This blog post is CB Mako’s reply to a fan project created on tumblr called #JusticeForAllura
“Shipping, Fanart, and the Woman of Colour” was originally published in Koru Mag Issue 2 on June 23, 2017.
Shipping, Fanart, and the Woman of Colour
by CB Mako
The word ‘ship’ was one of nine over-used words in 2016 (Garcia, 2016), and according to author Kathleen Smith of ‘The Fangirl Life’, it’s okay to ship.
By 2017, ‘shipping’ had reached mainstream status that Vanity Fair and EW have included shipping in their articles. (Robinson, 2017; Serrao, 2017). I grew up watching Voltron, an Americanised, mashed-up version of two Japanese animations called Beast King GoLion and Dairugger V.
I fangirl Voltron and ship Keith and Allura. It’s a “het” ship and recently labeled as a ‘rare pair’ by the new online fans of Dreamworks Netflix’s 2016 animation, Voltron Legendary Defender.
Voltron has had a few reincarnations since 1984: an early computer generated (CG) animation called Voltron Third Dimension (1998), and Voltron Force (2011), the latter of which was animated by Toon City in the Philippines.
Voltron Force was broadcast in Australia on free-to-air television via ABC3, and by 2012, Australia came out with an exclusive box set of that series, which made me one happy fangirl.
In this 2011 reincarnation, the two Voltron pilots I shipped—Commander Keith and Princess Allura—were older. It was amazing to see that my two favourite 80s cartoon characters had matured with the fans.
I joined the online fandom community in late 2012, gushing about Voltron Force’s Keith and Allura. I was the eager, enthusiastic newbie inside existing discussion groups that had been around for decades. I also found myself lost and confused when navigating the nuances, the inner hierarchies, and jargon.
As an outsider, the discussions in USA-centric forums appeared odd, different. I pushed away the thought that American fans of Japanese anime were not xenophobic. Were they?
Some fans couldn’t even believe I was tweeting, emailing, and chatting with them in real time, all the way from Australia. The seasoned fans seemed to think that the Voltron fandom was only in the USA. Were they unaware that there were fans outside the USA?
My interactions seemed too enthusiastic, bubbly, and happy for their liking. I was too irreverent, disrupting their staunchly-held hierarchical spaces.
I also had difficulty understanding why fans didn’t like Voltron Force. Despite sharing the same ship, fans complained about minute details such as Keith and Allura’s change of eye colour. The artwork, the redesigned uniforms, and even the story became subjects for scepticism and debate. Some of the fans even mentioned that Voltron Force’s Keith was simply…too dark.
They didn’t know I had the same skin colour as Keith’s.
My pen name didn’t reveal was that I was a fangirl of colour.
In 2016, Netflix launched a new series from Dreamworks Animation: Voltron Legendary Defender, which is a reimagining of 80s cartoons Voltron. Adapted from the pair of anime series—Toei Animation robot anime: Beast King GoLion and Armored Fleet Dairugger XV—the 80s Voltron story centred on five young pilots who fight against an evil empire of alien conquerors with the help of five mechanized lions that combine to form a giant robot. I was relieved when the 80s Voltron fans—who previously hated Voltron Force—enjoyed watching the Dreamworks Netflix version. But there was one thing that was missing. The seasoned Voltron fans were not shipping Keith and Allura.
Confused, I decided to draw Keith and Allura’s from Voltron’s three different versions using the same pose. Using a digital drawing app called Sketchbook Pro on my mobile phone, I captured the exact colour palette used in each of the animation series.
Did the change of skin colour, the difference of skin tones reflect the negative feedback about the characters?
Fansplaining—a podcast by, about, and for fandom—had a brilliant two-part episode #22 with ‘Race and Fandom’. Podcast hosts Elizabeth Minkel and Flourish Klink had invited fans from diverse backgrounds as part of this podcast and asked key questions such as,
“Do you see racism underlying fandom’s pairing preferences? How have fandom’s attitudes on race affected you personally?”
The podcast was an eye-opener for me. It confirmed something I couldn’t pinpoint, name, nor understand inside my own fandom.
