Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece is a classic shonen manga. It is a genre of Japanese comics primarily aimed at young male readers, typically action-packed and with male protagonists. This does not mean there is a lack of vibrant, intelligent, and interesting female characters in One Piece.
The world of One Piece is inhabited by dwarfs, giants, sky people, fishmen, mermen, mermaids, and more. But a distinctly male gaze seeps into how female characters and gender dynamics are often depicted.
In Matt Owens and Steven Maeda’s live-action adaptation of One Piece for Netflix, we get a moment between Nami (Emily Rudd) and Kaya (Celeste Loots) three episodes in. This is the first scene in the show that passes the Bechdel test. To be noted: this is an episode directed by a woman, Emma Sullivan. We don’t get another scene that passes the test till the last episode, directed by Josef Wladyka, where Nami and Nojiko bond briefly after years of estrangement.
The Bechdel test is an elementary device used to qualify a story in terms of female representation. All it requires is that we have two female characters with names who talk about something other than men. Which direction the Bechdel scale slides says nothing about the quality of the story being put under the microscope. An absolutely terrible or objectively unfeminist film—like American Pie 2—can pass the test, while critically lauded films like Oppenheimer or Hurt Locker (which is also directed by a woman, Kathryn Bigelow) may not. But it is still the bare minimum of female representation expected on-screen.
The Straw Hat women
The live-action version has gotten plenty of things just right. The diverse team of writers—including Diego Gutierrez, Tiffany Greshler, Laura Jacqmin, Ian Stokes, Allison Weintraub, Lindsay Gelfand, Damani Johnson, and Tom Hyndman, in addition to Owens, Maeda—being One Piece fans has helped the writing tremendously.
In the debut season, Nami is thankfully not overtly sexualised as she is in the manga, which has often ignored fan complaints, especially from the vast female readership, to continue sexualising the female characters with how they are drawn and clothed.
Nami is still the only female Straw Hat we have been introduced to in the live-action adaptation. As of now, the Straw Hats consist of four boys—Luffy, Zoro, Usopp, and Sanji. With Nami as the only girl, she falls into the Smurfette trope. When Nico Robin’s character—the resident Straw Hat archaeologist who can sprout extra body parts—is eventually introduced in the show, it will be interesting to see them bond and interact with each other.
However, in the manga, Robin’s character is not introduced till much later. Nami joined the crew in chapter eight of the manga and episode one of the anime. Robin does so in the Water Seven and Enies Lobby arcs that take place much later in the story, spanning from chapter 322 to chapter 430 in the manga and from episode 229 to episode 263 in the anime. Even with Robin’s introduction to the Straw Hats, provided the live-action gets that many seasons, the gender ratio of the Straw Hats remains skewed.
The other prominent Straw Hat woman is Nefertari Vivi, initially a Baroque Works member. While she is a prominent character and a close friend to the crew, her role in the story is that of an ally. Vivi is introduced early in the series during the Reverse Mountain and Whiskey Peak arcs (around chapter 105 in the manga and episode 61 in the anime). She plays a significant role in the Alabasta Saga, which will likely be introduced in the show’s second season since the first season dealt with the East Blue Saga. However, after the Alabasta arc, Vivi returns to her home kingdom of Alabasta to rule as its princess. She remains in contact with the Straw Hat Pirates and cares deeply for them, she does not officially become a part of the crew.
The Sanji problem
Apart from the women in the Straw Hat gang, there is the Sanji problem. In the beginning, Sanji is the suave, suit-adorned, super chef who has a rather egregious flirtatious side to him. But his character quickly devolves throughout the series. Sanji’s “pervert gag” is a recurring comedic element in the One Piece series. These gags often involve ogling and excessive flirtation.
Sanji’s misguided understanding of chivalry often leads to situations where he becomes infatuated with female characters, loses focus on the mission at hand, and occasionally finds himself in compromising or comical positions. This is peak 1990s “dudebro” comedy. Sanji’s admiration for particularly beautiful women and willingness to go to great lengths to protect or impress them is the definition of benevolent sexism.
Even within the context of a shonen manga, this normalises inappropriate and disrespectful behaviour towards women, which impressionable readers can easily internalise. Such gags perpetuate traditional gender stereotypes, where men are portrayed as hypersexual and women as objects of desire.
One Piece is a product of all the decades it has surged through to become the best-selling manga in the world, with well over 500million copies sold since its debut in 1997. These stories and depictions reflect the socio-political stances of all these eras. The story focuses on adventure, friendship, and the pursuit of dreams while delving into themes of diversity and acceptance. However, this “diversity”, especially when it comes to gender representation and identity, has looked different through the last few decades.
As the story of One Piece transitions into a brand-new medium, there exists an opportunity to contemporise certain narrative elements. Here’s hoping the show creators will listen and take heed without losing the essence of One Piece.