Voltron: Legendary Defender and the Ethics of LGBT+ Representation

Shiro and Adam

With the controversy surrounding the seventh season of Voltron: Legendary Defender, I offer my thoughts on what the obligations are for creators who are planning LGBT+ representation and did Voltron meet those obligations?

Warning: Spoilers for Voltron: Legendary Defender Season 7

Netflix’s Voltron: Legendary Defender, the most recent incarnation of the classic 1980s Japanese series, has developed a sizeable fandom over the last 6 seasons of the show. Like many fandoms, a sizeable part of the fandom population consists of a LGBT+ individuals, and many of the most popular ships in the fandom have centered around three of the male leads of the show: Lance, Keith, and Shiro. As you can imagine, then, when the crew of the show announced at San Diego Comic Con that the upcoming season would reveal that Shiro, essentially the leader of the Voltron Crew, had been in a relationship with another man named Adam prior to the events to the show, the fandom was absolutely ecstatic.

What we actually got when the season premiered on August 10th, however, was…controversial, to say the least. The full extent of Adam’s presence in the series amounted to little more than the clip that had been presented at SDCC. More controversially, the reason for this lack of presence in the season was due to the killing off of Adam during a two-part flashback to the initial invasion of Earth by a faction of the disintegrating Galran Empire.

Probably the strongest reaction to these events was the accusation that the show had engaged in queer-baiting. While the exact definition of queer-baiting has been the subject of some debate, there has generally been two characteristics in common across most definitions that I have seen:

  1. A promise, whether through explicit statements or more implicit teasing, by those behind the production of the show that the show would contain LGBT+ content
  2. That this promise is used to attract viewers to the show, usually viewers who identify as some form of LGBT+  identity.
  3. And that the show, ultimately, fails to include this promised content, often by having the “content” be either through implications and subtext in a way that allows for plausible deniability that the content is actually LGBT+ representation.

So, was what happened in season 7 queer-bating? The question, of course, hits at the heart of what it means in the current era for a show to properly represent LGBT+ characters, as well as the ethics of a show using the promise of such representation in their marketing vs what the show ultimately gives. To answer the question, then, requires us to discuss what was promised, what we got, and how does that relate to the current state of LBGT+ representation in cartoons now and the ethics of such representation.

The Promise of Adam: Pre-Season 7 Hype

Back in July, at the San Diego Comic Con panel on Voltron, a trailer for season 7 of Voltron, to be aired August 10th, was shown, and information covering the season were discussed. While there was talk about the trip back home to Earth and other things, the biggest thing to come out of this was an announcement that the character Takashi Shirogane, aka Shiro, once had a boyfriend during his time at the Garrison on Earth. Adam, they said, would appear during the season, and they even showed a clip of a scene in which the two discuss the upcoming Kerobos Mission that would eventually lead to Shiro’s abduction and the chain of events that started the show proper. This scene, brief as it was, established that Shiro and Adam had some sort of connection and that the two essentially broke up as a result of Shiro’s wanting to go into space.

Fan response exploded: fan art, fanfics, articles proudly discussing the inclusion of LGBT+ representation in the show. Considering the show crew had already had a history of vocalizing support for such things, most famously this pic drawn by show artist Lauren Montgomery prior to the 2016 Presidential election that ended up being circulated again as a result of this announcement, fans were heavily anticipating and theorizing how this would be handled by the show with an impressive amount of trust.

voltronrespect

That the announcement caused such joy is, of course, a testament to the importance representation still has for many individuals in fandom. As I noted in my discussion on heteronormativity in MLP, representation is ultimately a question of who is and is not considered a party of the community and whose experiences are considered important. Like many fandoms where explicit representation had not been given, fans had taken a shine to filling in that hole through fan content, especially fan content dealing with the various combination of ships among the three most popular characters on the show: Lance, Shiro, and Keith. The promise that representation would no longer simply be a matter of fan content but actual, canon representation, then, offered the promise that the experiences of LGBT+ individuals were important to the world imagined in Voltron.

