Hello darkness, my old friend, it’s time to talk about fan service, again. This time it’s the business of “equal” fan service, i.e., if a series is full of tantalising shots of female bodies for the straight male gaze, does it become less gross if it also includes tantalising shots of the male body for the straight female gaze? It’s more of a can-of-worms question than you might think.
This post is, like many other posts and many things in my life, the Fate franchise’s fault. Its latest incarnation, team-based card-collecting battle-dome Fate/Grand Order, has gotten some flack (joining the ranks among the thousands of other anime and anime-esque series to do so) for having a lot of male gaze fan service in its character and card designs. A lovely comprehensive list of some of the worst offenders can be found here (warning: potentially NSFW content beyond the hyperlink, or at least, an awful lot of anime titty), in reply to someone commenting that it wasn’t all bad, really, because even if the game is full of girls/women in skimpy clothing, it also stars a bunch of shirtless buff dudes. So the “fan service” isn’t just for the male gaze and is more inclusive, so it’s not as big a deal.
Before we talk more about Grand Order and its graphic design elements, I want to veer off and mention Psycho Pass, which raised this exact same question in my mind when I was watching it way-back-when. The male protagonist, Kougami, is shirtless a lot, and boy does the female protagonist, Akane, notice. She walks in on him working out and is naturally awed by the display of trapezoid-torso and washboard abs before her, as the audience is presumably meant to be as well. Ko’s bare chest is a recurring character, so much so that it almost has equal screentime to the bared skin of other female characters. Does this make it, gasp, a show with equal fan service?
I wondered this, but then I examined the context of the sexy bared skin, and found that they were very different between the sexes. Ko, as aforementioned, works out shirtless, and also gets his kit off when he’s being bandaged up from battle wounds. These are both positions of power and strength—even if he got hurt, he still fought, and came away with marks of glory on his chiselled physique. It’s easily associated with his skill and power… the near-nudity of women characters, however, is nearly always associated with them getting murdered.
There are various examples of this, but the best is Akane’s friend (a rare case of a woman being fridged for another woman), who spends an entire episode stuck in only her underwear, manipulated and utterly terrified, before getting her throat slit by the villain. Minute for minute, maybe she and Ko spend the same time with substantial amounts of their clothes off, but her near-nudity is inescapably linked to her being powerless, objectified (both sexually and literally treated as an object, an asset, a plaything) and then dead as the result of horrible violence. Given the infinitely different contexts, no, I don’t think the instances supposedly for straight male gaze and straight female gaze can be considered equivalent at all (not to mention the fact that Ko is also a main character, but apart from being Akane’s friend, she was basically just Dead Underwear Girl, and the huge point that the male chest is considered infinitely less sexual than the female one).
Which is the case a lot of the time—often, what’s presented as “fan service” for the straight female gaze is also a male power fantasy. Take this notorious card of Kirei’s chiselled bod, often brought up as an example of how the fan service in Grand Order is at least attempting to pander equally to men and women. Now, anyone of any gender is perfectly entitled to find Kirei’s shirtless torso attractive, and it’s kind of good that it’s there, but only because something half-hearted is better than nothing. See, I wouldn’t consider that equivalent to any of the “magazine shoot” cards of the women, because it’s the male ideal from the male perspective (i.e. the body dudes wish they had) as well as, or even more prominently so, a male ideal from a female perspective (i.e. the body dudettes wish their boyfriend had. Or something). A lot of the card designs for the women could be considered female ideal/ultimate fantasy from the male point of view, but not from a female one. Men can look at that card of Kirei and kind of aspire to it, but I haven’t met a woman yet who looks at a card like Artemis’ and aspires to it.
Again, it’s all about context: Kirei looks powerful, his strength is emphasised, and from a design point of view he’s being faced straight-on and upright. Artemis, however, is lying down and viewed from above as though the viewer is climbing over her. She’s drawn in a deliberately vulnerable position with sexual connotations that highlights her crotch and breasts, and leading lines are implemented in the outfit design to draw the eye down her thighs and up over her barely-censored nipples. So unfortunately, until they redraw Kirei (or one of the other buff men, because they’re all buff, fitting into the theme of male clotheslessness = show of power, where instead female clotheslessness = show of vulnerability) lying on the floor looking sultry, I wouldn’t consider those cards equivalent at all (and this is the very logic has led to things like The Hawkeye Initiative).
Talking about this always leads into complicated territory, often in regards to the point that hey, not all skin-showing should be considered gross and smutty. Are you saying that women should remain covered up at all times? What if they want to show some cleavage or leg because it makes them feel good, you damned sexist? And you’d be absolutely right, hypothetical commenter! Women should be able to show off their bodies if it’s what makes them feel happy and confident, in fact I’m a big advocate for that. There’s also the important point that not all nudity is necessarily sexual; the nude body is in fact our natural state and doesn’t have to be associated with sex at all.
Again, context is everything. If you have an image of a naked woman, for example, sitting on a couch in a normal posture, just chilling, it wouldn’t necessarily be considered for anyone’s “gaze”. Bare skin on its own is not inherently sexual. However, if that same nude woman was stretched out on the couch, photographed from above and, say, licking her fingertips, that definitely does have sexual connotations because it’s been clearly framed and set out to be sexy. Indeed, the same would be true if she was fully-clothed in this case—it’s all about the position she’s been put in, the framing of the shot (to make it seem as though she’s underneath you, the viewer, giving that sultry look to you) and the intent behind it.
Because that’s the thing: these are fictional characters, and they’re always put wherever they end up. It’s all very well to say Character X wears bikini armour because she feels more free and confident that way, but Character X had that decided for her by her designer/writer. Fictional characters have no agency because they are not real, and every aspect of them is designed by a real person… mostly (not to generalise, but statistically, mostly) the straight males who head the industry, and generally seek to appeal to other straight males.
So what do we do to combat that and make fan service more “equal”? Did the BBC’s War and Peace take a step in the right direction by giving us a screen full of nude male soldier butts to balance out the shots of female breast in previous episodes? Should we be producing more shows like Free! which, if I had to pick one, I’d say was a show that legitimately catered to female fantasy in its character designs (both physique combined with personality, dynamics, and traits that are generally and genuinely appealing to the typical boy-liking girl)? Should we be hammering on the doors of HBO, Type Moon, Marvel and DC to demand they give us a sultry-looking, scantily-clad male hero in the boobs-and-butt pose for every woman they draw or place like that?
Or should we be asking ourselves the bigger, in my opinion more pressing question of why we need blatant sex appeal and objectification of made-up people to generate interest in a series? Do showrunners, character designers and artists genuinely believe that no one will want their product if they aren’t promised some bouncing cleavage or rippling abs? It’s getting a little ridiculous at this point. There’s a whole heavy bunch of societal assumptions at play that are making a whole lot of people very uncomfortable. I may be the wrong person to ask as Alex the Angry Ace, but frankly I think the best way to achieve “equality” here is to put everyone in functional armour and comfortable clothing. It can be done. It’s not likely to happen anytime soon though, of course, so until that day comes we’re going to be stuck in this strange sexy, sexist limbo.