Let’s start with the obvious: yes, Innocent is extremely reminiscent of Rose of Versailles. They’re both historical fiction set during the rule of Louis XV and the French Revolution, with a particular focus on Versailles, starring a combination of real historical figures and ones either invented wholecloth or embellished so much they’d might as well be, and they’re both very queer, featuring butch women with long, curly blonde hair who occupy traditionally male-dominated roles and have close relationships with Marie Antoinette.
The main differences are that Rose of Versailles is a shoujo manga that ran from 1972-1973, focusing on a captain of the guard, and Innocent is a seinen manga that ran from 2013-2020, focusing on the Sanson family of executioners. As a result, Innocent is much gorier and more sexual. That’s right, it’s time for content warnings. Innocent features death, torture and violence of all kinds, rape (of men and women), underage rape (likewise), child abuse, incest, fairly graphic sex of all orientations (though genitalia is censored), historically accurate misogyny, historically accurate marriage/pregnancy/etc of minors, medical trauma, and a whole revolution’s worth of beheadings. Not for the faint of heart, this one.
Anyways, with that out of the way, let’s talk about Innocent‘s own blonde butch, Marie-Josèphe Sanson¹ — who is by all appearances cis, but is still very relevant to the discussion. Marie is a born executioner, fascinated with death from a young age and utterly disinterested in the roles of wife and mother to which her gender would usually restrict her. Fortunately for Marie, her brother Charles-Henri — fourth-generation executioner for Paris — recognizes her talent and supports her desire to become an executioner, recommending her for the position of executioner for Versailles.
Marie-Josèphe is, quite understandably, an extremely bitter person who loathes and resents the inequality of the world, whether it’s the vast schism between social classes or the fact that women basically had no rights at the time. Her catchphrase is “this sucks.” (She also has the extremely irritating vocal tic of referring to herself in the third person — this is less distracting in the Japanese, where one doesn’t need to use first-person pronouns as often, but in the English it’s brutal.) She does seem to identify as a woman, though. She refers to herself as such on any number of occasions, and states that she wears men’s clothes not because she wants people to think she’s a man, but because it’s her own preference; likewise for her varied and anachronistic hairstyles.
This background on Marie is all relevant because about 3/4 of the way through the series, she chooses to have a child, who she names Zéro and raises in an iron mask in an attempt to free them from the burden of gender.
So yes, it’s worth mentioning that Marie-Josèphe is — by her own admission — not entirely sane, and this is a pretty fucked up thing to do to a child. For what it’s worth, though, Zéro seems perfectly fine with it. They pick up their mother’s habit of referring to themself in the third person, rather than by gendered first-person pronouns, and are usually seen wearing a men’s coat over an anachronistically short gothic-lolita style dress, with their hair tied in ribboned pigtails. As a result of this, they’re usually assumed to be a girl, which seems to confuse them — Zéro says they don’t know their gender, and just wear what they like. This continues until the end of the series, by which point Marie is out of the picture and they’ve taken the mask off — we last see them in a dress over trousers, with pigtails and a top hat.
“Raised as X” narratives can always be a bit thorny, since they ambiguate the cause and effect of gender — Zéro seems to genuinely be nonbinary, and enjoy presenting in a way that’s simultaneously male and female-coded, but how much is just because they were raised that way? If they were raised as a girl, or as a boy, would they identify with that instead? There’s no way to say, of course; they’re not real. It helps a lot that there are other GNC and genderqueer characters in Innocent, whether it’s Marie herself or the historical Chevalier d’Eon, who I’ll be discussing more in a bit.
Zéro is a strange child in general, baptized in blood and at home on the executioner’s platform from a young age, just as their mother was. That said, they’re also portrayed as almost angelically compassionate and pure, a transcendent being heralding a new age of equality — and the fact that they exist outside of gender is definitely a part of that. Zéro is never once scorned or ridiculed, even by those who are initially confused by their gender; nor is their design intended to be anything other than charming (though I think their final outfit is rather silly myself). Everyone likes them, because they’re immensely likeable. And in a series where nearly everyone, including Marie, undergoes some kind of awful humiliation, Zéro alone never has anything bad happen to them personally.
Overall, Zéro Sanson is a fairly excellent depiction of a nonbinary individual — the fact that they were raised as such complicates things somewhat, but I don’t see any way around that without completely changing the narrative. Having them choose a gender at any point would reek of cisness, or at the very least fall into the pattern of nonbinary identification being seen as childish and indecisive rather than a legitimate way for anyone of any age to identify. They’re fine as they are.
So. I mentioned the Chevalier d’Eon. d’Eon is a real, minimally embellished historical figure who was AMAB (but possibly intersex) and served as a spy (among other things) under Louis XV, before living out the last 33 years of their life as a woman. I am not going to speculate on how the real d’Eon identified, or why they presented the way they did at various points in their life; that would require a lot more research than I’m willing to do at this point. I’ll be restricting my discussion to the d’Eon of Innocent, who appears in one chapter as Marie-Josèphe’s second in a duel, as well as being her friend and lover.
In Innocent, d’Eon appears to be transfeminine or nonbinary (I’ll be using she/they) — they have a well-maintained mustache (the historical d’Eon did not, at least not while living as a woman), but otherwise their appearance, mannerisms, and speech are entirely feminine, including her use of the feminine/androgynous first-person pronoun “watashi.” She describes her gender in a few different ways, including saying she has “a woman’s heart and a man’s body,” which is strongly trans-coded language.
It’s hard to deny that d’Eon is depicted as somewhat ridiculous, starting with the mustache. They’re stated to be a strong fighter (this is historically accurate — d’Eon was a fencing master), but she’s defeated quite quickly, albeit by underhanded means, and have their dress cut open in a humiliating fashion. She does later get her revenge, but it’s offscreen. d’Eon’s dislike for the established rules of the world, which mirror Marie-Josèphe’s, are very sympathetic, but we don’t see enough of them for their presence to feel like anything more than a one-off cameo, same as the Marquis de Sade appearing for a scene. I can’t say I like the way she’s handled — getting rid of the mustache would make them less of a caricature, or having her handily win the duel would make her less laughable, though it would require some changes to the plot.
Overall, Innocent is a fantastic — albeit very dark — manga that bends history to tell an interesting and eternally relevant story about the ways in which people fight back against societal oppression, with gender being just one form of that oppression. While d’Eon’s cameo is a bit of a misfire, at least in my opinion, Zéro is an absolute bullseye.
NOTE: Innocent is divided into two parts, Innocent and Innocent: Rouge — however, this division happened entirely because it began serializing in a different magazine, and there’s no break whatsoever between the two parts. I read Rouge first, because it’s the section Zéro appears in, before going back and reading Innocent proper because I liked it so much. It’s certainly possible to follow things even if you start with Rouge, but you lose a certain amount of context, and it very much drops you in the deep end in terms of what’s going on. I’d recommend starting with Innocent, personally.
¹ – I was unable to ascertain if Marie-Josèphe was invented wholecloth, or if Charles-Henri Sanson really did have a sister by that name — he had a lot of siblings, so it’s quite likely. In any case, if she did exist, she never acted as an executioner, and the famous executions performed by her in the series were performed by other members of the Sanson family in reality.