Haruno Sakura and the Portrayals of Women in Naruto
As you may or may not know, I’m a huge Naruto stan. I’ve been reading the Naruto manga and watching the anime since I was 10 years old. Like most people in the Naruto fandom, I had a lot of feelings about the longstanding manga finally ending after 15 years. It was to the point that I was too excited to wait until after class to finish reading, which meant that I was fighting tears and laughter IN THE MIDDLE OF CLASS. I swear I’m an adult.
One of the things that has always bothered me is the abysmal portrayals of women in the story. Admittedly, when I once made an impromptu decision to live tweet my rewatch of the show, I had a Twitter rant about it.
It goes on a bit more, but I thought I would explain my annoyance more here, without the limit of 140 characters.
While some of the female characters in the manga/anime are not problems in certain situations, the problem is that there tends to be a lack of nuance and character development. Pretty much all of these characters are defined in relation to their proximity to men, and for some their entire goal is to get the attention of men, despite them being ninjas (and I don’t know about you, but if I was a ninja I think I would be much more concerned with my awesomeness than what the nearest bruh with Harry-Potter-hair-times-100 was thinking about me).
What is really interesting is that for some of these characters, the writers attempt to develop them more, and succeed for an arc or two before devolving back to their base characteristics. For example, Sakura (who is by far the most disappointing character in this show for this very reason) spends a good amount of the beginning of her story arc squealing over Sasuke and being completely useless in the field.
She is a know-it-all who doesn’t have any real world skills but tries to act as if she does. For the entire first part of the series she is like this, without really advancing. What’s odd about it is that during the Chunin Exams, Sakura (and the writers) seem to be really aware of this issue with her character, and then go about trying to write her out of this hole. It doesn’t last long; by the end of part 1 of Naruto, she is reduced to crying about Sasuke leaving and begging Naruto to go save him rather than going to save him herself (though, honestly at this point in the story, she couldn’t. She isn’t nearly strong enough, which is a problem in and of itself).
Up until maybe Naruto Shippuden, Sakura doesn’t do much other than cheer on Sasuke, or worry about what Sasuke thinks about her, or cries after Sasuke. It’s so exaggerated to the point where you’re just annoyed, which becomes even more pronounced due to the fact that Sasuke barely shows any kind of affection to her in return, aside from like one time that is almost unbelievable because of the amount of disinterest he’s shown her up until that point.
Things start to change in Naruto Shippuden, set three years after the first part of Naruto. Sakura has grown much stronger due to her training by the Fifth Hokage and legendary medical ninja Tsunade, and for the first couple of arcs, she is amazing. She even kills a member of the Akatsuki in one of my favorite arcs in Shippuden. And one of the main reasons it is my favorite is because that it was the moment where I was sure that the writers would completely change Sakura for the better. And while this works for a bit, and Sakura actually has real power, both physically and medically, it’s all for naught once she sees Sasuke again. What is frustrating about the story’s treatment of Sakura is that they legitimately try to get her out of the hole she was originally written into, but towards the end, she basically just oscillates between being extremely powerful and completely useless. There’s a moment when it is revealed that she can do the regeneration jutsu on herself like Tsunade (an awesome justu that lets you regenerate your cells in the middle of the fight in a way much more awesome than The Doctor), but she only really uses it at the very end and only for a split second.
While ultimately, I appreciate Sakura more on the tail end of the story, and I feel like she does improve vastly throughout the story, the writing of her character is indicative of the ways women in Naruto are portrayed. The writers tend to just fall back on the stereotypes of women rather than making their female characters more complicated and developed, an issue they don’t seem to have with the male characters in the story. There are so many instances to do develop characters like Sakura, Hinata, and Ten Ten, but they get lost due to the large focus on the male characters of the story.
07/15/2015 @ 10:19 PM
As I was doing the dishes earlier today I was thinking the same thing. All of the female characters just don’t add up interns of how good their character is. I love Hinata to death but just like Sakura, her main source of inspiration is being in love with Naruto. Its just like you said. Either they’re love struck, too strong, helpless or have no purpose. A shame because these are character that I could really enjoy if that had a better purpose. Sakura could have been a powerful female but it just wasn’t in Kishimoto’s plan to give her anything that would stick with her character.
07/16/2015 @ 12:47 PM
Seriously! It always makes me so mad because he’ll do such a great job with her for a couple of arcs and then fall right back into her crying. I hated Sakura in the first part, but was so excited to get more development in Shippuden and then it just fell flat. There were so many opportunities to make her strong and complicated and developed, but she just fell into the same stereotypes over and over. And it’s the same with all the other female characters as well. I could go on forever lol
10/28/2018 @ 2:52 AM
This is my first time reading your blog, as I found this post when it came up as the first result in google when I searched "naruto’s depiction of female characters". Obviously this post is more than three years old by now so my comments are not timely at all, but I would like to share my opinions anyway, if you care to read this very long rant. I couldn’t agree more with your analysis of Sakura’s very poor treatment by Kishimoto, and I think you are right to focus on her as she is arguably the most prominent woman in the series. Her unreciprocated love and obsession towards Sasuke is ridiculous, and as you mentioned, it essentially defines her character. There was a good chance for character development in her growing out of her crush, but instead she literally never gets over it and her storyline terminates with a “happily ever after” ending in which she marries Sasuke, who had shown her no affection or interest whatsoever throughout the series and in fact tried to kill her at one point! Their pairing makes no sense at all.
