The Mary Sue has written on fanservice in anime for the second time. ‘In anime’ might be a stretch however. The blog isn’t inclined to treat any subject they comment on with any sensitivity to the work as a whole. They splice out bits that seem to prove their points and ignore anything that could define it differently. So I want to make a counter-claim. In their most recent article, celebrating ‘sexiness’ that isn’t objectification, I don’t believe the writer is aware of what objectification really is in feminist terminology. I don’t believe the writer represents the interests of feminists at all.
The writer calls their article ‘uncontroversial’, and yet navigates themselves into disagreement with how objectification is academically approached. Their reference for ‘objectification’, one of the trickiest terms of the feminist’s dictionary (Cass Sunstein stresses that it is ‘not at all an easy concept to define’), is just a Wikipedia page. Thankfully, most of the page is only a trustworthy outline of Martha Nussbaum’s unpacking of the word. A full reading of Nussbaum’s “Objectification” however presents their application of the term as contrary to its source.
In speaking of Emilia Clarke acting in Game of Thrones, the writer acknowledges the actor’s position that ‘nudity should be used either to progress the story or deepen understanding of character’. They then refuse, however to apply this to ‘2D women’. Through neglecting the essential consideration of context, they have ‘objectified’ the depictions of women in their discussion far more than the story or its creators have themselves.
Let’s get this out of the way: feminism is great. Real feminism is great. The academic discourse of leading feminists is a joy to sink your teeth into, if you have the patience and a desire to learn what these thinkers really argue. The problem is not the academics; it’s how many ‘feminists’ have taken their research and distorted it, or simply ignored the large part of it. Martha Nussbaum stresses in “Objectification” how the term is ‘not only a slippery, but also a multiple, concept’, in agreement with Sunstein who accepts its difficulty of definition. And yet the author of The Mary Sue’s anime articles claims it exists as ‘objective’.
There isn’t a much better time to be bringing Nussbaum back into the discussion of anime. She was awarded the Kyoto Prize this year, and her unpacking of ‘objectification’ as a commonly pejorative concept (into one that also has positive applications (1) ) has become, along with small developments from other prominent scholars, authoritative. Hence the writer for The Mary Sue believes linking to Wikipedia’s list of her ‘Seven Ways to Treat a Person as a Thing’ suffices for definition. For clarity, these are:
- Instrumentality: The objectifier treats the object as a tool of his of her purposes.
- Denial of autonomy: The objectifier treats the object as lacking in autonomy and self-determination.
- Inertness: The objectifier treats the object as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity.
- Fungibility: The objectifier treats the object as interchangeable (a) with other objects of the same type, and/or (b) with objects of other types.
- Violability: The objectifier treats the object as lacking in boundary-integrity, as something that it is permissible to break up, smash, break into.
- Ownership: The objectifier treats the object as something that is owned by another, can be bought or sold, etc.
- Denial of subjectivity: The objectifier treats the object as something whose experience and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account
While Nussbaum explains that ‘objectification entails making into a thing, treating as a thing, something that is really not a thing’, we must not lose sight of the most basic function of characterization: to have us treat ‘things’ as human. To assemble signs together to make characters that are no longer perceived as signs: to have us relate to that character as a person, not as artifice. A character given life – motivations, conflicts, personality – is therefore ‘not a thing’ in the standard model of narrative consumption. A character is born from ‘things’, but not consumed as one; they are empathized with as human (as much as the story, as a whole, allows).
We must bear this in mind going forward. ‘2D women’ are objects. Characters are received as human. When looking at a painting, a two-dimensional picture, we must consider any third dimension manifested into the mind from the art. Likewise, when debating whether a character is ‘objectified’, we must not be treating them as objects in the first place. A character must have been a ‘person’ to have been transformed into a ‘thing’, and we must be allowing that possibility. But in thinking only ‘real women have real bodies and real opinions about what they are asked to do’, as we will see, the writer hasn’t even begun to think about anime girls as characters at all.
What not to wear?
