Those Awkward Twenty-Eight Years When Dragon Ball Z Picked the Wrong Protagonist
(How my favorite childhood anime summed up white mediocrity)
If you’re reading this and thinking about a.) how I’m about to ruin DBZ with race politics and you don’t find a subtle, almost masochistic pleasure in it or b.) getting frustrated and preparing a slew of angry comments directed at me for writing this article after only reading the title, you can go on and click or swipe out of this tab because it’s about to get really bad for you beyond this point. You’ve been warned.
I grew up on Dragon Ball Z, it was my starter anime. I can remember coming home from elementary school, pouring myself a bowl of Winnie the Pooh cereal ( these right here, fam ), and sitting on my Grammy’s bed just in time to tune into Toonami hour on Cartoon Network. I would practice the Kamehameha with my siblings, scream my head off as I tried to become the first Black girl to go Super Saiyan, and for twenty-two minutes every weekday I got to experience something other than American cartoons. Better yet, these were some of the few moments from my childhood where I had absolutely no worries.
Now, however, it’s 2017 and there is plenty to worry about now. Besides the complete stain that is this ‘presidential’ administration, the horrific policies being enacted, the countless lives being affected by hatred and bigotry, and the ever-present threat of becoming another hashtag, I also have a slew of personal issues I face daily. And to combat the slow descent into madness and depression I indulge in things that make me happy, things that keep me grounded. Writing is a favorite of mine, and anime is another. I often revisit Dragon Ball Z for nostalgia’s sake, and you’d think I’d leave it at that. However as I’ve grown up in a society that has proven to be hostile to people of color, I’ve developed the ingenious skill of drawing parallels between seemingly harmless things and some very pertinent social issues that people like me have to deal with. Hence, this article.
My case is that Son Goku, the iconic main character of Dragon Ball Z, is a blaring personification of white mediocrity. White mediocrity is the phenomenon where a white person, via their white privilege, is able to achieve a huge level of success for very little effort, where a person of color or any minority can work twice as hard without reaching a modicum of the same success.
“But, Soteria, Goku is Japanese! How can he be a personification of white mediocrity?” you may ask.
I’m not saying Akira Toriyama did this on purpose as any type of political statement; he was most likely just following the trend of animes ( and even some American cartoons ) where you get a dopey protagonist and give him/her an obscene amount of power and some bad guys to punch. That being said, Goku himself is just a very strong string in a patchwork of anime characters that inadvertently symbolize white mediocrity. But let’s get into the meat of it.
Look at Vegeta- the stoic counterpart to Goku’s goofy demeanor. He’s deadly serious 99.9% of the time and is laser-focused on not just surpassing Goku power-wise, but surpassing the very limits of his own potential and his troubled past. In my personal experience, I’ve seen Vegeta be disregarded solely on the fact that he hadn’t achieved a certain level Goku had, even though we have seen Vegeta’s long and arduous journey to even get where he is today. Not convinced yet? That’s fine, I brought the receipts.
Vegeta is the last Saiyan prince, a birth right that has equipped him with this undeniable charm, poise, grace, and etiquette. Not to mention he’s extremely intelligent, he is a master tactician, a seasoned warrior and has rightfully become one of the strongest individuals in the Universe because of his passion and his drive to be better than what he was an hour before.
He was the main villain for an entire arc and he would’ve beat Goku in his Great Ape form if it hadn’t been for Yajirobe’s handy swordsmanship.
He then morphed from main villain in the Frieza arc to reveal this abused, saddened, and angry man who lost everything at the hands of a vicious tyrant who he was forced to serve. You saw him stripped to his weakest point before he died in a way that added so much depth to his story.
In the Android/Cell saga, you see him as a man trying to reclaim some sense of self on an alien planet he begrudgingly protects, he has a young son and a woman he tolerates, and he has some type of weird friendship going on with the DBZ gang. He gets stronger, he finally becomes a Super Saiyan after training his ass off everyday for three years, and then proceeds to kick ass. Sure, he has some slip-ups when he lets Android 18 become food for Imperfect Cell and he has a very strained relationship with Future Trunks, but he does redeem himself by the end of the arc. He sees his son fall at the hands of another tyrant who has come to threaten his way of life, Vegeta sees one of the few things on Earth that is actually his die… And he sacrifices himself to give Gohan the upper hand in the final fight against Cell.
