Updated: Nov 30, 2019
I try my best not to let reviews or commentary cloud my judgment when I get into a show. As I’m sure many people can relate, it tends to change your perception, and that could ruin it entirely for you. For that exact reason, I chose to binge watch the last season of Voltron: Legendary Defender by myself (my friends wouldn’t get the series anyway).
Once the season was over and I, tried my best, to not to shed a tear or two over an animated television, show. I went looking for what other people thought, and that was how I stumbled across @sean_z_write’s piece: How the End of ‘Voltron Legendary Defender’ Exemplifies the Quarantining of Queerness in Animation. I’d ask that you head over to his article and read the full thing and then come back and let me add my two cents and don’t expect a rebuttal.
As I began reading, I disagreed. I felt Shiro’s ended was well done. I even played it back a couple of times and mentioned to a couple of friends via text that “animated shows had changed.” Then, as I continued to read, and thought through it. I felt all his points were valid and, thought about the fact that if the situation were reversed in some way, I would feel the same way. Then, I thought some more and realized, it did happen, and I was too conditioned to know it.
The character Ryan Kinkadewas introduced near the end of Season 7. After the pilots made it home and met up with the Galaxy Garrison, they were introduced to the Garrison pilots and Ryan was among them. My initial reaction upon seeing him was mixed. Great to see a black guy in the show, especially one that was animated well, but he felt like a last minute “diversity” add. I wasn’t expecting much at that point, which, even then, should have been a tip-off that we are being conditioned not to expect to see ourselves represented in visual media and we are starting to get use to it. The same was true after I saw, "Day Forty-Seven"
(Season 8, episode 7).
The excitement and pride of seeing a character I could identify with, step out from the shadows and be featured, along with the only other “Black” Altean that I can remember in the entirety of the series, clouded the fact that this was the first time he spoke more than a couple of lines, and it was bittersweet since I knew I wasn’t going to get more of him since Dreamworks and Netflix had already announced this was the final season At the time, I wasn’t upset or gave it much thought. Truth be told, I felt the overall series was well done and I was loving Season 8 and, actually got annoyed as the episode continued because I felt it detracted from the overall story. The episode did give us more about Alteans and played the foundation for Allura’s motivations later on, but it just felt like it could have been quicker.
I three suggestions I have for writers, producers and executives who are in the business of developing sci-fi, fantasy or animated television shows and two for those of us who enjoy them.
Spend time, in the beginning, developing diverse characters and make them integral to the team.
I do understand that Ryan is a smaller character and I don’t believe this issue takes away from what is was great remake. Nor, am I suggesting we shoehorn diversity and representation in a story for the sake of diversity. I am suggesting that more time be spent considering LGBTQ, Black, Asian and Latino characters as vital and integral members of a team from the beginning. In doing so, we can grow with the characters, so when we do get something groundbreaking like a same-sex marriage (and kiss) on an animated television show, we are invested in that character and unable to hold back tears when the last scene of the last episode of our favorite show is a still image of that moment in time.
Over the years, Blacks in animation have fared slightly better than other groups. The ’90s had Static Shock, and the 00’s had John Stewart in Justice League, but still underrepresented. In 2011, World Event Production along with Nicktoons, recreated Voltron before this iteration and they included Vince, a black character that the Voltron Wikidescribes as a “bright cadet and was recruited to join the Voltron Force,” In fact, if you look at Vince and Ryan’s bio’s side by side, they seem similar. It appears more thought may have gone into Vince’s backstory and development than Ryan’s.
Underrepresented groups want to not only see themselves and their lives represented, but they also want to feel that they are more than one dimensional. Ryan may have had a potential to go beyond Vince and do something different. A well-developed character that goes beyond the “bright” or “most promising” cadet and actually gives us something more profound. Add that to the show’s great animation, and it really could have done wonders for that character.
Grow your audience by targeting groups who can help promote your content.
By making sure your characters are integral to the team/story (and well developed), you may even be able to grow your audience from the gate. Voltron had an audience built in due to those of us old school fans who fondly remember the classic and their hands may have been tied somewhat by wanting to invoke nostalgia with the original, but what about the brand new shows or the ones in development that aren’t linked to an existing property? If you are writing or green-lighting a new project and play it safe, what will it get you? Go out on a limb and create diverse characters and put them in your fantasy and sci-fi animation, then market to the Blerds (black nerds). Give the LGBTQ and the Cosplayers of color a character with some development and you may be able to can into fandom energy that is inherent in that community.
Don’t know? Ask somebody.
You want to creating diverse characters, but feel it isn’t in your wheelhouse, ask (or hire) someone. There are plenty of great writers clamoring for a chance to show off their talents. Give them that break. It could be a win-win situation all the way around. They get a chance to introduce themselves to the world, and you get an opportunity to showcase a well-rounded character that reflects the consumers who are starving for the content they enjoy and usually end up settling than genuinely enjoying what they are watching.
Now, for those of us who enjoy these types of shows I want to encourage you to:
Advocate for one another!
As I mentioned earlier, when I saw the headline of Sean Z’sarticle, I was ready to disagree with the premise, without even reading it, but seeing (and understanding) the points made in the article, it led me to the realization that, those of us who are underrepresented all face the same types of struggle. No group is anywhere near where they should be regarding representation, and we need to be mindful of that fact and one there is one, support it, share it and spread the world.
I believe, if asked, most people will acknowledge that they intersect more than one underrepresented group than you would find when I was a boy. There may be six degrees of separation between you, and a friend of a friend who shares your demographic and has been looking for content to escape into and leave the cares of the real world beyond (A trait that I believe bonds most fans of those genres together). By sharing a story you came across that has a character who is different, you may be steering someone to a character they may identify with or introducing them to their new favorite author or show.
All of us who struggle to find ourselves in various forms of entertainment are stuck in a lake with very little water. Instead of trying to go off and find water to add to our particular section of the like, imagine if we all help each other and begin filling the like in regardless of our primary demographic. Not only will our boat start to lift and sail away, but so will others.
Learn when to let go.
Every fight may be worth it, but you may not need to fight every time. There are times when you are exhausted from fighting, and you just want to sit back and check out for a while and get wrapped up in some good television. Do it! Don’t feel bad for enjoying a show because the writing or storyline is good. Learn when to say this is a good show (or movie). It is okay to enjoy it and still feel that the show could have been better if they added this character but try not to let the lack of diversity prevent you from enjoying something that is, in fact, enjoyable. Especially, as in the case of Voltron, they did try but could have worked a bit harder and really been able to knock it out of the park.
As a creator, I understand that you can’t be all things to all people and trying to do so will take the passion out of your work very quickly. I argue, if a show or movie hasn’t done anything egregiously offensive, and the story is decent, decide if it is worth your time and energy. It is okay to call it them on it (a lot of times it is the only way they will learn). There are times when we are just too tired to lead the fight on that particular issue, but if we see or know a commander or general doing so and you feel strongly. Lend them your support. In short: Know Thy Self. It is okay to roll your eyes and walk away. We don't have to suit up and fight everything. When we begin to tune out and go for content that understands us, they'll get the message. Find something else that is more to your liking so you can recharge your own energy reserves.
That said, I want to state clearly that I believe the author of How the End of ‘Voltron Legendary Defender’ Exemplifies the Quarantining of Queerness in Animation, has a valid point and he has every right to be heartbroken and betrayed. I remember the lead up to Shiro’s “coming out” episode and watching it thinking, that’s it? Imagine if you were gay and told that a character you already enjoyed and admired was also gay, then told that a story arch exploring that aspect of the character is coming. You watch a well-written episode and, expecting a tearful reunion, discover, in the end, that the other half of that character was killed off. Rather than spend the time to build the character back up to a point where he fell in love with the other bridge officer (did he even have a name?) it would feel like a cheat. It would feel like you were played for ratings. I recall Teen Wolf fans mentioning something similarwhen they felt they were encouraged to “ship” certain characters on that show only to feel cheated in later seasons.
If you are a creator, writer, producer, executive or streaming platform that wants to make a difference, then you are going to have to up your game and give the fans, especially the underrepresented ones, what they want. You never know, by doing so you may end up making a fan for life and adding influential voices loud enough that will increase your bottom line.
Founder of Melanite Entertainment