Lately I have been watching a lot of Dragon Ball. Dragon Ball Z was my favorite show as a child, and it was on pretty much every channel. On New Years Eve I used to spend the day watching all of the DBZ movies, which played back to back on one of the kids channels. I’ve seen every episode of DB and DBZ multiple times. I was feeling a bit nostalgic, so I decided to watch all of the episodes from the beginning of DB to the end of DBZ. Right now I’m at the point where Krillin and Goku meet.
As I’ve been watching DB, I’ve been quite disturbed by the sheer amount of problems with the show that I didn’t notice as a child. It’s kind of a running joke that there is a lot of sexism in the show, but I never realized just how pervasive it is. And I’m surprised that the obvious racism doesn’t get the same attention that the sexism does.
To begin with the sexism, every major male character either sexually assaults or objectifies Bulma throughout the show. Goku, who is absolutely naive and has the intelligence of a three year old, takes Bulma’s panties off while she’s sleeping. That is beyond disturbing. Oolong and Master Roshi are constantly trying to get Bulma to sleep with them. Oolong even went so far as to offer to turn into underwear for Bulma to wear, and Master Roshi tries to exchange things for sexual favours. And they try to teach Goku to objectify women. Oolong tries to convince Goku that he should want a harem of women, and Master Roshi considers teaching Goku that fat women are ugly Goku’s first lesson in Martial Arts. Yamcha doesn’t sexually assault Bulma, but he does do some very creepy things in the name of curing his fear of women.
Bulma is often considered a slut because she is willing to show her underwear to get things, but, given how all the men she meets treat her, who can blame her? She’s very clearly learned that her looks matter more than her brains. She clearly doesn’t like being sexually objectified, but she appears not to have the language necessary to express why she doesn’t like the treatment. After all, she never explains to Goku why he shouldn’t feel people up or take off their underwear. In fact, in the DB universe, it seems as though consent doesn’t really exist.
The shows racism doesn’t appear to be caused by the characters, but it is obviously there. In the DB universe, people of all racial backgrounds live together, and nobody really seems to notice the obvious differences that exist between people. But a number of the characters are problematic. The one that is pointed out the most is Mr. Popo. He looks like he’s wearing black-face. And even his name is problematic.But a lot of the village people are racial stereotypes too. For example, in the village that Goku saves from Oolong, the people are meant to be Native American. All of the people look white, and most of them dress in the same type of clothes that everyone else in the universe wears, but a few of them wear traditional Native American celebratory garb. And the girl being saved is named Pochawampa.
A lot of these problems are taken to be a joke. People find them funny. But DB and DBZ are children’s shows. So what are they teaching the children who watch them (not that many children watch them anymore). When I was a kid, I didn’t realize that anything in the show was problematic, I just thought it as funny. So what did I internalize? How much of what I learned still affects me today without my realizing it? What did the largely male audience of that show internalize? And how much of what was internalized has stuck around because they never learned how and why that stuff is problematic? We live in a world where consent isn’t taught, and racial issues are brushed under the rug. We live in a world where sexuality is something to be ashamed of and masculinity equals power. I can see it being very easy to hang on to DB’s sexist and racist messages.
So what are the shows kids watch teaching them? And how are we teaching them that those messages are alright by never teaching them otherwise?