*note, I am back in college and no longer have access to my copies of the manga, any references to the series will be paraphrased quotations and is no longer a direct quote from the text. If I miss anything or you feel I taken too much license on the information I provide feel free to talk to me about it.
I’ve been getting a lot of comments by UnderwolfYamcha on my blog Women in Dragon Ball Z and I wanted to more fully address some of the issues that came up.
The comment thread began with an explanation that Akira Toriyama treats his male characters poorly as well as his female characters. My first point is that yes, this is true. Akira Toriyama is constantly playing up stereotypes of both genders, but in the Dragon Ball/Dragon Ball Z Universe, you earn respect of both fans and the characters in the show by being the toughest and the strongest. Each character’s worth is hinged upon their ability to hold their own in a fight. If you cannot compete with that arc’s big bad then your character is shafted to a more minor role. It’s very convenient that the stereotype for men is to be a tough, strong badass.
While there are exceptions, which I’ll get into later, these are the stereotypes Akira Toriyama presses. There are too many male characters to go person by person like I did for the women of DBZ, but in Toriyama’s series men are the epitome of typical masculinity. They are incredibly muscled (which is fine as the show is so action based and requires them to be so) and they do not show serious emotions other than anger. If they do then the audience knows something is serious. The male characters don’t cry very often. I can count the number of times a male character cries on one hand: Vegeta cries when Frieza kills him, Trunks cries when the androids kill Gohan in The History of Trunks movie, and Gohan cries when Piccolo dies and when Goku sacrifices himself to destroy Cell. It is rare for someone to cry; it is not manly. Goku doesn’t cry when he realizes Vegeta and Nappa killed Yamcha, Tien, Piccolo, and Chiaotzu; he gets angry. Vegeta doesn’t cry when Cell kills his son Trunks; he gets angry. Unless the character is young, as in the case of both Gohan and Trunks, or the situation is incredibly serious, the more acceptable response is anger.
This becomes a problem because although the series is so deeply rooted in action scenes, almost all of the plot arcs are character based. It is severely limiting to the characters when the emotional responses are kept within a neat box of what’s acceptable for men. I do understand that this is Japanese culture and the cultural norms are bound to be different, but no matter what culture it comes from sexism is still sexism. Boys should not be exposed to the idea that men can only solve problems through violence. This is the first way Akira Toriyama treats his male leads poorly: he doesn’t let them be fully developed and provides a poor image for young boys.
But there are a few characters who do not fit into this masculine stereotype: the male characters who are played as sleazy cads (Master Roshi, Oolong, and occasionally Krillin).
So, both Master Roshi and Oolong are clearly established from the start of Dragon Ball as being sleazy and not particularly upset by the notion. Master Roshi is infatuated with Bulma’s breasts, going so far as to call her Goku’s boingy friend when he meets Chi-Chi and notices Chi-Chi is not nearly as developed as Bulma. This is, of course, in addition to reading porn magazines, teaching Goku and Krillin to read through bodice ripper books, and attempting to molest Bulma or sexually harassing her on multiple occasions. Master Roshi only agrees to accept Krillin as another disciple when the two of them bond over porn Krillin brings as a present. To be fair to Krillin, this is minor in his character arc but as it is also one of the first introductions of him in the series it needs to be taken into account of how he is portrayed.
Oolong has similar circumstance to Master Roshi where once he is revealed in his true form (he’s a shape shifter) the audience learns how he was expelled from shape shifting school for stealing the female teacher’s panties. He goes on to save the Dragon Ball crew by wishing for “a hot girl’s panties” and interrupting Emperor Pilaf’s wish to rule the world. Although the accidental hero, Toriyama uses Oolong as another tool to portray Bulma as a sex object. Goku makes a deal with Master Roshi that in exchange for Master Roshi’s help Master Roshi will be able to squeeze Bulma’s breasts. When Bulma learns of this she convinces Oolong to shapeshift into her. Oolong does so and tells Master Roshi he can do a ‘Puff Puff’ instead of squeezing her breasts. Between Master Roshi and Oolong there is no respect for the female characters and the two of them are another poor portrayal of men. Instead of being unemotional and masculine they are dishonorable and it is played for laughs. In this way they are both sexist against men, who in this sense are being portrayed as sexist pigs, and against women because the issues of molestation are never taken into account.
The common thread between these characters are that they are not always honorable (with Krillin as the exception when he gets older) and they therefore cannot be truly masculine. The true stereotype of masculinity is that not only are the men strong but they are also chivalrous (Vegeta being the only one to continually break this trope). It’s no accident that the characters who are portrayed as being less than the ideal of masculinity are an old man, a pig, and (occasionally) the short man. As a side note, as Krillin’s character develops and he grows up, his perverted side is never mentioned and so he becomes more and more like the chivalrous hero of Goku.
The men of Dragon Ball Z are therefore limited on two fronts: either hyper-masculine and unable to express emotions, or sleazy womanizers who are shown to be unmasculine because they are not chivalrous. Both are harmful stereotypes for boys and the only alternative is the characters who do not fit into these two types. Unfortunately they are largely ignored (Yamcha, Tien, Chiaotzu, etc) because they are not characters designed to be in the stagnant DBZ world where strength is the quality that matters. The human characters, except Krillin, lose their importance when they can no longer compete with the main heroes. This is similar to how women lose their importance if they lose their beauty by stereotypical standards.
For all that I love DBZ the portraits of the male protagonists are not progressive and only further distance the ideals that men and women should strive for. By highlighting such different and and harmful ideals for the two sexes DBZ and Toriyama promotes a sexist society.
As a note, this is an overview of the male characters. There are far too many to include in this post. If you would like to request a specific character post please let me know and I would be happy to oblige.