The Disservice of Fan Service

Scene from Sherlock episode A Scandal in Belgravia: Irene Adler's nude back, and Sherlock Holmes looking very unimpressed

Sherlock Holmes is not impressed by this display of male gazery

Do you ever watch something and just think: “That was written just for the fans”?

Scenes that seem as though they were designed to be awesome more than anything else. Dialogue that seems made to be quoted. Moments of tension or comedy that are manufactured to titillate the audience. Sometimes fans of a show or book pick up on these things on their own and take them into their hearts, but sometimes it distinctly feels as though the creators put things in there just to appeal to their audience.

The most obvious of this is the root of the words “fan service”, defined as a random and mostly irrelevant action that plays directly to the audience’s (and chiefly the straight male audience’s) interests: a sudden gust of wind blows a skirt up! An event happens within the show that calls the female cast to dress in scanty or adorably provocative outfits! A sudden rainstorm thunders into existence just above the main characters’ location and everyone happens to be wearing white shirts!

Not to say that this exists solely for the male gaze; depending on the target audience, these instances will occur to males and females both. An important conversation just happens to take place while a toned male lead is working out! There is a bathhouse scene for little reason other than comedy and implicated nakedness! Characters wear second-skin spandex battle suits that may not be historically accurate!

Or, because writers do acknowledge that flashes of attractive people is not the only thing that humans get excited by, they could throw in some really cool mechas and fight scenes and explosions.

Gurren Lagann promo art

Or, if you’re Gurren Lagann, all of the above

Now, fan service can be a little bit of harmless fun, or it can greatly get in the way of proceedings and make viewers uncomfortable. For example, when Littlefinger decided to recount his life story and hint at his motivations in Game of Thrones, did he really need to do it while addressing two of his female brothel workers as they practiced pleasuring customers on each other? Apparently he did.

Because hey, there’s nothing to get the viewer’s attention like a couple of hot gay people, whether purely in aesthetic like that particular scene or in ship teasing, dropping and dancing around the hint that two characters of the same sex might get together. This can be harmless fun, again, and plenty of series seem to be jumping on the bandwagon (Western ones, in any case… in anime, lord knows it’s nothing new, ask anybody), but this purposeful titillating of the fans can lead into a whole other issue.

As this writer points out, the endless teasing of the possibility of a gay relationship is reducing an entire sexuality to something trivial, a writing device to toy with fans and induce entertainment. I’m not sure I’d ever heard the word “queerbaiting” before, but this is what the Intertubes are good for.

Because this, I realise, is what a lot of fan service is: baiting the audience, dangling yummy, juicy entertainment in front of them hoping the snag them on a hook. A lot of series try this in their beginning stages to try and get people interested—I’ll use the example of the manga series Chobits, whose opening few chapters are filled with nudity and sexual references while building up to a sweet and intriguing plot about humanity’s relationship with sentient Artificial Intelligence.

This pattern is repeated throughout many other series, and melts over into promotional art and trailers and everything in between. It’s basically an in-story version of shouting “Sex!!!! Ah, now that I have your attention…”

Now, it’s a little bit insulting that some creators/marketing people assume that to broaden or create an audience for their work they have to appeal to the primal instincts. It’s also a little bit insulting that it works—I remember being asked if I too was going to go see Magic Mike, a movie about muscular, beautiful celebrities playing male strippers. I asked what it was about, and the questioner replied that they didn’t actually know except that it was full of hot guys in various stages of nakedness. I said that wasn’t enough criteria to get me to go see a movie (though interestingly enough, Magic Mike is a recent example of a work luring an audience with eye candy and then delivering a dark and emotional and apparently quite decent plot. Anything is possible!).

The other issue I take with fan service is when it’s forced down the audience’s throat—chiefly, when it feels like pleasing the fans has gotten in the way of writing a good plot. Sherlock, for all I admire about it, disappointed me a bit with the first episode of the second season because it was stuffed full of giggling nods to the fanbase. Why is Sherlock only wearing a sheet for two scenes? Why is Irene Adler accusing John playfully of being gay for said sheet-wearing detective, after stroking his face with a riding crop? Why did the great Irene Adler, only person to ever really outwit Sherlock Holmes, fall from her adventurous grace and have to be saved by him in the end? Because that was what they thought the fans would want.

Konata from Lucky Star in front of a fan

Much like the service of a real fan—can be cool, or can only blow hot air around and make us all uncomfortable

Granted, by definition, everything that is written is written for its audience, I mean, that’s the way these things work, but there’s a difference between knowing your target viewership and directly pandering to them with teasing jokes and silly scenes and moments of questionably-relevant awesomeness. A lot of A Scandal in Belgravia felt forced to me, like far too much effort had gone into stuffing as much fan-pleasing material into the episode, leading it to feel over-full and over-compensating for its weaker plot.

The exact same thing can happen, and does happen, with countless other shows and all the kinds of fan service. Can anyone work out the plot of Project K, or are they just watching it to see the cool super-powered street fights and the sexual tension between various pretty boys? Is the second season of Black Butler capable of redeeming itself in anyone’s minds after so many nonsensical, canon-altering and shamelessly wacky escapades concocted in an attempt to feed the fans left hungry at the end of a neatly wrapped up series?

It becomes an issue of balancing style with substance—if the creators, at whatever point, throw away the question of “What would be good for these characters and this story?” and direct their energy instead towards “What will the fans want to see?” , it shows and the work in question suffers. And that does not please anyone.


