Before I dig into this part, I would just like to make the following points. This issue is complicated.
To be quite honest, I am comforted when readers have nice things to say about Kishimoto’s female characters. It shows he did something right in their creation and development in order for a number of people to be interested in them in the first place — and it is often their characterization that sticks out the most. Kishimoto in particular did enough for people to build interest in characters like Hinata, Temari, and Tsunade, for example. Personally speaking, I was already hooked to Naruto’s story by episodes of the Land of Waves Arc in the anime, but Tsunade’s introductory arc sealed the deal for me. Kishimoto made a number of his females sympathetic, and for that he deserves a tremendous amount of credit.
Another positive thing to say is how he largely shied away from using females as fanservice. Tsunade may be the outlier here, as she had abnormally large breasts and there was in-manga commentary on them by male characters. And while she and some other ladies in Naruto can be described by their beauty, I don’t believe it was the mangaka’s intention to reduce all the females to their sexuality.
Given the above, there were some ways in which both the females and males suffered, to be fair. But there were other ways in which just the females suffered. In short, they were poorly represented in fights, in abilities, and most importantly, in terms of characterization. Let’s recap and look at things I may have left out before.
First, let’s look at the abilities.
Looking at Abilities & Skills
Generally, the main abilities of ninjas were summed up in three categories: taijutsu, ninjutsu, and genjutsu; women were often lacking in all three fighting categories. For the most part, taijutsu was given a tremendous amount of respect, especially when used by a male character like Gai, who essentially focused exclusively on it. Genjutsu was most effective when used by Uchiha and those were all males. Other than that, ninjutsu received the most focus; however, the women had little ninjutsu overall.
Characters also had an advantage if they could use mid- and long-range ninjutsu, cunning, and/or speed. None of the females in the story ranked in the upper categories of speed. Name a relatively fast female from the manga. I dare you.
None of the ladies except Konan, Kushina, Karin, Tayuya, Temari, and Tenten had anything resembling a mid-range offensive. Often, the females had supplemental jutsu and some that could be used mid- or long-range, albeit with help. Alternatively, they had underdeveloped offensive abilities — especially when compared to males with the same or similar abilities — that were ultimately treated as supplemental.
(What’s worse is that there was a persistent pattern of Kishimoto’s to understate some contributions of the ladies, show how these contributions were of little importance to others, or how they might not be needed at all. For example, Tsunade expended all that chakra to heal villagers during Pain’s onslaught, only for him to resurrect dead villagers anyway. Karin was thrown under the bus after all the times she helped Sasuke. Kurenai and Hinata had the misfortune of going up against stronger [male] opponents. Ino was not needed against the immortals.)
The females often lacked in battle intelligence. Temari and Konan stand as perhaps two of the best tacticians in fights, but that ended in them making no real progress. Sakura was book smart, but that never translated to fights (or her life). Kaguya was too dumb to use to her broken abilities to their fullest. Madara was more impressive as a juubi jinchuriki and Obito was even more impressive than him in the same spot.
Now, I think it is fair to ask how those same guys would do if they were pitted against any of these aforementioned ladies. Forget about physical strength; chakra should have been a great equalizer. A character could have more than others, but another character could use their limited amount more efficiently. There was never any indication that women could excel through efficient chakra usage, nor was there any thought given to how much chakra each had. It was just clear and expected that the ladies would automatically be at a disadvantage in mixed fights.
The abilities granted to the characters were of course a function of the fights and vice versa. Without the most potent attacks, or the aforementioned strengths and advantages, certain characters would never believably win against most opponents and would thus lose 9 times out of ten. Women were shafted here, too, and that of course goes back to their poor performances in fights.
Looking at Fights
In general, all the marquee fights involved only two or more males and most of these fights were treated with a modicum of respect. This is true in terms of action, dialogue, and meaning (which included flashbacks). Often, these matchups went on for multiple chapters and they left a lasting impression on readers.
Most fights involving women weren’t handled well in comparison, even when they were only fighting each other. There were only five or six fights involving two or more women. Most were in Part 1 and only four fights had females on opposite sides. The fight against Temari and Tenten was off-panel, but I count it in order to illustrate my point. Again, the fight between Sakura and Ino was one of the worst fights in the manga, and that ended in a draw. Most of these fights were forgettable.
