Take Your Dragon Balls And Go: Chi Chi’s Life was Hard and No One Respected Her
The news of Dragon Ball Super has us jumping. In my initial write up, I mentioned how much of a bone I have to pick with Goku. Desiree came asking—is if because of Chi Chi? Hell yes, it’s because of Chi Chi! So we got to talking. A wife’s life in shonen anime—a wife’s life in a Saturday morning, American-dubbed cartoon. The sad song of Chi Chi.
Desiree: Where to even begin?
Claire: Well, let’s start with the current state of things, which is the last episode of Dragon Ball GT: her childhood-regressed husband flies off on a dragon and vanishes, leaving her some sort of freakish ultra-widow, only with no sense or hope of closure or an available next step.
Desiree: I think a lot of what I had a problem with is that as a child, I didn’t even notice how terribly Chi Chi was treated. Mainly because the narrative of the show—as weak as it was—enforced that she was a shrew. That’s how she was viewed through the lens of the show, a shrew wife and mother who yelled and screamed at her husband to stay home and not take her child out to fight monsters and aliens when he could be home studying.
Yet re-watching the series as an adult, you see that without Chi Chi, Gohan would have had an even more unstable childhood. Chi Chi was the only solid, stable figure in his life. She’s a damn good mother! But she never gets any credit for that, because all Goku’s friends side with him on how to parent. The only other solid parental figure in Gohan’s life was Piccolo.
Claire: I hope there’s a lot of fanfiction where Chi Chi gets that green dick over the many, many days, months and years that Goku is away throughout their marriage and parenthood.
You’re right though—Chi Chi is the force behind Gohan’s intellectualism, and that’s the force he bases his life around as an adult. He can fight to save the world, because Goku taught him to or rather let him learn to in the field after Piccolo gave him his initial mentorship. But he can live a life amongst a wider, more anonymous community because she made sure he had the ability to thrive in an intellectual environment. If Gohan was injured and couldn’t fight, he’d still have a purpose, and if—heaven forbid—no more mad space bastards came a-battling, trying to destroy earth or enslave humanity, if Gohan had to live a regular life where he wasn’t the last bastion of physical hope for both of his species, he could. Goku, quite clearly, could not. Gohan learns as Vegeta learns, really. They have that in common.
Desiree: What a terrible husband, just flat out. I understand that Goku, in Dragon Ball, had a very rudimentary idea of what marriage was. However, by the time DBZ starts they’ve been together for a long while, and have a child. By this point in time he should understand the basics of what it means to be in a marriage, be a husband, and begin learning how to be a father over abandoning his family over and over again.
Surprisingly, Vegeta turns out to be a better father and husband to Bulma and his kids than Goku was to Chi Chi or Gohan. I say surprisingly, because this is the guy who committed mass murder without blinking an eye. Looking back on the series, Vegeta’s transformation into a good guy wasn’t done all that well, but he does end up being there for his children and wife far more than Goku ever was.
Claire: Vegeta’s last words to Goku at the end of Z are pretty impressive to me, because it made me wonder if they weren’t supposed to tell the viewer that Goku’s really not 100% right. He says something like … I don’t remember exactly, but the gist is, “LOL, Goku, you liar, you just want to have fun fighting and you hope there’s always going to be a reason to, don’t you?” As a Saiyan, raised in the culture, Vegeta gets it, the urge to rejoice in combative adrenaline. But Vegeta doesn’t leave his family to pursue it; we see him grow to understand that he loves and appreciates them, and that that matters most of all (I totally disagree that Vegeta’s growth is poorly done; I think it’s expert work and I can draw you a diagram to that end). But Goku just falls into having his, and we never see him particularly enjoying or valuing them, and in the end he abandons them in the pursuit of fun. He likes fighting, and he’s never bothered to prioritise anything else, and there’s no chance of him changing. He’s kind of a sad old man, entirely the person his Saiyan predecessors imagined he would become, though he’s taken a path of resistance rather than active destruction in his mercenary life. Even Krillin scolds him briefly at one point, while I’m yelling at the TV, “GOKU! JUST LEAVE THE STUPID EGGS! OR JUST GRAB THEM! WHATEVER! RESPECT YOUR FRIENDS ENOUGH TO ATTEND YOUR OWN PARTY!” Cathartic, man! I hate your fecklessness, Goku. You’re a hero who pleases himself before anybody else, and that’s so The Man. Without Chi Chi, Goku would probably have died from a disease that he got from being too dirty.
Desiree: That’s Goku’s biggest problem; he stalled as a person. Where everyone else grows in various ways, Goku stays completely stagnant. He’s a fun, free loving, naive child who loves to fight at the beginning of Dragon Ball, and that’s exactly who he is at the end of the series. Despite the fact that he has a family now, a wife, a wide circle of friends, he’s never grown from it.
What I love about Dragon Ball and DBZ is it’s a generational show. We’ve seen these characters grow and change both physically and emotionally over the the course of years. It added a certain realness and emotion to the series that is basically about fighting and more fighting. But instead of feeling like we grew up with Goku, I felt like we grew up with everyone else.
