[AniFemTalk] Positively depicting sex and sexuality

Sex isn’t a four letter word, and all forms of sexuality (including asexuality and romantic interest) are part of the human experience. It’s only natural that those things will be part of our media. The conversation about when and how to talk about sex, or to have sexy characters (especially female characters) in an ethical and non-exploitative way, gets way more complicated.

  • Where do you define the line between sexiness and exploitation? Does it have to do with art, camera, or writing?
  • Do you have different requirements for depictions of intimacy between characters versus character designs for the audience? If so, what?
  • Can fanservice be ethical? If so, how?
  • Is it possible to strike a balance between the male gaze and a complete lack of sexual content?

 

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  • Snap Wilson

    Eager to here others thoughts on this. I’m not the target for fanservice, and I find it distracting more than anything. There’s nothing wrong with a character with a good figure in the way that you would encounter attractive people in real life, but when it’s thrown in your face (gazey camera, creepshots, dialogue that focuses on the character as an object of desire rather than a person) it’s the creator essentially telling the audience “the character is a pile of attractive attributes to me.” And if that’s all they are to the creator, why should the audience care about them?

    As far as intimacy between characters, as long as it’s realistically portrayed and is overtly consensual (unless the non-consensuality is a key plot of the story and even then, that’s pushing it for me) then I’m okay with it. I left SCUM’S WISH thinking these kids all just needed to jack/jill off and spend more time growing up, but the intimate scenes did feel real and I didn’t have a problem with them.

    Again, eager to read other thoughts on the subject.

    • I feel the same way.
      I don’t mind attractive characters, but hate that they will often throw their rump or breasts right onto your face (the camera). If anything, it feels like sexual assault to myself, like unsolicited dick pics, if the anime was not labeled as hentai or ecchi (and it seems because of how mainstream that kind of fanservice has become, they don’t bother to label it ecchi anymore unless it’s borderline hentai with sex scenes).

      I actually didn’t mind the sexual scenes in the anime “Shin Sekai Yori”, despite that it was leaning more to the females’ intimate scenes/relationship… I think it’s because it avoided the fanservice camera angles, and it somehow seemed realistic? Like, they were natural-looking characters for anime, and their movements were not exaggerated to be “perfect” so they felt natural even when groping and kissing (kind of like how Ghibli anime will have realistic movements and pauses).

      The manga version is a whole different story, though. I highly advise to stay away from the manga version of Shin Sekai Yori, unless you are ok with lolicon hentai.

  • anony

    Oh man I have SO many thoughts on this. Gonna write a mini-essay here.
    1. Fanservice and objectification is VERY different from portraying sex / sexuality. The former focuses on viewer’s sexual urges, and the latter on the characters’. So you can have fanservice that’s completely for the viewer – hot springs and shower scenes, panty/butt shots, sexy designs that no-one ever remarks on. And you can also have portrayals of sexuality without fanservice – characters blushing or nose-bleeding, and tasteful sex scenes like in Nana.

    For me, tenderness and subtlety are the most important qualities for portraying sex tastefully. Shoujo / josei titles (+ probably yuri too, I don’t read as many) are usually good at this. I liked the tenderness in the interactions in Scum’s Wish, and Yuri on Ice had some objectification but also great sexual tension. Akio from Utena is a character all about sex who isn’t objectified that often. There’s so much more to sexuality than just ogling body parts.

    I don’t think the problem with fanservice is its sexual content, but its intrusiveness + whether it serves the story – or whether it offers anything to the people outside of its target audience – plus how it connects with other problems like fetishizing teenage girls, consent dynamics, etc etc

    • anony

      2. Sometimes I definitely feel conflicted about representations. I’m a straight woman and I noticed that certain characters I have problems with have been sort of ‘reclaimed’ by queer women & are beloved among them (Camilla from Fire Emblem – other examples might be Overwatch charas, though they don’t bother me as much). I’m happy when this happens. At the same time, I still think these chars are male-gazey and wish that designs like that would stop. It depends quite a bit on the context of the work (eg Fire Emblem having like one possible gay pairing and 100 straight pairings).

