On Satan, Gender, and Representation

Part I – Angelic Identity Politics

In Devilman, Satan is physically intersex. They’re shown to have both breasts and a penis, and in the manga, they explicitly refer to themself as “both male and female.” This is a clear, objective statement of fact.

What one chooses to make of that fact, however, is a little more complicated.

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Let’s break things down. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, I refer to Satan with they/them pronouns — I consider them nonbinary, more or less, since I don’t feel qualified to speculate about how human concepts of gender apply to angels. Or demons, for that matter.

However, the official translations of both the manga and Crybaby refer to Satan with he/him pronouns and masculine terminology (Lord Satan, sir, etc) — it seems safe to say the translators and/or editors consider Satan to be male.

I can see where that perspective stems from. Ryo Asuka — the human as whom Satan lived — is unambiguously male, for one. He consistently refers to himself with the casual, masculine first-person pronoun ore, and he’s shown to be male-bodied. It’s easy enough to say “Ryo is male; Ryo is Satan; ergo, Satan is male” — after all, it’s not as though having breasts disqualifies one from being a man.

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The way I see it, though, there’s a flaw in that logic — while it’s true that Ryo is Satan, it’s not quite the same as Satan being Ryo. Ryo Asuka is nothing more than the product of false memories implanted in Satan by Psycho Jenny. He’s a separate, false identity, and there’s no reason why Ryo being male should say anything about Satan — their reasons for choosing that human in particular are never mentioned, so there’s no reason to think gender was necessarily a factor. To use an analogy, say you hypnotize a woman to think she’s Abraham Lincoln — it’s not as though that means anything about her.

Writing off Ryo as irrelevant to the discussion leaves us with what we see of Satan proper after the encounter with Psycho Jenny at the mansion, which is admittedly not much. They use the polite gender-neutral first-person pronoun watashi during the TV interview, but as the rest of their speech is also polite, it’s safe to say that’s just because they’re minding their manners. During the conversation with Akira in the wasteland, they speak casually and use ore — more or less the same speech pattern Ryo has always had. Of course, this is before it’s made clear that they’re actually Satan. It’s entirely possible they’re just talking to Akira in the way that’s most familiar, pronouns and all.

When we finally see Satan in all their glory and get a proper explanation, their pronouns shift from ore to watashi.

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They use ore in the right panel and watashi in the left.

They continue to use watashi for the rest of the manga, even when speaking casually to Zenon and Akira. This sets up a clear contrast between Ryo and Satan — it positions them as separate entities, and highlights the differences in their behavior (i.e. Satan does not seem high off their ass 24/7). And it’s worth noting that Satan is never referred to as male by anyone. ¹

None of this is conclusive, obviously. If it were, the translators would (probably) have used they/them pronouns rather than he/him. But I think it’s fair to say that they/them is no less accurate an interpretation of the original Japanese than he/him, if not more accurate.

The real question, though, is why any of this matters enough for me to write nearly 600 words about it.

Part II – “Literal Satan is Not Good Rep”

Let’s talk about representation. Specifically, let’s talk about the fact that Go Nagai — a man who has an awful track record for just about everything — chose to make Literal Satan intersex. I’ve written before about how poorly he handles it in some regards, and I’m certainly not trying to suggest that he had the faintest idea what he was doing, but here’s the thing — barring the one awful “reveal,” I don’t think Satan paints non-cis people in a bad light at all.

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According to the Devilman Fan Wiki, “When designing Satan’s true form, Go Nagai’s intention was for Satan to embody the best attributes of men and women.” ² I can’t find a citation for this and the Wiki is not by any means a trustworthy source, but this squares very neatly with the way Satan in depicted in the manga — there’s nothing grotesque or wrong about their body. On the contrary, it’s an ideal.

Satan is not a demon, but an angel. An obvious statement, but one worth some examination. We don’t see any other angels in the original edition of Devilman, but they’re shown any number of times in sequels, add-on chapters, adaptations, and so on — and every time we see them, they’re intersex. Satan doesn’t have a non-cis body because they’re a demon, or a villain, or even fallen — it’s because they’re an angel. Their body is a sign that they are something divine.

