Among certain parts of the Western anime fanbase, there’s quite a stigma surrounding the sexualization of female characters for the enjoyment of the audience, otherwise known as “fanservice.” Whenever an anime or manga features fanservice, there’s always someone pointing it out as a flaw and chastising it, as if the mere inclusion of it is inherently bad or degrading. And controversy is practically a given if the work happens to be popular, such as with the recent Kill la Kill.
To some extent this reaction is only reasonable, due to just how prevalent fanservice is. The majority of animes that are made are targeted towards men, and sexualize the female characters within in one way or another. If you point to any show on a chart for any anime season, it’s almost guaranteed that the show will have fanservice in some form or another—be it in the form of a character having large breasts and skimpy clothing, or a bathhouse scene where you’ll see just about as much skin as a late-night TV show can get away with.
Plenty of male and female fans have expressed this disdain towards sexualized cartoon girls too, so it’s not simply a matter of woman disliking something intended for men. I propose that there are three main reasons for the bad rap that fanservice gets: the feminist thought which has brought attention to how objectifying and degrading the sexualization of women in the media can be; the assumption that those who enjoy fanservice in their animes are awkward manchildren, and thirdly the general culture of shame that many countries and cultures share towards anything erotic. This essay aims to argue in defense of fanservice, and to address some of the broader problems with feminist critique as it appears on the internet.
Fanservice can be a fairly broad term, which can include any form of pandering or “service” to fans. For the purposes of this essay however, it shall specifically refer to when a female character is sexualised in a cartoon. Note too that in spite of that, a lot of the opinions expressed here can be applied to other forms of media, such as the sexism and fanservice present in Hollywood or video-games.
Erotica as Art
It is often assumed that anything which attempts to elicit sexual arousal is lacking in integrity and artistic merit, but I would argue on the contrary. Erotic art, be it light-hearted “cheesecake” drawings or hard-core pornography, is not necessarily devoid of artistic merit and is a respectable genre of art in its own right. Erotica is one of the oldest genres of art out there to begin with, as the Venus figurines of paleolithic times show, so it’s certainly not a recent invention.
Art is subjective, and ultimately a work of art only has value because we as humans apply value to it. As such, I don’t believe that erotic art is necessarily bad just because it’s erotic, as the whole “High and Low Art” distinction in general is rather arbitrary and elitist. Which isn’t to say that we should hold Yuushibu and ImoCho on the same level of respect that we give Romeo and Juliet and The Great Gatsby, but that it’s futile to say one is objectively better than the other.¹
As such, this negative bias towards erotic art is really just a result of the negative views towards sex in general that Western culture has developed. And why should erotic material be met with contempt, or at best treated as obscene drivel? Sexual arousal is a natural feeling and emotion, just like any other emotion that fiction and art can provoke. So why not revel in it when you can? Provided that you’re in a private and appropriate space to do so, of course.
And even if that isn’t to your liking, there’s usually plenty of other merits to be found in erotic art besides the intention to arouse. It’s not like people look at Courbet’s The Origin of the World just so they can get aroused by it, or that all those women pin-up artists back in the day loved painting nudes because they were lesbians. And the reason I loved the fanservice in last year’s NouKome wasn’t solely because I found it attractive, but mainly because I found it funny and it aided the comedy well. Regardless, even if you just don’t like it in general that doesn’t mean it’s bad for others to like it. It’s just another genre of art, really. Saying it’s bad for someone to like erotica and fanservice is essentially the same as saying it’s bad for someone to enjoy science-fiction.
“But why not just watch porn?”
Some argue that fanservice holds no place in a dramatic narrative; saying that it does nothing to improve the story, and that if they ever want to look at some naked cartoon girls they can just watch porn instead. It’s true that in most cases, fanservice is not strictly necessary for the betterment of a story; it’s why fanservice tends to work better within its own genre of ecchi or hentai. But does this mean that the quality of a story is automatically lessened if it includes fanservice?
Let us first consider an analogous question: Can a story coexist with exaggerated and explicit blood and gore? You could argue that it isn’t strictly necessary for a story to show every gross detail of a violent scene to get the message across, which is true. If a character is getting stabbed in the gut, we don’t necessarily need to see all his blood and intestines spill out to feel the emotional impact of a character being stabbed. But hey, we first-world humans love our fictionalized violence, so of course our stories are going to have their share of explicit blood and gore.
