Shiro’s Sexuality in Voltron: Legendary Defender
One of the most talked-about revelations of 2018 was Takashi “Shiro” Shirogane being gay. Initially, most were in support of this development. Very rarely are significant characters in western animation openly gay. Typically characters that have a sexuality that differs from what is considered acceptable will be put in the role of comic relief. Their alternative lifestyle would be made to appear eccentric. This almost always leads to some form of quirky interaction with them and their companions.
Because of that queer characters are almost always set up as different from the rest of the cast in their series. But, Shiro was unique in how he commanded respect from his allies and enemies alike. He was undeniably the leader of Voltron even after giving up piloting the black lion. His sexuality was not made the sole focus of his characterization. Nor did it act as a means to alienate him from the rest of the main cast.
Shiro the Hero
He filled many roles throughout the series, acting as a mentor for Keith and Lance. Being the confidant, Allura needed in the early part of the series. Shiro also showed far more compassion towards Pidge than the other paladins when it came down to her search for her family. And while he was usually serious, he could easily show a more humorous side with the other paladins.
This does not mean Shiro is without his own flaws. He suffered from PTSD due to being forced to fight in a Galra gladiatorial arena while they imprisoned him. Shiro also shows a reluctance to share his burdens with the rest of the team. There are only two notable times where Shiro confides in anyone. The first is when he and Keith are stranded. Thinking he might die, he tells Keith should that happen, “if I don’t make it out of here, I want you to lead Voltron.” Voltron Legendary Defender S2: E1. The other time is when he’s becoming aware of Honerva’s mind control, and he confides in Lance that something is wrong. That there are gaps in his memory, and he’s feeling “Like I’m not myself” Voltron Legendary Defender S5: E6.
A lot of care went into determining what kind of leader Shiro would be for the paladins of Voltron. So the mishandling of his sexuality is easily one of the series lowest points when looked at critically. Due to misuse of the marketing and fan expectations for season seven of Voltron Legendary Defender, it’s not surprising so many questioned if DreamWorks was just queerbaiting
What went wrong?
While the staff of the series claimed that they knew Shiro was going to be gay early on. The accusations of queerbaiting were fair when one sees how DreamWorks choose to market season, seven. The announcement trailer briefly shows a flashback to Shiro before leaving Earth, and you get a brief shot to a man from Shiro’s past. The implication being that Shiro has some relationship the series had yet to explore. This relationship was further explained at San Diego Comic-Con 2018. It is revealed that the man was named Adam, and he was Shiro’s partner. DreamWorks writers and voice actors sent out multiple tweets and Facebook post thanking fans for their support and discussing how the reveal at SDCC had fans crying in joy. They also had a promotional image of Shiro and Adam standing back to back for this season. This only further highlighted their relationship. Even if someone starts watching season seven unaware of Shiro’s sexuality, due to not following SDCC coverage. One cannot overlook this relationship due to how prominently it’s promoted in other sources. The only other plot point discussed more than this was how the Galra were readying to attack Earth. This relationship was set up to be significant.
Despite that, Adam gets next to no attention during season seven. That scene in the promo gets extended slightly in the actual season. It shows how Shiro’s pursuit of his career ultimately leads them to end their relationship. Adam is then killed during the first wave of the Galra attack, and fans correctly point out that this is a perfect example of the trope “bury your gays” After that, Shiro briefly mourns Adam at the end of season seven. Then Shiro’s romantic life sees no further development until the final episode of the series. In the end, we get to see Shiro marry a minor character named Curtis, and they briefly share a kiss.
The problem with this is that there is no actual exploration of these relationships. Viewers are made aware of this part of his character, but nothing is done with it. When you combine the heavy marketing of Shiro’s sexuality and the fans’ expectations, DreamWorks lays the groundwork perfectly for disappointing its fan base. This is only made worse because, for the past six seasons, they had a vocal queer community asking for some form of representation. With one fan going so far as to blackmail the studio if they did not make a popular gay headcanon real within the series. Despite how it was received, DreamWorks writers have always denied they attempted to exploit the LGBT community.
According to the interview that Joaquim Dos Santos and Lauren Montgomery gave at SDCC 2018, they admitted they knew Shiro was gay for a long time. They discussed how they had more planned for the paladins’ backstories. Yet, there was significant pushback from producers that wanted the series to stay more action-oriented to tie in with the toy lines.
