I’d been all in on Voltron: Legendary Defender since day one, being a fan of showrunners Joaquim Dos Santos & Lauren Montgomery’s previous work, specifically on series like Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra. Naturally, considering The Legend of Korra had ended with the two primary female characters venturing off into the spirit realm, hand in hand, gazing lovingly into one another’s eyes, many fans, including myself, had long expected Voltron to deliver in the LGBTQ representation department. What I did not see coming was that representation in the form of Voltron’s former leader.
A Long-Expected Pairing Turns Sour
I’ll never forget my also much-older-than-the-target-audience friend’s vice-like grip on my arm, as part way through the episode “A Little Adventure,” we realized we were watching a scene between Shiro and his boyfriend. Another friend’s teenage niece about leaped out of her chair in excitement as Montgomery confirmed that this beautiful, tan-skinned megane-kun (translation: glasses character), Adam, was indeed Shiro’s very serious partner.
Of course, fans were, understandably, upset when Adam returned in Season 7’s “The Last Stand, Part 2” only for the creators to kill him off just as quickly as he was introduced. Like many, I binged the rest of the season in disbelief, refusing to believe that had really happened. I was certain that, like Lance’s sister Veronica, Adam too would turn up in the underground resistance, leading a ragtag group of survivors just as he had led a fleet of Earth’s greatest pilots in the fight against the Galra. But he didn’t, and my heart broke along with Shiro’s when he returned home to find that Adam’s warning had come true: He wasn’t there when he got back, not because he had moved on, but because he had died defending the planet Shiro left behind.
More Than Canon Fodder
Yes, “bury your gays” — reducing queer characters to inevitable tragedy — is an unfortunate trope that exists in fiction. It’s easy to see why there was an outcry amongst fans claiming this when Adam, one of the only confirmed gay characters in the series, was immediately terminated. However, it’s important to look at the bigger picture here which is Adam’s death contextually made sense in Shiro’s story. He wasn’t “fridged” — killed off to create motivation for the hero, namely revenge — but rather died in the fight defending the Earth against the Galra, something Shiro has been doing since the very beginning of Voltron.
Shiro is a leader and a soldier, and, ultimately, Adam died fighting for everything his partner believed in. Just because his love interest died, doesn’t mean that Shiro stopped being gay. If anything, it’s more unusual to have a queer fictional character who isn’t actively involved in a love story, which is one of the things that makes Voltron’s approach to LGBTQ representation unique.
Let me preface this by saying, I am no stranger to gay men in my animation — a whole subgenre of shōjo anime (anime for girls) exists that focuses on male/male love stories. However, these stories are frequently heavily fantasized, occasionally problematic, and always just that: love stories. This is not the case with Voltron, because Voltron is not a love story. So instead of having gay characters solely to participate in a whirlwind romance, it remains true to what it is, a story about war, loss, and finding the strength to carry on in spite of it, while also featuring characters who happen to be gay. They don’t get plot armor — they’re treated like everyone else — and more than a few of the “good guys,” besides the much-lamented Adam, have lost their lives in this intergalactic war.
“I Want to Be a Paladin Again”
Which brings me back to Shiro, the last character I expected to turn out to be gay, simply because, well, he falls pretty solidly into the “noble hero” archetype. (I also didn’t actually expect him to be alive at this point, given the untimely death of his namesake in GoLion, but that’s beside the point.) When we meet Shiro, he’s the most experienced member of the team: he’s not a student, but a teacher, a soldier, an expert pilot, and the figurehead that holds Team Voltron together. Yes, the Galra put him through the wringer after capturing him, but he doesn’t let that change him.
Take, for example, Shiro’s actions in the much-beloved tabletop roleplaying episode “Monsters & Mana.” Every time he dies, he “wants to be a paladin again.” That’s who he is, fundamentally. He’s not just a Paladin of Voltron, but a paladin in the Dungeons & Dragons sense of the word: a warrior committed to righteousness, who stands steadfast in the battle against evil. No matter what hardships he encounters, he always comes back to that.
Shiro serves as a role model for all the other Paladins, who look to him for guidance, and inspiration — the fact that he can still be that and also gay is incredibly refreshing, and absolutely in line with everything that makes Voltron: Legendary Defender an exceptionally good series. I’ve seen numerous tweets of young men expressing how important the character Hunk is to them. He’s one of the only chubby characters they’ve seen who doesn’t simply exist to be the butt of a fat joke, but rather is kind, smart, and, in many ways, the most sensible of all the Paladins. For me, it’s Allura, a woman struggling to find her place as a leader, who is a good person, but not without her prejudices, which she learns to overcome as she is made aware of them. (Plus, I also would have totally fallen for Lotor.)
In Queer Company
Now, of course, we are fortunate enough to live in an era where queer characters are becoming something of a norm. Series like the aforementioned Legend of Korra and Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time both ended with scenes confirming romantic connections between two women. Steven Universe features numerous queer couples amongst the female-presenting gems. DreamWorks latest foray into the world of Netflix original animation, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, already features a lesbian couple.
Voltron is far from revolutionary, but it is significant in that, it presents a gay character, who is a major established character within the series, who was previously in a committed LGBTQ relationship, who faces no adversity regarding his sexuality. His sexuality is not an endgame, but simply part of a multi-faceted character.
Do I hope we might get more from Shiro’s relationship with Adam or perhaps another LGBTQ couple riding off into the metaphorical sunset when the series concludes in its 8th and final season on December 14? Of course, I do. But, at the end of the day, Voltron is a show that is, on the surface, aimed at roughly 8 to 12-year-old boys and meant to sell toys, with a very masculine, extremely good, responsible, and loving gay man at the center of it. And that is awesome.