      Some other ones I feel conflicted about are Yuri Kuma Arashi, Mawaru Penguindrum’s Princess of the Crystal (ahh, Ikuni), and Kakegurui. Kakegurui sometimes presented lust in a not-very-attractive, almost grotesque way, which I think is kinda neat, but at other times it was typically pander-y and it had a totally useless male insert. YKA is super gay and skewers the male gaze in its plot, but has very distasteful scenes. (The Handmaiden is a similar example & attracted similar criticism – both have male directors – though I personally didn’t have problems with The Handmaiden’s sex scenes.) I really like the Princess of the Crystal’s style and grace, but she has the body of a very young girl. All these examples (+most examples from anime) involve teens which makes things more skeevy.

    • anony

      3. The marketing and fanbase activity plays a big role in how fanservice can be really gross. Sometimes shows are nice in themselves but have gross promo pics and merchandise. Websites like sankaku complex show the extremes that objectification goes to in anime fandom. Being aware of all this makes one more sensitive to these things in a ‘dogwhistle’ kind of way. For example (though I don’t remember it that well), the scene of 8-yo Shinobu and Araragi bathing in Nisemonogatari could be interpreted in a more charitable way if the rest of the show wasn’t how it was and if the fandom wasn’t how it was.

      Another example which still gets to me is the first promo pic of Euphonium, which puts a lot of visual focus on Kumiko’s legs and kind of seems like a pin-up pose. I don’t really have a problem with this picture, but knowing what I do about anime fandom causes it to skeeve me out.
      https://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/M/MV5BNGRlMTg3MjItOGRjNC00M2RiLWFkZmItNDlkOWJkMDZkM2UxXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjI5MjU5OTI@._V1_.jpg

      But, spending more time around the side of anime fandom with more girls and queer people goes some way to undoing this poisoning effect of the male gaze! In general, I definitely trust creators who aren’t straight men a lot more with these issues.
      I guess that’s all I have to say for now! 🙂 /thread

  • GreyLurker

    I’ve always compaired Fanservice to Icing on a Cake.
    A little bit of decoration is fine.
    Too much is a horrible goopy mess that hurts your teeth

    and I am firmly in favor of all forms of fanservice in moderation be it aimed at guys, girls or just general geekness (like the Gundam Porn in Hanagai).
    but you can’t build a good show out of fanservice and lord knows they’ve tried (case in point = Rosario + Vampire)

    Fanservice is decoration, nothing more, but ALL fans should be serviced equally.

    Men, women and gundams

  • Black Emolga

    I feel like the male gaze v.s complete lack of sexual content is a false dichotomy. The anime industry and mainstream media in general tends to center the sexual perspective of straight cis gendered men to the point that sexuality tends to be falsely conflated with straight male sexuality. But there is tons of niche and independent media that tries to show sexuality from the perspective of women and queer men.

    One of the things I find interesting about erotic Josei manga is that it isn’t just a gender flip of porn for straight men. Sex in media made for straight men tends to portray women as an object and men as a subject. The man is usually treated as a self insert for the presumed male viewer and is completely desexualized while the women is hyper sexualized in order to appeal to the presumed male viewer. Women’s feelings and desires (both the audience and the characters) are treated as largely irrelevant.

    Josei does not simply reverse this script but avoids the script altogether. Both the man and women (or both women, Lesbian Josei gets even less attention in the west) are portrayed simultaneously as subjects and objects. The story forces you to relate to the woman as a person and not just as a sexual instrument to be used by the man. At the same time it doesn’t assume that straight woman are disgusted by other women’s bodies in the same way that straight male porn assumes straight men are disgusted by other men’s bodies. Nor are male bodies treated as inherently non-sexual which most does by default. This doesn’t mean that Josei doesn’t have it’s flaws there’s plenty of badly written Josie out there. But I think it does provide a way to think about sex outside the limited stereotypical straight male perspective.