Speaking of women’s relationships to Sasuke in this series, Karin’s fixation on him defines her as an even more obsessed version of Sakura. I don’t know how exactly the anime treated this because I stopped watching it after the Pain arc, but in the video game Naruto Storm 4, Karin wakes up after Sasuke ran her through with his chidori spear in the fight against Danzo, showing exactly how much Sasuke valued her life. Instead of this being a major turning point in which she realizes that Sasuke is an ASSHOLE, she is momentarily angry at him and then immediately reverts into drooling over him again, the entire moment being laughed off! I couldn’t believe this as I was watching it! Shouldn’t this be seen as some kind of warning sign?! Both Sakura and Karin ignore all the negative aspects of Sasuke’s character in favor of an unhealthy obsession. And even worse, in the case of Sakura she is ultimately rewarded for obsessing over one man her entire life by getting to marry him, almost as if we’re supposed to take away that such fervent crushing is a good thing? I don’t seriously think that Kishimoto wants the reader to think that, so rather it is indicative of the lack of thought he put into Sakura’s arc. Despite her prominent placement as a member of Team Seven, her story is clearly pushed to the margins in favor of the other two protagonists. What we are left with is her character and every other woman in the series being, as you say, “defined in relation to their proximity to men”.
On a similar note, I would also like to touch on how the portrayal of Sakura as a fighter is ultimately so disappointing. There is a commendable moment in which she shows a lot of courage and inner strength in standing up the Sound ninja in the Chunin exams, and cuts her hair as a symbolic show of maturity, but she never gets any stronger in Part 1 after that. This is pretty bizarre when you consider that so many other characters (Sasuke, Naruto, Rock Lee) have no problem training their asses off and getting stronger. Instead, as we know, she is portrayed as a useless crying girl, and later on she isn’t even picked to go on the Sasuke Retrieval mission, which is just pathetic. But there is one major way Kishimoto easily could have made Sakura a much more competent character. Early on in the series, Sakura is described as having an affinity for genjutsu, but she never actually does anything with this other than being decent at dispelling it. Why does she not ever cast genjutsu??? This would have made Team Seven so much more versatile and brought something really unique to the table on Sakura’s part. Her using genjutsu early on in the series would also have been a great introduction for viewers/readers to illusory jutsu and how it could work in conjunction with other techniques. But nah, Kishimoto opts to sideline Sakura as a completely ineffectual fighter and character all the way until Part II.
And then we get to the Kazekage rescue arc, like you one of my favorite parts of the series. Now Sakura is an incredibly competent ninja with skills in both medical ninjutsu and chakra-enhanced strength. We only had to wait several story arcs and over a hundred episodes for her to show some competence, but okay, we finally are seeing development. She defeats Sasori with Chiyo in one of the very best fights of the series. I was very hopeful when I watched this that Sakura would continue to kick ass as the series went on, but the genjutsu was broken in the following story arc. At the Tenchi bridge she gets knocked unconscious before Naruto and Orochimaru’s fight even begins. REALLY KISHIMOTO?! She could have had a skirmish with Kabuto here or something, but she gets treated like a damsel in distress. And as you mentioned, once she sees Sasuke again, it’s like she’s reduced to that same useless girl again she was in Part I.
I don’t want to go through every arc in Part II, as she is basically sidelined in favor of focusing on Naruto and Sasuke. But I will bring attention to the pathetic scene in which she tries to kill Sasuke. The humiliation of her character just seemed so abject as Sasuke put his hand around her throat and she was just helpless and overwhelmed until Kakashi came to save her. UGH. This could have been a great fight, one of the best in the series, and perhaps THE turning point in her character in which she finally put her schoolgirl love for Sasuke aside and took action into her own hands. Plus, practically speaking, we know that Sakura’s super strength is incredibly powerful, so how the hell is Sasuke going to manhandle her like that when she could have broken all the bones in his arm with a flick of her wrist? But I digress.
In conclusion, Sakura could so easily have been a much more competent and developed character, and it is deeply disappointing that she is not shown to be one. Personally I really like her character design, I think it’s very adorable and memorable, so the way her character came to be handled makes me even more pissed off. As you concluded, her writing also reflects on how the rest of the women in Naruto are portrayed—they are sidelined and treated with virtually no depth. To me, this is one of if not the most glaring flaw in the series. There are multiple fanfictions I have read that do so much of a better job portraying Sakura as a layered and strong character, and I honestly prefer these to the original series canon, haha.
Well, thank you very much for your article Bayana. It stoked my thoughts to write out this little essay. I understand if you don’t respond, after all this post is years old by now and I am guessing Naruto is not on your mind now, haha.