For those who grew up on the classic ’80s cartoon Voltron, Netflix’s remake, Voltron: Legendary Defender, will seem quite different. Yes, five mechanical lions still combine to form a giant robot that kicks ass in space, but the show has been modernized in ways large and small. Not only is the storytelling more serialized, with the five paladins of Voltron fighting to stop the domination of the evil Galra Empire, but in the seventh-season premiere, Legendary Defender reveals that the group’s leader, Takashi “Shiro” Shirogane, is gay.
In the episode, which premiered on Netflix last Friday, the audience learns that Shiro was killed during a fight and that his spirit was transferred to the consciousness of the Black Lion that he pilots. (Come on, it’s a space cartoon. How much reality do you expect?) While his body is healing, we see a series of flashbacks about the relationship between Shiro and Keith, a paladin that he took under his wing. During these flashbacks, we learn that Shiro was in a romantic relationship with a man named Adam and chose to pilot a mission into deep space — which is what eventually lead to his and the other pilots’ discovery of Voltron — against Adam’s wishes. Thankfully, Shiro wakes up and serves as the group’s leader once again, now with a shock of grey hair much like fellow gay icon Anderson Cooper.
Because Shiro was a teacher at the pilot academy where the paladins train, the audience can assume that the other characters knew that he was gay all along and no one really cared that much about it. It surely is a brave new future that Voltron: Legendary Defender has mapped out for us. Vulture spoke with the show’s executive producers, Joaquim Dos Santos and Lauren Montgomery, about their decision to reveal Shiro’s sexuality (and the fact that he was gay all along), plus what it means for the rampant Shiro and Keith shipping that goes on in the Voltron fan community.
When did you decide that Shiro was gay?
Lauren Montgomery: It popped up pretty early on. It was something we threw out there and liked, but we didn’t put it in the show bible. We didn’t want someone’s orientation in that stuff since it wasn’t the focus of the first season. At the time, I was not familiar with the Bury Your Gays trope, and we know we wanted to have him exit the show. When I came across it I immediately thought, “We want to kill him, so that’s not what we’re going to do.” I thought we’d find representation in the show with another character.
At some point, we came to this obstacle where Shiro is not going to die, because he was the one all the execs got behind. Then, bam, back to plan one. We wrote an episode at the beginning of season two that had a lot of Shiro and Keith flashbacks, but there was concern about having too many flashbacks, so that portion of the episode got put on hold. We worked it back into the story here, so this is the ultimate reveal to the audience.
Jaoquim Dos Santos: The future we set up is one where acceptance and inclusion is part of everyday life. The reality on Earth is that there is no more discrimination of any kind and all of the issues that we face now, those are things Earth dealt with but has gotten past. For us, it’s important to be as inclusive as possible and for everyone to see some version of themselves in the characters. We’ve had an outpouring of people who said, “If I had this when I was younger, I could have been able to come out or come to grips with what I was feeling.” In a perfect world, this wouldn’t be history-making at all.
LM: We’re just trying to make the first steps. We’re obviously not the first ones to do this, but hopefully part of the beginning onslaught that will make this a much more normal thing.
Why did you decide to reveal it in this nonchalant way?
JD: I would say it’s more of a reveal to the audience, it’s not him revealing it to the team members. They’re all aware of his past and his personal life. It’s not an issue. Beyond the social ramifications, it proves he’s a complicated character and had to make difficult decisions — and that goes back to before he was a paladin of Voltron.
LM: Ultimately, for him, it’s not a big deal. We did that a little bit with Pidge [the pilot of Voltron’s Green Lion] too, where she told everyone she was a girl. It was more of a big deal to her, and the rest of the crew doesn’t really care and it doesn’t change anything. I think it’s doing the opposite of how things used to be. It used to be a big dramatic deal and we feel like this should just be pretty regular. It’s not our show making this big reveal.
JD: We were fortunate enough to be in the room at Comic Con when we screened the episode and the reaction was beautifully dramatic. It was the best possible emotions. We didn’t want it to be a story point that it’s a secret. He’s been out.
Did Netflix or DreamWorks Animation question the decision at all?
JD: With any major character decision we make, it gets run up and down the pipeline. We were comfortable enough with presenting this to the execs. There was some question about what will it mean, what will it do. They all know this is the right decision, so it wasn’t like, “We can’t do this, it’s morally objectionable.” With any character decision, the worry was, do we want to have an episode or an arc that doesn’t focus on our paladins or Voltron and focuses on their personal lives and not shooting things?
LM: Whenever we focus on characters’ background, it was always, “Why isn’t Voltron blowing things up?” When we go to this place where everyone was comfortable with what the show is and the fans watching it, it became less of an issue. When DreamWorks as a whole realized the audience for the show is way broader than kids 6 to 11 buying action figures, they were way more comfortable with us focusing on story.
Now that Shiro is out, will this change the character at all?
JD: He’s Shiro the hero and he always will be.
Will it change the undertones of his close relationship with Keith?
LM: Fans are going to see it any way they want. Some people are going to say their relationship is just brotherly and others will say it’s 100 percent confirmed that they’re in a relationship. There’s no getting around it for us.
JD: The fine line we walk means heartbreak for someone following one ship or justification for those following another. It’s hard to lean into one thing or another. The interpersonal, romantic relationships have never been the backbone of the show.
Pidge has been a gender nonconforming character since the very beginning. Was that also a conscious choice?
LM: Yes and no. It was definitely a choice for her to not just be the standard token female that I so often had to watch when I was a young girl and never felt like I fit into that role. I wanted to be able to represent other types of women in the beginning, but she ended up being representation for more than just women and that has been an incredible thing. She doesn’t really act like any sort of stereotype. She’s just Pidge and she does what makes her happy, and that’s something we want to get across. Be yourself, be you, don’t be what you think the world wants you to be.
JD: Because of our production schedule, we’re so far out in the decision-making process by the time fans see the episodes, it’s almost impossible for us to change a character’s arc based on what the audience is perceiving. With Pidge and any character that gets embraced by a community or they shine a light on some aspect of representation, we’re all for it. We’re not trying to pidge-on hole her into any place. [Laughs.]
Would you consider Voltron a queer show?
JD: We consider it a show that anyone and anyone can have fun watching. We don’t put it in any category, we put it in the category of fun for anyone.
LM: It could have easily just been show for boys to buy toys. It’s been for women and girls and families watching it together and the LGBTQ community. It’s been an honor for us to make a show that appeals to so many people.
Shiro pilots the most powerful lion. Is that because he’s gay? Do gays have special powers in the Voltron universe? Please say yes.
JD: We’re going to say yes to you. Just to make you happy.