Please be warned the following has spoilers for Voltron Legendary Defenders Season 7.
I feel like we have this conversation over and over again as a culture, and that I’m starting to repeat myself.
So often, we have companies use the appearance of a gay character or a gay couple to drive up hype and then either have it not play an important part or not mention it at all in the story. This is commonly called “queerbaiting” which definitely feels like an accurate name, as these shows, books, and movies want the money queer communities are willing to pay for the bare-minimum representation but they don’t want the hate from conservative groups by actually having queer characters and relationships.
There are a lot of notable examples of this, like Dumbledore from the Harry Potter/Fantastic Beasts franchise or Le Fou in Disney’s remake of Beauty and the Beast. Often, filmmakers are criticized for telling us the story rather than showing us, but that’s essentially what happens with these characters – we are told that it is enough for us to know they are gay, but we’re not going to actually see them express their sexuality.
Voltron now, unfortunately, falls into that category.
If you’re unfamiliar with Netflix’s cult hit Voltron: Legendary Defenders, it is a reimagining of the original Voltron series wherein Shiro, Keith, Lance, Hunk and Pidge are chosen to be Paladins of Voltron, and pilot lion mechas that were made to defend the universe from the evil Galra Empire. The show has a massive (and admittedly, overly enthusiastic) fandom and is, in my opinion, a genuinely well constructed and thoughtful show.
Now, before we move forward, let me be crystal clear on this. This is criticism aimed directly at Dreamworks, not at show creators Joaquim dos Santos and Lauren Montgomery who fought for Shiro to be gay in the first place. It was the studio make changes to their creative vision and the studio that made the decision to market the show in a specific way. There are even reports that Shiro’s reveal very nearly didn’t happen at all, despite both the creators and the voice actors advocating for it.
As part of the promotion for the show’s seventh season, Dreamworks revealed that we would get to meet Shiro’s boyfriend Adam, and everyone lost their shit. Not only was Shiro, one of the show’s most popular characters, canonically gay but we were going to see him and his partner for the first time. Sure, it was a little weird to suddenly bring the fact that Shiro was gay now but, besides Lance and Allura, none of the Paladins had ever expressed their sexuality on the show, so it felt forgivable.
And it wasn’t just a mention, but they specifically put it in the trailer and in the banner ads for the show on Netflix. It seemed that Shiro’s relationship with Adam was going to play an important part in his character development that season. Fans were excited to see what this relationship would be like, how it would inform the Shiro we’ve come to know and love.
What we got instead was one scene in which Shiro and Adam have a fight about Shiro taking the dangerous mission that would ultimately lead him to being kidnapped by the Galra. In the scene, they barely look at each other, and by the end, Adam threatens to leave Shiro if he goes. This scene would be fine if it lived in the context of an explored relationship, but we don’t get to see any of that. We don’t even get a montage of the two of them. The first moment we meet Adam is the moment where he is leaving Shiro, a moment that lacks emotional stakes because we have no idea what kind of relationship these two characters really had.
The next time we see Adam is him taking to the skies to try and fight the Galra as they invade Earth, and loses his life. Yup, really, that’s it. We see Shiro mourn losing Adam, and we can tell that it really affects him, but we never even hear the word “love” either between them or in the context of their relationship. While Adam could have never played a pivotal role in the plot, you at least think Dreamworks would give us some way to key into the dynamic between the two.
Now, I’m not here to argue that Dreamworks should make more gay relationships happen, or that they have an obligation to their fanbase. I’m not even saying that Shiro and Adam are owed a happy ending because they are gay. It’s just frustrating to have the marketing team and the studio executives (and again, that’s who’s responsible for this, not the show’s creators) essentially tell, not show us this relationship and still want to get credit for having representation. And more so than that, it’s just bad storytelling.
Perhaps the saddest part of all is that Season 7 is an excellent season, perhaps the best this show has ever had. We get the conclusion to a lot of arcs, there is some truly fantastic animation, and both the writing and the characters show a level of depth that many shows never get to. None of the criticism I have lobbed at this one aspect of the story changes or invalidates any of that. It just sucks in a season, and a show, so dedicated to creating nuanced and deep characters that one aspect of a character that was excited to see explored ends up feeling like lip service.
It’s great that Shiro is now canonically gay, and it’s great that we still have at least one more season to explore his character more. Shiro, like all the other characters on the show, is more than just who he loves, but who he loves is still a part of him, one you can’t put back in the box now that they’ve chosen to tell us. My fear is Shiro’s identity will remain in this “tell, not show” space and will be desexualized the way many gay characters have been before him.
Stories with gay characters do not, and should not, solely revolve around their romantic lives, but it is an important aspect of who they are, as it is for straight characters. This idea that it’s enough just to tell us a character is gay is, in essence, bullshit on multiple levels, and we, the audience, deserve better.
Be sure to check out Todd’s review of the whole season.