    • The BLK Manga Critic

      I really learned a lot from this wonderfully nuanced post, and I pretty much agree with most of what you’ve written here! I admittedly haven’t read much shojo, and haven’t read any josei. I’ve read way too many shonen/seinen titles, and I’d like to change that. With that being said, are there any shojo and josei titles that you think to a particularly great job navigating the problematics you’ve mentioned in your post? Again, thank you for this post!

    • Lauren Vaughn

      This is an awesome take. It’s important to me that both partners are shown as being sexy to each other. To often, I see zero or very few scenes that frame men as objects of desire, then lots of tits and buts shoved at the camera.

    • Hei Stories

      Many thanks for this. Developing an independent anime and would love some intimate Josei references, as recommended by your best judgement. As a nonbinary person (with unresolved dysphoria) I feel I both have a better and yet simultaneously not better, but rather, more detached/ isolated experience/understanding of egalitarian intimacy. Good books/ shows would be appreciated. If you do, you can reply here or on our studio email; hei@heistories.com. Thanks again, Iosef – (we’re Hei Stories/ Hei Studios, small but you can find us around)

  • I think Panty Stocking did one of the best examples of having a sexual character who’s sex crazyness was really never objectfiaction. Panty is a sex addict and clearly doesn’t mind that she is but the sex is always on her terms, she has agency and we don’t have long sexual shoots of her. It makes her a really fun and compelling character and stand out from the crowd of “that’s just how this character is” by not being there to wank to.

  • I pretty much agree with you. Even if it’s in something I love I knock it down a peg for the fan service like Kill La Kill.

    • Jamie Jeans

      A friend tried getting me into Kill La Kill, but good lord, I just couldn’t. Maybe because I’m older, I find it really fucking creepy that young girls are given such extreme panty and butt shots, and I find my tolerance for that kind of thing to be growing less and less.

  • Jamie Jeans

    For me, having been a fan of anime and the Big Two superhero comics for so long, I find that art can be such a big tell in how it defines a character, and that art can even undermine the writing of a character, no matter how good that writing is.

    Because more often than not, it feels like the art style of a story is pushed at dudes like me (straight, white, male, cisgender) as something I should be happy to jack off over. And that’s really disgusting to me.

    I find that if a story is told with kindness and compassion, that people can make mistakes and sometimes be shallow as to who they have sex with, it comes off better, more human and thoughtful, than people who make up caricatures.

    I think there can be a balance between the male gaze and a complete lack of sexual context, but it has to be properly constructed, and a lot of media have yet to strike that balance, not when people get freaked out over women publically breastfeeding.

  • Rose Thorne

    It depends on the series and how it’s handled by the creator; I like to look at it as a case of concept vs. execution. I break forms of sexuality and fanservice as WHO it’s for; WHAT role does it play; WHEN and WHERE it’s shown; HOW does it contribute to the overall story, and WHY it’s there. In fact, this brings me back to your excellent article “How Fanservice Can Attract or Repel an Audience”, which shows good and bad shows as examples of sexualization depicted for a given audience. The key word is MODERATION, and even that can be tricky whether used as a “cherry on top”, the whole shebang, or nothing at all.

    Now I don’t mind fanservice in general (as in I don’t love it, but I don’t hate it, either), and the worst I can react is with an eyeroll; the best, laughter (especially in the case of ridiculous jiggle physics and whatnot). However, I do draw the line if it abandons the other elements of the show and is constantly shoved in your face (Creepshots! Nonconsensual groping! Pantyshots during a “serious” scene!). There’s nothing wrong with liking a character in the way people are attracted to others in real life. But there’s a problem when “looks” completely overlap “character”, and that’s where things get messy, especially with how “waifu culture” is shaped around it. Objectification is wrong no matter what age, gender, body type, sexual orientation, or other category a person fits in, regardless of fiction and/or reality. And no, you can’t just build a show entirely on fanservice and expect otaku to lap it up- selling pure sex is extremely hit or miss in markets and demographics inside or outside of anime and manga (video games, comics, TV shows, etc.).

