Voltron's Complicated, Imperfect LGBQT Representation Is Tearing The Fandom Apart

The newly white-haired Shiro having a moment of contemplation. (Image: Netflix)

Even if you weren’t there in the San Diego Comic-Con hall where it was first announced that Voltron: Legendary Defender’s Shiro is a gay man whose relationship would be explored in the show’s seventh season, fans made sure the world knew.

For many, the announcement was a significant moment of validation for a sizable portion of Voltron’s fandom that’s been advocating for queer representation on the show. Rather than delving into a plot about two of Voltron’s Paladins falling in love with one another the way some hoped, the series introduces Adam, Shiro’s long-term partner who lives back on Earth.

In the days leading up to the season premiere, there was an understandable excitement within the fandom, given that Netflix and Dreamworks were rather tight-lipped about the upcoming character arcs. Finally, people had the chance to dive back into the show. But as everyone eventually finished the season, there were questions and confusion.

I recently spoke with Voltron’s co-showrunners Joaquim Dos Santos and Lauren Montgomery about how the show approaches Adam and Shiro’s relationship, and they explained how they really want the fans to understand the story they’re trying to tell.

Shiro telling Adam about his decision to leave Earth. (Image: Netflix)

Adam only appears in two of Voltron’s episodes. Even though both scenes are incredibly significant and crucial moments that define Shiro, they can also be seen as an unfortunate instance of a show introducing a queer character only to immediately kill them, a narrative phenomenon referred to as “Bury(ing) Your Gays”.

In the season’s first episode, “A Little Adventure”, there are flashbacks to Keith and Shiro’s pasts on Earth, where we meet Adam and learn more about the degenerative disease threatening Shiro’s life.

Though Shiro’s a first-rate pilot and the logical pick to join the upcoming Kerberos mission, his disease would progress much too far in the three years it would take for him to make it to his destination. Shiro, ever the soldier, is willing to make that sacrifice. That decision is something that devastates Adam when Shiro breaks the news to him.

Even though the pair are never explicitly referred to as being romantically involved, the fight they have over Shiro’s deployment definitely reads like a fight between two men who once loved each other, but have grown apart after countless similar fights. Adam gives Shiro the classic “if you go, don’t expect me to be here when you get back” ultimatum, and by this point, it’s clear what choice Shiro made.

Adam doesn’t appear again until episode eight, “The Last Stand Part 2”, where he and a number of other Garrison attempt to hold back the Galra invasion with a fleet of outclassed fighter jets. Though the pilots put up a good fight, they’re all quickly outmatched and killed, and that’s the last we see of Adam.

Adam listening to Shiro explain his choice to leave. (Image: Netflix)

Given how Adam simply wasn’t a part of the show long enough for audiences to get a sense of who he was as a character, and his relationship with Shiro was major component of the season’s announcement, some fans have responded to Adam’s death with accusations of queerbaiting just to boost interest in the show.

When we spoke about potential backlash from fans, Joaquim Dos Santos explained the reason we see so little of Adam in the season is that the story is meant to be about who Shiro is in the present:

From a character perspective, I think we really wanted to get across that Shiro is somebody who was dealing with complex, interpersonal relationships before he even became a paladin of Voltron.

We catch up with him at the tail end of a relationship where we see he’s chosen duty over his love life. It’s a difficult, mature decision for anyone to have to make, but it’s the sort of thing that we’ve always known Shiro would be able to do. If you look back at the beginning of the series, you see that Shiro was already bringing that energy to the team. He was the pillar of strength on the team and this new development adds a new depth to that.

During the Comic-Con announcement, the Voltron creative team made a point of describing Shiro and Adam having previously been lovers, leading some to assume that the show might focus on their coming back together. But ultimately, Lauren Montgomery said, the choice was made to leave their relationship in the past in order to keep moving Shiro forward:

Having them at that point in their relationship was easier for us from a storytelling standpoint because it let us free Shiro up from that particular kind of plot line.

We didn’t want his entire story to be about constantly worrying about getting back to his boyfriend on Earth, because at this point the Paladin’s missions are much bigger than that and when they all make it back.

Team Voltron’s return to Earth comes at a time when each of the Paladins has given up almost more than they can imagine in their quest to bring peace to the galaxy. Even though Shiro no longer pilots the Black Lion, his homecoming is uniquely painful because of the specific circumstances of his departure. Though the degenerative disease Shiro suffers from isn’t specified, it’s introduced with a gravity that conveys just how much of an impact it has on his life.

Watching two gay men have that kind of discussion about a chronic disease robbing them of the time they have left together, it’s easy to see it as a parallel to the kinds of conversations a couple dealing with HIV/AIDS might have, but Montgomery explained that’s purely coincidental:

We didn’t pin it down to any one specific Earth-born disease, but it’s something more along the lines of a Parkinson’s that eventually would affect his ability to fly and be an effective pilot. Ultimately, it’s what would have kept from achieving the goals in life he wanted and it puts a limit on the amount of time that he has.

Dos Santos added:

In that moment, he’s being put in a tough position by Adam, but it’s even more difficult because he knows he’s got this kind of ticking clock element to his disease that’s going to progress to such a point that he’s not going to be able to do much of anything eventually. It’s important remember that Hagar and the Galra, for good or for ill, have pretty much cured him of that disease in creating the clone body his mind exists in now.

