Spoilers for several female characters’ arcs, including Arlong Park and Dressrosa
One Piece is the best-selling manga of all time, full stop. Its mangaka, Oda Eiichiro, is one of the highest-earning authors of all time, taking second place as a comics author only to Garfield creator Jim Davis. While other titans of the industry like Naruto and Bleach have finally ended their original sagas, One Piece remains ongoing. After nearly twenty-five years of serialization, Oda’s epic has had a huge impact on its fans and the manga industry as a whole.
But while One Piece looms large in the present and past, conversations about how Oda treats women have often taken place on a surface level. Oda started out his career by including women in prominent and active roles in his stories. As time went on, his vindictive nature towards fans meant he started taking out the criticisms he received on his female characters and fans alike, undoing the good work he had done in the series’ early days.
Oda’s relationship to gender isn’t static, and his early work in One Piece is quite different from what he’s producing now. In the beginning, Oda’s women are positive, if flawed, examples of female characters. While no character design in One Piece can truly be called “realistic,” its women were complex people with believable proportions. As the series went on, however, he began punishing female fans demanding better representation by diminishing women’s roles.
Examples of his attitude near the beginning of One Piece’s run are present in the SBS, the long-running Q&A section featured in most One Piece volumes featuring Oda’s often unfiltered sentiments.
D: Were there really woman pirates?
O: Yes, there were. But it was considered bad luck to bring a woman on board a ship in those days, and so many of them disguised themselves as men. There were two woman pirates, Mary Read and Anne Bonny, who were said to have fought more bravely than any man. By the way, my character Alvida was based on a female pirate named Awilda (or Alvida) who formed a pirate crew comprised entirely of women. (Chapter 50, Page 124)
Oda is citing his sources and giving reasons why women belong in the One Piece world. It’s unnecessary—he is, after all, creating a fantasy universe where a boy made of rubber fights bad guys, so why should he need to justify female characters existing—but shows that Oda’s done his research and believes female pirates belong in his universe.
This is most clearly seen in Nami, the first (and for years, the only) female member of Luffy’s crew, the Straw Hats. Her role is that of the navigator, which occupies a tremendously important position; however, her combat abilities lag far behind the others’ from the very beginning.
Nami is also a money-grubbing thief, a role that paints the only major female character before Robin’s introduction as a duplicitous femme fatale in blue and white stripes instead of slinky dresses. Robin also fits this stereotype–she’s just better at it.
While Nami’s not the only member of the Straw Hats whose primary abilities aren’t physical combat, compare her company. Usopp may run at the first hint of a fight, but his skills lie in long-range combat as a sniper. While Chopper may primarily be a physician (and reindeer), he can still turn into a bulked-up version of himself in a pinch. Nami has her baton, but she uses it rarely and usually in last-ditch scenarios that end in defeat.
When Nami’s engagements in combat don’t end in defeat, it’s usually because she’s fighting against other women. Women versus women is a trope in long running shounen of this era – watch Naruto and count how many times a woman beats a man head-on. While these battles may be compelling narrative, in One Piece they’re not treated as serious battles compared to the “real” fights, which are Luffy or Zoro or Sanji fighting against the big bad of the arc. It feels like many female villains are only created to give Nami something to do during climactic battles.
The thing is, though, Oda is a good enough writer that he complicates any simple reading of Nami as a sexist caricature. Nami’s backstory, as played out at Arlong Park, is one of the most emotionally affecting parts of the East Blue Saga. Nami spends the first several arcs backstabbing and double-crossing Luffy & Co. for her own goals. She’s had to go it alone for years, and can’t trust anyone on her path of freeing herself from a tyrant. Asking Luffy for help is a moment of genuine character growth for a woman who has been forced to see everyone but herself as a mark.
Nami’s deceased mother figure, Belle-Mère, is also a huge part of this arc, and significant time is spent on her backstory. Belle-Mère is a former military officer, a fighting woman who adopted two orphaned children fresh out of the Marines. Despite her self-sacrificing death, she is presented as both morally and physically intimidating, her kind personality offset by nerves of steel.. As Oda explained in another SBS segment, even Bell-mère’s distinctive hairstyle is indicative of the way Oda writes her.
D: I have a question for Oda-sensei. What do you call Bell-mère-san’s haircut?
O: That hairstyle is called “Women have Guts”. You should yell it out in a beauty parlor. (Chapter 87, Page 128)
Sure, the hair is ugly, but it’s a clear indicator that he sees women as capable of possessing the same drive and fighting spirit as men.
There are also other female figures important to the Straw Hats’ backstories, such as Zoro’s formative childhood rival, Kuina. Zoro was never able to beat Kuina growing up, but Oda’s writing presents Zoro’s inability to win against Kuina as a result of his age: because he had not yet hit puberty, he couldn’t beat his rival in a fight. Kuina expressed sorrow and frustration that Zoro would eventually surpass her after he hit puberty, something she viewed as unavoidable due to her gender. Her death is Zoro’s primary motivation behind becoming the world’s greatest swordsman, but the potential for her character is never realized.
