When you look at this still-shot from Highschool of the Dead, what are you meant to look at? If your answer is anything other than giant boobs (or the red circle around them, wise guy), you’re wrong and probably could use an eye exam.
Now ask yourself what the purpose of this shot is. Your answer should be fan service, if you’ve ever seen anime. But regardless of whether you have or haven’t, I still want to explain why this kind of suggestive fan service is sexist and should die.
Before we dive into the meat of my argument, it’s probably best to clarify exactly what we’re talking about. That way, no one in the comments (who actually read more than the headline) can try to snark at me over semantics. This shit will be defined.
When I say “ecchi fan service,” I’m referring specifically to the kind of fan service that puts members off all genders and sexes in compromising positions for the sole purpose of titillation. I don’t mean long shots of awesome mechs or shout-outs and meta-references to material outside the story.
When I say “sexist,” I’m referring to the negative effect this kind of objectification has on the value of an individual (fictional or otherwise). I’m not implying that fan service directly causes discrimination in reality — just that it encourages audiences to assign value to someone based on their body.
When I say that it “needs to go away,” I mean that it doesn’t have a place in anime that isn’t basically meant to be smut (because watching smut is fine if you’re into it, but the overlap is annoying).
Anyway, now that we’re all on the same page, hunker down for a long read. This is a complex subject, and it’s going to take more than a few paragraphs to talk it out.
There are many weapons in the fan service arsenal, but a lot of them revolve around breasts. Characters often have huge chests and the ones that do are usually deployed in three common situations: 1) placed next to “flat chested” women who are jealous 2) placed next to another busty broad who boasts about how awesome it is to have big boobs 3) placed next to a guy who cannot believe what he’s seeing (“I mean, look at those things — they’re just bouncing around every which way. Is she even wearing a bra? Do they even make bras that big? I want to touch them...”). After the initial shock, there’s usually either hard-core staring, rude comments, or fondling of some kind.
Does anyone else see a problem with this?
I’m not a well-endowed girl, but I don’t think any of those situations sound like a good time. As a guy, it’d be weird and uncomfortable to have someone randomly focus so intently on my crotch. None of this is exclusive to fan service revolving around breasts either, as panty-shots and shower-intrusions fit just the same.
I, like most people, would prefer people recognize that I have things like a past, a personality, or value of some kind. It is important that people view me as more than the sum of my body. Being objectified is rude, hurtful, and dehumanizing. No one should have to feel like they’re only worth something because people like to stare at their sex organs.
When defending suggestive fan service, a lot of people like to say that sexuality is a part of life. Real people have really big boobs and sometimes they kind of bounce around. People will want to have sex with strangers they see on the streets or people from their everyday lives. Sometimes you just want to see a little skin, and sometimes you commit an accidental boob-graze. Or at the least, girls with big boobs will brag about how awesome it is to be well endowed. You have to acknowledge these things. And yeah, that’s 100 percent true. But that doesn’t mean a writer has to do it in such a sexist way. That’s stupid.
Fiction doesn’t exist to mirror reality — it exists to say something about it. Including anything in a story just because it happens in real life is pointless. Any story-teller worth their salt will choose to say something about an aspect of reality instead of just saying “look, this happens!” Acknowledging consequence-free sexism to increase awareness of the problem would be a different story, but that’s not what fan service does.
What fan service does is subconsciously perpetuate the idea that objectifying each other is ok. When a character gropes someone else and the victim just lets it happen, that’s shows viewers that they might be able to do the same. Even when it’s an accident, it still puts sexist thoughts into your head, like, “Oh man, I wish that would happen to me.” Shouldn’t you prefer that a person allows you to touch them there? Isn’t consent the message we should be subconsciously perpetuating in our fiction?
Another argument for fan service is that people like to be titillated. And while that’s true, there are other ways to achieve the same effect. If a guy really needs to have a boner and be entertained at the same time, he should start writing soft-core porn with a higher-quality of storytelling. Basically, if you’re looking to be titillated, there are other places you can look.
Now, the beginning of this rant may have led you to believe I want all anime characters to be dressed in formless moo-moos and not acknowledge each other’s sexuality in the slightest, but that would be a gross misunderstanding of everything I’ve written. In fact, I think that things like cleavage, groping, and even panty-shots totally have a place in anime and all kinds of fiction. But the difference between what I have in mind and fan service is idea of choice.
When a large breasted character slips and spills water on their white shirt, that doesn’t tell us anything about them. However, if that same character chooses to dump that water on their shirt to get someone’s attention, that’s a different story. The audience is being informed about the character’s personality, and the decision to express their sexuality is in their hands. It may be titillating, but it is also part of the story.
At the same time, imagine someone accidentally spilling a drink on someone’s pants and wiping it up despite how close they’re getting to other’s crotch. Regardless of what happens, it’s all based around an accident and has very little value. Instead, imagine the person spilled the drink on purpose and the victim gets really angry about being violated. Making the character choose to commit an inappropriate act tells us about that character, but having the victim get angry then teaches the audience that shit like that isn’t cool.
In that way, all the same elements that fans of fan service love don’t have to disappear. Writers could even replace those moments of sexist fan service and give audiences examples of healthy expressions of sexuality. And if they did that, anime might actually become a champion of the sex-positive. But at the least, the idea is just to ask for something that contributes to the story somehow, making fan service more than just an distracting tangent.
Do you find it annoying when someone interrupts your TV show with random questions or comments? “Did you take out the garbage?” “What are we doing for dinner?” “Make love to me by the fireplace.” So annoying! Fan service is like the same thing, but worse. Instead of the distraction coming from an outside source, the show itself is stopping to point out this thing that doesn’t really matter at all.
And this problem isn’t exclusive to fan service or even anime. Plenty of stories have extra fat that, if trimmed, would make everything flow a lot better. So not only does fan service promote bad things like objectification, but it also takes your attention away from the main reason you’re watching a show — the story. All of us can agree that filler is lame.
Plus, at this point, fan service is even getting a little tired as filler. Much of it just seems to be there because it’s expected. Sure, a lot is there because “sex sells,” but you can tell when it’s completely out of place. That’s when an executive saw it and said, “sex this shit up, son!” (only in Japanese and without sounding like a frat bro)
Should Cultural Differences Be Factored Into The Equation?
This is probably the hardest part of the discussion, because it is true that Japanese values and beliefs are different than those of other countries. With that in mind, at what point are you forced to just agree to disagree? I can’t define that line exactly, but I don’t think that cultural differences justifies sexism (or bad story telling, for that matter). At the same time, as someone who isn’t Japanese, I can’t exactly speak to the extent culture plays in fan service. It might have a large influence or it might have not. Someone who knows first hand should be sure to explain in the comments.
Of course, I want to stress that I am not saying Japanese culture is inherently sexist or that there isn’t an abundance of similar sexism in America. Sexism is everywhere and it’s all bad news. All I’m saying is that it’s not fair to excuse sexism on the grounds of cultural differences, no matter the culture. It just so happens that the bulk of what we’re talking about comes out of Japan. So take that for what you will.
In the end, it’s all about learning to respect each other. Whether anime achieves that by replacing fan service with useful or positive expressions of sexuality, fan service as we now know it needs to go. If you have another defense for suggestive fan service that I didn’t address, please include it in the comments. There’s still more to this issue.