I recently finished watching season seven of the new Voltron series on Netflix. Overall, I liked it; it’s a far cry from the heavily merchandised cartoon in the 1980’s. The cast is interesting, the plot is engaging, and the writing is pretty tight. Overall, I think the show is an excellent example of what media is capable of as we switch from the older televised format to the new streaming (perhaps ‘binge worthy’ should be the expression) format. I did have one specific glaring problem though, and I’d like to address it. This is a spoiler warning for those of you who haven’t watched the series and actually care about spoilers. Stop reading now.
Okay, now that we’re clear I’ll go ahead and air my grievances. My major problem is that they made Shiro gay, gave him a boyfriend (husband?) and everything. Then, before we get to actually meet the poor guy, the creative team over at Dreamworks kills him off. That’s right, Shiro’s husband, Adam, died sometime before season seven, off screen. After six seasons of never being mentioned, a character, that is supposedly the most important person in a main character’s life, is introduced and then killed off before the audience even gets to see them. The most we get is maybe three minutes of flashbacks (which make Shiro sad). What exactly is the point of doing that? Did you just make Shiro gay for the explicit purpose of making him sad for one third of an episode? Is that supposed to somehow give him as much character development as Pidge’s three season long search for her family? Or Hunk’s willingness to possibly leave Earth defenseless so he could try to save his family? Were we supposed to believe that Shiro’s steadfast determination to stop the Earth from being destroyed was that much more poignant than any other character? We didn’t even get to see the actual relationship, we just get some ham-fisted dialogue about how much they love each other, but apparently not enough to actually resolve any issues between them (Adam didn’t want Shiro to fly on the mission he disappears on. Shiro disagrees. Adam is sad). At best, this is bad writing.
Actually, it’s much more annoying than bad writing. Shiro’s whole relationship is a prime example of the trope Bury Your Gays. Specifically it’s a prime bad example of how to use that particular trope. Let me be clear: I’m all for drama and angst. A narrative needs conflict to actually function as a narrative, and character arcs/growth only occur when a character endures and overcomes various hardships. The controversy occurs when the hardships and reactions are out of place in the narrative setting.
Here’s an example: For three seasons Pidge’s main motivation was to find her family. It brings conflict into the team, she has to follow partial clues and dead ends, she faces dangers without the benefit of her team, confronts hopelessness and triumphs in the end. Pidge’s payoff is that not only is she a better (and more interesting character because of it), but she finds her missing family, and they go on to become important side characters in the later seasons.
Shiro, on the other hand, fails to have his husband mentioned in six seasons. I can buy Shiro not mentioning it to other characters, but we don’t get one flash back? One pained look at a keepsake during the episodes where everyone is homesick? When Adam, his husband, is finally revealed, it turns out he’s already dead. Bam! Just like that, no build up, no hope, no searching. Just, “hey, your husband is dead,” with the same emotional tone a house-sitter would use to tell you your water heater is broken. What really galls me is Shiro’s reaction. He’s sad. That’s it, he finds out the most important person in universe to him is dead and he just mopes around for part of an episode. This is despite the fact that the show has canonically brought at least two characters back from the dead, including Shiro himself.
Before the Internet arguments start I want you all to know that I realize Shiro’s reaction is perfectly reasonable. And there are a whole slew of in universe reasons why things happened they way they did, and why shouldn’t bring someone back from the dead, and how wrong I am about my analysis of Shiro’s relationship, and what have you. They aren’t relevant to my problem with the series: From a writing stand point, the treatment and structure of Shiro’s relationship with his husband is not only dramatically different, but much worse. Through out the show the characters (both individually and as a team) deal with adversity and loss. In each case they’re faced with either a hard choice or a sudden epiphany. Either way, they learn from the experience, they grow, and they become more interesting characters. Until we reach Shiro’s husband, Adam. Not only was Shiro completely removed from the actual event of his husband’s death, but he didn’t fundamentally change because of it; there wasn’t any actual growth in his character. Instead, he was sad for a bit, and then resolved to….do exactly what he would have done anyway because aliens were trying to destroy Earth. Why would you introduce, and then immediately kill off, a character if their only point was to make another character sad, but fundamentally unchanged?
Personally, I think the answer is money. And ratings (which are related to money). I think the creative team for Voltron wanted to garner some brownie points with the LGBTQ+ community, but didn’t have the courage to show a healthy homosexual relationship (here’s a hint: write it EXACTLY like a healthy heterosexual relationship). So, instead they kill off half the pair (in this case retroactively) which lets them show the surviving half being ‘dramatic’ and ‘heroic,’ all without actually showing any of that ‘icky’ homosexuality (By the way, this a G rated show, so any romantic interaction is mostly done through really heavy handed, awkward flirting, and weird screen filters). Except not really right? This type of writing keeps popping up in media, there’s a whole list of examples on the page I linked earlier. It gets really tiresome to see these examples, and more, over and over, but never any counter examples.
In a way, it’s worse than just not putting in a gay character at all (or anyone from the LGBTQ+ community). At least that way they could claim just not having thought about it. There’s a degree to which you have to forgive ignorance; assuming they correct the issue after it’s been brought to their attention. But repeatedly burying your gays means you’ve recognized that population doesn’t have proper representation in mainstream media, and then decided to go with a negative representation anyway. It’s one step above making the non-cis, non-het character a villain (which is also a trope), and when there’s a glut of happy hetero-couples surrounding the sad gay, it’s pretty insulting.
The sad part is, I really like the new Voltron series. As I said, it’s otherwise a well written show, and it’s disappointing to see the writers fall back on this tired and insulting trope in what I have to assume is poor attempt to bolster their viewership numbers (which are fairly high from my understanding). If the writers want to redeem themselves Shiro better get a boyfriend (a living boyfriend) in season 8. Also, if they could keep Pidge single, that would be amazing; we need more examples of women that aren’t tied into a relationship.