Loving Dragon Ball Z can sometimes be an exercise in how to love problematic shows.
When you are younger, things like sexual innuendo go over your head. You’re not super educated about cultural stereotypes, either. You don’t really know what it means when a character is sidelined or written out of the story, you just notice one day that they’re gone. If they were your favorite, you hoped they would eventually return.
However, when you get older and you discover the time suck that is TVTropes.org, you think to yourself, ‘Hey! That’s not cool! How did I miss that?!’ That’s me every time I watched an episode of DBZ after the age of 23. A question I come back to repeatedly is a simple and complicated one: “How could I have loved a show that was so casually sexist?” The answer: Well, I chose to look at the positives instead!
Anyone can see after a handful of episodes that the male characters in DBZ greatly outnumber the female characters. It’s not hard to come to the conclusion that Goku’s wife Chi-Chi and resident scientist Bulma are nothing more to the plot than window dressing and fan service. When you think about the world almost getting destroyed by Vegeta and Nappa, who cares what the chicks are doing, amirite?
At different times in the show they are presented as these annoying women hovering around our heroes, cheering from afar or in need of some kind of rescuing. You know, the typical roles female characters in fiction have been shoehorned into (Damsel in distress, cheerleader, nagging wife) since the beginning of time. But I love Bulma and Chi-Chi. The thing about Bulma and Chi-Chi is that it doesn’t take much digging to unearth their positives. They are problematic, yes. They don’t get enough credit for being just plain AWESOME, either.
Chi-Chi was declared the Strongest Woman In The World. She fought Goku in Dragon Ball. Like, actually fought him in the same style and manner that his male opponents did. We don’t see her fight like this at all in DBZ though, which is so disappointing. By the time Goten is born, Chi-Chi tries to help Gohan train him and we see glimpses of the badass trainer-mom she could have been.
Chi-Chi also has some of the best zingers and isn’t afraid to talk crap. This can be a double-edged sword though as it sometimes makes her look like a crazy person when she rails on someone. Such is the risk though that a lot of women have to take when they are unapologetically outspoken like Chi-Chi.
Then there’s Bulma, which I believe is the lead female character of DBZ. This much was obvious in Dragon Ball, but her role as a leading character is diminished somewhat in DBZ. Which is odd considering the fact that without Bulma there wouldn’t even be a show. If Bulma had never decided to go looking for the dragon balls as a teenager, she would have never met Goku. In fact it’s fair to say Goku would have spent his whole life living in the woods and talking to the four-star dragon ball if he’d never met Bulma.
Bulma is not a fighter, she’s a thinker. Whenever there is a technology problem, Bulma has the answer. Whenever science is involved, Bulma knows what to do. Whenever the gang needs someone to round up the dragon balls, Bulma leads the search because she created the dragon ball radar in the first place. I always loved that Bulma flaunted her hyper-intelligence and much like, Chi-Chi didn’t take crap from the guys. She is something like DBZ’s Queen of Snark.
And, oh yeah (how could I forget?), Bulma and her son kind of saved the future.
It is not because Bulma conceived Future Trunks in the first place, but because she built a time machine that sent Future Trunks to warn Goku and Co. of a new evil ahead. The alternate universe in which the Androids kill everything with a pulse would have been the only universe if it weren’t for Bulma’s pure genius.
I’m not saying Bulma and Chi-Chi are perfect paragons of badassery who are getting a bad rap. Chi-Chi has moments when she is downright overbearing and obnoxious. Bulma can sometimes be ditzy. They are both treated VERY poorly by the male characters (IE: Goku attempts to offer Bulma as a gift to perverted deity Old Kai; Gohan yelling at Chi-Chi to shut up in front of the whole gang).
They aren’t really respected like some of the male characters and sometimes I can’t help but think that that has a lot to do with them getting sidelined so often or being magically pulled out of the spotlight once they got married and had children. DBZ is about martial arts and awesome fighters saving the world, yes I know. So some could argue that Chi-Chi and Bulma are appropriate background characters. When the gang needs to operate a spaceship, it’s useful to have Bulma around. When we want to see a new generation of fighters, it’s good that Chi-Chi had sons.
They had the potential to be so much more than mere background characters though. When Chi-Chi’s showing Goten how to fight for the upcoming tournament and when Bulma’s wishing people back from the dead after rounding up the dragon balls, I always think about how much more awesome DBZ would have been if the women had received more opportunities in the story to be amazing.
What is Summer of DBZ? Hi, Iggles! I’m Melody and I will be analyzing Dragon Ball Z, it’s themes, tropes, characters and more every weekend all summer long. Feel free to leave a comment if you want to talk more about Chi-Chi and Bulma! Next week, I’ll be breaking down the family dynamics of DBZ. It’s going to be a fun summer 🙂
Featured image source: Chi-Chi-Bulma Render by Dragha