legitimate, and to undo all the character he (and Adam as well) have gone through since their separation is disrespectful. Shiro went to Kerberos as much as it saddened him to break up with Adam because that's what he was most passionate about and what he wanted to do before his death. After all that happens with team Voltron, I'm sure he would have never regretted doing it in first place. Maybe Adam could have changed and understand his point of view later on, but Shiro has already grown up and met so many differente people. Why must gay people only be fated to one person in their life? Why don't we get to also have decent relationships that sometimes end? Why must we come back to the same person? Is it because there are no other gays available? If not, then why don't you have more queer characters in your story? All of this angered me so much. It apparently was either Adam or Extra #2, never Shiro staying alone and working on himself and/or somebody else. It always comes back to his sexuality instead of him as an independent person.

    JDS saying: “We saw it as ‘dude had been through a lot’” is bs as well. Shiro had earned resilience from everything he's gone through and resilience allows people to keep with their lives after all the trauma they've had gone through. Shiro was through a lot after being a Galra slave and yet he still went ahead and became the leader of Voltron. Shiro went through death itself and still came back to become the Admiral of the Atlas. He's gone through a lot and yet he still persevered. So why did you take all of that away from him? That's not how life works at all. To also reinforce the idea of marriage as a happy ending is incredibly toxic, and I speak of this as the daughter of divorced parents. Marriage shouldn't be an ideal. Sure, marriage is nice and I love happy endings and to consume media that has happy marriages, but the way this was portrayed, as an ultimate goal in life and that there's nothing else after it unnerves me.

    Finally leaving Shiro alone, I would like to talk of another thing what won't ever stop angering me. That's when JDS said that all this bad reaction shifted the focus of the new mecha. As a fan of mechas, who has grown up on the Gundam franchise, I LOVE MECHAS. But the thing with mechas and fusions is that they are amazing when they have something new to bring to the table (an example of that that comes to my mind is when Gundam Nadleeh made its appearance in Gundam 00 first season); whereas the fusion of the Atlas and Voltron didn't do any of that. The only thing they used it for was to make Shiro "a part of the team again" when he never stopped being a part of the team in my eyes. That shows he wasn't in JDS and LM eyes anymore. And in the end, even with the fusion, they still lose to Honerva, so what was the point of this big mecha if even that isn't going to help the heroes win? And doesn't bring anything new at all, other than being bigger. A waste of resources to try to patch up their awful storytelling, honestly.

    Now, to end this too big review, I want to say that JDS has always said he wanted to accomplish what Captain America 2 did. And in a way he did, but not as that movie, but as the MCU in general with Endgame's release. He threw away all the hard work he put on a character to force him on the ending he particularly favored, instead of understanding the story had grown from its original conception. Writers must understand that the story changes from the moment they're created, and to not acknowledge that it's a disservice to the characters and the story's audience. To kill a story because of your own ego as a writer is what differentiates between people who make art and people who are on a paycheck.

    Thank you again, so, so much for this article. Even if I'll never know peace after what Voltron did to me and to all of us, at least I can rest assured knowing it was them all this time as I had suspected. Thank you.

    (Sorry if there are mistakes, english isn't my first language!)

    • A great reply ? I am mostly over it by now, but the hurtful way they handled Shiros character arc - and Allura, and Lance - totally crushed me. It was a horrible experience to be told there is these awesome relateable characters which are also minorities, then see them only get tortured and broken down piece by piece until there's nothing left. Everything about it was hurtful to the people who related to these characters in one way or another.

      Also I were annoyed at KL shippers like most while it aired, but as s8 approached and I saw interviews with Dos Santos and Montgomery dissmissing these people I gained some sort of protective-older-brother relationship. I were there at the very start of the fandom, and KL had a MAJOR impact on this show getting any recognition. The first pictures that got out there and popular was by a storyboarder for the show and they were indeed Keith and Lance. No matter what you shipped, if not yourself then the people who introduced you to this show were likely introduced by these art pieces. How crazy large this ship got gave them several magazines talking about them, and they milked it for all they were worth. I get not putting the ship in the show but dismissing the impact it had on the shows popularity is disrespectful to fandoms and the great power they hold as a whole.

      • kl shippers RUINED the fandom. they harassed and lied about other ships just to make themselves look better. don't lionize them. of course there were innocent kl shippers but as a whole, they were a humongous force and their impact on the rest of the fandom was NOT positive. they acted like the owned the fandom and the show by putting on a fake social justice front, and it made everyone else miserable.

        i'd say that harassing the crew and voice actors for years on end, putting people on blacklists so their friends could harass them and send anon hate, and lying about how anyone who didn't agree with them was a predator or abuser, isn't something you should be looking at with rose-tinted glasses. there were good kl shippers but the fandom as a whole was a humongous mess of delusional cyberbullying.

    • This in no way excuses what happened, but I understand that Shiro's story was supposed to be one similar to the original series. In the original Voltron (and Go-Lion before it), Shiro/Sven dies a few episodes into the series. The original plan, according to some interview from a few years ago, was to keep Shiro around for longer than that but then still have him die in order to hand off the reigns to Keith. However, due to the popularity of Shiro and the related toy sales, it was decided by Dreamworks to keep him around. From there, the plans with Shiro and Keith were pretty much thrown in the air - explaining why Shiro flounders around for a while as the leader and Keith up and leaves for a time.

      Again, no excuse for what happened. When they finally decided that Shiro would be revealed as a gay man, it's clear they didn't have much of a plan in place. It was seemingly done in a cynical fashion, just to say, "Hey, we've got a gay character." They clearly could have done better.

  • Very interesting read. Definitely gives a lot to think about. The entire situation is confusing.

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