This week, I had every intention of writing about villains I love… But I got caught up on a tangent elsewhere and haven’t been able to jump off of it. And that topic is the anime, Naruto. Yes, hello, hi. I am a twenty-something-year-old girl who loves Naruto. While we do exist, we are few and far between. That’s actually what I wanted to blog about today. I wanted to point at one of the big reasons I think it is difficult for girls to like the show, and that is because of the girls in the show.
Two notes: First, I’ll try to keep this fairly surface level so that you can read this post without having watched the show because I think this is important. But we’ll see how that goes. Second, I will be referencing exclusively from cannon episodes of the anime; not the manga, not the filler, and not from Boruto.
So I grew up in the prime of Naruto, watching Part One as it came out dubbed on Cartoon Network, and by many metrics, I fit the target audience. The show is aimed very strongly at boys, but, hey, that’s the kind of media I always preferred. As a kid, I had a limited understanding of time, so I was never the best at scheduling myself to catch every episode. But I saw enough. When Shippuden started up, I remember going over to my friend Jessica’s house to watch the subs as they came out online; I was even less consistent with that, but it was enough to give the series a slot in my memory.
Fast forward almost ten years: my younger brother gets hooked on the show and watches it through in order — something I had yet to do. He loved it so much, he offered to watch it through with me immediately after finishing the thing. So off we went, finishing Part One and Shippuden in a matter of weeks. And, overall, I loved it.
But I’m not going to talk about how it’s great. Not today at least. Today, I want to express the sheer disappointment I felt basically any time a female character was introduced.
First, I want to look at ratios and power balance. In Part One, we are introduced to a standard: there will always be at least three boys to every one girl. Each four-person squad has a leader and three pupils. Each of those teams except one has the same setup: male sensei ( notable and cool), two male students (often rivals or opposites), and one female who is almost always useless on missions, but exists in at least one love triangle.
Let me elaborate. Here are our main teams in Part One:
- Led by Kakashi (male), Naruto is strong and short-tempered, while Sasuke is strong, but cocky, calm and collected. Sakura is said to be smart, but does a total of two smart things in the 220 episodes that make up Part One: she was the best at walking on trees, and she woke herself up. Those two events are as lame and forgettable as I’m making them seem.
- Led by Gai (male), Lee is hardworking, loud, and ridiculous, while Neji is naturally-gifted, quiet, and serious. Tenten throws things. Not even super well. There are other characters with other abilities who still throw things better than the ‘specialist.’ I think she won a single battle. It was in Shippuden and it was against a clone of herself. She has a personality, but I struggle to describe it… That says a lot.
- Led by Asuma (male), Shikamaru is intelligent, low-energy, and methodical, while Choji is stupid, loud, high-strung, and impulsive. Ino has a potentially cool ability. It’s useful when her dad uses it. But instead, her primary function is to be the petty romantic rival to Sakura. Because girls are only as important as the boys they’re chasing.
- Led by Kurenai (female, but don’t get too excited), Kiba is loud and aggressive, while Shino is quiet and weird. Hinata had a lot of potential, too. Like Ino, she has a really cool ability, but she’s not known for her fighting ability. She’s known as the quiet, socially awkward girl who loves Naruto.
Even the team leaders do this three-guys-and-a-girl thing. Kakashi sensei is insanely talented, uses an ability he shouldn’t have, and carries massive emotional baggage. Gai sensei is insanely strong, quirky, and passionate. Asuma sensei is the cool-guy archetype and is at the center of an emotional arc in Shippuden. Kurenai sensei could break the mold by being the only female team leader… but instead, she is best known for trying to use mind control on a mind control master from a clan of mind control masters. After that, she gets pregnant and shows up when we need to be reminded that the baby daddy is dead and we should be sad. What a legacy, right?
Now, it is my pleasure to finally bring up the Sand Siblings, and the closest thing to a useful woman Part One has to offer. Temari. Temari is the eldest and leads the group more prominently than their actual leader whose name I never remember. She’s a competent fighter and a logical mind. And she has interests that don’t involve chasing boys. Her brothers are Gaara and Konkoro — overly serious and antisocial, versus cocky and goofy. While Gaara is the powercell behind their plans in Part One, it’s Temari that leads them. It was the first time I didn’t meet a female character and hate her by the end of the arc. And, let’s be real, Temari is great, but she is nothing compared to the other characters in the show.
For me, the sad part of this all is the fact that Masashi Kishimoto knows how to write compelling characters. Let’s look for a minute at motivations:
Naruto: become the ninja president so the village will love him. Sasuke: avenge his clan in his own self-righteous way. Shikamaru: take a nap… lol, but for real, he just wants safety for those he loves. Kakashi wants to atone for his sins by protecting those around him. Gai wants to train to be the strongest he can be. Lee wants to prove that hard work can rival natural talent. Neji wants recognition for his skill despite his rank in the clan. Kiba also wants to be ninja president, but for the power it holds. Asuma wants to bring flowers home to his lover. Shino wants to find cool new bugs. Choji wants to eat and marry someone who will feed him lots of food. Konkuro wants to be the best at his skillset. Gaara just wants to feel love.
The specifics aren’t important in this matter. I just want to point out the variety and depth of so many of these male characters. Let’s compare that to the motivations of the women mentioned above.
Sakura wants Sasuke to love her. Ino wants to beat Sakura — specifically in getting Sasuke to love her. Hinata wants Naruto to love her. Kurenai is very much a background character, but I’d guess she wants to raise her son with Asuma. Tenten is a piece of paper who carries around knives and throws them when she’s told to. I don’t even know what she wants.
Thank Kishimoto for Temari. She wants to be useful. She wants her brothers to ask for her advice; she wants people to know she is a force to be reckoned with; she wants to beat the crap out of you with her fan. It’s great. She’s stubborn and assertive and feels like a real person.
And thankfully, in Shippuden, we’re introduced to a handful of other women with motivations. Tsunade loves drinking and gambling because she is a healer who feels responsible for the deaths of those she loved the most. Konan has one of the most creative powers in the show, leads a group of international terrorists on a mission to obtain world peace, and nearly kills one of the biggest villains in the show in a one on one fight. Kushina is terrifying; she comes from a powerful clan and carries a powerful creature inside her. But at her core, she’s silly and awkward and just wants to be treated like someone who matters.
The funny thing about all of these characters is that they each come with a love story that I, personally, find convincing.
Woah, woah, woah. Did I just contradict everything I’ve been saying?
No. My point stands. As a girl, I struggled to connect to the flat female characters we are introduced to. Time and time again we’re shown really cool guys and their really cool abilities, while girls spent their time on the sidelines cheering the boys on and trying to steal a kiss. And the backtracking done in Shippuden felt too little too late.
And that is so sad! I connect so strongly with so many of the characters in Naruto, yet feel like my entire gender is an afterthought. I get angry seeing ways that the early women of the show could have been written to be compelling. I feel sad when I see how little impact even the useful women had on the show. I question why nearly every team has a three-to-one ratio. And why the female team members almost always set up a love triangle.
The anime got better over the years, and I hope Boruto is continuing to advance what women can do in-universe. Maybe one day I’ll share how I would go about changing the female characters to be more relatable. Step one, I think Sakura should have punched the shit out of Sasuke. Just once. That’s the minimum of what I ask.
Thanks for tuning into my geekiest talk yet. See you next week.