Ultimately, how well an element of a story can coexist with the overall narrative depends on how well its implemented into the story—and how much you, the viewer, enjoy it’s presence. Remember, art is subjective. It’s the same with fanservice. For any particular anime scene, you could say that you don’t strictly need to show a girls cleavage, or the outline of her cameltoe in a pantyshot, but then that’s just limiting the options that writers and artists have to tell a story.
Fanservice and ecchi series should also be considered their own thing, separate from pornography, as each have their own merits. Seeing fanservice applied to characters who are part of a dramatic narrative, and who you’ve become emotionally attached to (if only a little,) is going to elicit a much different response than something where 90% of the plot is just the characters having sex. It’s fair to want to keep your stories and pornography separate, but there are also plenty of people who actually prefer fanservice and ecchi shows over hardcore hentai. Thus, “I’d rather just watch porn instead” is a valid argument for ones own, personal dislike towards fanservice, but an invalid argument for why fanservice in general is bad.
Sexualization vs. Objectification
Another assumption people often make is that by titillating or sexualizing a character, the character is automatically being objectified, and her portrayal is demeaning towards herself and other women. This is an oversimplification of the relationship between sexualization and objectification however, and in some regard is an outright misunderstanding of what even constitutes objectification.
Objectification is when someone is literally treated like an object, which is bad. Keeping this definition in mind, sexualizing a character doesn’t necessarily objectify them, and there are multiple ways someone could be objectified. Objectification is when a girl is put in an arranged marriage for the sake of earning her family wealth. Human trafficking is objectification. When a female character is treated solely as a love interest for the male lead to “win” against a rival male, regardless of how the women feels about the matter, that is objectification. Compared to any of these three examples, getting a shot of character’s panties is hardly that big of an offense.
On the other hand, a character can be sexualized without being treated like an object in the process. Especially within anime there are countless plenty of female characters who are strong, intelligent, and contribute to the plot as central characters, yet are also dressed in skimpy clothing or are subjected to fanservice. Feye Valentine from Cowboy Bebop is a notable example which is often forgotten in these discussions. Arguably just about any of the female characters in Kill la Kill could fit that description. Then besides that, every medium is rampant with “weak” female characters who aren’t sexualized at all, yet are depicted as weak or defined by their relationship with the male characters.
Particularly with the risque outfits that many female characters don, saying that they need cover up more skin or else they’re being “objectified,” is also another form of policing how a female character should be portrayed. It’s almost like going up to a scantily clad woman and telling her to wear something less revealing, or else she’s being oppressive towards both herself and other women. (Which is actually something that happens a lot in the name of “feminism.”) Saying a character needs to show less skin is arguably just as bad as telling a writer or artist to include fanservice for the sake of otaku pandering, since in both cases it’s policing the portrayal of women.
Admittedly, sexualizing a character could always be considering objectification to some extent. If you’re showing off the body of a character in order to arouse the audience, than it could certainly be called treating the character like an object. But that’s still not exclusive from making a well-rounded and respectable character, and so it doesn’t automatically degrade them either. And since we’re talking about cartoon characters, or otherwise consenting actors in the case of live-action cinema, this form of objectification isn’t necessarily comparable to real-life either. (More on that below.)
Failure of the Bechdel Test
Now lets consider some of the more broader issues with modern feminist critique on the internet; one of the big issues being the common misuse of the Bechdel Test, and the problematic forms of criticism which stems from that.² The Bechdel Test in question is rather simple, as a work of fiction passes if it A): involves two or more female characters, and B): has the two characters talk to each other about anything other than men. It seems easy to understand, but there’s a common issue with how it is applied. That is, too many people apply it to individual works, when it is meant to be applied on a broad and wide-ranging sample to measure the sexism of an overall industry.
See, if we were to take a hundred anime television shows from the past year and measured how many of them pass the Bechdel Test, it would say a lot if none of them passed. And slice of life shows notwithstanding, it’s true that not many anime actually do pass. This means that a lot of shows are lacking in female characters who stand on their own without the need of a male character. This means nothing on an individual basis though. The test doesn’t actually say anything about the quality of a work or even how sexist it is—all it does it point towards a trend of male-centric media.
