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August 09, 2018 at 09:00 AM EDT

Voltron: Legendary Defender fans were going berserk after co-showrunner Lauren Montgomery made a special announcement at San Diego Comic-Con in July: Shiro, pilot of the Black Lion and leader of the Paladins on the Netflix and DreamWorks series, is gay.

An episode screened for the crowd glimpsed a flashback scene involving Adam, Shiro’s former “flight partner” in the Galaxy Garrison who became something more. “He is Shiro’s significant other,” Montgomery told the room. “They weren’t married yet, but that’s the road they were going down” — that is, until Shiro “made the unfortunate decision” to go to space.

The reaction to the reveal has been “overwhelmingly positive,” Montgomery now tells EW. “We had numerous people tell us that they cried when they heard the announcement. There’s one woman who said she didn’t know the girl who was sitting next to her at the panel, but the girl just grabbed her hand when it happened. It’s just been very rewarding.”

Joaquim Dos Santos, Montgomery’s showrunning partner in crime, says they “could literally feel the energy” hit them in the room. “Once we got home, our social has been nonstop with nothing but love and appreciation. It’s been really cool.”

Montgomery and Dos Santos had previously worked on The Legend of Korra, which revealed in its series finale that its lead character had fallen in love with her friend Asami. With their combined experience in the industry, the two spoke with EW about LGBTQ representation in animation, why the topic has been so taboo when it comes to programming geared towards kids, and where the industry is now.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Lauren, you said this backstory was a longtime coming and there was almost a moment where it could’ve been featured earlier in the seasons. Do you remember what those initial conversations were like with Shiro’s backstory?
LAUREN MONTGOMERY: I think a lot of his backstory was created independently, even from his sexual orientation, ‘cause that was just a part of who he was but it wasn’t necessarily a discovery moment. So the vast majority of the conversations of his backstory were around figuring out what else is there, the illness and those aspects of it. Him being gay was just something that we had always wanted to do with him from early on.
JOAQUIM DOS SANTOS: We had an episode that was at the top of the second season?
MONTGOMERY: Yeah it was gonna be either the first or second episode of season 2.
DOS SANTOS: It was all the Paladins getting split apart. Pidge had a bit of a backstory that carried over a few episodes, all that was going to happen in a much more concentrated way up front and we had this whole arc. As the process dictates in TV animation, you mull these stories around and then you come up with the idea that maybe we should save some of these backstories for later and move this to that. It becomes a big puzzle piece.
MONTGOMERY: There was a definite interest early on to spend more time with the Paladins in the present and that ended up dictating moving the story along faster and waiting until later to reveal some more of the backstory.
DOS SANTOS: People, as any fandom will, want to know the origins of the characters and what makes them tick. We were in that same place, too. And so when we started pitching out that original block of backstories and we were getting some pushback from the executive level, we were like, “No, we want to see it!” We were fans ourselves. “No, we want to dig into this stuff.” Ultimately, it was the right decision I think to spread the love over the course of the series.
MONTGOMERY: The fact that we were able to get it out regardless of where it is in the series is ultimately what’s important.

Why do you think LGBTQ characters in general are harder to come by when it comes to traditionally kids-focused entertainment?
DOS SANTOS: Without getting, at least in this part of the conversation, to LGBTQ rep, we find that we are in this weird niche of animation. We push a lot of drama, but we also push a lot of comedy, but we tend to push the dramatic edge about as far as you can go. So initially there were pitches for Voltron being this giant toy-driven franchise and “Merch! Merch! Merch!” and all the stuff that goes along with something that involves robotic lions that transform into a robot. As we got deeper, we realized ultimately we’re just making the type of show that we want to watch. So that’s the place where we find ourselves in a lot, especially coming off of Legend of Korra and Avatar: The Last Airbender. It’s a weird space that we occupy.
MONTGOMERY: This isn’t at all how we feel about the subject matter but there’s this weird area with animation in that currently it’s starting to trend where we have animation that is more inclusive but also for older audiences, whereas for a very long time animation in America has strictly been for kids. You get into this weird space where there’s a lot of people — not everyone, obviously — who get really freaked out whenever people try to be more progressive in things that their kids are watching. It’s a problem that we’ve had to deal with and had to fight against in order to get messages of acceptance into the material that kids are watching, just to make it more of a normal thing that they see. But it’s still kind of an older frame of mind that’s hanging on. What I’ve found in my time in animation is that animation is unfortunately always a few years behind all the other media even as far as catching up culturally, socially, progressively, and that’s regardless of who’s trying to push for more representation etc. It just tends to be a little bit behind.
DOS SANTOS: It’s strange, when we first got in, getting social on any level was this no-fly zone. It was all about big action-adventure and how many different vehicles can you put in the show to tie-in with the toys. I’m just so happy that we’re finally getting to a place where we can start telling compelling stories and we can start telling them for audiences that are broader.
MONTGOMERY: We’re all very thankful and hopeful that things seem to be changing and hopefully I think social media has been a huge influence on that, just opening peoples’ eyes and getting us to a place where we don’t have to hang back in these dark ages. Now we can start to make this content more inclusive. It sounds super cheesy, but we just want to make the world a better place. That’s all we’re really trying to do.