    Can fanservice be ethical? Technically, maybe- if it’s done right. Kill la Kill, Keijo!!!!!!!, and Panty and Stocking are good examples because they’re shows that are DEFINITELY well aware of the male gaze and not afraid to use it as a “weapon”, yet they show agency, character development, and don’t take themselves seriously all the while combining action, skimpy outfits, funny moments, and plot twists into one orchestra. But don’t expect me to keep watching an isekai if someone gets stabbed and dies, and the camera leers towards one of the female characters’ watermelon-sized breasts during the majority of the scene; much less if the first episode “introduces” her by cutting her head off and focusing on said breasts 85 percent of the run time.

    The long and short of it is that there’s a very fine line between sex positivity and blatant objectification, and both are wild cards on their own with how they are played out, specifically if it’s exclusive to a (presumably) straight male audience, marginalized audiences, or something everybody or nobody can enjoy in their own way.

  • Blusocket

    My gut instinct is to distinguish between “fanservice” and sexual objectification–particularly in properties aimed at women. I fairly frequently cite Free! as one of my favorite anime, and that’s a show that’s 99% built on fanservice. It’s not just the lingering pans over the boys’ butts or abs, though; it’s the emphasis on the relationships that grow between the cast. Even the interiority of the characters is built to be appealing to girls! But it’s also playful and self-aware, and the characters do have interiority: they face conflicts with stakes that feel meaningful and undergo character development over the course of the series. It’s pretty hardcore pandering at a lot of different levels, but it also resists objectifying its cast. And not to be too one-note, but although Yuri!!! on Ice deals with sexuality overall very differently, making it a key thematic concern rather than pure fanservice, I think it shares some of that playfulness that I find so endearing in Free! (and other works dealing in a kind of ‘female gaze.’) Sayo Yamamoto deals with themes of sexuality very skillfully in general imo!

  • I think some good examples of female characters that I feel are sex-positive are Motoko from GITS and Faye Valentine from Cowboy Bebop.
    They are sexy, but they are even more-so developed human characters with depth and history. Their sexiness doesn’t feel overdone (plus they are not childish). You don’t have cameras zooming into their breasts/cleavage jiggling, or the cameras angled to be looking up their crotch, which just about any Fanservice anime nowadays will have.
    They aren’t constantly posing in the overly cute/sexy poses that a lot of the current “moe” and ecchi anime does to their female characters, which is where I feel like it becomes very exploitative as it’s really dehumanizing/infantilizing those women (and in turn, us as women).

    I cannot stand how there will be anime that has female fighters, but she always has these extremely cute/sexy poses and movements, like the “ultra-girly princess run” and knees stuck together thing, along with high-pitched girly screams (like hentai, of course) rather than powerful battle/sports screams.
    It’s one thing when they do the girly poses for Magical Girl anime where she doesn’t really need to rely on physicality, but when they do it for anime where there’s physical combat fights like swords or guns, for example… ugh.

    Even the young girls in older non-fanservicey slice-of-life anime (like Azumanga Daioh) playing sports seems a lot more macho and masculine compared to the moe girl anime.

    It’s the thing that annoys me the most about female characters in games like PSO2 and Tera, as well. Games which force female characters to run girly/sexily, ride the horse sideways (in bikini armor), wiggle the hips like they’re using a hula hoop in combat-stance, and somehow expect you to believe they’re a hardcore fighter.
    Meanwhile, male characters ALWAYS get completely natural animations that you’d see a real fighter using, like in the military or martial arts stances that don’t care about “am I sexy/cute enough?”.
    It’s the main reason I always play male characters in games, especially ones from E Asia.

