voltron: legendary disappointment

I have, in the course of this entire summer, probably written and spoken more about Voltron than I have any other show I’ve fallen into—barring, that is, Avatar: The Last Airbender, which thankfully sits on the complete other end of the spectrum in terms of my feelings about either show. Where A:TLA to this day remains one of my most beloved examples of storytelling in any medium, placed on a pedestal so high and so untouchable that I do often wonder if this blinds me from its possible flaws, Voltron is as low as anything I’ve ever been interested in can get. I’d say it’s on the bottom rung of a proverbial ladder as far as the hierarchy goes, but I went into Season 7 with my expectations on the very ground and this show still managed to burrow through the earth and find a path underground. For that, it deserves recognition. Voltron will go down in the history of my life as the greatest example of anger, sadness and disappointment that I ever had the bad luck of being faced with in my innocent search for escapist distraction and happiness.

I’ve spent a lot of energy this past weekend ripping the new season apart to anyone who will listen. Or perhaps it’s more apt to say that I’ve spent a lot of energy this past weekend just feeling about the new season. To say I ripped it apart would suggest my criticisms come from an objective place, but though I am definitely on my way there, halfway to the sweet bliss of abandoning my reliance on Voltron to regulate my thoughts and emotions for me, the three days it has been since Season 7 dropped on August 10th has been unbearably heartbreaking purely because I took this hit so personally. There’s a lot I could attack here: the absolute shitshow that was the LGBT+ rep touted and promised, the insidious queerbaiting for a pairing they could easily have shut down or at least not encouraged shamelessly, the continued mistreatment of characters of colour, the entire team’s stubborn defensiveness regarding all of this. But these are things I’ve spent the entire weekend throwing myself into, things that people more eloquent than myself have spoken about in open letters, in articles, in Tumblr posts and Tweets. I’ve read as much of these as I can, have written my own article pitches two hours after the season dropped, both for my own peace of mind as well as to get this bottomless heartache to a place where I can feed it and control it as I wish, needing to be secure in the knowledge that this was just another story I can criticize and call out for its harmful negligence and know for a fact there’s so many lessons to be learned from it.

This anger and frustration has been useful in criticism for the show, in knowing that no matter how much the showrunners want to play hot potato with the blame and the necessary apologies, it all comes down to their thoughtlessness. But no matter how much I am beginning to be able to get the anger out of me—no matter how successfully I’ve been able to articulate my reasons for that anger and turn them into something more productive, a more useful conversation mirrored in fair-minded delineations of everything Voltron did wrong—the sadness, the heartbreak, this constant cycle of nauseous hurt nauseous hurt nauseous hurt remains deeply burrowed.

When I wrote about Season 6 last June, I called myself out for dramatics; I won’t do that this time. Right now, I want to let myself sink into the sadness that has been there since Friday and has stayed where it is, available to be revisited every time I wake up and remember the reality of this mess all over again. The same sadness as when you watch or read something depressing, that remnant ache you want to rub out, except there’s a level of extra sobering weight when it’s put in context: that in the same span of time that Steven Universe and Shiro’s SDCC reveal has made me happy, hopeful, celebratory, this is also still the sort of shit that showrunners knowingly pull. The sort of shit that has been done to me and to many other queer youth, because for all that Voltron is a kids’ show, it has somehow become something intensely personal to so many of us. It means so terribly much. I wish it didn’t. But we all found something in Voltron’s premise—both in its space setting and its diverse, robot-piloting characters, all seemingly likeable from the outset—that spoke to us, a source of comfort waiting to be sought and anticipated. It is all the more saddening that the elements to make so many people that level of hopeful and happy were there, yet they were put in the hands of people more eager to crush them in the name of shock value and more eager to stand by the refusal to accept that they have things to learn and unlearn. Unfortunate, too, that the truth of the situation is that majority of its audience fell for an assumed idea of what Voltron could and should have been, and ultimately didn’t end up being one bit.

