How women are presented in stories, especially stories geared to boys, is very important. Having almost all the women fall into stereotypical characters or plots reinforces those stereotypes, so it’s important to examine the problems in female characters. Kishimoto fails across the board in creating the compelling, independent women in the manga Naruto.
I’ve wanted to go full into the women of Naruto by Kishimoto Masashi for a while. Before I get into this, I want to emphasize that I love Naruto. It’s because of love it that the problems are glaring to me. I wish Kishimoto could have done as much justice to the women in Naruto as he did for the men. But Kishimoto can’t write women.
We’re going to be taking a look at the major and some minor female characters found throughout the length of the manga and the reoccurring problems that Kishimoto has writing their personalities and stories.
That’s not to say Kishimoto is a bad writer. He can write very compelling characters and stories, if it’s centered on boys or men. Unfortunately, when he turns his talents to female characters, he relies on stereotypes and tropes. Women in Kishimoto’s universe are often placed in stories about their love for a man, while men’s stories are often about their platonic relationships with other men. Women are also more prone to be pieces of men’s stories rather than commanding their own.
Sakura is the first major female character introduced. She’s hot-tempered and wholly romance-focused. She is obsessive in her crush on her teammate Sasuke, to the point she often neglects anything that doesn’t revolve around him and is verbally and physically abusive to her other teammate, Naruto.
Some might say abuse is a harsh way to look at it, because these interactions are played for laughs, but her treatment of Naruto is abusive at the beginning as she shows no empathy to anyone besides Sasuke, who she constantly makes excuses for when his behavior is just as bad toward her. Sasuke’s abuse is not physical though, because a guy hitting a girl the way Sakura hits Naruto wouldn’t be taken for laughs. This is why I call it abusive. As the series progresses, this behavior significantly reduces, removing almost all verbal abuse, but the physical abuse remains at times for laughs.
Sakura’s entire story is dependent on Sasuke; even her rivalry with Ino centers on Sasuke. If Sasuke didn’t exist, Sakura would have no story of her own to give her a personality. She has a small story about being teased, which initiates her friendship with Ino, but the personality shown at the beginning of the series is created because Sasuke fissured that friendship. Without Sasuke, Sakura would be a completely different person.
As the Chuunin Exams Arc enters, we are introduced more thoroughly to other teams, which give us Ino, Hinata, Tenten and Temari.
Like Sakura, nearly all of Ino’s early story revolves around Sasuke, because much of it is part of the rivalry and friendship between her and Sakura, of which Sasuke is the wedge that broke it apart. That broken friendship is the catalyst that changes a child who appears far more caring and confident (without being smug) into the Ino the reader is given. Again, without Sasuke, Ino would be a different person.
That being said, the post-chuunin exam friendship between Sakura and Ino is very good, primarily because Sasuke is removed from it. Their relationship is theirs again, which improves both Sakura and Ino. Unfortunately, Sakura’s plot is still attached entirely to Sasuke’s story, while Ino becomes nothing more than a part of Ino-Shika-Cho whenever the focus is not on her and Sakura.
Poor Tenten. She really doesn’t have any story outside of Team Gai. She’s not only dependent on Team Gai, but the only person who has as little back story as her in the four main teams is Shino. Everyone else gets some early trial that motivates them. Unlike Shino, she doesn’t gain a real, solid personality until post time skip. Even then, the personality we get has been shaped by being on a team with Lee, Gai, and Neji, not from a personal challenge or goal. Tenten’s personality is basically weapons and exasperation. This is especially sad because her skills made her one of the stronger women in the early series along with Temari.
I’m including Temari here because she plays an important part of the Chuunin Exam Arc. Of all the younger women in the early series, Temari is the strongest in both skills and personality. She’s older, gets to be cunning and confident on her own, and is a person who understands the dangers and price of the world they live in. The problem with Temari, as it is with many of the women, is that she’s ancillary to other people’s story. She and Kankuro don’t have their own stories; they are part of Gaara’s story. Later in the series she does appear more separate from her brothers, but is never given the focus that Kankuro receives to build her up on her own.
I’ve left Hinata for last because she is both my favorite character in the series and the one that gets screwed the most out of her own story. Like Sakura and Ino, her character cannot be removed from her crush on Naruto without losing most of her early plot and all of her later story. Unlike Tenten and Temari, though, she does have her own back story that is not reliant on anyone else. Her life as the weak, shunned heir to the Hyuuga clan is the reason she comes to crush on, and be inspired by, the brash and confident Naruto. In the chuunin exams, she has something to prove, not to Naruto, but to herself. At that time, Naruto was ancillary to her story despite being a large part of it.