Of course, as some people might argue, even if fans were shipping characters, that doesn’t mean the show had to give them anything. In the absolute strictest of sense, of course, creators indeed do not “owe” readers anything and are free to write whatever story they want. The meaning of a story, however, is also not exclusively the domain of the original creator, but is actively constructed and reconstructed by the audience based on their own experiences and feelings. Media, then, isn’t simply a deity dictating “this is the story, be grateful”, but more an experience in which creator and fans are in a constant cycle of content creation and feedback. Ultimately, though, the original creators do often maintain as a result of both institutional and cultural status the privilege of being able to produce “canon” content, meaning that when it comes to the question of representation and validation, there is a bit of a power imbalance. When it comes to matters that are socially and politically sensitive like racial or LGBT+ representation, then, content creators should at least be sensitive to the importance of representation and the trust that fans have in them to produce content that is respectful and of good quality.

Adam’s treatment breaks that trust.

Bury Your Gays: The Death of Adam

The “Bury Your Gays” trope is the idea that LGBT+ characters are essentially not allowed to have happy endings and are instead often killed off in a way that ensures the relationship or the queerness of the character or their partner is minimized or even removed from the story.

Now, characters can die in a show, of course, depending on the story you want to tell, and Voltron, is a series about a giant robot fighting an empire. Such stories, of course, will often involve people dying.This was reflected in a comment by Bex Taylor-Klaus, the voice actor of the Green Paladin Pidge Gunderson aka Katie Holt, responding to the controversy.

voltronbexwar

With that said, however, shows can include more than just the central premise of the story, especially if those storylines deal with themes and concepts that advance the central narrative. Voltron had done this plenty of times, even with romance, such as the romance between Princess Allura and Prince-then-Emperor Lotor, whose romance had offered the potential for galactic piece by rekindling an ancient relationship between their races. At least that was the case till turned out Lotor had been keeping the last of the Alteans in a secret world and using them for experiments. Kind of a mood killer that.

So, then, what was the story that was trying to be told by Adam’s death, and what does it contribute to the larger story being told? The final speech of the season involves Shiro talking about the sacrifices made and the loss of loved ones during the invasion and the defense of Earth, which included shots of the memorial plaque of Adam. So, then, we can take it that one theme of this season is coming to terms with the loss and sacrifice inherent in war.

Here’s the problem though: Adam’s death didn’t add anything, and in a larger context may have even undermined the theme in a way that plays to the Bury Your Gays trope.

Let’s start with Adam’s death scene. The Galra were invading Earth, and a squad of fighters were sent out to fight part of the fleet attacking the garrison. At this point there was a plotline involving the military leader (effectively) of Earth’s space defenses being rather stubborn in underestimating the Galra threat. Adam and his squad’s death, then, was used to show how futile Earth’s own technology was and the size of the threat facing Earth.

Such a thing, however, only requires a bunch of faceless mooks like the rest of the squad was. So, why did they need Adam? Adam’s presence in this, and his death, in theory should be used to heighten the emotional impact of the moment: that’s the point of putting a name and a face to a character in this type of scene, after all. But we only get to see Adam for about a minute or so several episodes earlier, and it offers us little idea of the kind of person Adam was. That he was willing to go out and fight in theory also offers something, but it is, again, something that a faceless mook would also offer the scene.

That earlier scene, however, had also established he had some relationship with Shiro, so doesn’t that make his death more impactful? In theory, yes, having the loved one of a main character die can add impact to a scene, and it would advance the theme that war involves loss. The problem, however, is that to execute such a thing properly so as to have any emotional impact on the audience, the relationship needs to be developed to a point that we, the audience, not only understand who this character is but why they are important. In other words, we needed to know why Adam was important to Shiro beyond the out-of-series exposition of “he was their boyfriend” aka the classic line of “Show, don’t tell.”

Now, perhaps this is something that happens in the final season, but the problem with that is that Adam’s already dead. To build up the relationship after the scene in which that knowledge would have had the most emotional weight is simply bad writing. If they build up the relationship in order to bring Adam back in some kind of twist, however, it then makes that entire scene and Shiro’s mourning (as short as it was) meaningless, thereby also weakening the theme of loss and sacrifice expressed. In other words, by failing to have had Adam have more presence in the series in the way that, say, Pidge’s family being central to the plot or Lance and Hunk’s statements throughout the series about missing their home and family, the writers failed to give Adam’s death or relationship with Shiro any real emotional weight or meaning.