What struck me most about their case studies is that they used Yoko, from Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, as example of ‘objectification’ done wrong. In their analysis of her they tell us to ‘notice’ distinct things; distinct from the context of the character and what their motivations for their ‘impractical’ dress sense are. They posit that these things in isolation tell us she is being objectified, and that it’s a mistake. They apply a monolithic standard that her clothing should be practical, that her breast movements not overstated. They only relate what they see to their own ethics of what is ‘right’ in cinema, and don’t listen to the story being told, and what the character is trying to say.
Youtuber ‘Gaijin Goomba’ has made a brilliant video outlining the value of the Yoko’s exposure; that as a ‘strong character’ she frequently owns her choice of clothing instead of being owned by it, and she promotes, in the anime at least, how we shouldn’t have to care about how people see us:
Critical in his appreciation of Yoko is the subverted cliché of the protagonist landing head-first into her tits. Extending his thoughts on the scene, we see that Yoko is in a position to be objectified, but instead ‘owns’ any objectifying elements of her outfit and situation through her behavior. After a momentary bout of embarrassment – which keeps her reaction relatable – she immediately switches back to the action and doesn’t care that she’s shielding this boy by pressing him further into her chest. She also smiles at him at first, showing a further disregard for the plot-distracting embarrassment she’s ‘supposed’ to feel. She gets over it so quickly, and we’re supposed to as well.
This is not fanservice ‘interrupting the action’ for a second; the fanservice and the action come together to comment upon the fanservice and what our expectations of it were. Yoko is not degraded as a person in this scene, but strengthened. If anything, the boy she pulls into herself is the one who’s being objectified; he has far less autonomy, agency. He’s used by her, and by the show at large, to make a point; he even has instrumentality.
Yoko is not violated, her boundaries are not broken, because she is the active participant of the scene, rather than the passive recipient of events. She is also the opposite of inert. The action she takes ironically objectifies the male as ‘that guy who’s meant to carry out this sort of scene’ – and she has ownership of the scene. It’s Yoko at her best: a figure we would only yell ‘objectification’ at if we ignored every facet of her characterization that gives her agency and humanity, prior to and during this moment.
Yoko’s agency, which she at all times in the anime defiantly keeps in spite of what her dress sense would make us expect, is in part a commentary on the male gaze inevitably upon her. So what if she’s supposed to be ashamed of her tits? She shouldn’t be owned by fear: if she wants to strip down to this bikini-clad level, and we deny her character that permission, we are playing out the issue Nussbaum has with the banning of prostitution: “the idea that we ought to penalize women with few choices by removing one of the ones they do have is grotesque”.
Nussbaum furthers this perhaps controversial position in Hiding from Humanity, which criticizes how we denounce humiliation on a scope that is too restricting on human freedom. What we think is humiliating, another person could believe is empowering. We need to listen to them, even if we don’t agree with them, and accept what they choose to wear and their motivations for wearing it as part of their character. Else we’re shoving our ethics down another character’s throat; don’t be surprised when they spit them back at you.
Yoko is not ashamed for revealing her body; she exposes it with abandon, and welcomes the camera upon what she exposes. That’s the character we appreciate as viewers, that the camera surprisingly helps us appreciate. So why are so many critics ashamed of seeing her battle in a bikini? Furthermore, why did so many people reduce her character to pure titillation when it was so much more than that in the anime? In both cases, they have divorced her presentation from her whole performance. They have reduced her to only a part of herself. For the fanservice-loving viewers, they only took her costume, her physicality. For the ‘feminists’, they only took those things too, and ignored all the context that defines it as so much more than titillation. In doing so, those ‘feminists’ have reduced her to parts of herself. They have carried out what Rae Helen Langton, adding to Nussbaum’s list of types of objectification, calls ‘reduction to appearance’. They have objectified her in order to argue she’s objectified.