I recall Piccolo also scolding Goku for throwing—essentially—Gohan into the ring with Cell. I understand it’s the end of the world, lives are at stake, and Goku knows Gohan can defeat Cell. It’s all understandable. Even so, have a little bit of conflict over it!
Claire: Right? He’s so SOULLESS. Gohan and Goten are good boys though, despite everything. GT ends with Chi Chi being encouraged about not having to cook dinner by her kids. On the one hand, that’s great; she has her family, and they love and understand her enough to make suggestions that will prevent her from worrying about her responsibilities. On the other, good grief, that’s all she has. A child who wanted this one boy, grew up and got him, couldn’t keep him, remained tethered, lost her children and her dignity to her husband’s lifestyle regularly, only knows her husband’s friends (Does she ever seem to like them much? They only meet at milestone events and milestone parties) and her own father, and keeps up no interests outside of the home. Her cooking is inferred to be provincial and old-fashioned, basic. She wears clothing in this mode too. She raises two children alone in the countryside for seven years, plus pregnancy; she lives in a house in the middle of nowhere and owns no transport (her children can fly). As a child, she was a wide-roaming princess in a battle bikini and fought anyone! What happened to her life?
It’s not just that Goku barely accommodates her; it’s that the narrative colludes with him. Goku’s “right” to do whatever he does, because otherwise maybe he wouldn’t win against all of the monsters. It’s “right” that Gohan is taken from his mother for a year aged four or five, because otherwise he wouldn’t be strong enough to help fight against the monsters. It’s right to beat your kids til they can’t stand, because otherwise they wouldn’t build the stamina to get up anyway. Of course, Goku couldn’t make the effort to spend any time with Chi Chi on the single day he’s given to visit Earth while he’s dead! Obviously going to fight Bobbidi is necessary; it would be cosmically selfish (do it anyway!!! fuckerrr) for Goku to make a fuss or force out fifteen minutes in which to say, “Hey babe, gotta go, I know, it’s awful, kiss my face, let’s make another baby or something,” to her, only her, specifically her, the woman he married. Nobody suggests that Chi Chi would be justified in being angry or anguished at Goku or at fate; nobody ever suggests that she should date somebody else. It’s just taken for granted that She Is The Wife. The wife does her duty and waits. It’s a deep kind of sacrifice, but the show tells us it’s unremarkable.
Desiree: That right there is what gets me. You don’t notice it as a child, you just take it as is. Chi Chi is the wife, and she’s the shrew wife at that. She yells, she screams, she makes Gohan do his homework (oh the horror!), and she gets upset when Gohan and Goku leave to save the world. But what else does she have? Chi Chi lives completely alone, all her friends are Goku’s and none of them seem particularly close to her. The character she interacts most with is Bulma, but Bulma has something Chi Chi doesn’t. Respect. She gets to go on missions across the Galaxy, and while not a fighter (like Chi Chi), Bulma has (and creates) her technology. Furthermore she’s genuine friends with everybody. Her husband also respects her and willingly stays with her.
Why is Goku with Chi Chi? Does he genuinely love her? I know neither Dragon Ball nor DBZ are romances, and the romantic relationships we’ve seen have always been understated. But I can only recall a handful of moments where Goku even appears like he cares about Chi Chi, let alone loves her.
With Vegeta, given his past and overall characterization, the fact that he stays with Bulma is a showing of his love. His hug with Trunks during the horrid Buu Saga is still one of my favorite moments of the entire series. We hardly see that sort of affection between Goku and his own family.
I don’t doubt Goku feels love for them, but his showing of love is very selfish. It’s very, very childish, and that’s all because of how the narrative never allows him to grow up. He’s always a child. We, as the audience, are suppose to be on his side, because when the world is in danger Goku steps up. He’s this brilliant bright spot that brings all these people together. He’s the Sun of their universe, but he never gets close to any of them. Those who try get indirectly burned—namely his family.
Chi Chi was a princess! She was once one of the top fighters of the world, and she wanted to be a wife and a mother. That was what would make her happy. I could respect that, but I just pity her because this was so obviously not what she wanted.
Chi Chi’s expectations might have been too high, they might have been in a fairytale land of sorts, but she deserved a husband that didn’t leave her constantly. She deserved the rest of their group to see that without her, Gohan wouldn’t have been able to take care of himself. He owes everything to Chi Chi. Without her pushing education, what would he have? Would he have been able to get a job? Provide for himself? Help support his own family?
These things aren’t emphasized in the show, which is why the viewers are supposed to ignore how terrible a father and husband Goku truly is. I mean, is it any wonder why in one of the new OVAs Chi Chi “jokes” with Bulma about switching husbands? Goku kept leaving—willingly!
Claire: Can you imagine having sex with Goku? I bet he’s bad at it. Because he’ll think of it like sparring. Tedious. Damn tedious. Vegeta’s probably better, because he’s competitive enough to battle for your orgasm. (Either that or a total sub, which, fine, here’s what you do…)
Desiree: Does Goku even know what sex is? I try to imagine how that would go, and I just picture an extremely awkward wedding night. I would hope someone (Master Roshi at the very least) would explain the concept to Goku. But I can’t imagine the first time going well at all. Vegeta at least seems attentive.