In fights with mixed gender, the women were often shown to be the weakest links. They often needed to be saved by a [male] teammate or anyone who arrives just in time to intervene. Alternatively, the women were effectively put on the sidelines, and with no guarantee of their safety. Consider this list:
- Sakura wasn’t able to do much against Zaku. She may have gotten in a few hits, but he kawawmi barrage amounted to nothing in the end. She was finally done as Zaku grabbed a hold of her hair. Ino would later step in and freeze Kin with Shintenshin, but then Zaku had no problem punching his teammate, which also injured Ino.
- Kin would later be tricked and quickly defeated by Shikamaru.
- Hinata was talked down to and almost killed by Neji in their preliminary Chūnin Exam match.
- As Kurenai and Asuma intercepted a “visiting” Itachi and Kisame in Konohagakure shortly after Hiruzen’s death, the two Jounin suffered. Kurenai in particular tried to cast a genjutsu on Itachi only to have it turned on her. After that, Itachi kicked Kurenai, sending her into a river. Awesome work by the double agent.
- An out-of-shape and hemophilic Tsunade was cut in her arm muscles and kicked in the head by Kabuto, until Naruto stepped in and took a kunai meant for her.
- Sakura was hit by Kabuto’s posterior and pimp-slapped by KN4 on and near the bridge in Grass Country.
- When Jiraiya had a flashback to the tail end of their fight with Hanzo, it was pretty much understood that he let the future Densetsu No Sannin live and gave them their name, pretty much shitting on their legacy.
- Konan was quickly foiled by Jiraiya (who spat oil on her) when confronting him in Ame. She would later have a respectable fight with Obito, but it was basically pointless on her part and he stabbed her with a pipe.
- Konan was once a hostage for Hanzo.
- Hinata was quickly knocked out by Deva Path when she tried to protect a bound Naruto.
- In the Land of Iron: Karin was used by Sasuke, who needed to be healed in two notable fights (previously against Bee and then Danzo in the Kage Summit Arc). Karin was merely a sensor, healer, and observer. She did not fight before the war, but she was kicked in the face by Danzo when he was fighting Sasuke. She would later be held hostage by Danzo and then impaled by Sasuke, who would leave her for dead.
- Sakura, after failing to stab Sasuke, would be choked by him. Before then, she was saved from Sasuke’s Chidori by Kakashi. Naruto ultimately intervened to save Sakura from being stabbed by her own poisoned kunai.
- Kabuto knocked out Anko off panel.
- When it looked like Tsunade delivered a direct hit to Madara, ooop. Surprise! That’s a Mokubunshin and she would be impaled right after. Fast forward and then she is cut in half. She was essentially tortured since her introduction.
- Kabuto killed his “mother,” Nonou ─(who supposedly a valuable asset to Danzo, I might add) ─in Iwa when she thought the boy was an intruder.
- Mei didn’t do much of anything against Madara and was the first one to cower. Neither of the women made a direct hit on Edo Madara but he scuffed them and the other Kage up pretty good.
- Sakura would get hit by Madara after her misguided attempt to create a diversion for Naruto and Sasuke.
Did I leave anything out?
There are a few notable exceptions here, albeit none of the ladies made finishing blows, ladies made supplemental actions, or there were extenuating circumstances:
- Temari “won” against Shikamaru in the Chūnin Exam finals when he forfeited. He was low on chakra but otherwise had Temari cornered.
- Tsunade, despite being out of practice and out of shape, dodged kunai thrown by a Naruto who was only beginning to improve on the basics. She owned him with one finger but had to put a crease in the ground to stop Naruto’s incomplete Rasengan.
- Tsunade stabbed Manda’s (a snake) mouth shut and punched the shit out of an armless Orochimaru. This was after Oro stabbed her in the chest with the Sword of Kusanagi.
- In the best fight featuring women in the manga, Chiyo and Sakura teamed up to defeat Sasori. He lost in the end by allowing himself to be stabbed by the puppets he made to resemble his parents.
- Hinata and Sakura took out White Zetsu clones.
- Ino possessed Kinkaku, multiple Zetsu clones, and Obito with Shintenshin. Admittedly, she was highly impressive during the war and stood out more than either of her teammates, imho.
