How Dragon Ball Z helped me fight back against toxic masculinity

By: Anthony Gramuglia August 16, 20190 Comments
Promo image of Goku and young Gohan smiling with Piccolo stoic behind them and the dragon in the background

Did anyone growing up in the early 2000s not watch at least a little Dragon Ball Z as a kid? The show aired on Toonami a ton, and without it a bunch of kids might never have gotten into anime. While it’s best known for its epic battles and intergalactic power struggles, the series has meant much more to me than that. Dragon Ball Z helped me as a man address problematic aspects of my life and expectations placed upon me that I had up until that point either neglected or outright ignored.

First, a primer: toxic masculinity is not the idea that masculinity is inherently bad. The problem is when masculinity is used as a means to cause others pain. It’s the insistence that being manly is the ultimate goal of all men, that if you aren’t masculine enough you are without value, and that emotions other than rage and pride are shameful.

On the surface, DBZ looks like it fits right in with these unhealthy ideals. The world of Goku and friends is one where fighting solves all problems. While some fight for sport, other times characters are told the only way to confront a problem is by punching it really hard in the face. Gohan, for example, is an academic learner who never once is able to talk his way out of a problem. The few times he attempts this, he is pushed until physical force is the only option—or, as in the case of Cell, the best option. It would appear that physical strength is the only factor that matters.

Except when it isn’t. Over the course of the series, DBZ shows that an obsession with toxic masculine power and dominance harms far more than it helps. It’s only when male characters learn to shift from destructive to constructive masculinity that they step into their roles as heroes and find real happiness, both for themselves and the people they care about. 

Gohan in his Great Saiyaman costume and Videl against a wrecked cityscape

To Serve and Protect: Gohan and the purpose of power

Gohan fights to overcome threats like Frieza, Cell, and Buu; however, he consistently sees fighting as a last resort. He never enjoys fighting like his father, and once the fighting ends, he returns to his real passion: education. By the time the series ends, Gohan has intentionally left fighting behind to start a family, functioning as a full-time academic rather than combatant. Even when other characters criticize him for giving up his training, Gohan never seems to deviate from his personal objectives.

This is especially true when he takes on his persona as the Great Saiyaman. His outfit is completely absurd. Every character who sees it thinks it looks ridiculous, but Gohan doesn’t seem to care. He’s more interested in helping people than looking cool doing it.

Gohan, as Great Saiyaman, is one of the only characters to go out protecting the public (the only other person who does this is Krillin, who becomes a police officer in the much later sequel Dragon Ball Super). Yes, the other characters fight cosmic threats, but rarely do they get involved with crime-fighting or helping ordinary “on-the-ground” people on a day-to-day basis. 

And the Great Saiyaman doesn’t exist because Gohan wants to become stronger. He just wants to use his abilities to help people. Gohan is gifted with strength, but that isn’t what his character is centered around.

Bulma leaning against Vegeta's shoulder

Empty Strength: Goku, Vegeta, and the importance of life outside the ring

On the other hand, characters who are obsessed with fighting are rarely shown to be very happy. Goku, despite his physical strength and martial arts skills, fails at literally everything else, which puts him at odds with the world and especially his family. While this is mostly comedic, being a skilled fighter really only comes in handy every few years. He cannot otherwise function in society the way other people—including his less combat-focused friends—do.

Most notably, Goku’s obsession with fighting and becoming stronger leads to him frequently abandoning his family. Goten is conceived during Goku’s last moments alive in the Cell Saga and thus doesn’t meet his father for another seven years, when Goku returns for a fighting tournament. Gohan never really knew Goku, even when he was around. It is telling that Gohan treats Piccolo, his mentor, as more of a father than his biological dad.

Piccolo sparring with young Gohan

While the show doesn’t usually linger on the emotional detachment between Goku and his children, it is evident throughout. When Goku sends Gohan out to fight Cell, it’s Piccolo who’s horrified, talking about how Gohan hates fighting and expressing the most visible concern when Gohan is hurt or injured. Goku only realizes the potential consequences of his actions deep into the fight, when his son is visibly being pummeled.

