Robotech is the rare ’80s cartoon that actually holds up. Part of that is thanks to the nuanced and diverse group of characters. Series like Transformers, He-Man, or Voltron were filled with mostly white characters and barely featured any women.
Robotech on the other hand had a much larger cast of women and people of color.
“As far as we know Robotech is the first animated show shown in the west where there was an interracial couple,” Steve Yun, Vice President of New Media at Harmony Gold, points out. “There were no weird stereotypes in it.”
That relationship between Claudia Grant and Roy Fokker was a key part of the Macross saga. It wasn’t a flawless romance and that’s what made it so revolutionary. They were two professional adults with working lives that did their best to make the relationship work despite the challenges. You know, like being under constant threat by alien invaders.
“It’s a non issue with an interracial couple,” Billy Davis, Executive Vice President of Harmony Gold, says. “It’s just like, oh, they date. And that’s okay. That’s how you have to treat them. Why would you draw attention to it?”
It should also be noted that the lead character of Minmei in the Macross saga was Chinese and ended up in a sort of realationship with another lead character, Rick Hunter, over the course of the series. Her ethnicity isn’t a super huge plot point but it’s very clearly established her family runs a Chinese restaurant. Minmei ends up becoming the darling of the SDF-1 ship and the most famous person on the planet.
Dana Sterling was also a rare find in ’80s kids entertainment, a leading woman in an action-based series. A half human, half alien she frequently dealt with xenophobic attitudes from her fellow soldiers but soon emerged as a strong and capable, although sometimes still childish, leader of the 15th Alpha Tactical Armored Corps.
Characters like this helped draw in many female fans back during the series’ original airing.
“We looked at the ratings and saw more adult women than men were watching the show in its original run,” Vice President of Marketing at Harmony Gold, Kevin McKeever remembers. “That really took us back. Fifty three percent of the adult audience was female.”
Yun adds, “when we did polls on our website we found that forty eight percent of the people who visited our website regularly were female. It had broad reach. All age groups.”
The series also featured more diverse male characters, including Bowie Grant who defied stereotypes as a soldier that hated fighting and just wanted to play the piano. Unlike some of his action obsessed fellow soldiers, Bowie was much more in touch with his feelings, harboring a deep attraction to the alien Musica. This would later lead to the two getting together at the end of the series and Bowie putting everything on the line to save her. A black man with some traditionally feminine traits getting the girl in the end? That would still be revolutionary on TV today.
In the New Generation saga there was also Lancer, a male solider who reguarly dressed in feminine clothing and was a major pop idol. Rather than just being a dsiguise to hide from the battle hungry Invid aliens, Lancer seemed perfectly content to bask in his feminine side and had no problem wearing makeup. Much like Bowie he even ended up with a girl in the end!
Even more diverse characters would have been added to franchise had the series continued with Robotech Academy.
“One of the things I was upset about with Academy not taking off is that we had a young black boy and a white girl as the two leads,” Yun tells us, “I thought was pretty brave of us at the time. Then a couple years later Star Wars: The Force Awakens comes out and I was like, we almost beat them to the punch!”
While diversity in the classic series is laudable, it is by no means perfect. Vince Grant’s design in Robotech II: The Sentinels is at best uncomfortable. Thankfully it was changed for his leading role in Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles.
Some of the designs for the female characters on Robotech merchandise has been questionable, with characters featuring much larger cleavage than they ever had in the series.
“There isn’t a motivation for that kind of design at this point to be included,” Davis says. “Some of that is out of control. We have certain things that we will approve and certain things that we don’t. We had somebody submit something once that I lost my shit on that I said I will never put out anything like that ever. Because it absolutely over sexualized Minmei specifically.”
Davis does add however that there’s a difference between sexy and sexualizing.
“You can be sexy. I think that’s fine,” he says. “I think over sexualizing at this point is not necessary. You can be sexy though. Where do you draw that line? I don’t know. It depends on how people perceive it. We aren’t going to please everybody when it comes to that anyway.”
Going forward, the team behind Robotech hopes to continue the original series’ diversity both on screen and behind the scenes.
“We certainly keep our eye open to diversity especially. It’s important,” says Davis, “We live in a different world than when the original series was produced. It’s very important for us to be respectful first and foremost. To treat the characters with respect.”
The team’s commitment to diversity is bolstered by meeting all kinds of fans at conventions around the world. One interaction sticks with Davis to this day:
“I was at SDCC last year and this gentleman came up to me and said, ‘I love Robotech. If you ever do a new series…are you gonna put any Mexican characters in it?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, I have no idea what we’re doing in the future.’ And he went, ‘If you do please don’t make that character a janitor.’ And I looked at him and said, ‘I will never do that. I will never do that ever. Ever.’”
Wherever Robotech goes in the future, Davis pledges that, “we’re going to treat every character with respect and treat every sex with respect.”
Shamus Kelley knows that life is only what we choose to make it, so let’s just take it. Follow him on Twitter!