This leads to very narrow-minded mode of criticism—or perhaps its the result of a narrow-minded way of thinking. Either way, there’s a tendency for many feminists to have a strict set of rules in their mind of what makes a “strong female character,” and what makes a piece of fiction sexist or not. They assume all forms of fanservice are sexist and degrading, and then follow that any show with fanservice in it must be of lesser quality. This only restricts thought on what constitutes a good anime. It restricts ideas and discussion, when really there isn’t and shouldn’t be any strict rules of what makes a piece of fiction good or bad. Art and fiction are diverse and the possibilities are infinite, not to mention devoid of inherit value anyways.
There are a lot of examples of bad fanservice. There are a lot of animes which really could have done without the titillation, and a lot of shows which really only use its female characters for the fanservice. There are a lot of common and problematic issues with the use of fanservice, and the occurrences of tasteful fanservice is certainly uncommon (whatever “tasteful” is supposed to mean.) But that doesn’t mean all fanservice is bad, and to apply this Bechdel Test sort of thinking to individual works only oversimplifies the issue.
Context vs. Content
Another thing to keep in mind with critique, is the relationship between context and content. When judging a work of art or fiction, these are the two things you basically need to keep in mind. Content is the work itself, while context is the circumstances surrounding its creation; who made it, when it was made, and why it was made. Ultimately content should be judged on its own, but the context surrounding it should also be taken into account to understand why the content is the way it is.
Perhaps this is obvious, but it’s worth noting when addressing the fact that anime is a predominately male industry, and in most cases fanservice is made by men, for men. There are cases where women are the ones behind the titillation, such as Saya Yamamoto, but it’s uncommon. So this raises the question: can fanservice really be empowering and artful when it’s often just men sexualizing women characters for the enjoyment of other men? Well, yes and no. It depends.
On a basic level it doesn’t really matter who made something, as the work should speak for itself regardless of who made it. But on the other hand, there’s no denying that a persons gender influences what they create; whether you’re male, female, or something else along the gender spectrum. Which isn’t to say that men make more “masculine” works of fiction and women make more “feminine” works. On the contrary. Rather, it’s because your gender influences your life experiences that it in turn influences your creative works.
Men and women are equal, but different.³ Generally speaking, a man won’t have the same lived experiences as a woman, and so whatever they write is ultimately going to be from a male perspective. A man can still write a believable woman character and have it be identical to something that a woman would write, and vice versa, but it’s still ultimately going to be from a male perspective. (This doesn’t apply quite as much to transgender people, but that’s besides the point.) What I’m getting at is that sometimes it matters what perspective a work of fiction is being written from, and sometimes it doesn’t. If a man writes a novel that treats women as second-class citizens, than sure, it’s safe to assume that the author’s gender and his place in the patriarchy is probably why he’s so misogynistic.
But then there’s anime like Sakura Trick, which got a lot of flack because it’s a fanservicey show about lesbians being created by men. There’s not really any denying that it’s a show made by men, for men, but then there’s also not anything about it that only men could enjoy, or that only men could write. It’s creators and target demographic may have influenced the creative process, but that doesn’t make it any better or worse; it is what it is. Sure, it’d be nice if we could have an anime that was created by lesbians for lesbians, but that’s not much of a valid criticism against Sakura Trick.⁴
The same goes for when a woman director churns out something sexist and misogynist. I’ve criticized Btooom! plenty of times for how misogynistic and rapey it is, yet just recently I discovered that it was actually directed by a woman. Does that change how I look at the show? No, not really. It’s still one of my least favorite animes for a lot of reasons, and the fact that it was directed by a woman doesn’t change how bad it was. Likewise, we shouldn’t automatically call something misogynistic just because it’s made by a man. It’s important to consider who made something, but the content should speak for itself.
Voyeurism and the Male Gaze
A frequent reason that fanservice may seem indecent or objectifying would be the voyeuristic lens a lot of fanservice is viewed through. It’s common for fanservice to rely on the angle and positioning of the camera to emphasize a characters breasts or under parts (whether they’re skimpily dressed or not,) or even place the camera below a character so the audience can get a look up her skirt; i.e., the infamous pantyshot.