Of course, Goku is still a better father than his father, Bardock, who was so obsessed with fighting he didn’t even know his sons’ names. It seems as if every generation of hero has a healthier perspective on managing their family lives and emotional well-being. This results in them becoming less toxic people. The children evolve past the faults of their parents.

Then there’s Vegeta, an arrogant warrior-prince who is so obsessed with fighting it dominates his life. His obsession to be stronger than Goku doesn’t bring him any joy throughout the series. While it does make him more powerful, his arrogance to prove his strength causes more harm than good, not just to others (such as when he allows Cell to absorb Android 17 just so he can fight Cell at his peak power), but also to himself. Vegeta is never shown to be happy… Until the Buu Saga, at least.

It’s only then that something else takes priority in his life: his family. Unlike Goku, he takes time to explore his paternal side. And, yes, while this often does involve martial arts, his focus on his wife and children slowly changes his character. He finally finds genuine happiness.

Piccolo shielding Gohan from an attack

His own toxic masculinity almost ruins it all when he accepts a curse that will return him to his original state at the start of the series. Ultimately, though, all the damage he causes is undone (because Dragon Balls), and Vegeta makes a decision that prioritizes his son’s safety over his own pride. He finds satisfaction in doing something constructive that helps those he loves—an entirely selfless act. This arc shows that the unhealthy desire to prove you’re stronger than someone else can only harm rather than help.

This idea carries through the entire series, as the characters who have lives outside of battles are far happier. Piccolo is an obvious example, as he often finds contentment in meditating or training others rather than going out to prove himself. His more strategic approach to combat also lends itself well to finding solutions to problems. In particular, it’s his paternal love for Gohan that ultimately leads to Piccolo growing from an evil villain to an objective moral center of the series.

Mr. Satan praying for mercy from Kid Buu

Manly Tears, Manly Love: The power of showing emotion

In media that accords rigidly to toxic masculinity, emotion is often shown as a sign of weakness. However, this is not the case in DBZ. In fact, emotion, from sorrow and rage to unrelenting joy, are positives, able to grant the characters strength rather than make them subjects of mockery or ridicule.

The series presents Krillin’s insecurities with sincerity and honesty. His relationship with Android 18 isn’t played for laughs. Gohan is a great big goof who unabashedly dresses in a gaudy outfit. There’s not a hint of irony in Piccolo’s love for Gohan. Vegeta cries multiple times in the series.

What is ridiculed, however, is when people try to present themselves as stronger than they really are to make people respect them. Mr. Satan demonstrates his strength in feats that, under normal circumstances, would be extraordinary; however, his machismo and constant bragging are ridiculous to everyone else, since the regular cast can blow up planets. 

Instead, it’s Mr. Satan’s affection and friendship with Buu that almost saves the world, and his desire to inspire people that helps Goku create the Spirit Bomb that ultimately defeats Kid Buu.

Again, Dragon Ball Z presents toxic masculinity as a negative quality, which then gives way to an ultimately positive portrayal of masculine emotion. It’s constructive instead of destructive masculinity.

Android 18 kissing Krillin's cheek

Stop Flexing, Start Doing: Feminine-coded strength on and off the battlefield

Of course, it’s hard to have a full conversation about masculinity without talking about how a story treats its female characters. Dragonball Z’s record on this front is admittedly rough, and not just because the majority of the cast is male. Characters like Chi-Chi and Videl are incredibly skilled fighters, but they often just fall back on being wives and mothers, often losing their distinct characteristics as they fade into supporting roles. 

Even so, when watching the show as a kid, I never got the impression that women were weak or unimportant. Just the opposite, in fact: I realized that non-masculine strength could be hugely valuable and always worthy of respect. This was thanks to two of the show’s most prominent female characters, Android 18 and Bulma.

