[Discourse] Fanservice and the Female Viewer: Abs for Empowerment

I thought I knew what I was getting into when I saw the cover art for Free!, given that it features an assortment of scantily clad young men standing very close to one another, abs on display like muffins in a bakery. I soon discovered that was only the start of the fanservice, as I found myself on a wild emotional ride that convinced me that when it comes to creating fanservice for girls, it’s not simply a matter of reversing panty flashes into brief glimpses of, well, briefs. Watching Free! with my husband, sister, and niece showed me that this show’s effort to appeal to the ladies led to an audience performance far deeper than the shallow side of the swimming pool.

It all started when my 14-year-old niece Marie recommended Free! to me. Now, she’s a pretty cool chick—she wears Harry Potter T-shirts and knows what a Dalek is—so I usually take her advice when it comes to nerd culture and anime. After I’d watched an episode or two, I sent her an amused text message that said “IT’S JUST BOYS TAKING THEIR CLOTHES OFF.”

Not so, she replied:

IT GETS BETTER

IT GETS EMOTIONAL

AND TWO CHARACTERS ARE TOTALLY IN LOVE

It’s clear Marie felt very strongly about the emotional overtones of the show, whereas I was too distracted by the fanservice to notice. This exchange got me thinking about the intended audience of Free! and the experience they have watching the show.

Most of the anime I had watched at that point had definitely been created with a straight male audience in mind, and I’d learned to enjoy the fanservice I liked and take the stuff I didn’t like in stride. But Free! is different; it appears to be made for young female viewers.

A shirtless teen boy wearing a white jacket and swim goggles around his neck poses for the camera

In case you haven’t seen the show, the premise of Free! is pretty simple: A close-knit group of boys competed together in swim meets as children, going so far as to win the medley relay. Then one of the most talented members moves to Australia to swim competitively and the old team falls apart. Fast forward to high school, and the band is (mostly) back together again. Throw in two token female characters (a goofy teacher and a breathless teenage girl) to support the team, and you have all the makings of an anime in which, according to my husband at least, nothing really happens.

You can’t blame my husband, who may be less attuned to the subtle, inward character development of a teen anime boy than I appear to be. From my perspective, a lot happens in Free!—but most of it is on an emotional level.

Haru muses endlessly about the power swimming has over him, his resistance to the idea of swimming any stroke other than freestyle, and his constant desire to be, well, free. He’s torn over his broken friendship with Rin, confused about how a friendly competition devolved into a bitter rivalry. The other boys each face their own inner demons, from fear of the ocean to an obsession with mathematics and physical symmetry, which actually gets in the way of good swimming.

Close-up of a grinning red-haired positioned suggestively above a surprised blue-haired boy
It’s the rivalry between these two that heats things up.

We witness Haru and Rin’s angst through the perspective of Rin’s teenage sister, Gou. She’s the ultimate stand-in for the audience, never developing a romantic attachment to any of the guys but definitely enjoying their rippled sinews every time they take off their clothes. The makers of Free! are marketing this anime in a very specific way to a very specific audience. The boys and their torsos are on display for a purpose here: To please the teenage female gaze.

It’s important to note here that not all women are deeply enthralled by the sight of a scantily clad male body. Plenty of audiences avoid fanservice of all types, and the term “female gaze” is even problematic in assuming that all women want to gaze at the same thing (we don’t). However, in my opinion, for straight female fans, male abdominal muscles are the fanservice equivalent to barely covered breasts. Still, as you can tell from my niece’s defense of the show, there’s more at play here than what the creators thought would visually titillate their viewers.

Four teen boys in swim caps and goggles face forward and look at each other. Subtitles: "Yeah, wish me luck"

Historically, fanservice in anime (and in other forms of entertainment) usually exists to serve the perceived desires of a certain audience: a straight male one. That’s why exposed, bouncing breasts are so common even in anime where exposed bouncing breasts really have no place. Think Lady Tsunade on Naruto. She is a freaking ninja. Why doesn’t her top support her breasts? That can’t be comfortable for her.

But Free! is different from many other shows out there. “What do girls want?” the show seems to ask. And the answer is two-fold: boys in bathing suits, and boys having feelings and spending lots of time talking about their feelings. That’s the takeaway from my short conversation with my niece. She enjoyed the Speedo-clad boys to some degree, but in her words the reason the show is good is that “IT GETS EMOTIONAL.” So emotional, apparently, as to warrant the all-caps.

Underwater shot of a boy in swim trunks seen at a distance swims through a pool. Subtitles: "What was it I really wanted?"
Feelings are the fan service equivalent of giant breasts, especially for younger female fans.

Is emotional fan service more admirable than physical fanservice? What does its prevalence in anime marketed to girls say about young women and the people tasked with creating content for them?