This arc sets so much up, not just for Zoro but for the series’ approach to women. The way moving forward seems obvious—presenting an adult woman who challenges Zoro as he is now, thus resolving his childhood trauma—but the series fails to do that… despite introducing Sergeant Tashigi, a swordswoman foil to Zoro who looks exactly like Kuina.
Although Tashigi initially seems like the obvious rival for Zoro, he instead remains overwhelmingly her superior while her position in the Marines is undermined by gendered condescension, with her troops sacrificing their lives to protect her rather than trusting in her skill. She’s not an asset; she’s a liability.
Despite laying the groundwork to defy Kuina’s internalized gender stereotypes through Tashigi, Oda uses her incompetence to justify them. Kuina has a fighting spirit and is thus sad she’s a woman. Instead of showing the reader that this is wrong through the narrative, Oda’s writing agrees with her.
It’s not that Oda thinks women don’t have the heart for it. This is said in his own words in the SBS:
D: HI!! Eiichi! You said in Volume 27 that the Jaya arc was “A man’s romance”?! As a woman of 18 years, how would you define my “burning passion for adventure” and “infinite dreams”?! And all my blood goes to my head when I read your manga!!! Take responsibility for it!!! Please take responsibility and include the girls, too.
From Her New Nye Co.
O: A woman’s romance? No, it’s a bit complicated. The word “man” is sometimes used like an adjective. Really good women have men in themselves. You call them “chic”. So I’ll scream it once again: Men and women can use “A MAN’S ROMANCE”!! Women are included!! (Chapter 263, Page 164)
What limited Oda in these early days was not the idea that women don’t want to fight, but the belief women are fundamentally physically weaker than men.
There are women throughout the story, but Kuina’s belief that puberty will strip her of all her advantages is repeatedly proven right as the plot develops. Sergeant Tashigi isn’t a satisfying successor to Kuina’s early death because she doesn’t follow through on the set-up for Kuina’s storyline or being a rival to Zoro. Instead, she proves that a fighting spirit can’t overcome the physical weakness of being a woman.
In Oda’s world, women lack the same prowess in combat as male characters despite the presence of magic Devil Fruit powers. Physically imposing women like Alvida and Big Mom are mocked to the point of inhumanity for their appearances and weight, while attractive women are rarely powerful. In the rare case a woman manages to be both powerful and attractive, like Robin, they mysteriously miss all the action.
Early One Piece isn’t perfect, but there was solid ground to build on. Oda could have grown into his female characters. He already understood the hard part, after all: that women strive for the same human desires of fighting and protecting as men.
Even with issues this endemic, Oda ultimately humanizes the women who populate the East Blue. He clearly understands that women have motivations: that they love and hurt and hate and desire for vengeance all on their own. Oda knows—or at least expressed, back in the late 1990s and early 2000s—a clear understanding that women are people, with all the messy results this entails.
But instead of listening to the negative feedback he started receiving, Oda doubled down.
I don’t think Oda hates women. It’s simpler than that: Oda doesn’t like it when people read his characters in ways he didn’t intend. He’s said it himself in interviews. On some level, I can’t blame him. It’s frustrating when readers misconstrue something you’ve written. In an interview at Color Walk 6 in 2014, Oda said:
“I get annoyed to hear people speaking ill of characters in ONE PIECE. For example, when they say ‘this villain is weak’, I can’t help thinking that then I’ll make him much stronger!”
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The reemergence of Sir Crocodile, one of the series’ early antagonists, is among my favorite moments of the series, and it likely happened as Oda’s response to fans calling him weak. Here, Oda’s decision to prove complaining fans wrong by changing the text improved the series.
Oda’s reactions to complaints about his portrayal of women in SBS, however, are another story.
D: Nice to meet you. This is sudden, but… please teach us a tip or two on how to draw that hawt hourglass body all ONE PIECE female characters seem to have! Make sure you don’t forget to include their airbags ♡
P.N. If there’s no bread, let them eat roses~
O: Yes. Hello. It’s drawing time at the SBS segment. I would suggest that you think of a woman’s proportions as “three circles, one X”. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be leaving. (I only draw this kind of body, so I get a lot of complaint postcards from my female audience. Let’s all stay strong and keep on living life.) (Chapter 786, Page 24)
This is where his pettiness goes from fun and relatable to troubling. In Oda’s own words, a “lot” of women complain that he doesn’t do right by his female characters. He could reflect on the validity of these many complaints and use that feedback to improve his narrative. Instead, he doubles down on the character traits people took issue with.
Complaining that a villain is “weak” is an opinion that engages with the media in-world and doesn’t affect anyone. Female fans writing in to express that they are uncomfortable with the portrayal of their gender in his work are talking about something that impacts them personally. Poor representations of women in the media have the potential to affect the way other people in the real world see these women, from cultural perceptions to concrete working conditions.
