Today’s controversial topic will be fanservice. Particularly, fanservice in regards to its widespread usage and implantation in anime.
Fan service is material in a work of fiction which is intentionally added to please the audience. Fan service usually refers to “gratuitous titillation”, but can also refer to intertextual references to other series or story and visual elements that audiences tend to desire.
For the purpose of this article I will be addressing only the sexual side of the definition for fanservice. Henceforth every time I mention ‘fanservice’ I am explicitly and exclusively referring to the term in relation to sex & sexuality as it is typically understood.
On why fanservice lowers my opinion of a show:
Simply put, fanservice can only ever harm a show. There is no realistic scenario in which fanservice will have a beneficial impact on an anime.
Why? Because fanservice by nature works against serving the narrative in favour of serving the lowest common denominator. It strives off the fundamental principle of “sex sells” sacrificing both the integrity of the creative process and the immersive potential of a work in order to provide titillation directed at the audience rather than at adding commentary to the piece itself.
While I would never think it was actively intending to offend, the issue is that the creators often lack an understanding of the effect it has when they make choices like this. It weakens the foundation of the character when from the moment they are introduced they are sexualized for the sake of the presumed (not exclusively) straight male audience. Even if the character grows into something I can respect from a literary standpoint, I’ll still be in consideration of the fact that they were presented as an object for the audience to violate ¹, rather than a key player in a story that we follow at a distance. For immersion to fundamentally function you cannot take an element out of the work to be put on display for the audience. We as viewers are not supposed to be active participants in the story, it is not an exhibit at a zoo, so when (for example) the camera is deliberately set up to invade a characters personal space, when it provides us an angle that is inappropriate and unnecessary, it is then that immersion is lost. If the camera is simply behaving this way for the purpose of gratuitous titillation then quite literally nothing of value is lost by changing it, since it only works against the narrative.
Fanservice is a distraction. It draws our attention away from what is important. It aims to please audiences by serving their innate sexual drive, as opposed to convincing audiences of a products worth as it is engaged. A work that relies on fanservice is a work that is not confident in its ability to satisfy the viewer through conventional methods.
On why I can’t just accept fanservice:
“Why can’t this kind of approach exist?”
Well it does exist. It’s everywhere. If it wasn’t so common I doubt it would’ve even earned my commentary by virtue of being so insignificant. I’m not trying to argue the point that we should censor it from existence, that wouldn’t even be possible, especially when it comes to anime and the volatile and vapid consumer market it operates in. Sex does sell. It will always sell. I’m not going to try and stop that. Critically however, I won’t advocate or defend it either, especially given how juvenile it is when implemented.
On why sex & sexuality =/= fanservice
Sex and sexuality our approach to it and its implementation in modern media is important subject matter. There is a conversation to be had with it. There is an application for it in art. It is vital to make the distinction that just because a work features sex and/or sexuality and extended material attached to those, does not by default make it fanservice. By the very same definition I started this article with, if a topic exists to serve the narrative, if it provides commentary or meaningfully enhances a piece, then it is not fanservice. To believe so would be a disservice to the creative function it has been given, an insult to expression so to speak.
If it is the intention of a work to tackle issues of sex and sexuality within the framing of current or past society, then it needs to stay true to that purpose. The reason why works such as Kill la Kill, The woman called Fujiko Mine and Belladonna of Sadness perform so fantastically in regards to these topics is because they treat it with the respect it deserves. It is natural that the more serious a topic is chosen, the more care that is required to cover it. For example Kill la Kill uses sex to tackle the cultural expectations forced onto pubescent girls in present society, daring to use clothing standards as a way to criticize those who artificially dictate what is and isn’t acceptable in regards to girls independent expression. As an exploration of sex in the past, Belladonna of Sadness frames Witchcraft & Satanism as a form of feudal feminism, placing women in a position of authority that christian and patriarchal oppression previously didn’t allow them. Because these anime do more than just throw these elements in as an afterthought, it goes without saying that these parts are not fanservice by any stretch. In these particular cases the empowerment found in the commentary gives gravity to the subject matter. It provides that dividing line between shaking their ass in front of the camera for titillation and using their identity to tell us something. On this wave length it is worth noting that empowerment is not a requirement for the usage of sex & sexuality. In many cases framing it in terms of survival or recovery can be equally worthwhile as the former.
If the production team do not want to go down this route, that is fine, but in that case make their sexuality a secondary or even tertiary characteristic, not their defining one. If it can make me care and understand enough about the characters or themes such that I can empathize with the circumstances, then I can be more than accepting of their choice to express sexuality. As long as I feel the character is doing it for a comprehensible reason then it’s fine. It is when I am conscious that the director is controlling this character like a puppet to place them in scenarios where they are objectified that it becomes irritating.
On how to spot typical fanservice:
So what are easy ways to tell the difference?
There’s quite a few easy tells that you can look out for. It is important to remember that a studio (and in particular the director) holds creative control. For example they get to choose how the camera is positioned and how a scene will be shot. If the camera is setup to center the viewers focus on erogenous zones, irrespective of alternative ways the scene could be shown, that is an obvious tell. Unless the directors direct intention is to make a fanservice show, then be conscious of the fact that these are not essential shots. They do not add anything other than a sexual gaze² on the subject and as stated before if that is not serving a greater purpose then it is having a negative impact.
Always ask yourself, “why is this happening?”.
e.g. The character is sexualizing themselves to attract attention
- Are there specific circumstances that would require the character to take such action?
- Does the individual need to break character to do this?
- Are there others ways they could achieve the same result?
- If absolutely necessary, does this say anything about the world the character exists in?
- How comfortable is the character in doing this, do they express their own feelings on the matter?
- Is it rationalized, even if seems conventionally sexist? etc.
- What critique does it provide, if any?
- Could the genders by flipped without any consequence or significant effect?
- In combination with all of the above; what does it ultimately add?
These are just some of the questions you can ask, although really blatant fanservice falls at the first hurdle. A sign of a better anime is one that weaves the answers to these questions, the purpose and end goal into the key points as they happen. They won’t just leave you puzzled until the end before going “ha! it meant something after all!”. A failure to communicate is a failure of the product and not the consumer. A truly great piece will engage you in this back and forth conversation from the precise moment it needs to.
“Is it wrong to have a bias against fanservice?”
No, not really. Fanservice fails where an artistic narrative function does not. Fanservice dregs out the worst in consumerism and aims to create the barely functional art. Should you feel ashamed for indulging in these types of products? No, not really. They wouldn’t get made if there wasn’t a market for them. Additionally it is unfair to judge the consumer for wanting something that appeals to their base desires, since that is something all genders & sexualities partake in. The distinction my argument draws towards is whether or not there is intrinsic value in fanservice, to which my answer is…
No, not really.
1, ‘violate’ as in ‘to break apart’, ie. to view it as an object detached from the narrative.
2, As defined by Laura Mulvey in her essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, that explores deeper into the concept.