Nussbaum notes that when considering who is being objectified and how, and whether this is a problem, ‘we need to focus on the implied author, asking ourselves what sort of interaction the text as a whole promotes in us as readers, what sorts of desires and projects it awakens’. Do Kill la Kill or TTGL promote indulging in the ‘male gaze’, or defy it? They present bared flesh like the fruit of the Garden of Eden: we can consume it if we want to, as pornographic. It’s there if we want it. But we were expressly told that such consumption was the antithesis to finding fulfillment in this narrative. We are actively encouraged to think of the exposure and camerawork as speaking of something other than titillation. If we’re actually here for the story, we stop being voyeurs and become comfortable with the exposure. But it will distract from the story if we’re only here to notice sexualized imagery, to indulge in it or criticize it. Really, in this light, both the feminists and the fans they criticize engage in the same breakdown of narrative; the reduction to appearance, to body parts, silencing the character’s opinion of their own presentation. Objectification.
Presentation or perception?
The writer of The Mary Sue’s article tries to separate how characters are ‘presented’ to you from how you perceive them, forgetting that they are only ever judging presentation through their own perception. This situation is reminiscent of the moralizing critics back in the days of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé. Initially banned on the British stage because of a law forbidding Biblical characters in the theatre (a law not unlike that which many ‘feminist’ critics wish to push, that all ‘objectification’ is wrong in media), the play was later denounced by the press for being a ‘mixture of scripture and modern passion’. They really didn’t like the two together. Present the Bible with sexy dancing? How dare you!
And yet, the point of the play is that ‘modern passion’ is the audience’s fault, not the play’s. The lust the audience experience in the play only exists in their perception. Salome dances ‘the dance of the seven veils’, and it is our wish to penetrate the veil – the physical veils she would wear on stage and slowly remove, and the ‘veil’ of minimal stage directions describing only the instance of the dance and none of its aspects – that makes her an object of passion. But she only objectifies herself into a dance, and allows us to further objectify her, in order to possess the man she has always been objectifying herself: Jokanaan. ‘I will kiss thy mouth’, she repeats. She doesn’t want him: just his mouth (after trying her luck with a bunch of other body parts).
She comes in possession of merely his head. But she also comes to possess Herod, who loses the ability to negotiate with her, despite his position as king, following the dance. And she likewise possesses the audience. And so her strength as a character, like Yoko, is performed through her revealing herself. The popular critics all denounced Salome for her ‘passion’ like The Mary Sue has denounced Yoko. But these characters speak to us of how the perception is the problem, and not the performance itself. And that speaking is done through their fanservice, which is transformed through an understanding of the whole of the work into something so much more than its initial titillation.
From the implications of Wilde’s work, we must posit that fictional women performing their own objectification, willingly, can also be understood in a manner of objectifying the audience that are objectifying them, and thus establishing the fullness of a Kantian co-operational thinglike treatment of those involved in the sexual episode, where both the man and the women become objects to one another. Sometimes the receiver of fanservice is more ‘objectified’ than the servant, however. When voyeurs are criticized, they become interchangeable. They become reduced to their eyes, their nosebleeds. While they view themselves as possessing a sexual image, the self-sexualizing character may well be possessing them.
A great example of this can be seen in the devouring of a man at the hands of a god in the guise of a prostitute in an episode of Gaiman’s novel, American Gods. She offers a service to the man, and, we think, at first, in the invisible nod of supposed erotica, to us. But we end seeing her as in control, as she ends in a position of mastery over life and death, because of her ability to humble herself into an object of sexual attachment, and her willingness to adopt a position of objectification. The man’s lust for her is his downfall. Some Venus Flytraps seem to offer everything to you before they gobble you up.
Similar is the devouring power of pornography as displayed in the video for Teddyloid’s ME!ME!ME!. Initially a reception of ‘fanservice’ is essential in order for the narrative to evolve into demonizing our practice of being sucked into the character’s mental images as he loses himself – literally his life – in them too. This is at once an ethical defence and criticism for the pornographic: that voyeuristic engagement begins as an impression of ownership but must become a co-operational degradation into the instinctive, the animalistic, and the non-autonomous. Men become owned by the images they own, in a reciprocal relationship of degradation.
Whether we view this as viable for a society or poisonous is a whole different question. At the very least, the lack of asymmetry in the relationships involved presents some ‘fanservice’ as far more than just titillation and as potentially artistically commendable, if we’re wiling to have our minds on more than bodies and how they are animated.
