Piccolo: the Genderless Alien (Man)

Thank you to everyone who has been commenting on my other DBZ posts (specifically The Women of DBZ). I know I promised to write further posts regarding Android 18 and Videl, but right now there’s a different aspect of DBZ I need to address first. In the comments on my post about women in DBZ, I talked about how the goal is not have action girls, who enter a scene fists flying and then politely back out of the way, but women in a wide array of roles. Increasing the number of female characters who are featured would automatically go a long way toward decreasing the likelihood that the one female character would need to serve as a representative of all women. And while I wrote briefly about how it wouldn’t have been any structural changes to the plot of DBZ to create Raditz or Vegeta as a female, I’m realizing that one of the more obvious ways Akira Toriyama could have promoted gender equality was through Piccolo and the Namekian species.

The Namekians are a genderless species. They reproduce asexually and if there are multiple genders or sexes we can see no difference. So why is it that all Namekians are male? It’s not through the way they dress (who’s to say female Namekians have breasts like human females, or that if they do they would need to cover up) or how they act, but that every voice actor is male. By portraying a species of male Namekians the message is clear:

  1. masculinity is the norm and to be genderless is to appear and present as male

I do not believe Piccolo had to be female or that there should have been female Namekians. I do however believe that voice actors should have been chosen who could create a genderless voice for a genderless species. This way, even though for instance, Piccolo appears male (and is basically understood to be male by not having any female identifications) in the manga, the anime was in a unique position. The anime could reshape our understanding of this alien character and in so doing reshape our understanding of an agender society.

There is no reason male should continue to be the norm on the basis that it is identifiably not-female (further fostering the harmful idea that the female body is marked as the other in society). Especially when creating alien races and exploring topics more closely linked to science fiction than action/adventure this is the place for societal commentary! The fact that Namekians reproduce asexually is brilliant, but the fact that they are all understood to be male is problematic. Had Piccolo been an agender character the plot of DB and DBZ would not have been altered, but the ideas of a gender binary would have been shattered. That is something the action/adventure genre desperately needs.

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9 thoughts on “Piccolo: the Genderless Alien (Man)

  1. Hi! Thank you so much for writing this and I definitely agree with what you’ve written. I find it really odd that as a genderless species, the Namekians still possess a male portrayal. It definitely doesn’t send any good messages if a male representation is presumed to be the “de facto” representation. I think it would’ve been much more interesting if not only the voice actors were androgynous/genderless as you said, but in their appearance as well! For so long, as a kid watching the show, I came to think of Piccolo as a male…when in fact, Piccolo is neither he or a she. I think it would have done more justice to the Namekian species and our curiosities if Piccolo and other Namekians appeared more genderless instead of stereotypically male.

  2. This kinda makes me think about Mass Effect. In Mass Effect we meet a species called the Asari, powerful Biotics and wise councilors this species does not back down from aggression but will try to pursue diplomacy first. Like the Namekians they are a monogendered species. However they are different as the Asari take on a more feminine appearance. You claim the Namekians to be male, but no matter how you slice it, you’re wrong technically. You said the message was, “masculinity is the norm and to be genderless is to appear and present as male”. Then I suppose I could argue the same point on the Asari appearing female. In Mass Effect I wondered why the Asari, who, like the Namekians were monogendered yet they used gender specific pronouns. In a society with no gender distinction it wouldn’t be necessary. My theory is this, At some point the Namekians were involved with intergalactic society as evidenced by Kamis ship. Now, not all species are going to be monogendered so to integrate easier they adopted gender specific pronouns that best fit their physiology in comparison to the other species on the galactic stage and from what we’ve seen we can assume most other species have the basic two genders. As for why the Namekians continued after clearly losing contact with galactic society, we can only assume the habit stuck with them. If we had gotten to see more of the Dragon Ball galaxy would we see something like the Asari? Who can say. On the note of the voice actors, They did a great job. For relatability it makes sense in some cases to give these types of species a “de facto” representation, It was ok when Dragon Ball Z did it with Namekians taking on a male appearance, and it was ok when Mass Effect did it with the Asari taking on a Female appearance neither were problematic in my opinion. If we take a look at both examples we should ask ourselves this. Does this species promote anything negative about the gender they resemble? Does this species promote anything negative about the gender they do not resemble? And finally does the gender the species resemble affect how they interact within the story? I think with both examples, all the answers are no. And for the record I know this is an old post but it was interesting and I really felt like saying something, I hope my reply came off as respectful. Last thing I want is an internet fight, you seem nice.

    • Thank you for your comment, it was very respectful and I appreciate it. I don’t know the Mass Effect games so I, unfortunately, can’t comment on your addition to the conversation. Is it noteworthy in Mass Effect that the Asari are all female? Is it something people comment on when speaking about the game? I feel that for DBZ, the Namekians are male but no one comments because it’s expected that they’ll be male. Media is male until proven otherwise. In Mass Effect, how is femaleness represented? Do we see gender roles at all? If you haven’t done so already, I would recommend reading the Xenogenesis series by Octavia Butler. The aliens in that series have three sexes and it does an interesting job of separating sex and gender in the story. Thank you again for your comment!

      • I’m sorry, were it not for Konstantin, I wouldn’t have known you replied, must’ve gotten lost in the email. If you game at all Mass effect is worth checking out. The Asari look as female as the Namekians look male. As far as no one commenting because it’s expected they’ll be male, no one comments because they all have the same gender and that…well… Frieza is busy committing genocide against them when we meet them :(. That the Asari appear female I’d say it’s no more noteworthy than the Namekians in DBZ appearing male. I don’t recall any gender roles in what we got to see of Namekian society, some fought, others tended tree fields, some healed. Others made wish granting Dragon Balls, side note those are may fave. The Asari likewise have their healers, their warriors, their diplomats. Lacking in wish granting Dragon balls however. Is it something people comment on when speaking about the game? Most don’t really bother noticing, having been apart of groups involved with both, we use the male and female pronouns for ease of conversation when necessary, we are well aware that they aren’t technically, but it really helps shorten conversation, but we don’t really comment on it. Kami and Piccolo fused together could stop Frieza, and the Asari have amazing space sheriffs. Awesomeness everywhere :).

  3. I don’t think Toriyama thinks about gender politics. So, if you analyze how genders are represented in his work, you are analyzing something that is not there. It is like seeing a message in the grain of a tree or reading a fortune in the drip of an emptied coffee cup.

    • Whether or not Toriyama thinks about gender politics doesn’t mean gender doesn’t affect how he writes or creates characters. I am not arguing that he is doing anything on purpose, rather that social understandings of gender color his work. My critique is just as valid because regardless of Toriyama’s intentions, the Namekians are genderless, but clearly coded as male.

  4. This is all well and good, but actually the Namekian race are hermaphroditic, not asexual – Toriyama said so himself in interview – and are based off slugs and snails.

    Hermaphrodites (specifically: Protandric Simultaneous Hermaphrodites, if you wanna get technical) possess both male and female reproductive organs, meaning they can impregnate others, be impregnated by others, and impregnate themselves. Their male organs develop before their female organs, which is why Namekians would ‘appear’ male and take on masculine characteristics, when they are in fact intersex, all due to the fact that they’re exposed to androgens prior to estrogens.

    Whether or not this was all thought out prior to the anime, the biology fully supports the characters’ portrayals in voice and appearance as ‘male’.

    Perhaps your comments ring true for members of other DBZ lifeforms, the biology of which is hitherto unknown to us, but realistically if you’re looking for gender equality, a show based entirely on alien tyrants, space fighters, martial artists and androids all beating the living hell out of eachother, probably isn’t the place to expect it.

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