Editor’s Note: This article references the Toei dub of Dragon Ball Super.
Growing up, I identified with the villains in stories. Characters like Scar from The Lion King, Envy in Fullmetal Alchemist and Loki within the Marvel Universe were some of my favorites in the media I consumed, and the list only grew longer as I got older.
It was a few years before I realized why I gravitated towards the “pretty”, flamboyant villains who frequently wore purple eyeshadow: I was gay and nonbinary, and these were often the only mirrors I had when consuming media. They were characters I could connect to with ease.
Giving villains traits that are associated with being gay and/or “effeminate” is a common practice in popular media. This happens because being anything less than a manly macho man is “bad,” and villains written in this manner contrast with the usual strong, square-jawed, masculine hero who defeats them.
While Western animation and live-action media commit this sin often, Japanese anime is also pretty bad about it. Pegasus, the most well-known villain of Yu-Gi-Oh: Duel Monsters, sports long white hair and flamboyant mannerisms. The English dub of the first Sailor Moon anime has Zoicite, originally a male character in a relationship with fellow antagonist Kunzite, changed into a female character to avoid moral outrage. This was no doubt facilitated by his long hair, slender shape, and feminine face, classic traits of gay coded villains.
The latest character to get this treatment is Zamasu from Dragon Ball Super—a Kai, a god of the 10th universe within the multiverse, who is apprenticing to become Supreme Kai, a high-level guardian god of the universe. After a humiliating defeat by Goku in what he thinks is a friendly spar, Zamasu decides the universes would be better off without mortals. He steals Goku’s body from an alternate timeline (don’t worry about it), teams up with himself in his original form from another alternate timeline (again, don’t worry about it), and embarks on “Project Zero Mortals.” Yeah.
In terms of Dragon Ball villains, Zamasu is as conventionally attractive as a member of a multi-colored alien race can get. He has a lean build, medium-length white hair, and delicate facial features. However, for several episodes after his introduction, he’s not gay coded. There’s no “dignity laugh,” his voice isn’t especially feminine, and his body language and behavior don’t fall in line with “effeminate” stereotypes. Zamasu in his original form is still in his pre-murderous stage Thus, his least villainous form is his least gay coded.
The Zamasu that wears Goku’s stolen body (Goku Black) is a different story. After Goku beats him in a fight he becomes disdainful of the Saiyan, while also admiring his physicality and power to an uncomfortable degree, leading him to steal Goku’s body for himself.
Zamasu is the first to discover the latest evolution in Goku’s Super Saiyan forms, legendary transformations that make the protagonist one of the most powerful characters in the series. He nicknames this pastel pink-haired version “Super Saiyan Rosé” in a smug, lilting voice. His open admiration of his new form is simultaneously gay coded (in a creepy way) and vain, remarking that he’s reached the “height of beauty.” His attacks are flamboyant and over the top. And it’s called Super Saiyan Rosé. Come on.
Goku Black, in spite of his theft of a hyper-masculine protagonist’s body, manages to be more campy and gay coded than Zamasu’s original form. Goku Black is the first version of Zamasu that we’re introduced to when he is at his most villainous and destructive, and before the audience is aware that he and Zamasu are the same person, and it’s not a coincidence that most of the questionable lines in this arc come from him.
It’s only after Zamasu meets Goku Black and joins him on his murderous quest that the show gay codes him, with the characters sharing a long and uncomfortable hug. During a memorable fight scene, Goku Black stabs through an immortal Zamasu’s chest into Goku’s torso in a display that I can only describe as “needlessly homoerotic.” The narrative uses their bond as a way of showing that the only person Zamasu believes and trusts in is himself, which could be an interesting storytelling device, but in this case reads a lot like “here’s sassy gay Goku, ready to murder children.”
The attachment between the two versions of Zamasu is made even more uncomfortable by the fact that there’s a stolen body involved. Altogether, it’s just another example of using gay overtones on a villainous character to perpetuate harmful tropes and marginalize LGBT viewers.
Or it would have been, if not for the existence of Whis, and by extension, Beerus.
Whis is the attendant and teacher of Lord Beerus, a destroyer god. While Beerus can be callous and petulant, destroying entire worlds if they fail to please his palate with their food, Whis is always willing to extend mercy and spare the hapless mortals caught in the cross-hairs.
Whis is also the epitome of gay coding within Dragon Ball Super. He has meticulously coiffed hair, long eyelashes, perfectly manicured nails, and wears a long robe with high-heeled shoes. His voice is an octave higher than the voices of other male characters, and his mannerisms are consistent with what Japanese and Western media consider “effeminate.” Yet, rather than being a villainous character further alienating LGBT audiences, Whis has consistently been on the side of the protagonists from the start.
Where Zamasu seeks to destroy the Earth due to his superiority complex, Whis forms an attachment to its inhabitants early in the series, striking up a friendship with Bulma in particular. He helps the protagonists numerous times, going so far as to reverse time to give Goku a chance to save the planet and his loved ones from long-time villain Freeza’s desperate, revenge-fueled, Earth-shattered self-destruction.
The show’s intentions to gay code Whis are solidified three episodes into the first season during a bath scene with Lord Beerus, in which Whis smiles and blushes as he glimpses the nude destroyer god. Beerus’ own blushing reaction establishes the intimacy of the relationship between the two characters. Throughout the series, Beerus and Whis are playful, snarky, and willing to take each other’s feelings into consideration. At points in the show, Beerus shows leniency towards some characters and their transgressions, whichis is likely because Whis has taken a shine to them.
Where Zamasu and Goku Black are sadistic, unreasonable, and self-obsessed, Whis and Beerus, initially antagonists, prove to be compassionate and helpful to the heroes many times throughout the show. At the end of the Zamasu arc, Whis and Beerus are willing to break the rules of Time Travel to enable “Future” Trunks and his friend Mai to live in a new alternate future, free of Zamasu’s attacks.
Whis is the campiest character in the entire show but uses his immense power to help people in spite of the fact that his job is to stand aside and watch Beerus destroy things. It’s because Whis is such a kind person that the heroes often find themselves boosted into a better position narratively than they would have been otherwise. Goku and Vegeta, two of the most hyper-masculine characters in media ever, beg to be trained by him after learning that he originally trained Beerus. Although he and Beerus function as destroyers on an official capacity, their efforts throughout the show focus on helping the protagonists grow and thrive.
While both characters are gay coded, Whis’ kindness and compassion, in contrast to Zamasu/Goku Black’s obsession with the destruction of all mortals, is what keeps Dragon Ball Super from leaving a bad taste in my mouth. The show could have gay coded only Zamasu and Goku Black, and cemented itself as another property that failed to understand how harmful it is to associate certain traits solely with villainy. Instead, it ensured that Whis, one of the show’s kindest, most powerful and interesting characters out-gayed everyone, and showed how easy it is to meet the very low bar the media has set for itself in LGBT representation.
The main issue with gay coding villains is that often it’s the only representation the LGBT community sees in a piece of media. It perpetuates the harmful idea that there’s something inherently wrong with people who exhibit these traits, when the traits are present at all. Dragon Ball Super manages to avoid this trap by including multiple gay coded characters, allowing the audience to witness various types of representation and choose who to relate to. It’s a simple, underutilized solution to the constant problem of only having “one of each” type of minority in a story.
Dragon Ball Super isn’t perfect in terms of LGBT representation. But with the character of Whis, it’s given people like me the option of relating to someone other than the villain for once. Seeing his character revered and respected by the traditionally masculine characters went far towards endearing me to the series and making me feel a little more welcome in a genre that tries to shut me out.