The Camera out of Context
We should only pass judgement a character after considering their ‘service’ in its fullest context. But the outcry against women baring more of their tits, or their bums, regardless of context – the outcry that camera angles emphasizing such things are a problem alone, if one considers the body parts are fine to expose – restricts the fictional portrayal of women to never being allowed to take ownership of the camera as they objectify themselves for an artistic purpose they are written to be performing. They lose that facet of autonomy.
Meanwhile, ‘real’ women (who we only really see as characterized portrayals of self in the first place) are encouraged to ‘free the nipple’ and snap it for Instagram and use their beauty for their own empowerment and gain. A history of writers thinly veiling their denouncement of the value of women in society in literature has led many critics to forget that women can affirm their value to themselves and to us through free expression of their bodies. The forcing of a one-to-one relationship between sexism and titillating camera angles has permeated and ruined much possibility for worthwhile discussion of sexuality in cinema.
Objectification cannot occur from a lone action of out context: a single event, a single camera shot. And yet ‘feminists’ will throw pictures of lewd women around the internet and claim that their ethical rights have been immediately violated. They refuse to accept the story and characters as having organic potential before they’ve even begun to analyze: though in some cases a story with ‘fanservice’ fails to achieve such naturalness, in many a context surrounds the sexualization of women that defines it as complimentary to the work. Not attending to that context is tantamount to a denial of subjectivity on the character’s behalf. The Mary Sue just looked at Yoko and pooh-poohed what she wore, what the camera exaggerated. They never cared about how she felt about such a perspective.
It is no longer a story, no longer characters you criticize, when you stop considering how a character feels about their predicament. You only take the visual and auditory signs as data, related to nothing but a ticklist of standards of what is ‘too far’ for sex on-screen. And so you conclude that the story is pure objectification, because you have let it be no more than its literal object: never the actual ‘art’ that exists in the presentation of the natural from the artificial.
Likewise, the context and characterization that defines a character’s choice is not an ‘excuse’. Sure, complex sexualisation may still, inevitably, be approached as purely fanservice by some people. Azuma’s otaku ‘database animals’ (2) are consuming even the most well-written women in this interchangeable and thus objectified way. But the ethical failure of an audience cannot be directly implicated as a failure of the work, especially if the work comments upon that failure of viewing. we should know that we shouldn’t be dictating the limits of creativity based of viewerships that will take your characters out of their context no matter what you make them about.
Trigger knew presenting a bikini-clad heroine would make fan derivations devolve into pure titillation. They knew that these fans don’t care about the context criticizing them looking at her in that way. They know these ‘fans’ aren’t consuming the real story, the story as a whole, the characters as actual characters, and that anyone who is should be able to pick up on the meaningfulness of Yoko’s costume and the dynamic statement it makes in connection to her character.
The same emphasis is given in Kill la Kill, where the nose-bleeding hundreds are painted with a broad brush of denouncement as Ryuko stops being ashamed of her exhibitionism early into the series, and embraces that there’s no fault to it in the first place. She stops being a slave to the male gaze, imagined or literal, when she stops being ashamed of her outfit. And the show stops performing as ‘fanservice’ overall, even though Ryuko’s wardrobe only reduces, because in order to make her our titillating slave we now have to abstract her away from her defiant characterization.
Fanservice is, in general, a form of slavery. The figure is reduced to be a ‘servant’, an ‘animate tool’ (to use Aristotle’s term) for titillating. There is, however, a categorical difference between a woman forced into this position, and a woman who enters it willingly, out of a commendable motivation (some motivations could still be a kind of ‘forcing’, a kind of manipulation, and we must be discerning as to which are). We have covered many examples of the latter: many of the former in anime exist as well, however. Early in Qualidea Code, the lead female is introduced with voyeuristic shows of her showering while in conversation with the protagonist. These are not only inessential; the establish a voyeuristic gaze on her to be maintained in the future. They introduce her as an object. And she turns out to be only there for supporting everyone else. She’s a servant in so many ways, and the show embraces this.
