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One Piece and "Manliness"

So littlekasumi and I were discussing the gender issues in One Piece, your basic good, bad, ugly, and really annoying. She made some very justified complaints about the lack of co-gender fights, and I griped a little about the limited nature of the women-anything fights, and I walked away from the thread with a half-full bottle of hope and a question about Oda's concept of "manliness."

The more I dwell on his use of the word, the more the bottle appears half-empty.

As much as I love the series and admire his fierce, independent, strong-willed female characters, his concept of "manliness" was still one of my most deeply rooted resentments. Make no mistake, I think it's a noble, marvelous concept - straightforwardness, honesty, "A wound on the back is a swordsman's humiliation," everything Luffy embodies - and something I wish to implement into my own life, but it appears to me as if he really does restrict these golden qualities to his male characters.

* * * * *

Oda-sensei's been questioned about this singularity by other readers:

SBS Column, vol. 28, ch. 263

D: HI!! Eiichi! In Volume 27, you spouted some crap about the theme of the Jaya arc being "A man's passion", didn't you?! I may only be 18 years old, but I'm still a woman! How do you explain my "love for adventure" and "infinite dreams", huh?! Just looking at every panel of your manga sets my blood dangerously a-boil!!!! Take responsibility for this!!! Please. Take responsibility and put "woman" in there, too! The passion thing. FROM Her new eye co.

O: "A woman's passion"?! No. Look, sometimes I use "man" in an adjectival sense. As in, the best women have manly qualities in them. They were called "true women" in the past. So this is what I say. Men and women have "A MAN'S PASSION"!! So the women are included!!

* * * * *

I thought his answer was reassuring - "it's just a figure of speech; I believe women have an equal capacity for these qualities, and I find them very attractive" - but incongruous with the manga itself. Look at the island of Elbaf; Elbaf, his strongest example of the "warrior's way" and fighting with honor, has only ever been shown to feature men. Logically speaking, there are women as well, but it's his attention on the male Elbaf warriors instead of any female Elbaf citizens that is so telling, as well as the fact that the male Strawhats seem to understand it and the female Strawhats don't.

The idea itself is everything Oda has ever tried to glorify in his series: battle as an art, fighting as a way of unraveling your heart for your opponent and stripping yourself of all pretense; fighting as honor and honesty; principle as everything. Dorry and Broggy try to kill each other everyday, not out of hatred nor even because of the argument that began it, but because it is the pact that they made and the communication method that comes most naturally to them. Most importantly, it's the principle: their fights are what they perceive to be the most honorable way to gain the right to return to Elbaf.

While Usopp and Luffy seemed enchanted with Dorry and Broggy's explanations, the female characters in earshot all have the same reaction: confusion, incomprehension, "Don't be stupid" practicality.

In Nami's case, I can understand the reaction in context of her personality; indeed, she's always been a pragmatist with survival as her top priority, a philosophy that plays against and reinforces Luffy's own do-or-die mindset. That philosophy has to be represented, and Nami fulfills the need without being anything less than a wholly developed character at the same time. Furthermore, she's gradually changing, learning to fight with her own strength instead of resorting to cowardly, underhanded techniques.

However, until that point, Vivi, whose speciality is diplomatic politics, has never been shown to be so practical as to abandon principle. As a fighter, she also resembles Luffy more than she does Nami. And yet she can't understand the code of Elbaf either. For both women to gawk and argue against the Elbaf philosophy, while cowards like Usopp lapse into silent understanding, almost makes it look like the men speak another language.

There isn't any point where this is reversed, either, nor any particular female character I can think of whose life philosophy is as plain and honest as Luffy's. Robin? Though she is noble and principled, she specializes in stealth and intelligence; she is also rather low-profile about her fighting prowess. As a result, she is rarely featured fighting one-on-one against anyone. Boa Hancock? Indeed, she's prideful and almost masculine in her ruthlessness, but there's no particular principle behind her actions, just raw emotions like disgust or fear.

As for the men? Well, I won't even bother to elaborate on Luffy; his honesty is instinctive to the point of stupidity. Zoro, though more clever, isn't less principled, either; "A wound on the back is a swordsman's humiliation" - that's his quote. The cook, Sanji, will die for his chivalry. Usopp, however, is entirely different; he is the resident coward and liar, the first to run away from scenes of oncoming battle (shortly followed by Nami), but even he is principled. Though they are both cowards, Usopp understands and embraces Elbaf's philosophies while Nami does not.

In interviews, Oda explains that the divide between deception and straightforward battle is one that he intends to highlight in his manga, and it's clear that he glorifies the latter as a deserving means to victory; but why don't we see these traits in his female characters? How on earth did he write noble female characters while excluding them from the language of "manliness" so evidently? Why do they seem to specialize in everything but?