Furthermore, the fact that Adam’s death was essentially the only death among individuals close to our main cast also undermines the theme and contributes to the feeling of “Burying Your Gays.” Hunk’s parents are okay, Pidge’s family are all okay, Keith’s mother is okay. Even Lance’s sister Veronica, who had a scene of appearing to sacrifice herself so the supply train could get to the besieged Garrison base, was eventually brought back. The only character who lost anyone of importance to them this season was Shiro, and even that loss narratively had no impact because Adam was literally introduced and killed off in barely two minutes of screen time in a 13 episode season. When the theme of “loss” is so tied to the experiences of the one and only explicitly stated gay character, admonishment of “hey, that’s war” rings hollow,

Queer-Baiting and the Ethics of LGBT+ Representation

So, to return to the initial question, does Adam’s death count as queer-baiting then? At the start of the article I outlined three characteristics common to definitions of queer-baiting:

  1. A promise, whether through explicit statements or more implicit teasing, by those behind the production of the show that the show would contain LGBT+ content
  2. That this promise is used to attract viewers to the show, usually viewers who identify as some form of LGBT+  identity.
  3. And that the show, ultimately, fails to include this promised content, often by having the “content” be either through implications and subtext in a way that allows for plausible deniability that the content is actually LGBT+ representation.

The Voltron crew clearly promised LGBT comment by stating that Shiro had a boyfriend and that we would meet him in the upcoming season. That such an announcement was made at a major convention alongside other major announcements of the work clearly marks it as something considered noting for marketing value. It is only the fact that Adam does actually show up and his interaction with Shiro can be construed as noting their relationship that allows for the season to technically fail the third characteristic.

Here’s my problem, however: in this day and age, “technically” is not exactly a ringing endorsement for LGBT+ representation. Sure, the scene presents enough material to allow for a reading that the two are in a romantic relationship, but absolute confirmation that they were in a relationship requires out-of-series knowledge. In other words, it comes off more like JK Rowling’s “Dumbledore is Gay” pronouncement, though at least it came before the show ended.

Still, in terms of quality this was the absolute barest minimum amount of representation a series could offer, and it is especially disappointing when one contrasts it with other shows airing in a similar time period. In particular, earlier in the summer the Cartoon Network show Steven Universe – already having a long-standing history of including queer relationships – had an entire arc centering around the relationship between Ruby and Sapphire – normally present in the series fused together to form the character Garnet – that ended in a wedding and on-screen kiss.

SU Kiss

Now, Steven Universe isn’t perfect (I’m particularly understanding of concerns about the series not having LGBT+ characters amongst the human cast) but the reason for this comparison is to rebut the idea that fans simply must be “grateful” for what amounts to the bare minimum of representation, especially one that indulges in some of the more exploitative of tropes such as “Bury Your Gays”, because it is all that can be expected. As political scientist Jeremiah Garretson notes in his book The Path to Gay Rights: How Activism and Coming Out Changed Public Opinion, attitudes towards LGBT+ rights have seen some of the fastest changes in public support of any political issue, and part of that story includes the power of increasing representation of LGBT+ characters in media has had on generating positive attitudes. The success of Steven Universe, which practically revels in having a large, queer cast and is written by a non-binary woman, suggests then that the “keep it on the down low” style of representation of Adam and Shiro is no longer defensible as “the best we can expect”.

So, does Voltron meet the definition of queer-baiting? In the absolute technical terms, maybe not, but when the crew of the show centers an LGBT+ relationship in their marketing for the newest season and then fails to deliver on that promise by having the character have no real presence in the story, I do feel that it meets the heart of what queer-baiting is: the exploitation of the emotional investment of LGBT+ fans desire for representation for profit. And that is not ethical representation.

1 Comment

Filed under Meta, Series Analysis

One response to “Voltron: Legendary Defender and the Ethics of LGBT+ Representation

  1. Matt

    Honestly, I never bought into the Adam hype. Often times, characters who are just there to be a boyfriend or a girlfriend are never as interesting. So my feelings of this are… mixed to say the least.

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