Using statistical reference of a specific fandom and fanfiction from Archive of our Own, Rukmini Pande (2015) noted that,
“Most English language fanfiction, whether it involves straight or queer relationships, remains concerned with white characters… it is a worrying trend that even when non-white characters have significant roles in a canonical work, fanfiction very often fails to register this – or worse, undercuts it… characters of colour receive significantly less attention than their white counterparts. In Marvel Cinematic Universe fanfiction, characters of colour receive significantly less attention than their white counterparts. Clearly, interracial pairings (red) receive far less attention.”
Meanwhile, in the realm of comic book entertainment, the hit CW series The Flash underwent a similar change for one of its core characters. Iris West, traditionally depicted as a pale-skinned brunette or redhead, was now played by Candice Patton, a woman of colour.
“When the geek community is asked to empathize with characters who don’t look like them, the backlash can be severe… Perhaps this reveals the heart of the matter—that white viewers are forced to empathize with characters that don’t look like them in a genre they thought they owned.” (Bastien, 2016).
Fansplaining’s podcast episode #22B also mentioned that generally, people have different reasons and excuses why they don’t like shipping women of colour (Klink and Minkel, 2016).
Citings from Klink and Minkel, Pande, and Bastien confirmed what was happening inside my specific ship. When Voltron Legendary Defender presented Allura as a woman of colour, the ‘80s-era Voltron shippers from the USA didn’t like the change. They sent long emails inside the Yahoo group, explaining and defending their own reasons. Did the thirty-two year gap between the original Voltron series (1984) versus Voltron Legendary Defender (2016) represent and reflect society’s outlook in real life? (Pyun, 2017)
Before 2016 ended, the mega-fandom Star Wars mourned the passing of Carrie Fisher who played the iconic character Princess-General Leia Organa.
I couldn’t help but reflect on my fandom’s own iconic princess, Allura.
Growing up in the 80s, under the watchful eyes of autocratic parents, I viewed Leia in the cinemas, and Allura on the telly every week, reflecting on what I wanted to be when I grew up: A strong, capable individual, who could do anything and still be loved by someone. And just like Allura, I wanted my own Keith by my side, and soldier on.
But the narrative seemed to shift recently.
Leslie Loftis, a lawyer and a writer for The Federalist, who fangirled both Star Wars and Voltron, wrote about Star Wars: The Force Awakens (TFA),
“Princess General Leia in TFA, she is a ruler without a planet, a daughter without parents, a sister without a brother, a wife without a husband, and a mother without her child. Any one of those could, and has, broken a woman. Any combo of two would see a real woman struggle. But carrying all of them, Leia is still quipping. Because that’s what we are told strong women do — endure everything, on our own.
And then we wonder why women are so exhausted. We do as we are told and chase the impossible with no option of grace.
Hollywood writers don’t recognize what makes heroines iconic to the fans. They pay attention to the feminist formula for the Strong Independent Woman (TM) and write guys who happen to be female. They often modify women to give them mystical powers in order to explain why they can hang with the men in battle.
The heroine shouldn’t be too beautiful and certainly not sexy … and she can’t be dependent in any way or men. No rescuing. No romance. Either she does it all on her own or it doesn’t count.”
Haxine (2016) raised that,
“…We shouldn’t be defending this trope in the name of feminism or defending the uncreative writers who are seemingly incapable of giving these female characters both romantic love and character depth… Men always receive stories where they are both in love and their character is fully fleshed out, so why do women have to choose between them when we can have both?”
To give concrete examples what Leslie Loftis and Haxine pointed out, I watched Voltron Legendary Defender seasons 1 and 2 on Netflix. Allura, the last woman survivor of a decimated planet, remained in the castle ship while the rest of the team went out on training and missions. It was a similar situation in the ongoing comics series Voltron Legendary Defender written by the same writers from the Netflix Dreamworks Animation team. In Volume 1, Allura was left alone in the castle recuperating while the rest of the Voltron Paladins were out in their space robot lions. Why didn’t they include Allura in the narrative?
