CONTENT WARNING for sexualization of minors, sexual harassment, homophobia/slurs, NSFW screenshots.
I finally sat down to watch the Dragon Ball anime late last year. Even though I had started with Dragon Ball Z during my childhood—imagining myself as Goku and going about my days fighting imaginary enemies (a.k.a, plant pots), righting wrongs, and kissing the girl—I enjoy watching things in order. After all, I’d had Dragon Ball with me during my early years, it felt natural to visit the franchise’s.
The story of Dragon Ball is simple enough: Bulma, a teenage genius, comes across a wild boy living in the mountains named Son Goku as she searches for the seven legendary Dragon Balls. When joined together, the balls will grant the user a wish. Together, Bulma and Goku go around the world in search of them.
Watching the first few episodes, it became clearer to me why I had placed myself in Goku’s skin as a young girl. Kid Goku, as expected, is much more naive and childish than how he is in DBZ, but there’s still that same innocence and desire to do good that I desperately clung to during my younger years. He was strong and had the power to destroy the world if he wanted to, but instead used it to help others.
What’s more, he was popular with the ladies. Later, I’d come to realize that me putting myself in the role of the man was my own strange way of dealing with my sexuality as a queer woman. I wanted to be Goku, to be a man, because it felt like the only natural way to be with another woman. I never really assessed that thinking until years later, when I came to the realization that loving and wanting to be female characters at the same time was possible.
Back when I could barely read and was living in the skin of my anime heroes, sexist tropes in anime never really crossed my mind. I was a hero, I could kiss all the girls I wanted, and anyone different from me was weak. I could do anything. It was possibly that childish thinking that convinced me Dragon Ball was made for me.
I’ve always been selfish in the media that I consume. I go through phases where anything I like immediately becomes something that is mine, because something being mine seems to purify it. It’s a damaging way of thinking, and is no doubt what made fan-favorite characters Muten Roshi and Oolong’s treatment of Bulma, a character who I immediately loved due to her take-no-shit attitude, become a much harder pill to swallow.
Bulma is peeped at and often shown naked all for the sake of a gag or fanservice. While some argue the series should get a pass for being from a “different time,” seeing Bulma reduced to a character who was helpless for the sake of inducing some boners turned my stomach. Was this what Dragon Ball wanted little girls to see themselves as: something to be picked apart and sexualized for jokes?
I have been hurt and abused at the hands of men just like Muten Roshi, someone who acts like a perverted uncle one minute but is wise and well-meaning the next. It made me feel as though I was stuck in a nightmare, reliving past memories and opening old wounds. Even worse, it felt as though I was ruining Dragon Ball for myself. Despite this, I still continued to watch the anime. I wanted to believe it would get better.
Instead, I picked up so many instances where Bulma is sexualized, despite being a teenage girl, by those older than her. What makes it worse is that it’s clearly seen as a joke, to the point where Bulma breaks the fourth wall to imply that her being raped by a group of Red Ribbon Army soldiers is just “too perverted” to be shown in a shounen manga.
It’s positioned in such a way that Bulma is well aware of what her role is in the episode, and while she is saved at the end of it, it’s a pointless addition to both the anime and the manga and in retrospect, falls flat. Because if “heroes” like Muten Roshi and Oolong, people we’re supposed to root for, are allowed to treat Bulma like a sex doll, then these commonplace baddies teach us absolutely nothing.
What’s worse, Dragon Ball actively goes a step further by including a scene that comes from my very worst nightmares: Bulma and Goku getting roofied. It isn’t enough that Bulma is actively sexualized by characters older than her; she’s faced with a situation where she’s unable to fight back against Oolong’s sexual advances. I first came upon the scene in the anime, and I immediately felt cold, but hot, and I remember being unable to look away but feeling worse and worse as the episode continued.
This was not the Dragon Ball I remembered so fondly as a child. Dragon Ball was supposed to be about heroes who saved the day, who didn’t care who you were as long as you could get up and fight injustice. I remember thinking that all the time when I played as Goku and Vegeta, running around in my garden and pretending to save my dog from imaginary enemies and sweeping in to kiss her on the head when I’d finished. She would sometimes snore in response, but I didn’t mind. The feeling of being a hero and doing something right was what entertained me.
