TV Shows, Pop Culture

Why I will not forgive ‘Voltron’ for this particular character death and you shouldn’t either

In DreamWorks’ hit animated reboot, one character illustrates how far LGBTQ+ representation has come. Another is proof of how far it still has to go.

During Voltron: Legendary Defender’s 2018 San Diego Comic-Con preview, DreamWorks revealed that Shiro, a series lead, is gay. This was disclosed through the introduction of his former partner, Adam, and it roused the show’s fandom, offering some the seemingly elusive LGBTQ+ representation fans had rather vocally desired.

Then in August, Netflix released the animated show’s seventh season and that favorable tide quickly turned when viewers learned Adam is killed off after less than 5 minutes on screen. In the months since then, Voltron’s fandom has remained somewhat torn as a number of fans have publicly debated whether they’ll return to watch the show’s eighth and final season this December.

Some argue that Shiro is enough to serve as the show’s canon LGBTQ+ representation while others are still unable to let go of Adam’s brief appearance. The entire ordeal has been frustrating for those that surround the show, particularly fans like me. While I recognize how vital Shiro is beyond his former partner, I also realize the gap between unconfirmed expectations of Adam’s potential and his on-screen reality.

A fan favorite in DreamWorks’ popular animated reboot, Shiro has been personally significant because of who he is, inside and out. Despite experiencing personal losses, professional challenges, torture, and near death, Takashi “Shiro” Shirogane is a survivor. Moreover, in the face of all the trauma he’s endured, Shiro has remained kind, compassionate and resolute — a reminder of all people’s capacity for goodness and resilience.

And while Shiro doesn’t look like me, I’ve found common ground within aspects of our identities. Existing at many of the same intersections, including disabled, queer, and mixed-race, I took pride in a character who represents so many parts of me I rarely see on screen.

Even more personally, Voltron: Legendary Defender came into my life following the death of my mother. Two years ago, I lost my only parent, as well as my childhood house and many of the things (material and immaterial) that connected me to who I was. Voltron has developed several plotlines around the loss of family, identity, and definitions of home. Shiro’s storylines, like that of Allura, Keith, and Pidge, provided an intimate space not only to see emotional trauma normalized but to privately and safely work through my grief.

Altogether, this is why I’ve struggled with the ways Shiro’s treatment conflicts with Adam’s. A historic and deeply meaningful representation, Shiro is one of TV’s first canonical gay, disabled male leads of color in animation and a character that has offered me an emotional cocoon. And yet, I cling to his former partner Adam, increasingly trying to fill the empty corners of the character’s life.

I’d felt internally conflicted like this until around October, which is when two things happened. First, it was then that I saw and became attached to how prominently “Shiro’s boyfriend” was taking on a second life in fandom through fanart and fanfic. Second, a handful of LGBTQ history month pieces I read helped weave together for me the thematic threads of queer narratives like Adam’s. Both of these things explained why he was resonating with me so much: Adam’s presence (or lack thereof) exposes several uncomfortable but significant realities.

In both fiction and the real world, LGBTQ+ people have a history of disappearing with little to no explanation or resolution; of having their lives and achievements forgotten and erased. Adam’s treatment represents how LGBTQ+ people are often positioned like a B-plot to someone else’s story, in life and death.

Furthermore, Adam has inadvertently come to embody how certain lives can be seen as more valuable than others. This is particularly evident in arguments that declare Shiro the “real representation” in the face of criticism over Adam’s treatment. Said by those both within and outside of the LGBTQ+ community, it’s a framing that pushes the unacceptable notions that certain people — like those who are trans, disabled, or darker-skinned — are disposable.

Attempting to define the “characters that count” can feel detrimental. Particularly when GLAAD reports that not only do 6.4 percent of scripted broadcast’s 2017-18 characters identify as queer, but 77 percent of them are white. Meanwhile, in the real world,  2017 FBI data has revealed that amid increases in LGBTQ hate crimes, people who exist at intersections of marginalized identities, like queer or trans people of color, are facing a disproportionate amount of the attacks.

Voltron is hardly the first show to kill a gay character — lead, supporting, guest or otherwise, and the somewhat tokenistic approach of representation that’s resulted has existed for decades. Unfortunately, LGBTQ+ inclusion is too often a deadly game of Highlander, even as straight people regularly live in multitudes on screen. In short, these problems are not exclusive to the animated series or its fandom.

But Voltron’s “Adam issue” does underscore why multiple living characters identifying as LGBTQ+ should be an intrinsic and vital part of the fight for and celebration of increased diversity. Moreover, the existence of these characters shouldn’t consistently be dependent on each other, and more importantly should reflect a range of the human experience, within each character.

So yes, Shiro is one example of an essential and, by GLAAD’s standards, mostly positive representation of disabled, gay people of color. But Adam is also representation, and a powerful reminder of some Voltron fans’ refusal to leave parts of their community behind.