Most people (especially boys) who watched Dragon Ball Z as a kid identified with, and even cheered for, Goku (né Kakarot). He was the embodiment of good: nonjudgmental, altruistic, and even “pure-hearted,” according to Krillin after witnessing Vegeta’s transformation to the Super Saiyan form. But then, of course everyone wanted Goku to win: it’s easy to cheer for this kind of person because they’re not real. Real people have anger, drive, ambitions — real people are selfish, if not embarrassing when they’re given a blank check. Vegeta may not have been the cleanest and most respectable of all the Saiyans, but he was absolutely the one worth rooting for and entirely deserving of Super Saiyan status.
Some Vegeta detractors invoke Reagan-style talking points, as if Vegeta is part of the entitlement generation. “But Alfred,” you may say, “Vegeta was born a prince and hardly had to work for his ability at all.”
Vegeta absolutely had to work for his ability. In childhood, while Goku was toying with Bulma in a capsule house, Vegeta was undergoing constant training on his home planet. And Frieza, head of what is effectively an intergalactic cartel, decides to enslave his entire race. Vegeta, to use his own quote, was being “worked like a slave” by Zarbon, Frieza’s second-in-command. Imagine this: your whole family and in fact your entire race are enslaved by a cartel, and you have to work slave hours for them on top of that — we’ll assume 105 hours a week is a conservative estimate. Goku’s conditions look cushy by comparison.
“But Alfred,” you may say again, “Vegeta was a horrible person. He doesn’t deserve to be the strongest.”
Think about the trauma people face when they’re bullied: some turn into bullies themselves, and take their anger out on others. Now imagine if, instead of nerds and jocks, there was a “king nerd” and a “king jock.” Would you not feel at least the little bit angry if, as prince of the nerds, you were bullied by a low-level jock? You would feel like every nerd under you was being bullied by implication — like it’s your duty to stand up as a representative of your kind.
To top it all off, all of your kind were killed. Frieza not only committed genocide but planetcide by destroying Planet Vegeta and all of the Saiyans on it. So not only are you the finest representation of your kind, you are the last of your kind and you are being utilized solely as expendable labor, your very existence treated as a joke. Some people go on shooting rampages for trauma like school bullying — now imagine the pent-up anger someone would feel if, in spite of all their hard work, they were bullied by the people who killed their dad and their kind and their home town and even home planet.
You would be angry too.
Vegeta was, by far, the realest and most interesting character on Dragon Ball Z because his circumstances are entirely understandable and his unrestrained emotion is more in line with what any of us would face if in his position. Real people are sloppy and reckless and raw. Getting to the top involves pain and endurance, and bitterness directed towards those telling you it’s beyond your reach is completely within the realm of understandable feelings. He was not only deserving of the Super Saiyan title, but deserving of our support as well.