Her character falls flat as a result, because she not only has no agency, no autonomy in the opening episode (perhaps she grows from here, but it would involve building on a sinkhole, rather than a foundation, of characterization); she is reduced to her body, and her magically empowering voice, and how she offers a foil for the protagonist to bounce his personality off. And she didn’t choose the power she had. She didn’t choose the camera sweeping over her naked body in the shower, and she definitely doesn’t want it. We can agree that all of this was forced upon her. We could still enjoy it, but it’s not to our tastes if we want independence in our foregrounded female characters.
To argue that all fictional characters must fall into the camp of being ‘forced’ to do things because they are artifices of their creators, however, is to forget that the experience of art as narrative is to relate to these figures of humanity as real, as people; you force the essential but invisible elements of composition into the foreground. Above we proved a character in Qualidea Code is forced into objectification by assessing her performance as a whole, as relationships, as context coming together with individual moments of expression. We did likewise with Yoko. We didn’t just find a camera angle that sexualized and said ‘that’s wrong’. We investigated what the character wanted, spoke of and performed themselves as. Doing otherwise is what James Wood (3) calls out as the critical camp who ‘don’t believe in characters at all’; who criticize them as only assemblages of signs, and never as the complete characters they are.
This reminds us that to criticize is technically to ‘break apart’; I would posit that as a special kind of violation. The text asks us to suspend disbelief, the default for the reader being to believe that the signs of humanity are relatable to as humanity. If it fails, then we violate its illusion as ‘art’. It’s hard to do little else without forcing an impression the story isn’t giving. But if we only come in wanting to violate in the first place, and never engage in the common consumption a story may successfully be asking for – if we never put those lewd camera angles into context – we have furthermore objectified the figures that could have otherwise seemed to us as human.
To gaze or not to gaze?
Sometimes the context isn’t a commentary upon exposure or the voyeuristic gaze; sometimes it’s a fully-fleshed development for a character, as much as it enables ‘fanservice’ at the same time for those who’d rather think about that than the story. In Netoge such an episode occurred when Ako flouted the convention of ‘a guy stumbling upon her undressing’ by undressing more for when he next entered. Out of context, one could only consider this unnatural, and showing this scene in isolation would make anyone skeptical of Ako’s agency. But within the show, we know Ako’s approach to life is unnatural. She considers the virtual and the real as one. We could suppose that this characterization exists as a platform for her fanservice. Or we could notice how little of the show is spent on titillation, and how much of it has been spent so far on developing her and Nishimura, and consider how her ‘fanservice’ offers a platform for further characterization.
When we judge Ako’s character as someone who can’t differentiate between the real and the virtual and/or wants to give up on the real, she doesn’t seem protective of her physical body at all, and seems to misunderstand what ‘real’ sex is, likely viewing it in a virtual way akin to what the inns offer in the game she plays, Legendary Age. She is violable, but we understand that her immersion into the virtual is what makes her, and those like her, that way. Meanwhile her room is the ‘real’ space where she engages with the ‘virtual’, so permitting ‘real’ sex flouts the expectation of some game-related pun on, say, doing it in the virtual world.
But Nishimura then tutoring her in the game rather than entering into sexual activity is an act of using a virtual space for a real connection, rather than using a real space for the arguably ‘virtual’ connection of spontaneous, casual sex. Though Ako is violable, Nishimura chooses to construct something with her instead, and they become co-operational. Within this scene indulging in Ako’s nakedness should feel even to the voyeur like a step too far, because in her delusions she has done this willingly, and her violability speaks of the story far more than it tempts us towards her. Netoge has many elements of pure fanservice that I couldn’t appreciate, but his bedroom scene is a highlight of the story. Her nakedness directs our minds – so long as we are still thinking of characters as characters in the first place – towards many defining and developing aspects of her, and not simply to her tits.
An example of this on a smaller scale is the introduction of Yamagi in New Game. While the show has had its share of little-more-than-voyeuristic moments of fanservice, when we stumble upon Yagami sleeping in her underwear, there’s far more than just ‘an ass to drool over’. The scene offers a still image to the kinds of fans who aren’t here for a story in the first place, but those following the birth of these characters and their relationships will be sensitive to the differences between Aoba’s sense of dress code – ultra-decency – and Yagami’s ultra-indecency. They’ll notice that the camera is hyperbolized from Aobo’s viewpoint to emphasize her discomfort at seeing it, and realize that while we could distract ourselves by getting pervy towards this girl, we could also acknowledge the simple comedy and character development of the scene.
