The Dumbledore Syndrome

Within a single hour, Voltron: Legendary Defender has gone from a beloved revival of both a long running franchise and action animation as a whole to a highly divise series. This controversy is primarily rooted in how the show has decided to tackle the issue of LGBT representation: one of its main characters, the former black lion paladin Shiro, has been officially revealed as a gay man, but his love interest, Adam, is killed off unceremoniously and ultimately he is left romantically alone while all other main characters are hastily grouped into heterosexual relatiionships. Adding to this are the fact that the only other LGBT characters in the series are killed off with varying degrees of brutality and the reveal that non-english dubs all render Shiro and Adam’s relationship strictly platonic.

I cannot stress enough how this cannot be blamed on the series’ creative staff. According to executive producer and showrunner Lauren Montgomery, VLD’s iteration of Shiro/Sven has always been planned to be a gay man, but this decision was opposed by DreamWorks’ executives, who desired him and Adam to be simply “roommates”, which resisted the idea of LGBT representation to a virulent extreme. With the reveal that DreamWorks and possibly Netflix CEOs are surprisingly homophobic, it’s hard to fault the series showrunners and writers for being backed into a corner. Even the highly contentious 2018 SDCC panel and interviews — already cited as queerbaiting by less-than-pleased fans — can be easily excused as making the best of a situation outside of their control. It’s clear that the deeper issues within DreamWorks and Netflix — and perhaps all film companies, given Disney’s recent endorsement of neo-nazis — need to be addressed, as these sorts of attacks on creative freedom cannot be endorsed, let alone for regressive reasons.

The outcome nonetheless introduces what I consider to be a new variable in discussions of LGBT representation in media. A trope that’s surprisingly well defined in spite of what can be called a relatively recent debut and a set of circumstances that couldn’t possibly be more unrelated. This trope is like all tropes somewhat older than what I have observed, but due to the relative notoriety of another example of it, Dumbledore from Harry Potter, I think it is proper to name it after him.

Henceforth, I present the Dumbledore Syndrome, defined by the following:

  • A gay male (ostensibly cis in both cases).
  • Occupies mentor role within cast.
  • Is associated with light (albeit with the caveat that it may mean different things: in Dumbledore’s case, for instance, its typical “light = good”, while in Shiro’s case is more likely due to the status of white as the color of death in Japanese culture).
  • Is an ideal, accomplished figure (Dumbledore is the headmaster of Hogwarts and one of the most powerful wizards of all time, Shiro is the Garrison’s prodigy who starts the series with a massive list of records, and eventually becomes the de facto ruler of Earth).
  • Is skilled in the mystical arts (Dumbledore is a wizard, Shiro has a spiritual connection to his lion and gets an enhanced prosthetic arm that allows him to cast mekhanokinetical spells).
  • Is considered a borderline if not outright messiah figure.
  • Has a love interest in youth but whose fate is tragic in nature, leaving him alone.
  • Said tragic relationship is in fact the reason why the character swears off love (Dumbledore because he feels his romantic attachment made him weak, Shiro because he is traumatised by Adam leaving him).
  • Spends the remainder of the series celibate, and is the only character to not be allowed a romantic conclusion to his story.

In short, a character who would seem like the ideal LGBT representation (accomplished, flawed but idealised, beloved by every main character as a father figure and leader, powerful in ways that terrify his enemies and inspire his allies, et cetera) but suffers from a very important negative trait: he is not allowed a romantic conclusion.

In this, he is a very offensive character type because it essentially implies that, for all his accomplishments, a gay man should not be in love. At best, it suggests that he is a character who is remarkable in spite of his homosexuality; at worst it portrays homosexuality as a flaw to be overcome. Both Dumbledore and Shiro was conceived by people who at least hypothetically respect LGBT rights, so they were not paired off with women as older characters would have been, but the homophobia behind the creative decisions left no choice beyond celibacy.

In essence, Dumbledore Syndrome is the unholy spawn of compromise and its absence, made by people who desire change but cannot fight either external homophobia (DreamWorks) or internal homophobia (Rowling’s). The result is a magnificent but tragic character, one whose lesson is that you may become a wise man but a fundamental part of your personality is disgusting, and as such your heterosexual pupils will always surpass you both in following your legacy and in accomplishing what you will never accomplish: love.

Besides Shiro and Dumbledore, there are a few potential candidates that do solidify this trope as a concept. Again, these are characters I identified:

  • Oviya Pashiri from Magic: The Gathering’s Kaladesh is a lesbian artificer, but otherwise fills most of the checklist, having lost her beloved and now serving as Chandra’s mentor.
  • Paulie from Circles checks on nearly everything except his love life, ending in a second relationship that leads to marriage. He may potentially be disqualified from the trope, as he was accomplished in all ways and got a romantic happy ending.

With or without more examples, I think it is clear that this trope is solid enough to be a genuine pattern. As such, future discussions on LGBT presentation would do best to mention this and learn from these mistakes.

Only then will problematic character types disappear.