The Strong Women of One Piece Are a Reaction to Their Absence From Older Manga
I knew I loved this series for a reason. Other than it's great.
This weekend, the first chapter of One Piece’s final saga was published in Shounen Jump. To celebrate, One Piece’s mangaka, Eiichiro Oda, and Dectective Conan’s mangaka, Gosho Aoyama, interviewed each other. The full interview has yet to be published in English, but the ever-handy One Piece resource Library of Ohara translated and posted bits of information on Twitter. And one particular comment about the women of One Piece caught my eye.
One Piece, like all of the other manga in Shounen Jump, is … well … a shounen. That means these manga are adventure series designed for tweens and teenage boys. Oda is very aware of One Piece as a piece of media “for guys”—that’s a huge reason why the women of the series are so busty. In addition to Oda’s own, er, preferences. Which I respect his honesty about, at least.
But to anyone who engages with One Piece on a deeper level than ogling at post-timeskip pictures of Nami, it’s very obvious that the women of the series are not just there as objects for sexual fantasy. Indeed, I feel in love with One Piece in part because its female characters were strong-willed, capable, independent, and able to kick ass. Courtesy of Library of Ohara’s translation below, my longtime hunch as been confirmed: that’s not by accident.
In the 90s and beforehand, most shounen would have a “token female,” if they prominently featured one at all. And a lot of the time, these token ladies were desire-able girlfriend types who didn’t do much fighting, if any. The biggest counter-example is Lisa Lisa from Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, a total badass who was created partially as a comment on the lack of female characters in shounen who are capable for fighting for themselves. Looking to another 80s precedent, there aren’t many women in Dragon Ball Z. The three main female characters we do have all end up marrying a main character and having their baby. Which is, you know, fine I guess? But kind of a bummer, if that’s the only thing a prominent female character ends up doing? (At least Lisa Lisa kicks ass after … er, spoiler?)
By contrast, women pop up everywhere the world of One Piece. And they’re important to it. You could legitimately argue that Nami and Robin are the most important members of the Straw Hats: without Nami, they would still be stuck in the East Blue, and without Robin, they can’t find the One Piece. Hell, because Robin is the only person in the world who can read Ponegliffs, you could say she’s the most important character in One Piece behind Luffy himself. Or Roger. We don’t have to go there today.
Plus, One Piece has at least one powerful woman planted in most major “groups” in the series. The Four Emperors? Big Mom. The Seven Warlords? Boa Hancock. The Navy? Tsuru, Hina, Tashigi (no Admirals, though, which is a bummer). The Worst Generation? Jewelry Bonney. Most “villain armies” have a woman among their chain of command, too (Black Maria, Smoothie, Monet, Perona, etc). You could argue we have a different version of a “token woman” situation here. But at least we have several tokens, eh?
To the Dragon Ball Z conundrum, I appreciate the presence of older, child-less, ambitious women in One Piece, like Tsuru, Doctor Kureha, and Shaky. On the complete opposite side of the spectrum, we have Big Mom, an emperor of the sea whose mighty army is headed by a few of her almost NINETY CHILDREN. (By 43 husbands at that. Get it, girl.)
No, One Piece is not a perfect feminist text. Very far from it. And, yes, a lot of this is the object of 25 years of world-building. But you can stick a finger to the winds of shounen and see One Piece as an interesting middle point in how women’s roles in shounen have progressed since 1997. It’s definitely inconsistent and bumpy. I’m looking straight at you, Demon Slayer—keeping your female protagonist in a goddamn box most of the time. Even one of my favorite series, Mob Psycho 100, has a notable lack o’ ladies. But there has been improvement.
Try to imagine a shounen like Jujutsu Kaisen occurring even just ten years ago. We’re talking about a series where two female characters fight each other while debating how to grapple with being a woman in a male-dominated field. I lost my goddamn mind when I watched that scene: what they were talking about was so downright relatable as a specifically a female-identifying individual, I forgot I was watching a shounen. I believe that is the evolution of where shounen could be going. And I cannot fucking wait.
Image Credit: Toei Animation
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