By: Paige Allen
Growing up, my understanding of racial representation in fiction wasn’t particularly great. During the long and lonely days of my childhood summers, I frequently fell in love with stories of fantasy and science fiction. I was thrilled at the accomplishments of underdog main characters and their tight-knit circle of friends. I longed for bizarre lands that were potentially hidden on the other side of my bedroom wall. Like many kids, I honestly believed magic was delicately woven into the world around us, waiting to explode and add just a bit of epic wonder to the mundanity of everyday life.
Along the way, as I read and wrote and hoped to somehow capture this wonder in my own life, I quietly just accepted the fact that I didn’t exist in these worlds.
Lacking representation is a typical growing pain for black girl nerds. By now, I’m familiar with the myriad of justifications for this issue, like “artistic license” and “historical accuracy,” and I know these comments really mask the systemic racism and lack of imagination that plague mainstream media. But all the knowledge in the world can never quite soothe that visceral punch to the gut when a beautifully realized story once again fails in the meaningful representation of diverse characters.
So, I was a little cautious when I first heard about Voltron: Legendary Defender last summer. It was a Netflix adaptation of a beloved 1980s cartoon I had never heard of, but it ticked all my favorite fiction tropes from the trailer alone – a ragtag bunch of young adults fighting an intergalactic empire? Giant robot cats that somehow form into a giant robot man? Cool uniforms and color-coordinated codenames like the “blue paladin” and the “red paladin”? Listen, I’m easy: I was falling in love again.
I could also tell from the trailer that there was an impressive amount of diversity to look forward to. At least four of the five main characters are men of color, and two have skin tones darker than the others. The severe lack of women aside, I was excited about the possibility of this show.
So color me shocked when another character was introduced. In a giant space castle in a distant galaxy, the future defenders of the universe met Princess Allura for the first time.
As I was soon to discover, the Allura in Netflix’s adaptation is something of an anomaly. For longtime fans, the first radical departure from the show’s previously established mythos is pretty obvious.
Allura was always a blond, white character prior to 2016, but she has now been reintroduced as a dark-skinned and arguably black woman. I say arguably because the Netflix adaptation has made Allura part of a distinctly alien species. While she has always been part of the galactic species known as the Alteans, in 1984 this species still looked human and their otherness was presented to the audience as heavy accents and strange social customs. Coupled with these cultural characteristics are now large elfish ears and colorful facial markings, as well as a natural hair and eye color scheme that mark her as an exotic entity compared to the humans on the show.
Of course, her depiction isn’t as far out as, say, your typical Mass Effect species. However, it is common for media to feature black-coded alien characters and claim brownie points for representation, which cannot be completely given as she is technically not a human character. This is not to negate the fictional possibility of black aliens, but to reflect on the substance of this depiction. As black-coded aliens are often stripped of any signifying cultural traits of blackness which black fans are familiar and identify with, this depiction can be considered a superficial form of representation.
It also leaves an unfortunate loophole for people who vehemently deny that a character could be black based on their physical appearance because they are supposed to be an alien. Garnet from Steven Universe is a good example of this: despite the large afro, the dark skin, the Nicki Minaj hips, and being voiced by British Afro-Caribbean song goddess Estelle, some fans believe that thinking about Garnet as a black woman is inaccurate. She could never be black, they say with some disgust; she is a space rock, and her identity isn’t based on arbitrary human concepts. Space rocks don’t have races, even if they have afros.
But if we claim Allura as a black character despite her alien identity (and we will damn it), then the radical nature of her reinvention extends farther than the confines of the show’s reality.
To this day, it is still unusual to see a black princess in pop culture. I personally can count the very few that exist on one hand, and each recollection is marred by the memory of their mishandling by the shows and movies in which they reside. Nevertheless, to have a black woman be a princess is to allow her a certain prestige, protection, and femininity inherent to the royal title that is never associated with black women, especially when they have dark skin.
Princesses are admired for their beauty and softness, which makes them both coveted subjects of romantic desire and sacred objects who must be shielded from external threats to their virtue. Conversely, black women in media and real life are rarely seen as deserving of this special treatment. The soft, hyperfeminine image of a “princess” clashes with the racist denial of black women’s unique forms of womanhood — an issue which has existed since chattel slavery. Black women are further not seen as princesses because they apparently cannot be loved and admired unconditionally. At most, they are objects of fetishistic sexual desire, and they are assumed to lack virtue and goodness due to misogynoir. As a result, black female characters must be pillars of perfection for some fans to maybe consider liking them. Besides, society at large utterly fails to protect real life black girls and women, so the fact that fictional black women also unnecessarily suffer is disappointing but overall not surprising.
