It's a pretty commonly-held opinion that the Arlong Park and Enies Lobby arcs of One Piece are mildly sexist, and it's pretty easy to see why. After all, both of those arcs are about a crew either composed entirely of, or almost entirely of men, rescuing a female crewmember from a deadly fate. It's a classic set-up for a damsel-in-distress scenario, and indeed both Robin and Nami seem pretty impotent in the face of their enemies.
Something about that assessment has never quite rung true for me, though. Although I can understand the argument, it's never seemed quite right for me, but I've never really been able to articulate why. Well, I've figured it out now, and so I present for your reading pleasure:
1. Nami and Robin are not unique.
The reason why damsel-in-distress scenarios are sexist is because it paints a picture of women as inferior to men: The woman, unable to fend off whatever terror is stalking them, and need a big, strong man to come save them from it. However, in One Piece, damn near every member of the crew needs saving before they come aboard.
Luffy needed to be saved by Shanks. Zoro needed to be saved from Captain Morgan and Helmeppo. Usopp needed to be saved from Kuro and the Black Cat pirates. Sanji needed to be saved from Don Krieg and his pirate armada. The list goes on.
So what sets Nami and Robin apart from the others? Only two things:
1. They needed rescuing after joining the crew, not before it. This point is actually debatable, because you could very easily argue that they didn't really join the crew until after their arcs were over: the crew joined them, but not the other way around.
2. Their enemies were ones that they'd fought since childhood, not sudden threats like the others. Note that this is distinct from Brooke, Chopper, and Franky, where they'd had the enemy since childhood(or in Brooke's case, a damn long time ago) but had not actually been fighting them that whole time.
These are the only differences between Nami and Robin's arcs, and those of the male straw hats. And neither of those differences constitutes an inferiority. Indeed, the fact that Nami and Robin needed a rescue puts them on equal footing with the other Straw Hats.
2. Nami and Robin are not portrayed as weak.
It's easy to look at Arlong Park and Enies Lobby and see that Nami and Robin were unable to defeat their enemies, and dismiss it as a sign of weakness and thus, sexism on the part of the writer. There's a few problems with that assessment.
First, it completely ignores context. Both Arlong and Rob Lucci were enemies that none of the Straw Hats, save Luffy, could stand against. Canon makes that painfully clear: Arlong was able to effortlessly defeat Sanji and Zoro with nothing more than a handful of water, and if Lucci's demonstration of power in the Water 7 arc wasn't sufficient proof, note how easily he took down Franky. In fact, in Lucci's case even Luffy could barely keep up: to defeat him, Luffy had to use experimental and body-damaging techniques, and go all out, and even then by the time he'd won he was completely unable to move, he was injured so badly. At the end of the arc, it's Robin who saves Luffy, by tossing him clear of the tower and into the ocean.
And second, the present is not the only thing the arcs are about. Those arcs are also about the past.
They described Robin's twenty-year long Hell, of having everything around her burned to ashes by the World Government, of running and hiding from bounty hunters starting from the age of eight, of betraying and being betrayed by everybody around her. A life of isolation, and of loneliness. The hardest life imaginable. But, in the end, she survived. And as I've already said, I think that makes her pretty damn strong.
They also describe's Nami's life: forced to serve under the man who killed her mother, toiling for eight long years, suffering in silence, never letting anyone from her village know, enduring their rejection and criticism, all so that she could steal one hundred million Berries and buy her village back from Arlong. She willingly subjected herself to a life of hell to save her village and the people she loved from life under Arlong's rule. And when Arlong turned the tables on her, found a loophole and cheated her when she was just shy of the amount needed, what did she do? She approached the villagers and begged them to let her give it another try. She begged them not to take up arms against Arlong's pirates, to let her carry the burden for the entire village.
What is that sort of determination called? Strength.
And in those same arcs, Nami and Robin are forced to face up against the enemies that have dogged them since they were children, Arlong himself and the Buster Call. These had been sources of terror for Nami and Robin from the time they had been small children: the one thing in the world that frightened them the most. And by the end of the arc, what do they have to say to it? "I've come here to kill you," Nami said as she walked back into Arlong Park for the last time. "I'm not afraid any more," Robin said, on the Bridge of Hesitation. Even though they knew intimately the power that their enemy held, and the terror it could inspire, they stared them straight in the face and refused to back down.
And what do you call that? Courage.
Far from being about Nami and Robin's weakness, Arlong Park and Enies Lobby highlight their strength. The amazing will and grit that saw them through their painful lives, the courage that allowed them to face down their fears.
Even though they did not strike the finishing blow themselves, they were willing to turn on the powerful villains who had been controlling their lives, and fight them to the end. Does that sound familiar to anyone else? Because it sounds pretty familiar to me.
3. Nami and Robin tried fighting alone.
It can be argued that yes, Nami and Robin fought well against the fishmen and the World Government...but in the end, they lost and needed rescuing. That's weakness, right?
Well, even ignoring the first point I made in this piece, which is that they are hardly unique in that, I don't think that's correct at all. They didn't lose against Arlong and the World Government because they were weak. They lost because they were fighting alone.
The importance of friends or nakama is a major, pivotal theme in One Piece. No one character can do it alone, no matter how strong they are. This is a theme that appears over and over throughout the manga (and the sixth movie, but that's a subject for a completely separate meta), and I don't think it's a coincidence that Oda had Luffy give the following speech during the Arlong Park arc:
Nami pushed everybody away from her so that they wouldn't try and rescue her. She fought alone against Arlong, but she couldn't defeat him on her own. It wasn't Robin's choice to be alone for her entire life, but when a ship full of true friends did come along, she pushed them away from her so she could try to take the Wolrd Government on herself, but the best she could do was sacrifice herself to get them off of the Straw hats' back for a little while. Both of them thought that they didn't have a choice but to try and do it on her own, that they couldn't depend (or couldn't allow themselves to depend) on the people around them. But they were wrong. Luffy, and the rest of the crew, was there to help them shift the load, and it was only through working with them that they could be freed.
In other words, Nami and Robin being incapable of throwing off their shackles on their own isn't a sign of weakness: it's thematic consistency. Nobody can survive on their own. No matter how strong you are, you need to have people around you to help. That goes for Nami, that goes for Robin, that goes for Luffy, that goes for Zoro, that goes for all of us. If you fight on your own, you're going to lose. Fight together with your friends, and you can do anything.