I’m curious what you think about being on Netflix? Do you think streaming gives you more leeway and freedom to explore the kind of stories you want to do as opposed to cable networks?
DOS SANTOS: Yes. I think not worrying about advertisers is a big benefit.
MONTGOMERY: When you take just a couple voices out of the conversation, voices that might hedge on the side of fear, it’s helpful.
DOS SANTOS: Super helpful. Also, it’s just the mentality. The fact that we’re on a streaming service allows us to make a highly serialized show. As soon as you go into this high level of serialization, you want more complexity in your storytelling, you want more complexity and layers to your characters so that one thing plays off the other and it builds and builds and it snowballs. I wish they had made The Legend of Korra the opening salvo in their online initiative because I think that would have opened the doors even further at an earlier stage, because I think that show was running at a level that cable TV just wasn’t ready for at the time.
MONTGOMERY: It was really geared towards that active online audience, more so than your average network viewer.

When you see other shows, like with The Legend of Korra’s Korrasami relationship and Steven Universe, do you see those moments as helping to push the boundaries on what’s “acceptable” for this medium?
DOS SANTOS: I do. I think it’s another notch to the side of acceptance and opening peoples’ eyes who might otherwise might be closed. If our show or Steven Universe or Legend of Korra helps a kid who’s dealing with these feelings and emotions but can’t express them within their family dynamic, maybe that just allows them to feel comfortable — having those feelings and then sharing them with friends, sharing them with an online community.
MONTGOMERY: There’s gotta be a first for everything, there’s gotta be those first few people that push for that representation. We look at things like Star Trek that had the first biracial onscreen kiss and now that’s old hat, you wouldn’t blink an eye. We just hope we get to that point. We’re still, I guess, part of that opening salvo, but ideally we’d love to get to a place where it’s very normal and very acceptable to see this represented as what it is, which is normal and acceptable.
DOS SANTOS: I think one of the other things that we approached it from is that Shiro being gay is not the defining characteristic of Shiro. It’s one aspect. He’s in a relationship. I think the more defining characteristic there is that he was struggling with choosing his job and the mission over his relationship and that’s really a defining character moment. We don’t want to pitch this as a gimmick of representation. It’s an aspect of Shiro but it’s not his defining aspect.

DreamWorks/Netflix

You mentioned earlier about having to meet with executives and fight for the stories you wanted to tell. Did you get any feedback from Netflix or DreamWorks when you decided that you wanted to show Shiro’s backstory?
DOS SANTOS: The weird thing with this show is we’re dealing with an original show that aired in ’84 that had a fan following already. So anytime you want to make a change, it needs to go through a vetting process.
MONTGOMERY: And it’s also a show that’s a very large potential franchise for the studio, so there’s a lot of eyes on it. It’s always gonna go up the ladder and through all the people that have the choice-making power.
DOS SANTOS: We definitely knew that once we opened it up to those eyes that it was being discussed. It was often discussed I’m sure when we were not in the room. What we knew from our end was this was a story that we wanted to tell and we stood firm behind that. And we are just so thankful that the studio got behind it and supports it. And it has been nice also beyond the fan reaction to be getting internal emails from executives, both involved and not involved in the show, saying thanks for doing this. It’s just been incredibly warm and heartwarming.