Haxine (2016) mentioned the issue of a woman of colour not being seen as worthy of love, which media critic and writer, @Fangirl_Jeanne explained,
“WOC, black women especially, get coded as sexless caretakers, emotionless warriors, or hyper-sexual jezebels. What each of these racist tropes lacks is healthy, loving relationships. We don’t see women of color being loved, being cared for and thus struggle to see them as romantic partners, beyond sexual fetishization.
That has a damaging effect on women of color, both in how we view ourselves and how people dismiss their own racial bias as our fault. As well as contributing to the abusive ways our actual partners treat us because we’re strong we can take harsh treatment. They think we owe them more emotional labor and should be the caretaker. When we are emotional or upset, we are seen as aggressive.”
So, did Voltron fans react in the same way as fans from other fandoms when faced with central characters of colour? Did they stop shipping Keith and Allura because Allura is now a woman of colour?
Already, I’ve seen fan-artists create fan merchandise—charms, stickers et al—without Allura, giving various excuses when asked why they’d omitted her in their designs.
The challenge I’m keen to raise with The Powers That Be—now that Allura has been redesigned as a woman of colour—what arc will the writers give Allura? Would the Dreamworks team of writers buck Hollywood’s formulaic trope of a ‘strong’ woman, woman of colour—alone, angry, and aggressive—to evolve into a fully-fleshed out character, with a loving, healthy relationship?
After thirty-two years, I hope that this time around, the Dreamworks Voltron Legendary Defender writers can finally provide fans something the show’s previous incarnations had neglected: a happily-ever-after ending for the iconic Princess Allura with Keith by her side.
Angelica Jade Bastién. ‘For Women of Color, the Price of Fandom Can Be Too High’, New Republic, (6 October 2016) <https://newrepublic.com/article/137489/women-color-price-fandom-can-high>
Patricia Garcia. ‘These Were the 9 Most Overused Words on the Internet in 2016’, Vogue, (28 Dec 2016) <http://www.vogue.com/13515918/overused-slang-words-2016/?mbid=social_onsite_twitter>
Haxine / Nerdy People of Color. ‘Do Love Interests Make a Film Less Feminist?’, Medium, (17 December 2016) <https://medium.com/@nerdypoc/do-love-interests-make-a-film-less-feminist-5d9ca205e014#.vc56ypnxq>
Flourish Klink & Elizabeth Minkel. ‘Episode 38, The Year in Fandom 2016’. Fansplaining, (28 December 2016) <http://fansplaining.com/post/155076968818/episode-38-the-year-in-fandom-2016-elizabeth-and>
Flourish Klink & Elizabeth Minkel. ‘Podcast Episodes 22A and 22B Race and Fandom’. Fansplaining, (31 May 2016) <http://fansplaining.com/post/144557202888/episode-22a-race-and-fandom-part-1-flourish-and>
Leslie Loftis. ‘From Days of Long Ago… Or Netflix Attempts a Reboot’, Medium, (10 June 2016) <https://medium.com/@AHLondonTX/from-days-of-long-ago-or-netflix-attempts-a-reboot-2d551071c761#.epo5n0xcf>
Rukmini Pande. ‘Explainer: What is Fanfiction?’ The Conversation, (7 October 2015) < https://theconversation.com/explainer-what-is-fanfiction-48150>
Sabrina Pyun. ‘Voltron Season 2: Still A Leader In Representation’ Comicsverse. (2 February 2017) < https://comicsverse.com/voltron-season-2-representation/>
Joanna Robinson. ‘How Online Fandom Is Shaping TV in 2017’, Vanity Fair, (19 January 2017)
Nivea Serrao. ‘Voltron: Legendary Defender EPs on season 2’s biggest moments’, Entertainment Weekly (20 January 2017) <http://ew.com/tv/2017/01/20/voltron-legendary-defender-season-2-postmortem/>
Kathleen Smith. ‘Why I Will Never Stop Being a Shipper’, Medium, (July 2016), <https://medium.com/@fangirltherapy/why-i-will-never-stop-being-a-shipper-6cf7656e30a8#.njokwkye9>