So initially, there were pitches for Voltron being this giant toy-driven franchise and Merch! Merch! Merch!” and all the stuff that goes along with something that involves robotic lions that transform into a robot.
Both Santos and Montgomery talk about how the series went through several changes throughout its run. How they initially planned to keep Shiro dead after season two and were later told he was not allowed to be killed off. How they wanted to briefly split up the paladins to have them grow as individuals. Hearing what the staff wanted to do with the series, one can only imagine what might have been.
While it is easy to assume the worst about companies, there is probably some truth to what Joaquim Dos Santos and Lauren Montgomery said in their interview at SDCC 2018. Writing out queer characters and the issues their community face has always been a common practice. And while Voltron came out in an era where many shows had openly gay characters, most inclusions could be seen as token efforts.
Late to the Party
Most queer characters are relegated to secondary roles where they are out of sight and out of mind. Even shows like Adventure Time that is praised for its depiction of a lesbian relationship had to wait till the end to openly show it. While many fans suspected a romance was developing between Marceline and Princess, Bubblegum, it was not confirmed until the end of the series. And like Legend of Korra before it, Adventure Time’s queer characters do not get that relationship openly explored in the animated universe, but in the pages of the comic book spin-off.
Comics often cover the topics that animated series are blocked from addressing. This is most notable when comparing Detective Comics animated series to their comic book counterparts. LGBT characters in comics are nothing new. In Batman, the animated series Renee Montoya was canonically a lesbian. This fact was never revealed within the cartoon but was the case in the comics. While some comic-books depictions have been criticized for their offensive takes on LBGT issues, comics still have acted as a dumping ground for sensitive topics. This is mostly because comics are far cheaper to make and are only read by a niche audience. At least when compared to animated shows. This is why there is less fear of public backlash for the comic-book industry when compared to animation.
Animation often relies on the sales of merchandise and advertising sponsorships. Without them, it’s next to impossible to make a long-running animated series, as the budget is usually beyond what most studios could reliably afford. For that reason, animation often avoids addressing sensitive topics. The fear of alienating the audience is the primary justification for avoiding these issues. Because if no one’s watching the show, companies will not want their products associated with it.
This was reason enough for networks to censor or rewrite certain characters in the early 1990s. Static Shock is a perfect example of this. In the original comic book series Rick Stone (changed to Richie Foley in the animated series) is Virgil’s best friend. And for years, he kept his sexuality a secret for fear of being bullied. When he finally worked up the nerve to reveal his sexuality, he was ultimately rejected by most of his friends at first. It took Virgil time to accept his friends coming out. This plotline was removed entirely in the animated series.
LGBT Representation is only a Problem in the West, Right?
This trend of removing LGBT characters from animation is common. It even extends to the localization of foreign shows. The most well-known example occurs in Sailor Moon. In it, Sailors Uranus and Neptune are retroactively turned into cousins instead of lovers. That way, it could be marketed for western audiences without worrying about public backlash over the two characters’ sexuality. This deliberate destruction of a character’s identity for no other reason than to market the series as something it is not is part of the reason localization has a bad reputation.
Fans of eastern animation like to believe that it has none of the west’s problems when depicting LGBT characters, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. LGBT characters are still put in the stereotypical roles not too different from the ones seen in the west. While eastern countries are more comfortable displaying LGBT characters, the quality of the depiction may vary. Some characters end up being adored, while some are reviled, and others landing somewhere in between. The portrayal of LGBT characters in the east is more of a grab bag just because more exist in eastern animation. Not because they are inherently better.
A Flawed Representation
While the events surrounding how Shiro’s sexuality was handled is disappointing, Shiro being gay should still be taken as a win for the LGBT community. Shiro is a well-rounded character with depth to his personality. He does not exist to be a one-note individual. Nor is his sexuality used with the intent of marginalizing the community. Looking back on how early gay characters were written out of stories or had their sexuality ignored, having a visibly gay character is still a big deal. But the LGBT community should never settle for just being acknowledged either. Doing that could lead to their inclusion in media becoming nothing more than token gestures. Instead, they should continue to be critical of careless representation, as it is imperative when campaigning for change. All this must be done while simultaneously promoting the characters that best represent the culture. It’ll be a long fight but it’ll eventually give birth to more nuanced characters.
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