Often referred to as the Male Gaze, these shots are almost always done without the knowledge of the character, as there is of course a fourth wall, and hence why it could be called voyeuristic. It may or may not reflect the perspective of a male character, but is almost always done to please the male audience. There are cases where the sexualized character is more than willing to be admired in such a way that the fanservice becomes more exhibitionist, but voyeurism is the norm in anime.
The male gaze in and of itself is not a bad thing though, as it’s just another cinematic tool. Obviously, voyeurism in real life is a bad thing. Spying on others as they undress or looking up someones skirt without their consent is immoral, and consent is everything with sexual and intimate acts; doing anything non-consensual in that vein is inexcusable. Since the male gaze resembles real life voyeurism, I can understand why it could be off-putting to some.
But anime isn’t real life, and thus the same moral principles don’t apply. A fictional character doesn’t have any agency as a real person, and so it’s impossible for them not to consent to the viewers “spying” on them. In other words, the relationship between the viewer and a characters goes beyond consent. It’s the same thing with blood and gore. if I were to see someone get shot in real life—in person, not just footage, I’d feel pretty sick and shaken up, and possibly traumatized as well. Seeing the same thing happen to a cartoon character though? Well, like I said earlier, we first-worlders love our fictionalized violence. Real life and fiction just aren’t comparable.
It’d be different though if we were talking about voyeurism occurring within the story itself, such as a character spying on another character; that’s an act happening within the realm of the story, in which it is possible for the characters to consent or not. It’s only when we’re talking about the relationship between the audience and the characters where consent is irrelevant. So does this make the male gaze any less creepy? It depends on how you feel about this sort of fanservice. I personally have no problem with it.
Diversity over Censorship
As I’ve said early on, fanservice is quite prevalent throughout anime. Whether it’s blatant in the form of panty-shots or bathing scenes, or more subtle in the form of a cleavage-bearing character design, fanservice is everywhere, and the majority of female anime characters are sexualized is one way or another. On an individual basis there’s nothing wrong with this as long as it’s not too out of place, but it is distressing just how commonplace it is.
So what must be done about this? I feel that a lot of feminist critics have done well to pinpoint all these sexist and problematic trends in entertainment, but often they approach the issue in the wrong way and lose sight of why exactly these trends are so bad in the first place. They treat fanservice as a trope that’s bad in and of itself, when really it’s just a trope that’s overused. But it’s also troublesome how we tend to look at the issue as that there needs to be less fanservice, when really we should be striving for is more diversity in how female characters are portrayed.
Human beings are sexual creatures. Sex, erotica, and fanservice will always have their place in our stories and art.⁵ Trying to crack down on all forms of obscenity and objectification isn’t going to get us anywhere. By advocating for less fanservice and complaining about every instance of it, all you’re doing is censoring and complaining without any real improvement on the situation. Censoring will never be healthy for the entertainment industries, even if it’s for things that could be considered problematic.
What we should be doing is not decrying any and all forms of problematic material, but promoting the works that we like and don’t find problematic, as well as for things we want to see more of in general; i.e., promoting diversity. And to do that, it’s not quite as simple as making a checklist of minorities and pressuring writers to conform to that. That’s not going to make good stories or even solve the diversity issue. Encouraging studios and companies to meet a diversity quota can help, but it’s not the be all end all solution to the matter. Multiculturalism isn’t the answer.⁶
What we need is for more women to enter the entertainment industry, and have as much creative power as their male counterparts. Women themselves don’t automatically make less sexist or better stories just because of their gender, and can even still be apart of something that’s mostly intended for a male audience. But having more women in the industry would mean having more stories written and drawn from a female perspective, and that’s what’s going to lead to more diversity and less sexism.⁷
But remember, multiculturalism is not the answer. We can’t exactly force studios and producers to hire women just to meet a gender equality status quo. All a studio or producer should care about is the skill and ability of the person they’re hiring. Unfortunately, they often prefer men over women in the hiring process, but that’s just a reality we have to deal with until the glass ceiling is broken and patriarchy is crushed. If you’re a woman and you want to get in the entertainment industry, you just need to be passionate about your work and be twice as good as the male applicants you’ll be compared to. Yes, that is much easier said than done, but it’s that sort of thinking that’s going to get more women into positions of power. And getting more women in positions of power is what’s going to change the world for the better, not complaining about sexism on the internet.