    • Black Emolga

      “This is why Yaoi (including solo males) is so popular.”

      Popular by what standards. The most popular shojo manga magazines has 9 times the sales as the most popular yaoi magazines. If you just limit it to erotica for adult women the most popular Josei magazines
      still out sales the most popular yaoi by about 5 times.

      “It’s one of the only forms of erotic anime/manga that truly exists for female’s gaze and pleasure without the risk of ladyboner-death and mental scars from what I described above. You can see every erotic expression, emotion, and angle of the male that you cannot find in any heterosexual erotica.
      Just about every site will label warnings on Yaoi, if it has non-con or violence for example, and even if you do run into something uncomfortable, it isn’t as mentally traumatizing as if it happens to a female character that you relate too closely to or triggers bad memories when you were a little girl.”

      I completely disagree with this. While there are some Shojo and Josei manga out there that have abusive relationships and can be deeply disturbing. Abuse isn’t any less prevalent in Yaoi. In fact some times it seems even more prevalent. I can much easier find Josei with healthy equitable relationships than Yaoi with the same thing. And no, abusive Yaoi is not always labeled as such.

      Many of the same people that write Yaoi also write Shojo or Josei, and vice versa. The abusive “Shojo” manga you just described was written by a Yaoi artist for example. Shojo, Josei and Yaoi are all created primarily by women. And there is a massive overlap between creators in these genres. So I find it questionable to claim that Yaoi is somehow more for the female gaze than Josei or Shojo.

  • This. If you ask me, when it comes to fanservice for heterosexual “couples”, I personally like when it’s basically just subtle hints to their potential romance (key word, potential), not sexualized at all, which keeps you really interested in how they are distant yet close… The relationship doesn’t feel forced and isn’t a device for sexual arousal. It’s not required in the story, but it really adds to it. It really makes you want to learn about them more and keep watching, or lets you imagine what you want.

    It’s hard to describe, but if you watched Psycho-Pass, I would describe the relationship between the main heroine Akane and her work partner Kougami as this.

  • Moni

    Personally I look at the art and storytelling (I know nothing about camera work or angles). Is the art of the character’s design unique from other characters of the same gender (are they deliberately designed to titilate presumed straight male audiences)? Story wise I look at how and why characters are in a sexual situation: i.e. was it an accident (and otherwise they’re “pure”), do they have Excercise agency of themselves and their desires, is the sexual tension reciprocated between all parties involved etc.

  • Frank Umbriel

    I loved the dualistic nature of nudity in Kill la Kill. At the same time as it was considered shameful by Ryoku to reveal herself and the Fanservice obviously was of a pandering nature, it slowly grew into a metaphor for emancipation with nudity meaning that you escape the boundaries and limitations of society, grow past these concepts and reevaluate a philosophy and ideology that brings everyone together in the end.. Naked as they are, men or women.
    In Kill La Kill clothing hides yourself or makes you conform to a certain societal demand, be it uniforms at school, fashion in capitalism or the kamui which reveals too much skin in order to gain power in a self aware nod to anime tropes of overly sexualized women. Nudity in Kill La Kill is intentionally linked at the same tome to female empowerment and exploitation. Kill La Kill loves to show us contradicting interpretations of the same concept and deals heavily with conflicts of ideology arising due to those dualistic concepts.

    I would go deeper into it but I fear I won’t do it justice. I’ll link an article below which talks about some of these points.

    https://eyeforaneyepiece.wordpress.com/2014/04/06/kill-la-kill-a-love-story/

  • Dawnstorm

    I don’t think we need to go either/or here. Very often, female characters in shounen and the way they’re used send contradictory signals, and how they’re parsed depends on the receiver. It’s fairly obvious that Midnight is a service-character, and the scenes where they lampshade this amount to little more than lame jokes (that leave you with the feeling of a missed opportunity). But she also actually appears to be a competent teacher, being capable of both firmness and encouragement (as seen, for example, in the naming-episode).

