Content Warning: Sexual harassment/groping, infantilization, fanservice
Spoilers for Orihime’s arc in Bleach
As one of the “big three” of shounen, Bleach is a manga that’s hard to avoid, especially since the long-awaited revival of the anime pushed the series back into the spotlight. I recall when the Thousand Year Blood War adaptation was first announced, and Twitter was set ablaze with excitement. But even as someone who loved the show in the past, I’ve found myself becoming more of an onlooker these days. I suppose it’s because I can no longer keep from opening Pandora’s box and exploring the problematic traits of Inoue Orihime, a character whose screen time grows in line with the misogyny of her portrayal.
During my days as a Bleach novice, I didn’t find anything particularly conspicuous about the female characters. Do Bleach’s women represent groundbreaking reinventions of problematic gender roles? No. Are there far more misogynistic portrayals of women in other shounen and even among its big three counterparts? Absolutely. Even though I raised my eyebrow at a few Orihime moments, such as when she smells the window because she recognizes Ichigo’s scent, nothing reared its ugly head enough to diminish my enjoyment of the show. All in all, those scenes served as reminders of her adolescence, considering she was canonically 15 years old. Ironically, I was the same age when I started watching Bleach, which is why Orihime’s simultaneous infantilization and sexualization didn’t catch my eye the way it has recently.
Because so many female characters in Bleach are sexualized, some might regard Orihime as a drop in the ocean. However, she becomes a more prevalent character as the series progresses, evolving into the most important female presence alongside Rukia. So not only is her infantilization and sexualization glaring because of how often it is shown, it also does nothing but hinder her character growth. Though she has moments of resilience and strength, as I read/watched Bleach over the years, I noticed that Kubo consistently used her as a primary source of fanservice yet still portrayed her as a naïve teenager. This left a bad taste in my mouth for the rest of the series.
Naïveté is to be expected for someone so young, but Orihime is characterized as extremely ignorant and passive even in comparison to her other teenage counterparts, such as Tatsuki. The way Kubo writes Orihime perfectly fits the definition of infantilization, which is the treatment of someone as a child despite them not being one. So…was it really necessary to sexualize her so much? She was always portrayed as a curvy girl, but her body becomes more unrealistic and modified to satisfy the male gaze over the course of the series (which ends just short of her becoming an adult, but I digress).
Whether her naïveté is because she is young or otherwise, naïveté alone is the reason she should not have been sexualized at all.
Some of the first and most notable moments in Bleach where Orihime is excessively infantilized are during her many encounters with Chizuru, a stereotypical predatory lesbian who often lusts after Orihime. In Chapter 183, she grabs Orihime’s breasts from behind and, instead of standing up for herself, Orihime must rely on Tatsuki to save her from the situation. The sexual assault is brushed aside as a joke.
(I first watched this scene in the anime, where Chizuru pushes up Orihime’s breasts with her arms from behind. I wondered if the manga version of the scene was better or worse and, of course, it’s much worse.)
To add insult to injury, in Chapter 42, Orihime declares that because she has relied on Tatsuki to defend her throughout their entire friendship, she now wants to be the one to protect her in return. However, almost 150 chapters after Orihime says this, Tatsuki must once again defend her from being groped. It would have been satisfying to see Orihime stand up to Chizuru in the way that Tatsuki does, and it would have been a great symbol of growth for her to no longer be helpless in the face of sexual misconduct. Orihime is a teenager, and Chizuru’s actions are by no means Orihime’s fault. But scenes like this intend to make a mockery of a submissive girl being taken advantage of, and it does nothing but reduce Orihime to a helpless girl needing a protector once again.
Orihime’s infantilization not only takes the form of passivity but also of naïveté that is weaponized to draw her into sexual situations. In Chapter 119, she begins to take off her shirt in front of Uryu. When he gets embarrassed, she states that she forgot she wasn’t changing in front of Tatsuki. This scene could be interpreted as Orihime viewing Uryu as “one of the girls” and not someone to be embarrassed around, but the point remains that Orihime is naïve enough to not acknowledge that Uryu would perceive her taking off her shirt in a sexual way. Of course, this moment is played for laughs and meant to show Uryu getting flustered—a side we don’t see very often—and in this sense, it’s a cute scene. However, it’s hard to get past Orihime’s reasoning for taking off her shirt in front of him. How did she just … forget he was there?
Speaking of clothes, there is another inconsistency with Orihime’s character. Kubo tends to draw her in tight clothes that show her figure despite her shy personality and lack of attention regarding her appearance. Her outfit in the Thousand-Year Blood War arc is the worst offender. The revealing shirt she wears accentuates her sex appeal more than ever before, and it is extremely out of character for her to wear it.
But if Kubo just had to put Orihime in this outfit, it would have been wonderful if his decision served a meaningful purpose. Specifically, he could have portrayed her with newfound confidence in her body. Instead, the only reason she wears it is because she is deceived by Urahara, who tells her that Ichigo would love to see her wear it. How is she completely ignorant of what this means? What a disappointment that she still displays an alarming level of naïveté this far into the series, and that this opportunity to illustrate character development through an increase in her confidence is diminished for a disturbing joke. What is most unsettling is Urahara’s egregious deception being played for laughs. Orihime is allowed—arguably, even required—to be sexual, but she’s not allowed to have awareness of sex or control over her own sexuality.
It’s worth noting that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with sexualizing female characters. Kubo himself did a good job with Matsumoto Rangiku who, like Orihime, is ridiculously oversexualized and an object of the male gaze. However, the most striking difference between her and Orihime is that she takes pride in her sexuality. Though her sex appeal is excessive, Rangiku still exhibits emotion and strength (like Orihime) and is self-aware, assertive, and owns her sexuality (unlike Orihime). So, let’s be clear: it can be empowering to see a woman take ownership of her sexuality, but it’s degrading when an infantilized woman is sexualized against her wishes for the sake of the male gaze.
Once again, Orihime is a teenager. Portraying her as an adult wouldn’t have changed the infantilization of her character, but it would have at least alleviated the problematic nature of the way she’s depicted in the narrative and the art. If Kubo wanted her to be sexy, something more in line with Rangiku’s characterization would have been appropriate, as she would have been an adult who is not humiliated by unwanted sexualization.
But Orihime’s adolescence is an essential part of what makes her so compelling, as her resilience at such a young age despite her familial circumstances is one of her most inspiring qualities. News flash, Kubo—it would have been effortless to maintain her resilience without combining her innocence with unnecessary sexualization. Unfortunately, the reduction of her character to a timid victim of perverted jokes—as if she can’t be allowed to exist without fanservice but can’t be actively aware of sex lest she no longer be “pure”—diminishes her development and prevents her from becoming the fully-realized heroine she deserves to be.