Anyway, I just wanted to bring up something that's been bothering me about the One Piece manga for a while. I don't begrudge Oda that theme; I think everything about his concept of "manliness" is beautiful, in a very existentialist way. I think that his female characters are brilliant and well-developed, abundant and powerful, and that Oda is generally much better at writing women with equal depth as men than many other mangaka in his or any other genre. Hell, he has a female archaeologist who loses her husband and then leaves behind her daughter for the sake of travel, archaeology, and a higher cause; AND she's a solitary fugitive; AND she's portrayed sympathetically.

All right, so the bottle isn't really half-empty. There's Nami's growth, after all, and I'm fairly positive that if Kuina lived to hear it, she would understand Elbaf's policies. Oda's not bad. Maybe I'm just bitter. Seeing women portrayed exclusively as lovers, family, secretaries, advisors, intelligence, moral support, slick voices behind the royal folding screen - it's getting old really, really fast.

On a lighter note, I've been on a shoujo manga binge lately; just last night, I reread Cat Street and found it better and lovelier than I did the first time (and even then I loved the hell out of it.) I'll post to sing its praises soon enough.


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 8th, 2009 03:49 am (UTC)
Interesting. I've never read/watched One Piece before but one of my fellow fangirls at work was talking about it a couple of weeks ago, and I think I remember her having some complaint to do with the women in the series, or one or two in particular.

Is One Piece set in some sort of historical time period? Maybe that has something to do with his treatment of women. IDK. Like I said, I've never read the series before.

Very thoughtful post, though. :)
Jul. 8th, 2009 04:38 am (UTC)
Historical time period? He borrows elements of historical time periods (mostly the pirates) but in no way does he attempt any accurate depiction of any historical setting. In fact, he warps them beyond recognition. The series is unapologetic shounen fantasy!

As for the treatment of women, well, he's included more prominent women in the pirate world than I think actually existed, so he's already gone beyond the point of historical accuracy (not that he was trying >_>) and chosen a modern approach instead. When you think about it, though, apart from a base historical setting which he isn't actually using, there are no real reasons the women shouldn't be as powerful or involved or honorable as the men. The Devil's Fruits (the ones that grant them wacky powers, like a super flexible rubber body or the ability to turn into a giraffe) are often eaten accidentally when they aren't sold or stolen, and so women can come upon them just as the men can; furthermore, unless you've seen a text reference with pictures, you can't identify the Devil's Fruit's powers from the fruit's appearance alone; there's no connection between its appearance and the ability it grants. It's all up to chance, so why is chance discriminating by gender? (This is a reference to why the men get the cool, combat-oriented DF powers, like control over LIGHTNING or FIRE, and why the women get powers like the ability to turn people into bubbles.)

There's also the distribution of personality traits among Oda's characters; in a realistic human population, what's the likelihood that more men will be brave and honorable and true than women? Shouldn't the chances be fifty-fifty? Moreover, Oda hasn't fleshed out the settings of his countries to the point where we can tell if men were taught to be more principled than women, which we might be able to argue if historical facts played a role here (as I can tell by your icon, this might be what you were suggesting.) But we do know things like the fact that, in the OP world, women can become Marines and even rise to the rank of Captain, though there aren't many notable examples. They can also become pirate captains and achieve fame and/or notoriety, and they can become archaeologists and scholars.

In other words, as far as social barriers between genders go - resistance to women in the workforce, a cult of domesticity - the OP world is closer to modern society as we know it instead of, say, feudal Asia or even the USA in the 1950's.

Oda designed his fantasy settings with a very modern perspective on the roles of women; it's merely that his shiniest theme - the kind of reckless, die-for-my-principles abandon that creates short-lived heroes - seems to be only understood by his males characters and not his female characters, for no good reason I can discern. Note that of the first two female characters I refer to in the essay, Nami and Vivi, the first is a cat-burglar-turned-pirate and the second is a princess for whom no need for a prince or consort has ever been mentioned.

I'm very surprised (and pleased) that you read all of that for a series you've never watched. Thank you, and your comment gave me a lot to think about. The bottle's half-empty again! >
Jul. 8th, 2009 05:02 am (UTC)
The icon was kind of poking fun at this actually. Just cause. Also, I just love my dear little honor obsessed Zuzu!

I keep saying "maybe I will read it" and just never get around to it. There are so many manga/anime I'm that way with. I don't take the time. I'm that way with regular TV shows, too. I got into the new show "Fringe" but only kept up with half the season, even though I absolutely loved it. And I like "The Office" a lot, but...I think I watched 4 episodes last season. I'm a sporadic watcher/reader of series unless I am hear over heels (and even then sometimes not). There's just no hope for me, Ras, I tell ya.
Jul. 8th, 2009 05:15 am (UTC)
Ooooh, man, I think I know what you mean. Unstable! But it's fun, isn't it? Making yourself, your own life, and your own habits unpredictable.

I think you kept up with Avatar consistently enough, though. It probably helps that you and I watched as the episodes aired, so it's not like we had a pool of episodes to pick and choose from - we had to go with the flow. I tell you, I have no regrets!
Jul. 8th, 2009 06:26 am (UTC)
Oh yeah, I forgot about Avatar. My love for Avatar transcends my love for any other television show ever. It's crazy.