And sure… Some Goku fanatic will say Goku did it first, but we all should know Goku’s game by now. Which I will explain near the end of this.
In the Majin saga, you see Vegeta step into his role as a protector and a stony family man. He trains with Trunks, entertains Bulma with lively arguments- you see him acclimating to his new life in a way that’s both humorous and heartwarming. And even though Vegeta has a funny way of showing it, you get the feeling that under all the hard glares and crossed arms… He loves his family. But then the World Fighting Tournament happens and Goku returns for one day to fight. Lemme repeat that: Son Goku, who was dead for seven years, returns FOR ONE MOTHERFUCKING DAY to fight in a damn competition instead of maybe spending time with his family. But again… I’ll get back to that. Vegeta sees how strong Goku is or whatever and strikes a deal with Babidi and the Demon King to become stronger in exchange for his service.
THIS is perhaps the most important part of Vegeta’s character arc because you see him trying to get back to this sadistic murderer phase he went through under Frieza… You see him destroying things, terrifying people, and giving that good ole crazy Saiyan laugh you do when murdering folks- and he realizes that that is no longer who he is. Vegeta fights his son and he realizes… that he isn’t the man he used to be, that he isn’t a killer anymore… He hugs Trunks, tells him how proud of him he is and to take care of his mother… And he, once again, sacrifices himself to stop Babidi’s evil magic.
You see him turn a completely new leaf… For his family, for Trunks. Vegeta, for as long as he has been a main character, has been characterized by his Saiyan pride and his selfishness. He would always do selfish things to try and prove something to somebody that he was still a powerful prince of a proud Saiyan race; it defined him up until he hugged Trunks. Because the moment he did, he learned that he no longer needed to prove anything. He saw that he was the world in his son’s eyes.
And to wrap up this extremely long essay on why Vegeta is the best character in DBZ, I want to bring attention to another one of his less recognized, but truly exemplary characteristics: his love for his family.
It’s a recurring theme in his arc: Vegeta gets stronger because of his love for his family. He drops everything, his pride and selfishness, when his family is in danger. He is his most powerful when Bulma or Trunks has been hurt and his actions showcase his passion and zeal as the family protector- as a father and a husband. Now, as dated and one-track as that ideal is, Vegeta proves time and time again that he values his loved ones above his Saiyan Prince title.
Goku doesn’t work even half as hard as Vegeta, but somehow is a full hundred ticks more powerful than him. Goku is rude, he’s a pig, he’s an overly sentimental idiot, and he’s a deadbeat dad to Gohan and Goten and an awful husband to ChiChi. He has died more times than I can count, but when his friends and family take the arduous duty of gathering all those goddamn Dragon Balls to evoke Shenron and wish him back, what does he do? He decides to stay in the afterlife with King Kai and Bubbles the chimp! And nothing prompts him enough to go back other than the prospect of being the strongest in a fighting competition. Not his son’s birthday, not to kiss his wife, not even to see his second son be born… But to play around.
Goku is awful and although the show is about him, he is perhaps the least developed character, which is just awful.
To put a nice little bow on this, though not the intention, the essence of white mediocrity is prevalent in Dragon Ball Z. You have a well-defined character who overcame the worst circumstances to become one extremely strong, but overlooked and underrated individual. And then you have Goku who can say a fancy speech, scream for two episodes, and suddenly he’s the people’s hero. If you still can’t see how an anime can run parallel with RL societal issues, let’s reflect on some of modern time’s most famous cases of white mediocrity:
All these individuals have two things in common: they’re white and they are all now way more successful than they should be. There’s some type of strange response we have to all these where it’s funny to see them make it big while being dumb/offensive on camera while we ignore or bash people who put time into becoming something palatable to society; it’s what has made Goku so loved and Vegeta remain… Vegeta.
I will always have a special place in my heart for DBZ, but it’s hard to make light of Vegeta’s plight when it’s so similar to the one that so many people face, a plight that I face. So, it is with a heavy heart but firm resolve, that I release this article into the world like a flaming hot Galick Gun through your paper thin fantasies of an anime that can’t be rocked by racial issues and a girl with insomnia.