If we feel ‘this shouldn’t/needn’t be here’ (in terms of the show), we have drawn ourselves in parallel to what the emphasis on this angle speaks of. Yes. This shouldn’t be here. That’s what Aobo’s thinking right now. This lewdness shouldn’t be in the workplace. And as long as we’re here to stay in Aoba’s mind and not our voyeuristic own, we can factor this ‘fanservice’ as part of the story and not a distraction from it. Yamagi is only objectified if we want to objectify her. We are offered a way of processing her indecency without violating her boundaries.
If they want to continue Nussbaum’s work, feminists should be encouraging us to look upon these images with more grace and less voyeurism, to understand them as part of a story and characterization. They should encourage us to think of a character dressed-down as a person first. To think what the story has given us so far that can make them seem human to us, and not an object, even if their presentation could be objectified by a less considerate viewer.
In the right social context, a woman in the ‘real’ world can freely expose themselves, and emphasize that exposure, and have a motivation to do so, and if we agree with her motivation, we can agree with her decision. Denying that a fictional woman can be scripted and justified with such motivation is to objectify her yourself in many regards: it is to deny the character’s autonomy and subjectivity, and enforce authorial ownership when the ‘character’ exists to be separate from artifice and to be considered human.
Of course, these are the issues we encounter when the veil of suspension of disbelief drops. If we feel the character has no self-motivation, we see them as objectified by their narrative, as we can only see the narrative as an object. But that doesn’t mean a woman engaging in ‘fanservice’ cannot be self-motivated, and we must not deny that characterizing motivation can be there, nor subtract it from our appreciation of the character when analyzing them. These motivations can range from as bold as Yoko and Ryuko’s defiance of any gaze upon them, to Yagami’s simple but utter disregard for decency in the workplace. A character can engage in such activity and not have to be seen as possessed by ourselves, or by the critic, simply for titillation. The erotic – no matter how extreme – can mean so much more to us, if we’re in the story for meaning, and not mere masturbation.
The more ‘feminist’ critics think that they can criticize fanservice by splicing shots of it out of context, the more they are simply operating under the methods of McCarthyism (4). They put sexualization in anime straight on the ducking stool of pre-objectification, with no stay in court. They strip away an autonomous character’s right to defend their sexual decisions with context, no matter how extreme those decisions are. They assume the crime before it’s committed the moment they see bared, emphasized flesh, and give a false witness to the real performance of characters like Yoko.
They are not what anime needs to improve its depiction of women. At best, with their forced objectification of the ‘characters’ they review, they are like those who artificially impose the author upon a work. Approaching anime like this is like chasing your tail around a few new lampposts of lewdness each season, occasionally stopping to piss. And it stinks.
(1) Nussbaum writes: “Under some specifications, objectification… is always morally problematic. Under other specifications, objectification has features that may be either good or bad, depending upon the overall context. (Sunstein was certainly right to emphasize the importance of context, and I shall dwell on that issue.) Some features of objectification, furthermore, I shall argue, may in fact in some circumstances, as Sunstein suggests, be either necessary or even wonderful features of sexual life”. It is worth considering how this position is already in strong contrast to the Mary Sue’s denouncement of ‘sexualization’ and objectification over ‘sexiness’.
(2) check the reviews on the page linked for summaries of Azuma’s stance on how some otaku consume anime and its associated media in an abnormal, deconstructed way
(3) this article, featured in his book ‘How Fiction Works’, is part of my gospel for carefully understanding characters
(4) though they should not be morally or ethically compared in the framework of this discussion. This is only a comment of the approach to judgement, and one worth taking and developing carefully. For a feminist playwright’s portrayal of McCarthyistic methods as at fault, Caryl Churchill’s ‘Vinegar Tom’ is a worthwhile read. The way women are ‘objectified’ in the society of that play into witches is something I find tantamount to how some feminist journalism has ‘objectified’ anime characters into male-gaze-pandering vixens.