It isn’t difficult to understand where everyone’s impassioned feelings about Voltron’s queer representation come from. In a very literal sense, the show unceremoniously buries one of its only two queer characters the very same season he’s introduced, and you wouldn’t even know that he was queer simply from watching the show by itself.

That being said, queer representation comes in many different forms, some of which are none too heartwarming. Voltron cast member Bex Taylor-Klaus took to their Twitter feed soon after fans began expressing anger about the show with a reminder that the season is, at its core, a story about war.

Relationships sometimes end in loss, and those queer stories are worth exploring as well. The problem, of course, is that queer representation on screen continues to be so woefully lacking that plots such as Voltron’s feel like a slap in the face.

It’s a matter of personal opinion whether you see Voltron’s seventh season as problematic. Regardless of which side of the issue you fall on, though, there’s something to be said for the fact that the conversation around the show now has moved into a new space.

Imperfect as it may be, Voltron’s made its first step in the right direction. Hopefully, the creative team behind the show has taken the fandom’s reaction to heart and plans to try and do this better next time around.


Comments

    Honestly? It seems like any time a gay relationship is represented in any non-spotlit way in a show, people have to find fault with it. Conspiracy theories come up, tropes get suggested and suddenly, unless the character has magical plot armour, there's a problem. Then, if they *do* have magical plot armour, there's a problem. This came across as 'just a relationship' to me, and tbh even if it was a plot device to announce he's gay, ok, cool he's gay. But in war, your enemy doesn't ask your sexuality before putting a bullet in you, they just go ahead and kill you. To me, it was yet another normal relationship in a galaxy besieged by war, showing another couple who are affected by a horrific situation. Whether or not we spent a lot of time with them isn't the issue to me, it's the fact that we know he's been subjected to the loss of a loved one. In that sense, Bex is right, this isn't queer baiting, it's just not the content people had imagined in their heads and were disappointed when others didn't read their minds.

      Add to this the increases in stupidity amongst the alt-left, with the 'outrage' against actors who are not trans, gay or, in Ruby Roses case, 'lesbian enough', to act as gay/trans/les characters, the whole thing just starts looking like 2 year old cry babies who are complaining about shit just so they can complain.

      As someone who identifies as queer I get how people get upset about certain tropes constantly repeated in film and tv. One of the main things that turned me off Star Trek Discovery was the "bury your gays trope" but I didn't feel the same here.
      I think there are a lot more factors involved and overall, although I recognise how people can see this as problematic, I think they did a very good job of handling it.
      Part of that is how much they fought to have even that much of the relationship in the show.

        Agreed. Discovery upon rewatch felt a little bit on the nose and tbh even a bit tokenistic. This just felt like it was presenting "parts of life". I can understand too how people could perceive this but with this one I do believe it takes a level of mental gymnastics to be upset.

      Reminds me of ME3's shuttle pilot, Steve Cortez.
      At the time, I know everyone was thrilled how he just mentioned that he'd lost his husband a while ago, without any special attention drawn to the fact that it was same-sex, or otherwise insinuate that any part of their relationship was not already normalized in society. (Heh. In fact, I remember certain right-wing nut jobs complaining about exactly the same thing - that same-sex marriage was being treated as 'normal'.)

      Of course, that also came with the fact that Steve's relationship with Shep was something that COULD take focus in the story to come.

      Seems like the issue in this TV show is that we're now aware, in advance, that if any romantic relationship is going to take the focus... it probably won't be a gay one. Again. Per usual.

      That's gotta be disappointing. Couple that with the fear that some exec somewhere might be ticking off a box somewhere as having met all their 'LGBTIQA-pandering quota' and that nothing AT ALL will be represented for a good while. Which, again: a fear I suspect comes from a place of experience.

    It's never good enough.

      Did we decide at some point to drastically lower our standards so that the "bury your gays" trope is good enough?

      Same trope, same criticism.

        But if the context is not to simply kill someone for the sake of it, or to ever introduce them as a lasting character anyhow, that's not the same thing. They literally say that in the latest article regarding this situation. The context was entirely different to what 'bury your gays' is about?

          The context is to explore loss and grief. This is accomplished by introducing a homosexual relationship, killing off one of the partners, and then using that to expand the character of the remaining partner.

          If your reading of people getting annoyed about the fridging of yet another homosexual character is they're missing context that proves a semantic point, even when the effect is the same, then maybe you've missed the point.

          And no, the newer article doesn't magically clarify a point. All the co-executive producer does is state that they were aware of the trope and decided to proceed with it anyway.

            That was a gross over simplification. You completely overlooked the status of the characters. At no point was Shiros partner ever meant to be permanent or even significant. He was always meant to be a cameo at best. This is literally stated in the newer article where they say they're aware of the trope but did hope people would essentially be smart enough to understand that it wasnt being used in a stereotypical way:

            We were aware of the "Bury Your Gays" trope but hoped against hope that our struggle to confirm Shiro’s orientation would take center stage here. We had not intended for Adam to be interpreted as a recurring character or someone that would come back into Shiro’s life. That is not me attempting to turn this around and place the burden of expectation on anyone. This is not an excuse. We crafted the entire series around the themes of sacrifice and loss and at the end of the day has to take responsibility for our creative decisions. We knew people would be affected by the loss of Adam. We just could not have predicted how profound the loss would be.

            When the theme of the show is sacrifice and loss, why should Shiro suddenly be given a happily ever after? Magical plot armour towards a minority is just as insulting as the trope you're seemingly offended by. Context is a valuable thing and in this case is absolutely necessary.

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