    It’s very, very, very common for me to like female characters in shounen more than their implementation in these shows. Midnight isn’t actually the worst example, for me; she’s at least thematically consistent and competent (even if the scenes that topicalise her sexuality are groan-worthy). For me, personally, the most frustrating character is Yaoyorozu, whose hero outfit I find hard to reconcile with her personality, and who, beyond her mayfly moment of glory, is mostly used for silly jokes around her insecurity. I like her, but the show is awful to her.

    • Petrosilia Zwackelfrau

      Hmm. I don’t usually think in either/or, but in this case I was wondering whether Midnight could really be a fan service character and a (sorta feminist) body positivity character at the same time. I think that’s a case of either/or.

      The other aspects of her character are in my opinion drowned out be the fan service aspect. The naming-episode is the only time I can think of where she does anything not fan service related. When you think about screentime, it’s gotta be something like 10:1 for fan service, isn’t it?

      I’m just so pissed off about authors finding excuses for their fan service. And Yaoyorozu – I agree about her costume and she’s another case of stupid fan service justification right there. I agree that it’s not like her at all. But we can only tell because she’s actually got way more meat to herself as character apart from the fan service than Midnight does.

  • Teka the Budgie

    I like the work of Ai Yazawa (the two anime I’ve seen are Paradise Kiss and NANA) because the plots actually deal with sexual relationships, instead of the usual mucking around where everything is sexualized but all the characters are way too immature to have actual sex. Both Paradise Kiss and NANA even mention protection and birth control, which you almost never see acknowledged. The shows mostly focus on the emotional issues and visuals are very tame (Not that every show should be that way; it’s just the style for these two).

  • Belaam

    Regarding fanservice vs. sexuality
    Is there a reason in the plot for this to be happening? Is one character trying to look sexy for another? Awesome! Go for it. Heck, go full nudity. Have a sex scene. Whatever. To a lesser extent, does it inform one of the characters? Is the fanservice shot followed by a shot of another character, who just saw the first character in a sexual way, reacting to that revelation? My wife and I went on one date in high school, decided there was no real spark and remained friends for the next eight years before our second date. An anime version of each of us realizing that an attraction had developed via a fanservice-y shot would be fine. Or a winky fanservice shot of us today before sending the kids to bed early would be fine. In other words, less fanservice and more sex would be a good switch.

    Perhaps unusually, this view was largely influenced by my mother who often billed the sex scene in Terminator as one of the best because them having sex is necessary to the plot of the story and it’s a positive that they are both having a good time. 14 year old me was extremely uncomfortable by that conversation, but in retrospect, it’s been a good guide.

    So if the writing has a good reason for it, I’m okay with the art and camera enjoying everyone’s bodies. Oh… assuming consent. Never, ever, ever, do sexily framed non-consensual acts.

    Character designs… meh, as long as they are consistent. Absurd, gravity defying clothes are fine, so long as everyone wears them. It’s the fully armored male knights with the bikini clad female knights that is stupid.

    Fanservice in the process of mutual sexual attraction and acting on it can be ethical. Detailed panty shots of teens? Not so much. And far too prevalent.

  • 0utf0xZer0

    I feel like this would be way easier to answer if it not for the fact I’m one of those people who picks most of what I watch on the basis of “this looks cute” and therefore most of my favourite characters and pairings are teenagers.:p

  • GreyLurker

    One thing I wish they would remember is that not all fanservice has to be sexual. It used to be that inserting neat little things for fans to catch was considered Fanservice. Like being able to Identify all the figurines on one character’s shelf, or spotting a couple of characters from another show in a crowd scene.
    There is a scene in Kill la Kill with the cast of Pulp Fiction in the back ground. To me that’s REAL fanservice and it’s much more clever than the 1 millionth panty shot

  • Yah I love so much about PSG I’m really shocked how good it turned out.