A black Allura subverts this line of thinking, and the narrative positively supports this change. Allura is the most feminine character on the show, and she is not punished for her cute moments of gossip or her love of shiny jewelry. She is usually loved by other characters as soon as they meet her, and they are frequently taken aback by her beauty, poise, and compassion. Furthermore, while this compassion can border on a destructive selflessness – which I will explain in a moment – Allura never crumbles within the show without another character sweeping her into their arms to take care of her.
Yet Netflix’s adaptation of Voltron does not fall into the trap of making its black female character infallibly perfect. Instead, Allura can be immature and impatient, so narrowly focused on her own emotions that she often cannot objectively consider other people’s opinions. She can also be needlessly tough and reckless as a leader, and she has risked the lives of herself and the Voltron paladins at least once per season to achieve her goals. In fact, her brutal leadership and uncompromising nature are serious points of contention between her and most of the paladins throughout the show. In the first season alone, two members of the team almost quit because of her behavior.
But the narrative provides viewers an understandable explanation for Allura’s less-than-savory actions. In this adaptation, Allura is one of the last remaining survivors of an intergalactic genocide. She watched as her planet and its Altean people were destroyed by the Galra Empire, and she was powerless to help as her father cryogenically froze her for 10,000 years to save her from the attack. By the time the paladins found Allura in the Castle of Lions in the original Voltron, her planet was still intact, and while her people were enslaved by the Galra they were very much alive and willing to fight their oppressors. Meanwhile, in 2016, Altea is gone, the paladins find the Castle of Lions hidden on a neighboring planet to protect it from the Galra, and when Allura is unfrozen she is still mentally arrested by rage and anguish over the loss of her people and her family.
Allura’s character arc throughout Voltron thus far has been about her trauma. The narrative does not shy away from these emotions, but instead comprehensively explores them without punishing her for them. She is hard on the paladins because she is afraid for the future of the universe if they fail to defeat the Galra, but she does not have time to deal with everyone’s doubts and her underlying sorrow as she is their leader. At most, she spends precious vulnerable moments in a virtual reality simulation where she can relive her childhood memories with a hologram of her father, but even this small gift is ripped from her. In one of the most heartbreaking moments in the entire show, Allura is forced to delete her memories – and thus her father – to save the Castle of Lions from crashing, and her devastation at this necessary decision is a palpable representation of what she has lost.
In this character arc, Allura occupies emotional narratives still uncommon for black female characters. Rather than have her be the designated stoic leader, who can never succumb to her own issues as she plays the reliable counsel and nurturing caretaker to her team, Allura is frequently given her chance to wallow in negative emotions just like other characters on the show. Allura is shown to be vulnerable, weak and very selfish due to the extreme duress she is experiencing. And throughout it all, the narrative respects her for the multifaceted aspects of her humanity.
In the end, I’m grateful to have found a black female character as dynamic as Princess Allura. The third season of Voltron is set to begin September 2017, and I’m on pins and needles waiting to learn more about her and discover just how far she is willing to go to achieve retribution for her people. While I wish I could have experienced her in my childhood, I’m glad she exists now for younger generations to see and learn from. She joins the ranks of other iconic princesses that I hope black girls will aspire to be – a beautiful mosaic of their best and worst personality traits, strong when they can reasonably shoulder the responsibility, vulnerable when they desperately need to be and ultimately respected for the humanity they are brave enough to show the world.
And at least for me, there’s no longer as frantic a rush to chase after the few scant traces of representation I can find. We still need diverse media, and I will never stop advocating for that. But for now, my princess is in the Castle of Lions, and she reminds me of all the multitudes in which I can exist.
Paige Allen is a brand storyteller and content developer at a small public relations agency in Greater Boston. In her spare time, she’s an avid consumer of comic books, novels and television shows in the sci-fi and fantasy genres. Sometimes, she pretends to be a singer as well… much to her family’s dismay. Connect with her on Twitter @goodbye_duppy.