And by all means, complain about cartoons online when you don’t like it—as an aniblogger, that’s what I do all the time. Just don’t mistake that for social activism, and stop trying to scrub the world clean of problematic material. It’s important to call out problematic things when we see it, but we need to be careful not to let calling-out turn into censorship and trigger warnings. Think back to the famous Evelyn Beatrice Hall quote that’s always misattributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”⁸
The prevalence of fanservice should be seen as the by-product of a larger issue of sexism, and on an individual basis it all comes down to execution for whether it’s good or bad. In advocating for less fanservice, it’s important to stress the need for more diversity rather than censorship in the industry. And these bigger issues in question mainly have to do with the lack of female representation in the industry; thus, the sexism issue of the global entertainment industry will only be solved by getting more women in creative positions, and further tapping into the market for female and unisex demographics. That’s what will naturally lead to less sexism and more diversity in the entertainment industries; not criticizing every little thing we deem sexist or offensive.
This is all especially important to keep in mind with the rise of Japanese neo-Nationalism and the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, as the Japanese government has been getting increasingly strict with it’s enforcement of censorship laws. The hentai industry is already going through some severe changes because of this, and it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to expect the rest of the anime and manga industry to be start being affected by these laws as well.
I hope this essay encourages anime fans and critics to be more open towards fanservice, to reconsider how they go about critiquing works from a feminist perspective, and to be more aware of the women currently working in the anime and manga industries.
. I was going to mention how silly it’d be to try and study ImoCho in an academic setting, but then I remembered how we still consider The Taming of the Shrew an important piece of dramatic literature. You never know, just like how we use The Taming of the Shrew to look at the sexism and misogyny of Elizabethan culture, five hundred years from now college students could be watching ImoCho to look at the sexism of 21st century otaku culture.
. I stress that much of what I say here is based off of my observations of feminist critique on the internet, which I’m aware is not reflective of all feminism. I’ve yet to read much feminist literature myself, but I know it’s important to separate the tumblr-obsessed social justice warriors from the actual scholars and activists. And in any discussion on feminism, it’s important to consider that feminism encompasses a very broad range of movements and ideologies, so when I refer to “feminists” in this essay I use the term broadly.
. Though it’s important to recognize that men and women are equal but different, it’s also important to avoid trying to define what these differences are precisely. Even if it’s in the name of “biotruths,” this usually just leads to arbitrary and harmful gender roles. What matters is that gender can influence us and makes us different. The exact differences aren’t as important. Also, “Equal but different” is not to be confused with the backwards “equal but separate” Jim Crow laws.
. I’ve written an editorial defending Sakura Trick in more detail, which can be read [here]. In that article I failed to address the fact that it’s a show made by men for men however, which I have here.
. I’m aware that this is a generalization which excludes asexuals, but I decided it’d help drive home the point better instead of saying “most humans are sexual creatures,” or “humans are sexual creatures (save for asexuals.)”
. Multiculturalism, i.e. ideologies and policies that promote diversity and its institutionalization. Not to be confused with cultural diversity itself.
. Getting more people of color in the entertainment industries is important too, though maybe not in Japan since they’re 99.9% ethnic Japanese anyways. It’d always be interesting to see an anime or manga made by one of Japan’s ethnic minorities though. Demographics other than cis, hetero males needs to be tapped into as well, though thankfully that’s already starting to improve in Japan with the recent rise of fujoshi anime. And besides that, the Japanese manga industy has always had a strong market for girls and women anyways.
. I’m aware that “you’re just trying to censor me!” is often used as an excuse for people to get away with saying problematic things, but that’s not what I mean by censorship. Censorship is when you try to erase someone’s words or keep them from saying something, which is awful no matter what you’re trying to censor. Anyone has a right to say whatever they want, but as long as you’re just calling them out and not trying to censor them, it’s all fair game.