Non-Cis Character Database: Orochimaru (Naruto, Boruto)

It’s always a bit difficult to admit that a character one loves is bad representation.

That said, sometimes it’s also completely fucking undeniable; and so, it is with a heavy heart that I must admit Orochimaru from Naruto and Boruto is a fairly terrible depiction of a nonbinary person. Which seems rather immediately apparent once I type it. 

As gay as basically everyone in Naruto is subtextually, Orochimaru is the only character whose queerness ever makes it into text — in Boruto, he’s asked about his gender and says quite clearly that he’s neither male nor female and doesn’t particularly care. This serves as confirmation of what has always been there — Orochimaru strives to achieve immortality by borrowing the bodies of others, and he’s never been concerned with what sex those bodies happen to be, only that they’re suitably strong. We know at least one of the bodies he’s occupied was female, and during the Chunin Exams he disguises himself as a woman. He’s androgynously beautiful. In the scene where he encounters Kimimaro, we see him wearing a woman’s kimono. None of this is what makes him an example of bad representation, nor is the fact that he’s one of the primary antagonists of the series.

I’ll be blunt — Orochimaru is almost certainly a child molester. We never get explicit confirmation in the series, but we do know that he has a history of targeting vulnerable children, emotionally grooming them, using them for his own ends (whether it’s medical experimentation, replacement bodies, or what have you), and then discarding them as soon as they cease to be useful or interesting. His behavior towards children and teenagers — especially Sasuke, whose body he wants to take as his own — is clearly inappropriate. As far as I can recall, he never expresses interest in an adult in the entire series. He’s a pedophile and a predator.

Now, this doesn’t automatically make him bad representation either, as odd as that might sound. Being a bad person who is queer doesn’t necessarily mean the queer aspects of that person are handled badly, or that there’s any causal link between the two things. I’ve written at some length about Devilman’s Satan, who I think is a fairly good example of a nonbinary antagonist, despite also being the only explicitly queer character in the manga. Another example is the primary antagonist of the manga Yuureitou, who embodies basically every toxic stereotype of a predatory queer — but half the cast of Yuureitou is queer, including the protagonists, so it’s clear that it’s not his queerness that makes him a villain. 

But Orochimaru is the only explicitly queer character in Naruto, and he is a child predator, and based on the way he’s written it is kind of hard to argue that one has nothing to do with the other. The only saving grace is that they waited until Boruto to explicitly confirm him as nonbinary, after he was given a “redemption arc” that he did not remotely deserve nor earn and hopefully stopped touching children. Like I said, though, his genderqueerness isn’t new — it was just confirming what was already in the text.

And yes, like I said, I love Orochimaru. Obviously he’s an awful person, and it’s horrifying to think about someone like him existing in real life, but that’s the thing — he’s not real. And as someone who’s queer, and loves queer and queer-coded antagonists, I think he’s a delight. He’s unsettling and charismatic and interesting in all the right ways. It would be fair to say he’s my favorite character in Naruto

He’s pretty fucking terrible rep though.

As for how that could be improved upon, the answer’s obvious — give us more queer characters, especially genderqueer ones. Haku is already extremely gender non-conforming — it wouldn’t be much of a stretch at all to say he’s nonbinary and/or transmasculine. I personally headcanon ¼ of the Konoha 12 as trans (I’ll leave you to guess who). Nothing about Orochimaru needs to be changed — somehow — just the context of the series.

[As a last aside, I feel it’s worth mentioning my choice of pronouns. Basically, Orochimaru consistently uses he/him pronouns and seems perfectly content with that, so I’m doing the same. Pronouns do not equal gender, and nonbinary individuals can use whatever pronouns they prefer without it invalidating their identity.]

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