I’m not going to include the instances where guys were decked or slapped around by Sakura, Kushina, or Karin, as those were unfunny attempts at slapstick. (Suigetsu could turn himself into water, so that didn’t even hurt him anyway.) However, I must admit there is a double standard there. When women were intentionally hit by men, it was generally never treated as funny. An exception is Karin, which was sometime after she had been healed and the war started. Even then, it was more her reaction that constituted the “humor.”
All told, the message I got, when considering some of the dialogue, was that women weren’t meant to fight. This wasn’t expressly stated by Kishimoto but it was shown again and again in the manga. This is a problem if a village hires women to fight for them. Why employ individuals who would only serve as liabilities?
For the most part, women were sidelined, they acted as support and if they did fight, and most of those matchups were relatively quick. It was like Kishimoto didn’t want to be bothered.
This lack of exploration was understated with the abilities, but it was conspicuous here, and it was at times apparent than in the characterization.
When weighing everything, I must say Kishimoto could be an “equal opportunity” offender. There are at least 5 areas to look at in this regard. Most of the characters receiving torture and embarrassment were male — although the females were limited because of the way they were viewed by the mangaka.
Area 1: The poor treatment of characters was largely a function of them serving the plot.
It happens when he develops certain characters past a certain point. Whereas his strength is in introducing characters and building interest in them, the problems arose when they had to fulfill a certain role in order to resolve certain plot points.
Almost all major characters — both male and female — suffered in service to the plot. This is especially true in regards to Naruto and Sasuke, even though they were main characters. This was true for the villains and dignitaries. Other supporting characters, particularly those around Naruto’s age, suffered due to the plot moving away from them and the overcompensation for Naruto’s lack of relevance throughout Part 2.
Area 2: At times, characters also suffered in order to make other characters look better.
Both males and females suffered to make other characters look good, but I would give the edge to the males here. Hiruzen in particular took massive hits as details surrounding the Uchiha massacre were revealed and Itachi was being established as a hero. Sasuke was often unfavorably compared to his brother. Sasuke’s character also suffered in the end because his goals would ultimately be negated and overshadowed by Naruto’s desires and goals. Naruto himself was forced into an underdog role even in Part 2 and suffered from inconsistent intelligence. Often, those who defied Naruto without compromise would be quickly cast aside. I would even say a teenaged Karin suffered in order to make Sakura look better in some respects.
Area 3: Most females had few goals outside of romance and supporting a male’s goals.
While it was true that some guys lived in order to emulate their mentors (ex. Kabuto to Orochimaru) or fulfill the goals of others (ex. Haku to Zabuza), those being followed were male. Other males had goals that would never be fulfilled, especially because they ran counter to the plot. The only goal between ladies that was outside romance was Tenten’s goal to be a legendary kunoichi ike Tsunade. However, since Tenten was essentially a minor character, that would never be mentioned again let alone explored.
Area 4: You could tell how bad a character was neglected by their goals [and how those goals were handled in-story].
The above is what still pisses off fans of various characters. Both male and female characters suffered in this regard and it was the most painful in a few circumstances (i.e.,Orochimaru, Kiba, and Lee). All told, most of the characters suffered if their goals did not align with Naruto’s and even if they did.
Area 5: Girls had to fulfill certain roles due to stereotypes, but this is not necessarily true about the males.
Look at Naruto and Sasuke’s characters. Even if you know a little about Japanese culture and tropes in Japanese fiction, would you honestly say these two were written as stereotypical males?
Some of the characters, like Killer Bee, A, and even Lee and Guy, have gimmicks to their character, but overall, these characters and others had great range. I love how characters like Tobirama, Hashirama, and Madara were developed even if I don’t like all of them. They had their own personalities and outlooks but they weren’t limited because they were male. But somehow the women were because they were women?
This last part is an outgrowth of Kishimoto’s admission that he saw his female characters as females first and foremost. It is shown in the dialogue. It is shown in their abilities and performances in fights. The girls would either fill a role — often as the third wheel in Genin teams, as a person who had to be protected and saved or mourned and avenged, or a love interest/mother — or just stand in the background. It didn’t matter how powerful these characters were; they would be limited from the outset, with no real hope of advancing within the story.
When everything is considered, I can’t see why anyone could deny that the females as a whole are unfairly handled. Really, what else can we make of this?
Finally, it’s time to look at the Naruto fandom on this topic. This isn’t really Kishimoto’s fault, but fan reactions are the main reason I made these series of posts.