Yeah, I'll still fanfic for it occasionally, I'm in the process of uploading a new Zutara fanmix as I type. Yeah, I guess you could say I kept up with Avatar. lol
Jul. 8th, 2009 04:01 pm (UTC)
Mmmm, I don't think I love Avatar most of every other TV series and manga series I've seen/read; but it's home. You can forget about it for a while when other exciting things happen, but you always come back.

I'll still read fanfiction for it on occasion! FANMIX, YES - I'm disappearing to the Philippines in about five days and so I need muuuuuzik. Warning, will be totally snagging later.
Jul. 8th, 2009 05:15 am (UTC)
Jul. 8th, 2009 04:45 am (UTC)
Should've done this earlier, but--
Read One Piece! How should I advertise it? Heartbreaking backstories! Drastic character development! Internal conflict in the Strawhat Crew! Luffy! An island of giants and dinosaurs! A female fugitive archaeologist who chooses her career and the Truth Behind the World over raising her daughter!! A SEA IN THE SKY! THERE'S A SEA IN THE SKY.

**wheezes menacingly**
Jul. 8th, 2009 09:24 am (UTC)
I've only read the first two volumes of One Piece, so I don't really identify with anything in your main post.

slick voices behind the royal folding screen

But this gave me an instant mental image of a film, set in an ancient Asian empire (possibly China or something more to the south, like Vietnam), where the entire movie is about ladies ruling the world behind silk folding screens. Except the camera is on their side of the folding screen. And sometimes, every once in a while, you see some royal young man die heroically in the out-of-focus top corner of the screen, or someone betrays someone else but no one's paying attention because, like, no one cares when the movie is actually about these awesome ladies over here, and their very strong opinions on raising the tariffs, map-making, killing enemy heretics whenever those blasted barbarians manage to get across the wall, high-society backgammon, and who gets to plan the next invasion into enemy heretic barbarian territory. (also, who gets to build the new wall afterward, and whether it will have curly-cues on the corners.)
Jul. 8th, 2009 03:45 pm (UTC)
I forgot to mention that Nami is a cat-burglar-pirate-cartographer-quartermaster-navigator!
!!!!!!! HAHA! Love it!

When I wrote that line, I was thinking of Twelve Kingdoms when Blue-Haired-Princess's Mother was killing off her girlfriend rivals by whispering false rumors to her husband every night; insulting, no? And yet it appears over and over again. I much prefer your scenario.

Have you ever heard of Ooku, the new manga by Fumi Yoshinaga? It's like a giant AU for imperial Asia: when the Godly Hand of a Proudly Female Writer disease strikes Jap... err, pseudo-Japan, about 75% of their male population dies, so women replace men in the workforce and transform Japan into a matriarchal society.

"Japan has become completely matriarchal, with women holding important political positions and men being their consort. Only the most powerful woman -- head of Tokugawa shogunate -- can keep a harem of handsome yet unproductive men, known as 'Ooku.'"

FUCK YEAH! I'm especially looking forward to when the men are practically bartered off by their families in marriage and questioned about the capabilities of their childbearing hips.

Unfortunately, Fumi Yoshinaga is beloved notorious famous for her yaoi stories, and so the synopsis gives me the impression that the story will be more about the affairs and sexcapades of these harem boys with each other than the ponderings of the local female magistrates. Still, she's excellent at immersing her reader in her settings through witty, detailed dialogue, and so I am full of squeeeee. (Gerard and Jacques reinforced and ADDED to what I knew of the French Revolution, holy crap, and Ichigenme taught me a little bit of law - AND these two are hardcore man-porn.)

Unless this story is more like her realistic non-yaoi manga, like Flower of Life and Antique Bakery, in which case the series should be about 50 percent ponderings of female magistrates and 50 percent not-gay-except-in-our-heads male interaction.

Unfortunately, she's only releasing one volume a year. Dammit...
Jan. 24th, 2011 01:45 am (UTC)
well, maybe I'm lacking in "manliness" but I thought Nami's approach was the most sane during the Elbaf arc. So I wasn't really offended that it was a female thinking that way (my very sexist thoughts at the time were "typical of males to think of that idiocy as an 'ideal'").

...so on the one hand, i'm a clear example that at least in that sense Oda is portraying a type of woman possessing a type of viewpoint that exists.

...on the other hand, you clearly do (somehow-- again, I personally can't even begin to imagine how, but i'm taking your word for it) see something appealing in the Elbaf way of life, so it would be nice if Oda portrayed that.

But I think that ties into another issue entirely, and that is that it woudl be nice if Oda portrayed more female main characters, period. we have one, or according to some theories two, crewmembers left... i really, really hope at least one of them is female (two would be beyond my wildest dreams). because I feel like because oda has only ever had two female mains at a type he can only ever show them as foils of eachother. whereas amongst the men each of the guy's can highlight a different character trait...
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )