Written by Jesse Zou and Ethan Le
As commonly defined in a heteronormative matrix, the three categories of sex, gender, and sexuality are asserted as something inherently linked and deterministic of one another. As Audre Lorde describes, defining qualities according to male and female sexes is accepted in societies by the concept of mythical norms which serve to organize people according to idealized codes of gendered traits. Media forms such as theatrical films, anime series, and manga visual novels navigate these social issues while audience proponents decode mediated content. Keeping this in mind, we will primarily analyze the popular animanga series Naruto and its sequel series Naruto Shippuden and Boruto on how it deconstructs heternormativity through queer theory and gender performativity both within text and beyond by fans of the series.
The world of Naruto is closely inspired by the enigmatic mythology of shinobi/ninja, covert agents of premodern Japan. The narrative, according to interviews with series creator Masashi Kishimoto, is derivative of his personal experiences, such as the struggles of the titular character Naruto Uzumaki reflecting Kishimoto’s experience initially writing Naruto as a one-shot (Solomon). Unsurprisingly, the characters of Naruto are thus heterosexually constructed, with virtually no LGBTQ relationships explicitly defined. However, this does not mean that Naruto lacks transformative models which flow across different gender and sexual identities. Indeed, the lore embraces the historical roots of the shinobi’s practice of subterfuge, espionage, and other forms of irregular warfare. Furthermore, the series employs Neo-Confucianism in organizing the myriad of relations and demonstrating the various virtues at stake (Born). It is therefore within the realm of plausibility that characters can swap genders, make ironic shifts in the narrative by employing separate personas, and even possess or repossess bodies as well as revive the deceased.
One of the hallmarks of anime is its wide range of character archetypes and magic-like abilities portrayed. Likewise, Naruto hosts a diverse cast that exhibit unique traits to distinguish them from one another, such as varying assortments of jutsus, or “the mystical arts a ninja… [utilizes] in battle” (Narutopedia). Within the series, several of the jutsus serve as comedic plot-devices and also demonstrate the themes of gender performativity. One of the more popular examples of this can be seen in Naruto’s signature move – Sexy Jutsu – as the eponymous protagonist morphs into a scantily clad or unclothed female.
Although the most basic of implications for the use of the technique were simply to elicit perverse reactions from his peers and lower their guard, Sexy Jutsu also exemplifies gender performativity. Judith Butler describes “gender [as]… an act which has been rehearsed, much as a script survives the particular actors who make use of it” (Butler 526). Despite being a cisgender male, Naruto is capable of donning a female persona while still retaining recognizable physical traits – his whisker markings and blonde hair – and personality traits – his hot-tempered and rash mannerisms. Naruto goes on to teach a youth named Konohamaru the same technique by using models of naked woman in magazines to emulate curvature and by reading erotic novels to employ sultry speech. The foundation of the jutsu lies in “bodily gestures, movements, and enactments of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self” (Butler 519). Sexy Jutsu demonstrates the concept of gender performativity through its inherent design as the success of the craft lies in the practice of gendered action and personality. The shifts in personality demonstrates the notion of how gender is an action unrelated to portrayed sex, as Naruto acts as a female when trying to seduce people while subsequently acting as male when mocking people during his transformation. Through Naruto’s performativity, the idea that gender is fluid is reinforced, undermining the heteronormative themes that often dictate gender.
Some characters are presented as inherently deceptive of gender. A prominent feature in anime and manga is the portrayal of traps. Within the community, traps are infamous and are often joked about. The notorious question “are traps gay?” is thrown around the community with little concrete feedback, but when analyzed in respect to the story’s perspective, the trap identity becomes much more interesting. The shinobi Haku Yuki is representative of this within Naruto. Haku is repeatedly mistaken as female when introduced to the main cast of characters due to his feminine appearance and passive, gentle persona.
Naruto, for instance, blushes when he initially encounters him and continuously addresses him with respectful feminine honorifics. He later laments how Haku’s “cuter than Sakura”, his primary romantic interest at the time, and “why [is this possible]? It’s such a mystery”, showing how Haku’s appearance was attractive but conflicts with Naruto’s internal emotions due to Haku’s sex. Furthermore, Haku is dedicated to his mentor Zabuza to the point that Haku’s sacrifice instills great remorse in him. As seen later, fans were as surprised as Naruto himself when introduced to Haku, becoming an accessible icon to cosplay for both men and women as well as fostering confusion on how to identify the androgynous shinobi.
A fundamental point of heteronormativity is its adherence to binary classifications and representations of the sexes in media. However, in Naruto, a major antagonist, Orochimaru, undermines this concept due to their non-binary identity. In an episode where they face off against Sarutobi, the leader of Naruto’s village, Orochimaru peels “his” face off to reveal a different visage. Onlookers are shocked and “cannot comprehend it due to how abrupt it was.” Sarutobi responds in disbelief asking “Did you…complete that forbidden technique?!” and proceeding to denounce Orochimaru as an “inhuman existence” (YouTube). While Sarutobi’s response may sound transphobic, he is referring to Orochimaru’s assimilation of many individuals, a moral transgression to most of the societal shinobi, as well as the antagonist’s pursuit of immortality.
In the ongoing sequel Boruto, Orochimaru reveals to their child how they’re neither a father or mother, just a parent, simply. This non-binary nature of their sex is further emphasized by how they maintain their youth by possessing and reforming other’s bodies to his iconic appearance regardless of their sex. The shift from previously masculine and feminine personalities of the victims into a non-binary entity is yet another illustration of how gender is performative, taken beyond convention. Scholar Judith Butler effectively states that our current understanding of gender comes from our belief of what each sex should be, and she describes how “gender appears to the popular imagination as a substantial core which might well be understood as the spiritual or psychological correlate of biological sex” (Butler 528).
Although Orochimaru has become each sex multiple times, their identity is precisely defined by being an omnipresent, uncategorizable manner. In contrast to heteronormative belief, Orochimaru’s display of a non-binary gendered behavior exposes the common misconception that gender is linked to sex as Orochimaru’s vindictive mannerisms are still very much retained, moreso than Naruto Uzumaki’s temporary jutsu transformation. Orochimaru’s sex therefore, is subordinate to their gender, rather than vice versa, giving agency to Orochimaru to express a queer narrative.
A common way to analyze Naruto is through a homoerotic lens. Although Naruto is classified as the typical shonen, or boy’s anime, the anime series can be queered when accounting for its strong emphasis on male camaraderie. Naruto and his rival, Sasuke, are always at odds with each other, but between the constant bickering lies a powerful platonic bond that borders on romance and brotherhood. Much of the series revolves around Naruto trying to bring back Sasuke to the village after his rival abandons the hidden leaf village in search of vengeance. Their mutual understanding of each other is framed almost intimately in their fights; when Sasuke defeats Naruto after the Chunin Exams, Sasuke stares deeply and closely into Naruto’s unconscious face. It is later reflected that Sasuke couldn’t bring himself to kill him due to a weakness in his heart, admitting that Naruto was his one and best friend. The value they place in each other is so emphasized that fans have extrapolated homoerotic themes from their actions and debated it widely. One of the biggest initial hints towards this trend was during their initial encounters, as an accident causes Naruto and Sasuke to steal each other’s first kisses. Despite the heteronormative appearance of Naruto, homoerotic undertones can be painted onto the series due to the excessive care found in the relationship between Naruto and Sasuke.
Naruto has several key points that break down heteronormativity, but the impact of Naruto also has cultivated several real world examples as well. Those who have become familiarized with anime fandoms and culture will have heard the phrase “fujoshi” targeting female fans in a derogatory manner. Fujoshi, meaning “rotten girl”, is a defamatory phrase targeting females that indulge in homosexual fan fiction culture, similar to western slash fiction. Due to underlying homoerotic themes and a story line revolving two male protagonists, Naruto has become one of many sources that have propagated fujoshi culture. In famous conventions such as Comiket, which reach hundreds of thousands of participants, Naruto has inspired hundreds of Doujinshi revolving its various male pairings.
Although fujoshi was initially a derogatory phrase, many have donned the identity of fujoshi as the subculture rose in popularity. With the heavy emphasis on mainstream animes such as Naruto as their foundation, fujoshis are one of the subcultures that exemplifies sexual fluidity in an interesting way, as those who identify as part of this fandom are usually heterosexual cisgender females while also being avid consumers of homosexual content. They “belong… to a subculture both unfamiliar to and stigmatized by mainstream culture…[At the same time, they] reject dominant feminine cultures that center on fashion and heteronormative romance” (Ito 221). As defined before, Naruto’s homoerotic subtexts feed into the growth of the fujoshi domain as the culture is often interpreted as “a search for ‘ultimate love’ and the desire to pursue a pure relationship provide the background for the emergence of such works”(Hester 79). Despite their conflicting views and deadly battles, the storyline still revolves around a theme of an unbreakable platonic bond between Naruto and Sasuke as Naruto succeeds in bringing Sasuke back from his path of vengeance. Overall, Naruto serves as a dominant pillar for a culture that has a “relatively fluid set of norms around gender identity and a tolerant view of homosexuality” (Ito 222), allowing the animanga to contradict heteronormativity both through media and viewership impact.
With the rise in popularity of Naruto in anime and manga, the consumption of the culture led to the manifestation of real world representations in the form of cosplay. Cosplay, otherwise known as costume play, is a term referring to individuals who dress in costume to represent fictional characters from animanga, video games or other media and act “in-character” at events or public spaces. However, Naruto builds up a more niche culture within cosplay termed crossplay – defined as dressing up as a character of the opposite sex – and has become popular “due to the nature of anime itself, where scholars have noted that characters tend to be drawn rather androgynously” (Leng 105). In Naruto, the main cast can be physically labeled as anything but excessively masculine due to how none of them are drawn with much musculature. This ambiguity has led to growth in the Bishonen aesthetic, exemplified by Sasuke and Neji as “pretty boys”.
Due to the soft-masculinity and more androgynous features, the Bishonen aesthetic disputes the claims of heteronormativity. Because of their traits, the Bishonen aesthetic is impossible to encapsulate as either dominantly male or female; when cosplayed, it lies on a boundary that holds aspects of both, to “the point where a cosplayer is recognized as an amalgamation of both genders in one body” (Leng 105). Crossplay refutes the heteronormative idea of a gender binary while also reinforcing the notion of gender performativity as crossplayers can be analogously compared to Naruto’s Sexy Jutsu and the donning a gendered identity.
In our reality, heteronormativity is a standard that has existed for centuries, if not millenniums. Such an invariable construct can be difficult to overcome without pushes for representation, education, and cultural understanding of marginalized identities. No matter what Masashi Kishimoto’s original goal was, Naruto is a series that demonstrates a diverse cast and society that challenges the audience to appreciate the underappreciated and refutes many heteronormative themes through the usage of gender performativity and queer theory. Naruto also establishes real world impacts through its characters by facilitating a “2.5 dimensional space where the boundary between reality and fiction is transgressed” (Leng 107), allowing for different forms of gendered expression for fans to build upon.
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