Then, Neji’s story is fully revealed.
At that point, Hinata’s personal story is absorbed into Neji’s story. Naruto and Neji fight because of Hinata, but the story is theirs, not hers. She has no direct effect on their stories other than to act as a catalyst. Her personal story is then morphed wholly into her crush on Naruto. That is her driving force.
Hinata’s original back story was her mistreatment at the hands of her father and her loss of position as heir because of her physical weakness. That story is never resolved. The healing of the Hyuuga clan happens between her father and Neji, not her father and her. In fact the tension between Hinata and her father is never mentioned again. He never apologizes to her. He never admits he was wrong to treat her that way. He never says he’s proud of her. All of the Hyuuga’s story becomes Neji’s story, and Hinata’s role in the clan is to show how Neji has changed.
With her own story lost, Hinata becomes nothing more than pieces in her team’s, Neji’s, and Naruto’s stories. Even her brightest moment in the Pain Arc occurs because she loves Naruto, not to prove something to herself or those who doubted her, and is quickly over so that her actions can trigger Naruto’s story.
Just because a woman’s badass in the series, doesn’t mean that her character is immune to Kishimoto’s problem with women. Some of the most powerful women in the series suffer the same flaws as those already mentioned.
I’m starting with Kurenai because she has the least to talk about. Not because there aren’t problems, but because she gets so little screen time there’s not much to talk about. Early in the series, she is presented as a strong, competent shinobi equal to the other instructors. Unlike Kakashi, Gai, and Asuma though, she receives no focused story of her own during the series. She’s entirely ancillary.
What story she does finally receive is not hers; it’s Asuma’s and Shikamaru’s. Kurenai is a part of Asuma’s story as wife and soon-to-be-mother of their child. When Asuma dies, she becomes part of Shikamaru’s story, someone he needs to protect in Asuma’s place. Not once post-time skip is Kurenai seen with her own team. She is only shown with Shikamaru, because it’s his story that matters.
The Mizukage doesn’t have a lot of back story in the manga, so she’s allowed to be a badass woman without much qualifying and fanfare. And I’d really love to say that’s all she is, but Kishimoto gave her a very specific personality quirk that is annoyingly, stereotypically female. She’s obsessed with the fact she’s not married at her age. She sees it as a personal character flaw that she’s unmarried and brings it up at inappropriate moments. It’s not overwhelming due to her limited screen time, but it’s an identifiable part of who she is and another way women are portrayed as focused on romance.
Tsunade is hands down the most badass women in the series. She has the same command as any of the Kages and can face off against any threat with confidence and determination. She’s wonderful. Her story is also predicated on two men: her brother and her lover. The Tsunade we first meet is shaped entirely from their deaths and lost dreams. This isn’t as bad as the other women as the story is hers and not attached to someone else’s, but it is still a romantic story.
Tsunade also has a huge female stereotype in her personality: vanity. Tsunade is as old as Jiraiya but she’s never seen as anything but a young woman. She maintains this illusion at all times except serious injury or chakra exhaustion. When the illusion is down, her face is never shown to the reader. It’s as if seeing her old appearance would diminish her character. This is not seen in men, except Orochimaru. Men are allowed to be old and powerful and serious characters all at once, but women are not. Tsunade can be serious and powerful, but she must be young.
There’s a reason I said that a woman couldn’t be old, powerful, and serious at the same time. Kishimoto does allow for a woman to be old and powerful, as long as it’s in the crazy old lady stereotype, as seen in Chiyo. She does have serious moments, but her personality is that of crazy old lady. By comparison, the old men in the series are rarely relegated to comedic relief unless they are not powerful.
Her story is also a maternal story focused on her grandson, Sasori. Chiyo’s and Sasori’s stories are pretty intertwined, so I wouldn’t say either one is ancillary to the other, but Chiyo’s role is that of failed grandmother. Old men may have failed people, but it’s more often on a larger, less personal scale, such as Sandaime, or it’s a teacher student or male friendship relationship rather than a familial one.
Writers of young adult fiction need to take their female characters seriously and examine whether they’re as fully fleshed as their male characters, so the boys who read it will see women as more than stereotypes.
This is long already, so stay tuned for part two: Kishimoto Can’t Write Relationships.