Promises of rape and abuse? That wasn’t what I had imagined, and it felt as though someone had torn that dream right up in front of me and stomped on it for good measure. I used to run back from school just to set up and play Dragon Ball, but this? This felt like loving it had been a waste of time.
In the end, Oolong never manages to rape Bulma due to the unforeseen circumstances of shapeshifter Puar tricking Oolong and making him run away before he can do anything. I suppose Oolong’s downfall was what I was supposed to find funny. But the fact that Oolong was so close to doing something so abhorrent sickened me to the point I wondered whether it would be wise to continue watching.
Then the series introduced General Blue. Going through high school as a queer girl meant that I’d had a few homophobic remarks thrown my way, even though I’d never officially been out. It was like living in someone else’s body, hiding anything about me away that could reveal myself.
General Blue could not have been more different from me. He was quite obviously written in a way that conveyed him as feminine and “camp” and proud of it, his voice high and his disgust towards women plain.
Blue is a stereotype, which is troubling in itself, but it’s the reactions to Blue, particularly from Krillin and Bulma, that sent a cold shiver down my spine. I’ve been called a “fag” before by people I thought were my friends, and as embarrassing as it may be to admit it, I felt the same when Bulma and Krillin used the same word on Blue. It wasn’t for Blue that I was upset; it was how characters I’d come to love held ideals that were dangerous and hurtful.
For a while, I didn’t touch Dragon Ball. This media that I’d consumed had turned out to be far from the pure thing I’d hoped it would be. My nostalgia from when I was a child, how I had reimagined myself to be certain characters to work past a lot of my issues, it felt as though it had been for nothing. I felt betrayed in the worst way and I was so certain that I’d walk away from it for good.
Knowing that, I took a break from Dragon Ball once again and wrote down what I was feeling. Rather than taking the show as an “all or nothing” experience, I looked at the parts of the show I loved versus the parts that hurt me.
Bulma often gets sexualized, but the series also depicts her as an extremely clever girl. Whenever Goku’s in trouble, he doesn’t constantly turn to Muten Roshi or Yamcha, but instead goes to Bulma because he knows of her importance—not just to his search for the Dragon Balls, but to himself. I also enjoyed that Bulma was a huge reason for Goku’s journey in the first place: she’s the one who wants to find the Dragon Balls first and creates the Dragon Ball radar. She starts the story, and I found that very poignant.
Even Goku is a character I ended up loving with all of my heart, my beautiful fighting boy. His kindness to those around him, even those who don’t deserve it, was what really appealed to me rather than the actual fighting. He sees suffering and pain, and instead of adding to it, he wants to help appease it no matter who the person is. There are a lot people could learn from Goku and I felt overwhelmingly happy whenever his enthusiasm for his friends and the world around him showed.
After considering all that, the question I came down to was this: was I happy watching Dragon Ball? Ultimately, yes, I was. The good far outweighed the bad, but when the bad came, it hit me like a brick. But if I was happy for the majority of my time watching, it felt worth the risk.
So I went back to watching the anime, and just like that, I fell in love with it again. There were a lot of other characters that I found myself enjoying, and what’s more, much healthier relationships to be found too. I enjoyed Bulma’s fledgling relationship with Yamcha later on in the series, as well as her easy relationship with the naïve but good-natured Goku.
There were moments that were iffy due to Goku knowing 0% about human anatomy, but 90% of the time Goku and Yamcha’s relationship with Bulma was respectful and utterly heart-warming. Sure it doesn’t work out with Yamcha, and Goku’s interactions with Bulma become sparse as the series goes on, but it was comforting to know that I could watch their relationships unfold with glee.
I’ve mentioned that I have a troubling habit of making everything I watch seem “pure” in order to come to terms with myself watching it. This time I broke the cycle when I met up with some friends who were into Dragon Ball too and was like “Man, this anime is stupidly offensive! I hate it because it’s so good outside of that.”
It may not seem like a big deal, but to me, it was everything. I’d come to terms with the fact that Dragon Ball wasn’t what Kid Aimee had glorified, but that didn’t stop the anime from having merit. I wasn’t an idiot for loving it so much as a kid, I just wasn’t aware of the full picture.
If there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s this: Despite its flaws, Kid Aimee was right. Dragon Ball really is something special.