I’d love to talk about Pidge’s earlier coming-out moment. Can you talk about approaching that reveal for the character [that Pidge is a girl disguised as a boy] and also crafting that dialogue? It’s very specific about Pidge needing to “come clean” and how she was afraid this may change the way the Paladins think of her.
MONTGOMERY: Initially it was me just… Well, not me as in it was all me, I did everything. [Laughs]
DOS SANTOS: I think it’s safe to say that the conception for making Pidge a girl came from Lauren. There wasn’t a lot of female representation on the team and that was one of the opening conversations that we had when this was still very, very early before there was even a premise. Lauren had that desire.
MONTGOMERY: Ultimately, it’s something that plays out in even Shiro’s reveal — it’s not that difficult to have more female representation or more LGBTQ representation in the show. It’s just an aspect of the character, but it doesn’t change their purpose or their function. So, Pidge’s reveal was my way of doing that for gender representation. Having worked in action-adventure animation for so long, it’s predominantly male heroes and male characters and me wanting to have more female in there. Then the dialogue very much being her expressing this fear that because she is something other than what she portrayed that people would view her differently, but the result being this beautiful, “We know what you’re capable of, we don’t care how you want to represent yourself or how you want to be seen.” It doesn’t change who you are.
DOS SANTOS: I remember being in the writer’s room and one of the unique things about the story playing out on this show is that you’ve also got this completely removed point of view from Coran and Allura, and Coran has this line, “We were supposed to think you were a boy?” It made us laugh in the room, but it also made us take notice of the fact that this has no bearing on anything. It was Pidge’s insecurities about what it might do versus what it really does with the dynamics of the team, and just having that outside alien point of view was really refreshing.
MONTGOMERY: And the exact same thing for Shiro. Him being a gay man hasn’t changed anything of what he’s done in the show up to this point and it’s not gonna change anything that he’s gonna do in the future.
DOS SANTOS: When we look at that lineup and we see that Shiro is clearly the more G.I. Joe-type character, the hyper-masculine soldier guy, he’s still very much that guy. We just love that. We think that’s the coolest thing in the world. If you’re talking to the 1980s toy execs who are like, ‘Yeah, this is the guy who all the boys are gonna like. He’s gonna shoot all the guns!’ And he still is! He’s still that guy and he’s gay and he’s our Shiro.

In terms of LGBTQ or otherwise, do you think it’s gotten easier over the years for you to tell the stories you want to tell? Do you think the industry is progressing?
DOS SANTOS: I think it’s progressing, for sure.
MONTGOMERY: It’s progressing. I think there’s always gonna be a weird ‘What’s the property?’ ‘What’s the core demographic?’ And every person who has to make every decision as far as what’s best for the company and best for the money is always gonna have to have their say. I think artists are always going to be wanting and pushing to make complex, realistic characters and I think the fight isn’t over. I wish that it was, but people are gonna have to continue to fight to get things made. I look forward hopefully to the day when the fight is easier – not just LGBTQ representation but something as simple as women, who make up 50 percent of the population, and just having them visible in animation — or just media — is something that’s only really started to pick up now, and how crazy is that? That now we’re starting to push for more female creators and more female directors. We want to believe that we’re in this super progressive society that’s come such a long way. And we have, but we still have such a long way to go. We’re optimistic for the future and I think that because shows have started paving the way, I hope that it will be an easier road for shows down the line.
DOS SANTOS: I think it’s safe to say that media and entertainment are usually, despite animation being on the tail end of that wave, the front lines in pushing progression and inclusivity. But I think if I were to look back even when I was still pretty new in the industry and Lauren was just getting in, Lauren was the only female action-adventure storyboard artist I knew at the time. There was one other that I hadn’t worked with, and that went on for years. I look outside my office now and, believe me, it’s a sea of diversity and awesomeness, but that’s a real recent turn of events. Hopefully it’s a bigger sign of things to come. Like Lauren said, I think you can’t really let your guard down, you have to keep pushing forward because if you get complacent — as we all know — weird things can creep in.

Voltron: Legendary Defender season 7 will be available Friday on Netflix.

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