Despite explicitly acknowledging that many women who read One Piece don’t like his representation, Oda dismisses them and advises his audience to “all stay strong and keep on living life.” Female fans who complain are moved from the “fan” category to “other.” Oda paints himself as the brave one even as he makes his female fans the target for ridicule by aligning his audience with him against “them.”
Meanwhile, Oda’s character designs grew more sexualized, not less. Here are side-by-side comparisons of Nami, one at the beginning of the series, one directly before the two-year time skip, and one of her afterward.
Some… things… certainly changed. Long before I ever interacted with One Piece seriously—before I knew anything but the most basic details of the premise—I remember people joking about the huge change in the way female characters looked after the timeskip. This is egregiously sexist character design, enough that people with no vested interest in representing female characters well still took note when it happened. Oda took the timeskip as an opportunity to respond to female complaints and male desires: look, everyone, he said, look at my female characters now.
This change for the worse wasn’t just visual, but affected the narrative as well. This is clearly seen in Rebecca, a major female character in the Dressrosa saga. It’s not just that she’s a 16-year-old in a chainmail bikini, but that her agency is repeatedly denied as the story unfolds.
Rebecca is a gladiator taught by her paternal figure to only fight when absolutely necessary. However, when that time arrives in the story, he denies her the opportunity. Despite Rebecca’s skill, this older man’s desire to protect her supersedes her desire to protect her loved ones. It’s taken as a given that she wouldn’t want to fight unless there was absolutely no other way. In other coming-of-age stories, her lack of desire to fight might prove the necessity of doing so when it comes down to the wire. Instead, a man (her mentor no less, a character type who’s generally meant to be pushed aside so their student can complete their growth) steps in at that crucial moment.
What happened to the world Belle-Mere lived in? What happened to a woman’s sense of adventure, her ability to possess a manly spirit? Princess Vivi from Alabasta, the driving force from a much earlier saga, may not have had astounding combat moments, but her battle between her desire to serve her people and her thirst for adventure is a more compelling story than Rebecca’s narrative. Vivi may have chosen civic duty, but she remains an honorary Straw Hat.
Rebecca is a painful step back from Vivi at a time when Oda should be stepping forward. In the past, he had some misguided ideas and exhibited plenty of gender essentialism, but he valued women’s stories and participation. Nami and Robin’s arcs are as fleshed out as any other Straw Hat’s, and their moments of growth are personal and popular highlights of the overall series, used as examples of the quality One Piece can possess.
D: *click* You BIG BOOB LOVER!!! (Ahem, pardon me.) *slam*… *click* *smack* (blown kiss) *slam*
O: Whoa. The girls are rebelling. What are you gonna do about that, guys?! OK, leave it to me! I’ll lay down the law for us all. What the hell are you talking about? I’m a goddamn shonen manga-ka! A MAN’S DREAM!! NEVER ENDS!!! (That was good) (Chapter 381, Page 86)
A female fan complains, and he says that he draws shounen manga: therefore, his representation of women is in line with the genre. “A man’s dream” includes adventure, fights, freedom, and all the core tenets of One Piece that appealed to earlier women writing into the SBS; however, it also includes sexualizing women. As a shonen mangaka, Oda writes for boys and aims to represent what boys (and often men) want. What girls want—representation that shows them as varied and human as male characters—evidently just isn’t as important.
Instead of considering the reasons his female fans don’t like his choices, he considers their opinions irrelevant because they are not his target audience. Any argument of sexism or misogyny can be written away as the annoying or bitter complaints of women whom the story isn’t “for”. The women who get it get to stay, on the condition that they don’t complain.
If you ask why Oda should have to think about representing women, my response is that it’s hypocritical to say that Oda shouldn’t have to moralize, because, at the end of the day, One Piece already has morals. One Piece doesn’t succeed simply because Luffy is funny, Zoro is cool, and Nami is sexy: it has a through-line of humanity that tells its audience time and time again that blood is less important than the family you choose. Oda is perfectly willing to tell anti-authoritarian stories about corrupt police forces and write blatant racism allegories. To excuse sexism in a show that’s willing to address the evils of slavery head-on requires intellectual dishonesty.
Finally, the idea that women are “not his audience” is false when 52% of the readership of One Piece is estimated to be female. If over half of your audience is women, maybe it’s in your best interest not to completely disregard everything they say. At some point in a two-decade-long career, a good writer—which Oda demonstrably is—should be able to look around and see that the themes he thought would only appeal to boys have a wide appeal to everyone. Perhaps, then, it isn’t that “really good women” have a man’s heart. Perhaps men and women all have the same heart. Perhaps we all share the same drive for adventure, freedom, and life on the open seas.
One Piece is a wonderful, mischievous, and masterful show with a lot to say about the human need for friendship and adventure. It’s only gotten more influential with time, and it reaches a larger audience than ever. While far from perfect, twenty years ago Oda demonstrated an awareness that female shounen fans possessed the same desire for heroism and friendship as the boys who read his work, and he was happy to let them tag along on the journey—but only until they pointed out his flaws. When women asked for more, Oda made sure female fans knew One Piece was never for girls in the first place.