Claire: OH JESUS, GOKU LEARNT ABOUT SEX FROM ROSHI—
Actually here’s a thing. The dub of the anime I saw has Goku suggest that Bulma (Kiss … someone? Some space guy? OH—the old Kai), because “Bulma’s prettier than Chi Chi.” This caused my eyebrows to leave my face, when I heard it—because for fucksake, Goku! But apparently this wasn’t the original line, or the line from the manga. Did you watch an American dub?
Desiree: Yeah, I’ve only seen the American Dub, and I read the Dragon Ball manga, but I never read the DBZ manga or the sub.
Claire: Well, I don’t know what it says about a dubbing/import team who’ll have Goku offhandedly call his wife plainer than his childhood friend in front of everybody they know, but who won’t let a decent enough man be named Mister Satan. Why would you draw that line? What is the intended message here?
Desiree: American Dub in the 90s was terrible. Just terrible. What was the original line?
Desiree: That would make so much more sense. At least it’d show that Goku had some level of respect for her as a person. I do believe Goku cares about her, likes her even, but if he’s in love with Chi Chi he’s terrible at it.
I just wish the show would pay Chi Chi the proper respect. The show isn’t great with women, but Chi Chi is a damn good mother and wife even though Goku was a barely-there husband. I understand the focus of the show isn’t romance, but the themes of family and friendship are interwoven throughout the show. So, why doesn’t Goku, the lead character, showcase any actual care to his own family? He’s suppose to be the embodiment of the show’s themes, and he can’t even be bothered to see his wife on the one day he’s back to life. And no one says anything.
Claire: I recall one moment when he says, “I love you,” maybe even, “I love you so much.” But I remember rather better the sheer relief and relaxation that it brought me. After all, she’s not suffering this bleak life for nothing! There’s a worm of warmth in there for her! Maybe he thinks of her reluctantly every four years or so when he’s apart from her and there’s other stuff to look at, like a very interesting unending, unchanging road, but if things were different—if they were able to hang out—maybe they’d have a life together. The cosmic scale says he feels like he loves her, and that that’s worth something. How sad and awful is that, though? That’s pennies.
I feel like there’s a code of wifing that neither of us have access to, like there are women out there who see their life, highs and lows, strength and weakness, in terms of homemaking and don’t look outside of it for meaning. Like you know Fiddler on the Roof? When he’s coming around to his daughters marrying for love and finally asks his wife if she loves him, and she’s like, “How is this applicable to our lives? This is how we live, as a couple, in a community, and it works.” Then it turns out that by their metrics they do love each other and that thought enriches the living of the life they were both already engaged with as their whole possibility.
I try to see Chi Chi as somebody who wouldn’t want to be thought of as a person with other options, to see if that makes me feel differently, but … I don’t think that Toriyama, or the filler arc writers, wrote enough person-hood into her to validate a reading that binds nobility or transcendence into her fulfillment of the marriage vows and traditional expectations. I don’t think they were trying to tell us about a person who sees life through a wifed lens. I think they were just showing us “what mothers are like” without even really looking at what they meant by that. Bulma’s motherhood is tempered by her establishment as an individual (and a highly individualistic one at that), as an early and frequently present member of the core supporting cast, with her own mission and desires. Chi Chi is there to want Goku, so that Goku can be amusingly clueless about what romantic or domestic interaction means. She is only there to chase the things that girls are supposed to want—kisses, marriage, time with husband, babies, order, homework, for you to eat your dinner. There’s little interest in why she wants those things or what she intends to do with them or how she’s dissatisfied or satisfied once she gets them.
It’s sad. I feel sad about Chi Chi.
Desiree: Ultimately, that’s how I feel. It’s a shame when you look at how she was introduced in Dragon Ball (which I always felt was better than DBZ storytelling wise) as a fierce princess on a mission. Along the way she just … loses anything that makes her special. She becomes “mom,” “wife,” and unfortunately “shrew.” This is how fans remember her. I remember going through forums, just reading through opinions on Fanfiction.net, and the consensus was pretty much the same as far as Chi Chi went.
She’s a nag, she’s selfish, but what is so selfish about wanting your husband home and alive? Chi Chi never expressed the want or desire for being noble. She was a princess! She was obviously spoiled, but she was never unkind. Why was it that, as a woman, she was portrayed as selfish for wanting simple things? Things that were promised and owed to her?
As a husband, Goku made a commitment, and while I can understand the world comes first, some care for Chi Chi would have been nice. The story never emphasizes that she’s important to him (I can’t even recall him saying I love you). The story only emphasizes Chi Chi’s seemingly negative traits like a child remembering his mother unlovingly because she wouldn’t let him go outside when he wanted. Lets not pretend DBZ isn’t one big male power fantasy; it is. Even so, out of all the romantic relationships we see on the show (and there have been plenty), Goku and Chi Chi’s—the leading pair—are the worst.