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Of queerbaiting and good representation. ‘Voltron’ v ‘She-Ra’

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Pride Month may be over, but queer people are still here.

LGBTQ+ representation is often missing in film and television, especially in productions that are aimed for younger audiences. Some deem stories starring LGBTQ+ characters as “unsuitable” for children. But how are we supposed to normalise queer relationships if we do not picture them as just that – completely normal?

In recent years Netflix has released a few animated TV series that show canonically gay relationships and non-binary characters (e.g., The Dragon Prince, The Hollow, Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts), which the LGBTQ+ community is grateful for.

On-screen representation is urgently needed these days, not only to show diversity but to give queer people characters they can identify with as well.

Why should only cis-heteronormative people get characters they can see themselves in?

In 2014 Nickelodeon did not agree for two women to kiss on-screen, only hinting at a potential relationship between Korra and Asami in The Legend of Korra, by making them hold hands and using a cinematic phenomenon called bisexual lighting.

Bisexual lighting is the use of colours found on the bisexual flag – pink, purple and blue – to indirectly depict the framed characters’ bisexuality.

Asami (left) and Korra (right) depicted in bisexual lighting (The Legend of Korra).
Credit: Nickelodeon.

As aforementioned, there were a few cartoons particularly popular within the LGBTQ+ community. However, there are two animated TV shows, both created by a collaboration between DreamWorks and Netflix, that the community was exceptionally vocal about.

Spoiler alert for Voltron: Legendary Defender and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.

Before analysing these cartoons an important term needs to be explained. Queerbaiting.

Queerbaiting in film and television is a simple marketing technique used by creators to attract the LGBTQ+ community. It is a means of boosting popularity of the show or film by hinting at queer romance but never actually portraying it.

Voltron: Legendary Defender has been a favourite of the LGBTQ+ community since its premiere in 2016. Voltron was not only created by The Legend of Korra producers, but also hinted at gay romance since season one.

Hinted, but never portrayed.

Two of the main characters, Keith and Lance, shared many romantic scenes throughout the show, which made the fans certain they would end up together. Turns out they were used as queerbait.

Lance (left) and Keith (right) sharing a moment and smiling at each other in soft, romantic lighting.
Credit: DreamWorks/Netflix.
Lance (left) and Keith (right) sharing a moment and smiling at each other in soft, romantic lighting.
Credit: DreamWorks/Netflix.
Keith (left) and Lance (right) watching the sunset together.
Credit: DreamWorks/Netflix.

Besides having romantic scenes together, both of these characters have been queer-coded. Queer-coding is a term used to describe characters depicted as queer, but never officially confirmed as such.

Voltron shows Keith as completely uninterested in women, but only women. He was seen flirting with men – not just Lance – and lingering appreciative glances at them.

Similarly, Lance is portrayed as showing interest in everyone, humans and aliens alike. He constantly flirts with women, but can also admit how good-looking men are.

Keith and Lance are gay-coded and bi-coded, respectively.

Lance depicted in bisexual lighting.
Credit: DreamWorks/Netflix.

Queer-coding is not merely a missed opportunity for LGBTQ+ portrayal, but it is harmful as well. The lack of on-screen representation makes normalising queer relationships harder in real life.

People fight against homophobia every day, while producers fight to attract all sorts of audiences – both queer and queerphobic. Voltron creators said they were not allowed to show more LGBTQ+ representation than they did, which to be frank, wasn’t much.

Another main character, Shiro, who was confirmed canonically gay and in season seven they introduced his love interest, Adam. The show depicted flashbacks of the two and of Shiro remembering and missing him, as the pair hasn’t seen each other for years. However creators killed Adam before the two could reunite.

Way to bury the gay, right?

But alas, some claim the queer community should be satisfied in the end as the series finale delivered an on-screen gay kiss and a happy ending for Shiro .

Sadly, that is hardly fair.

Both the kiss and the wedding were meant as an olive branch to the LGBTQ+ community, shown as the credits were rolling and the creators were certain they wouldn’t lose the homophobic audience. Because the show was over.

Furthermore, there were no hints at a possible romance between these two characters beforehand. In fact, Curtis ( Shiro newly wed, husband) only had a few lines in the show and most fans didn’t even know his name.

Renaldo Metadeen, a writer for CBR, commented on Shiro and Curtis’ wedding: “Handling queer representation in such a trivial manner feels disingenuous, making the five-second blip of the wedding at the end come off as a publicity stunt.”

Shiro (left) and Curtis (right) kissing on their wedding day.
Credit: DreamWorks/Netflix.

Season seven not only confirmed Shiro as gay, introducing (and then killing off) his love interest, but it also showed two already known characters as partners in crime and, apparently, in life.

Zethrid and Ezor were confirmed to be a lesbian couple, but they never kissed on-screen or outright declared they were together; as their relationship could be interpreted as platonic.

Why was a straight couple allowed three on-screen kisses and constant declarations of love in just one season, while a lesbian couple could not even call each other girlfriends?

Ezor (left) and Zethrid (right) in Voltron: Legendary Defender season seven.
Credit: DreamWorks/Netflix.

Another main character – Pidge – was initially depicted as a boy, using he/him pronouns. Pidge was also male in other versions of Voltron, e.g. the 1984 cartoon Voltron: Defender of the Universe. However, season one episode three reveals Pidge Gunderson is actually Katie Holt – a girl who took a false identity to find her lost family.

Despite being revealed as female, Pidge is still called by the same name, dresses the same and pronouns are rarely used regarding her, until later seasons.

In season two Pidge is standing in front of two doors – to the male and female bathrooms. She keeps looking between the two and, resigned, gives up on using the bathroom at all.

Pidge debates between using the male bathroom and the female bathroom.
Credit: DreamWorks/Netflix.

Some fans believe the scene was meant as an attempt at humour, showing not Pidge struggling with her gender identity, but rather her inability to figure out which bathroom is meant for women, as the signs were alien.

Nevertheless, Pidge is portrayed as the smartest character on the show and would probably know a way to easily find out. Especially since Keith had no trouble deciding which bathroom to use.

Keith (left) exiting the male bathroom.
Credit: DreamWorks/Netflix.

This lead fans to headcannon (believe something despite it not being confirmed as canon) Pidge as non-binary or transgender. That would be great representation for the trans and non-binary community. Sadly, Voltron didn’t go there.

One of the Voltron show-runners, Lauren Montgomery, posted a drawing on her Twitter, depicting the main characters and the importance of minorities.

Drawing showing Voltron characters holding “Race”, “Gender” and “LGBT” signs. Lance and Shiro are holding the “LGBT” sign. Pidge is holding the “Gender” sign.
Credit: @ArtOfLaurenM on Twitter.

Naturally, fans pointed out the hypocrisy of the illustration.

Fan art calling out Voltron creators on poor LGBTQ+ representation. Queer and queer-coded characters are holding signs saying “This is NOT about ships!”, “Stop killing LGBT+ characters!” and “We deserve happy endings too!”
Credit: Kamaliiart on Tumblr.

Voltron: Legendary Defender finale left fans bitter and unsatisfied. Lance was thrown into a straight relationship with a girl who spent six seasons showing absolutely no interest in him and fell in love with someone else. Shiro’s marriage was something the creators admitted was not planned and was added in less than a day as an olive branch to the queer fans.

The LGBTQ+ community did not get what they were hoping for – which was nothing more than good representation.

Another animated series to be discussed in this article is She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, created by the same studio as Voltron and also released on Netflix. Despite having many similarities and parallels to the other cartoon, She-Ra takes a completely different approach to the topic of LGBTQ+ representation.

The first season already shows queer characters. The protagonist and the antagonist, Adora and Catra, are introduced as possible romantic interests.Their budding relationship, a beloved enemies to friends to lovers trope, was a fan-favourite, especially after it was made canon in the last season as the two girls shared a passionate kiss on-screen.

Adora (front) and Catra (back) kissing in She-Ra and the Princesses of Power final season.
Credit: DreamWorks/Netflix.

Moreover, She-Ra introduced LGBTQ+ characters who were already married to each other. Yes, you heard right. Same-sex marriage was completely normalised in this cartoon and everybody accepted it without question. Just like they would accept a heterosexual marriage.

Spinnerella and Netossa are depicted as wives, constantly kissing, hugging and calling each other pet names. They live in a healthy, loving relationship.

As far as She-Ra creators are concerned, marriage is marriage and love is love.

Netossa (left) and Spinnerella (right) sharing a kiss.
Credit: DreamWorks/Netflix.

Another example of normalising queer relationships and families is Bow; who is a deuteragonist in the cartoon. In season two he struggles with telling his parents he doesn’t want to be a historian like them, rather a fighter for the rebellion.

His parents are both men, which is completely irrelevant for the story. It is just a thing that happens. Bow has two dads. They love each other and their son; they are a normal family and no one questions that.

Bow (middle) and his two fathers in She-Ra season two.
Credit: DreamWorks/Netflix.

She-Ra creators also had something to add about gender. Season four shows a non-binary character, Double Trouble, who is played by a non-binary voice actor and uses they/them pronouns.

No misgendering takes place, no one questions their gender identity. Once again, the portrayal is flawless.

Double Trouble in She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.
Credit: DreamWorks/Netflix.

Many portrayals in modern cartoons are inaccurate and lacking, leaving the LGBTQ+ community overlooked and unsatisfied. Why is good representation needed? Besides queer people deserving characters they can identify with, characters that can help them with their own sexuality and gender, a solid reason would be to educate.

Some people do not realise what LGBTQ+ truly means. When people don’t know something, they are often scared of it. And fear leads to hatred. The lack of knowledge and education, along with ignorance lead to hatred.

Good queer representation on-screen can help educate society. It can show them we are all the same. Love is love. Normalisation is important.

Like I said, Pride Month may be over but queer people are still here.

Featured Image Credit: DreamWorks/Netflix.

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