Android 18 is never interested in fighting, but sees it as a means to an end. She often uses her incredible skills to humiliate characters defined by their toxic masculine qualities. She beats Vegeta to a bloody pulp without breaking a sweat, which reduces Vegeta to frustrated tears as he realizes that, for all his training, there are still people stronger than him. She later deliberately loses to Mr. Satan after proving to the “World Champion” that she could beat him, but would rather just exploit him for money so he can hold onto his pride.

In both cases, she is not defined by the men’s toxic pride, but exploits it to her own ends (shutting down someone she finds irritating and getting money). She’s also far stronger and more talented than her husband, Krillin, yet the two build a relationship on mutual understanding and affection, even if it is often relegated to the background of the story.

Mr Satan punching a totally unphased Android 18 in the face

That said, 18 does stop fighting after marrying and having kids. Dragon Ball Super and Dragon Ball GT make an attempt to remedy this by incorporating 18 into their core arcs, but this doesn’t change that 18 sits out of the Buu Arc for a while. It can also be argued that her being absorbed by Cell is meant to knock her down a peg, though this is more debatable.

Which is why Bulma is the best example of a positive female presence in DBZ, despite never fighting anyone.

Without Bulma, nothing in Dragon Ball or Dragon Ball Z would ever happen. She is instrumental in every story arc due to her intelligence and brilliance. She constructs every piece of technology needed throughout the series. Dragon Ball Radar? Transportation? Interstellar travel? Time travel? It’s all thanks to Bulma. 

Bulma on the phone while a spaceship is half-built in the background

Even later on, in Dragon Ball Super, it’s Bulma, not Goku and the other men, who manages to save the day by befriending the God of Destruction, Beerus. For a show defined by violence solving every problem, it is ultimately Bulma’s brilliance that makes all things possible. 

Perhaps most telling is this: despite Vegeta being one of the most powerful creatures in the universe, as his more toxic personality traits fade away, he treats Bulma not as “some woman,” but as his equal. At the start of the series, Vegeta barks out commands to Bulma. She never follows these orders, which forces him to change his approach. 

And, over time, his character and their relationship evolves. Vegeta goes from acting in-charge to compromising with Bulma. This is part of his arc, where his actions benefit others rather than just himself. He begins to think of other people’s needs. This is his positive growth as a character: unlearning destructive masculine ideals and adopting a healthier, more constructive form of masculinity.

close up of Saiyaman Gohan

Moving Past Power Levels: Personal growth in fiction and the real world

Again and again throughout the Dragon Ball franchise, characters rejecting toxic masculinity and embracing healthier masculine ideals leads to them having happier, more fulfilling lives. As a kid, this was a huge deal for me.

Growing up in the 1990s and 2000s, I was bombarded by stories (in reality and fiction) about how physical strength was all that mattered and men who expressed sincere love and affection were weak and worthy of mockery. Whenever one male figure expressed platonic love towards someone, but especially towards another man, we as kids were told to laugh or even call the person a homophobic slur. 

But Dragon Ball Z, a series that so many men held up as a mascuine ideal, showed that men can love one another and that those platonic feelings are absolutely valid. Seeing all this and learning to understand this as I grew up proved instrumental to my development as a man. 

PIccolo and adult Gohan back to back

I and other fans got into Dragon Ball Z because of the spectacular fights, yes, but many of us stayed because we admire and identify with the characters. As we’ve grown older, we’ve begun to reexamine how the characters developed and the different roles they’ve occupied.

By reading into the context of these character’s decades-long arcs, one can learn how the entire story functions as a whole and how each character exists in that story, and then compare the fantasy of the narrative to the reality beyond it. By extrapolating ideas and reading between the lines of this fun, goofy adventure series, one can see both its problematic and positive aspects. 

The Dragon Ball franchise has plenty of flaws and troubling elements (as others on AniFem have talked about) and these are definitely worth discussing and critiquing. But that doesn’t change the fact that it did a lot of things right, too. For me and many other boys, the series showed us that strength isn’t all about power levels and fighting moves; that it’s okay to cry and show affection; and that happiness comes from helping and caring for others, not from trying to control them. There’s a lot of value in that, and I’ll always be grateful for it.

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