Filed under Things We Need to Stop Doing

21 responses to “The Disservice of Fan Service

  1. Fan service is one huge turn off for me, and it’s proving to be an annoyance lately because many new anime shows end up being stuffed to the brink with fan service. I like to enjoy a good story without being subjected to a panty shot or gigantic boobs every few seconds, but I guess creator just want to sell their products… and sex, more often than not, sells.

    Bonus points to you for including a Lucky Star image! =D

    • I can’t decide if it’s more prominent in anime or it’s just more obvious, because viewer disbelief is suspended more and the creative options are expanded due to the animated medium, so you can have characters drawn with ridiculous proportions and boobery and it’s accepted.
      I just had to include it, I’m a sucker for puns :L

  2. “A Scandal in Belgravia” was my least favorite of the Sherlock episodes so far, and it constantly annoys me that the “fan service” is throwing in innuendos about John and Sherlock being gay, thus appeasing a massive fanbase who supports the “Johnlock” ship. It does, like you said, make the whole thing trivial and slightly insulting. What, can two guys not room together or be best friends without someone believing their relationship to be more than what it is?
    Also, the fact that the media throws in sex as a bait for viewers in just about everything now is simply disgusting to me. Are we, the viewers so driven by primal instincts and needs that we can’t enjoy a show or movie without some pointless reference to sex? It’s insulting.
    Of course, that isn’t to say they should completely do away with the fan service, which done here and there can make for an amusing small part of the show, but it should be used in moderation and balanced, as you said, with good, quality writing based on what would be good for the characters, not the fans.
    Great post!

    • I have to agree with you. Most of the time the writing in Sherlock is so sharp, and that episode felt so fluffy and unsolid in comparison, like Moff kind of sat down and went “Okay, what’s going to be AWESOME?” and let the actual integrity of the thing come second. (Come to think of it, I’m more and more convinced that’s Steven Moffat’s creative process a lot of the time =.= )

      • I agree about Moffat. The last Christmas Special especially felt like he was pandering to the fans what with the Sherlock references right down to the music. It had Made For Tumblr written all over it.

      • He does have a lot of contact with his fans, through twitter and things especially, so I think that contributes. He just really wants to be that cool guy sending his buddies fun fanfiction… except his fun fanficton comes in the form of high-budget professional TV shows 😛

      • Exactly! And fluffy just doesn’t fit with Sherlock. Yes, I’m inclined to think Steven Moffat does that a lot too.

      • In fact, I’m pretty sure there’s a direct quote from him (abot writing Doctor Who) where he flat out says “Write it like a movie poster, that’s our motto, big and exciting and eye-catching!” I’m paraphrasing, but that kind of sums it up rather well. I don’t even watch New Who these days, but I have to agree. My suspicions are confirmed by all the critique on this site: which is really very good and enlightening.

      • Thanks for the link! I still watch the New Who (I just can’t bring myself to give up on the Doctor) and if “big and exciting and eye-catching” is what Moffat is going for, he’s achieving it.

  3. Pancakes and Silverware

    I have nothing against fan service when it’s used non-obtrusively and in moderation, but i also get really frustrated when a show is so heavily dosed up on it that it starts reducing the overall quality (like in Divergence Eve, an anime that has a serious plot about alien eldritch abomination attacking humanity, that I can’t take seriously for the life of me because every female character except for the twelve year old has boobs bigger than her own head).
    My other issue with sexualised fan service is how much it alienates the asexual part of the audience, simply because it’s in everything. Because when all the shows you like have topples women in them and all your favourite books have four page descriptions of the male leads abbs you can’t help but wonder if not being interested in what everyone else seems to be enjoying so much means that there is something wrong with you. Which isn’t to say that I think that all fan service should be removed forever, I just which that popular media wasn’t quite so saturated with it.
    Also your image captions continue to be the greatest things to ever bless my eyes (10/10 would recommend).

    • I think everyone’s obsession with romance and sexiness is going to be its own post at some point, because it’s an issue unto itself. I hadn’t thought about the asexual perspective, though you certainly have to consider the effects these things have on the groups who are excluded or fetishised.
      Which is why I find I can give fanservice more leeway if it’s equal opportunity, i.e. gives the male and female characters their own balance of fan-pleasing screentime. Because then I feel less like one gender is being targetted and more that the show is just fondly ridiculus 😛
      IN RELATED NEWS there is totally a legit gay love story on mainstream Australian TV, or at least a show that heavily features it as a plot thread. I think how good you think it is depends on how much you like Josh Thomas, but it’s THERE, and it surprises and makes me happy.

  4. Nick

    It seems like every anime I’ve watched, regardless of the plot, had at least one bath/beach/pool scene where boobs were unleashed on an unsuspecting world for no reason whatsoever other than to sell dvds. When it’s done tongue-in-cheek and openly acknowledges that it’s to sell, like with Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, it can be amusing, but a show that plays it straight is just insulting the viewer.

    • Yeah, it gets a bit silly. I mean, I enjoy beach episodes as much as the next person, but when they’re there blatantly just for boobisms then it can feel a bit unwelcome. I can think of a few that don’t have any, if you’d like me to recommend them 😛

      • Nick

        Sure, go ahead. Just your favorites would be helpful. Thanks.

      • Well, Madoka Magica has (shockingly!) a main cast comprised entirely of cute teenaged girls and it doesn’t objectify them (one of them even has a fanservice-proof skirt with crepper-blocking ruffles), Fate/Zero is also amazing and doesn’t fling any fanservice silliness in your face. Baccano! is also excellent and the only visual fanservice is the really nice 1930s era suits. Cowboy Bebop, Suisei no Gargantia and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex are also really good, but they contain ridiculous female outfits alongside the great plot. It’s a start, anyway!

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