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Moreover, Satan is unambiguously beautiful, at least in-universe. Akira first brings them up by saying “I hear Satan is supposedly as beautiful as an angel.” When we see them on the mountain, they’re surrounded by goddamn shoujo sparkles in every panel. Their body is shapely, their features delicate — whatever Go Nagai’s reasons for designing Satan the way he did, it clearly wasn’t so that we’d find them disgusting or creepy. ³

Of course, they are still Literal Satan, and they did still cause Armageddon. Even so, they’re an incredibly sympathetic antagonist — they rebelled against God not out of their own ambition, but to protect the Demons from being eradicated. Their war against humanity is for the same purpose — to reclaim the Earth that once belonged to demons — and when they realize they were acting as unjustly as their parent, they’re filled with remorse. They’re a tragic figure more than an outright villainous one.

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Likewise, Satan’s love for Akira is depicted not as creepy or predatory, but as selfless and noble. It’s far too common to have queer-coded antagonists whose queerness is intended to make both the other characters and the audience uncomfortable, even in Go Nagai’s other work ⁴ — Satan is not that. Neither is Ryo, for that matter. While they’re not aware of it at the time, Satan’s feelings take the form of making Akira a Devilman so that he can survive the upcoming war, and generally doing everything they can to support and protect him. They’re heartbroken at the thought of having to fight him. Satan’s love for Akira is what makes them realize the mistake they’ve made, and one of the last things they do is ask him for forgiveness. Their queerness is portrayed in an entirely positive light.

Satan is a complex, fascinating character — saying they’re bad representation simply because they’re Satan ignores all of that complexity, not to mention a lot of the context of the manga. They deserve better.

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Part III: I’ll Care Enough For Everyone

I first read Devilman something like five years ago. Back then, the Devilfandom was very small and insular — if you saw someone talking about Devilman anywhere, it was almost certainly because it was very important to them. You either loved it deeply, or you didn’t know it existed.

I was under the impression (mistaken or no) that Satan being nonbinary was a generally accepted fact. The Wiki uses they/them pronouns, and as far as I can recall, that was the norm. There was at least one relatively high-profile incident of someone outside the fandom interpreting fanart of Satan as transphobic,⁵ but it was definitely not common. As the linked article says, literally no one in the fandom disliked Ryo and/or Satan, or considered them bad representation. It simply wasn’t a discussion.

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Then Crybaby came out, and all of a sudden Devilman was hot shit. Everyone was talking about it. It won anime of the year. People started using he/him pronouns for Satan, because that was what the subs used. No one seemed to consider it misgendering. No one seemed to care, even people who were adamant about the use of they/them pronouns for characters like Kino from Kino’s Journey, or Marulk from Made in Abyss, or the gems from Land of the Lustrous. I saw at least one person posit that the reason people didn’t care was because, well, it’s Literal Satan. Not a good role model. Why would someone put the same time and effort into that as they would heroic genderqueer characters?

I think it’s clear by now that I disagree on all counts.

Devilman is incredibly important to me; Satan especially so. I hadn’t realized I was nonbinary when I first read it, but I was deeply struck by seeing a non-cis body presented as something radiantly beautiful, the same way I was struck by seeing Sleeping Hermaphroditus at the Louvre. And more than heroic characters, what I find interesting are characters who are tragic and messy and have to live with the mistakes they’ve made.

Seeing Satan misgendered hurts. The first time I watched Crybaby, I had to pause the last episode during the final battle because I was so furious about their choice of pronouns that all I could do was cry from sheer dysphoric anger.

I don’t think Satan should be referred to as he/him.

I don’t think Satan is bad representation.

I don’t know if anyone else cares, but that’s fine. I’ll care enough for everyone if I have to.

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Footnotes

  1. Things are somewhat different in Crybaby, as Satan switches from watashi to ore at the very end of their final monologue to Akira, but that’s a discussion for another post.
  2. One has to wonder what that says about him.
  3. Contrast this to Baron Ashura from Mazinger Z, an example of a gender-non-conforming Go Nagai villain who clearly was designed to be creepy.
  4. Aoi Kurosaki from Devilman Lady is the definition of a predatory lesbian, for instance.
  5. If you’re wondering about my take on it, I own the original hard copy of the fanart in question. It’s framed on my wall right now.
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