Voltron proves a lot of things about the fight still left to carry out. This isn’t news. It might have been stupidly idealistic to expect otherwise, especially of showrunners that have not once exhibited empathy for the audience that I want to say are responsible for the show skyrocketing to mainstream popularity the way it did. And for that, for this sadness I’m feeling that I can only assume are doubled for them, I also grieve for the younger groups of Voltron viewers that should not have had to experience this. This show is a step backward for the communities it claims to support, and that’s not anything new this side of town, probably, but that only makes it all the worse knowing that they had the chance not to adhere to that norm, that the showrunners could have given hope instead of misery to so many LGBT+ youth they knew were watching them and cherishing the show so close to heart, and yet didn’t.

At seventeen, I had to step back from the terrible trend in fanfiction of going straight for the angst tropes (character death, terminal illness, hanahaki disease, it’s an endless list) and the fandom gobbling it up despite the fact that it’s a practice inherently manipulative. Angst isn’t the thing that’s bad, nor is conflict—God knows it would make me hypocritical to even suggest that they are—but when you start prioritizing shock value and the perpetuation of misery through death because that’s the only way you know to generate emotion in your audience, then I have to say that’s both straight up lazy writing and a gross misuse of your ability to create something good with the power you’re given in telling a story. Especially when that story includes diverse characters that certainly do not need to be given more misery when the world hands them enough each day. There’s a specific, important distinction there, one that a creator cannot be negligent about. As someone whose history writing emotion began and grew up from those fanfiction angst tropes, who has written my fair share of what I believe is disingenuous angst, and who now firmly tries to reject it, I’m for once confident enough in something to be staunch about this. The fact, then, that the Voltron showrunners, presumably middle-aged as they are (I refuse to look up their ages), not only are still yet to learn this same distinction but even take pride in the darkness and the terrible narrative choices of a show they constantly remind everyone are targeted towards children—I have no words for that but ones of complete disgust.

Speaking of the showrunners: previous work on the Avatar series is a neat, eye-catching thing to slap on a resume when venturing out to works of your own—the same goes for the current press for The Dragon Prince—and in this particular case it’s understandable where the expectations came from when you’re riding on the coattails of a show you can’t even dream of coming close to replicating. There is some miniscule amount of fault to be found there, maybe, for why people went in expecting good characters, good writing and good representation to the precise degree that they did. We trusted blindly. I accept that, sure. People kept trusting blindly, time and time again, even when people should have ran with their doubts a long time ago, all of it just because the Voltron producers relentlessly advertised and promised a once-in-a-lifetime well-written show no one ever did end up seeing. A shame it took most of us seven seasons to be sure of it.

Maybe for people with less experience with seeing actual wonderful stories and even lesser experience needing to see themselves treated well on screen, Voltron is this amazing, groundbreaking show. But even if I may be conceited in thinking so, I am not one of those people. To some degree I wish I am. Maybe then my experience would have been a lot better, less a hit to my psyche. That would mean, however, that I wouldn’t also have this desperate motivation coming hand-in-hand with my sadness; Voltron reminded me that I may have gotten complacent, not realistic enough, about what I expect from the media I consume. The reality is still so much worse than what I’ve allowed myself to be hopeful about, a fact in itself depressing and frustrating, and the biggest pity here is that it took me wasted expectations of this show to really come to terms with this thing I’ve always known.

If nothing else, I am at least confident that this shared experience of the heartbreaking disappointment that was Voltron has spurred on a generation of queer and POC creators eager to make up what this show had failed to give them. And I can only pray that by then, by the time people my age and younger have reached a point where we are able to create work we would have benefited from earlier in life, the heartbreak that Voltron has perpetuated—in all the ways it went wrong, not just in queer representation—would be out of the question.

That in itself is idealism, maybe, but I want to believe it nonetheless. I wouldn’t know what to do otherwise. I want to believe this won’t happen again. I want to believe in my generation turning this hurt into hope for other people. I want to believe we won’t make these mistakes. We owe it to each other, and to the younger groups that will be all the better from it. Our stories deserve to be told. We’re just going to have to be the ones to tell them.