True, you can’t really argue that a scene in which boys breathlessly reveal their tragic swimming-related pasts to one another is the same as the scene in which they must huddle together for warmth in a storm, their washboard abs trembling in unison. Both scenes are pure fantasy, though. Both scenes are played up not to depict the complex relationships teenage boys have with themselves and each other, but to serve the unironic fantasies of the young, straight, female viewer.

Free! is mostly just scantily clad boys running around and diving into random bodies of water, and don’t get me wrong: The animation team embraces that part of the show, drawing midsections so cut they look like husked ears of corn. But there’s more to this fanservice than just idealized caricatures of human bodies. There’s an element of projecting complex emotions and personal strife onto characters unlikely to express those feelings.

The girls who enjoy shows like Free! don’t just enjoy seeing boys talk about their emotions for the heck of it. They can see themselves in these characters. They can connect to them and relate to them in a way that actually validates their own feelings and experiences.

Close-up of a blue-haired boy leaning over another boy, preparing to give him mouth to mouth

Free! plays out similarly to an otome game, a dating sim for women where no romantic choices are fixed enough to prevent the players from inserting themselves into the story and choosing their favorite from among the boys. The viewer is the invisible character in the show, just as the main character in an otome game is a placeholder for the player.

Fanservice marketed to men occasionally plays out this way as well, where the male protagonist is bland enough for a male viewer to ignore them so he can enjoy the beauties on parade (think the pedestrian everyman in Monster Musume). Often, though, fanservice is inserted into shows which otherwise feature compelling characters and storylines.

Sometimes it’s artfully done, as in the subtle sexiness of Asuna holding a sheet over her naked body in Sword Art Online (although it’s worth noting that in this scene it’s heavily implied they just had sex, and yet somehow the male protagonist Kirito is neither in the bed nor undressed). Sometimes it’s embarrassing, like Hestia and Loki fighting over boob size in Is it Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? And other times it’s outright disturbing, like the underage dragon-girl in Dragnar Academy (uh, the less said about this one, the better).

A boy in swim cap and goggles comes up from under water, waves splashing around him. Subtitles: "Good job!"
Makoto takes a breath after a race. The audience sighs.

I think anime audiences deserve more high-quality shows that better represent who they are and what they want to see. This is not a one-size-fits-all market. People who enjoy anime come from as diverse a background as any group, and I believe audiences will (and often do) respond well to shows that step outside of the old formulas.

The good news is that this doesn’t require an entirely new brand of show. Considering the female gaze (whether cishet or queer) along with the male gaze in any anime is likely to produce shows which will appeal to male and female viewers without alienating women or pandering to straight men (who may not all be interested in the same old song and dance when it comes to fan service either). Consider the delight that is Yuri!!! on ICE, where male bodies (and feelings) are celebrated alongside an otherwise compelling and emotional sports-driven narrative.

Women enjoy sports, dragons, swordplay, and video games… or at least I do. I know there are even women who don’t object to giant fighting robots, although I’m not one of them (show me a mecha anime and I’ll show you how fast I can nap). Some women also enjoy sexy male characters in bathing suits. Perhaps if studios considered that women and girls might enjoy just as wide a variety of elements—sexy or otherwise—as men and boys do, and considered that in developing shows, there would be more series with the fanservice of Free! but more narrative heft.

A girl in traditional Japanese clothes kneels, looking at something on the ground, with four boys in swim trunks shown from the chest-down behind her
Gou is the likable stand-in for the female viewer.

I may not believe that Free! is the cream of the crop when it comes to honest and complex storytelling, but I’m glad it exists. It’s certainly not the best example of feminism at work in anime, but it does do something to balance the market by including images intended to appeal to (straight) teen girls.

In Free!, those female audience members who enjoy the show are front and center, and it’s their fantasies and desires that are being delivered. Maybe it’s a stretch to say a bevy of beautiful boys all tearfully confessing their feelings to one another would serve as empowerment for young women and girls, but it’s worth noting that in most of popular culture, younger female fans are often maligned and made fun of for their desires and enthusiasm. In fact, the representation of girls in mainstream anime often veers towards sexualization. They are the objects of desire, often in a way that would be inappropriate (if not downright criminal) in the real world.

In the fantasy of Free!, the young girl is not vulnerable; she’s respected and taken seriously. The show serves up some gorgeous dudes in tiny shorts, but it also carves out a space for girls to be free to enjoy their fantasies without being demeaned.

 

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Annie Hackney is a feminist, mother, teacher, ice skating enthusiast, and anime fan. You can follow her on Instagram @anniehackney and Twitter @anniehackney86.

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  • Katelyn Sweigart

    This is a great article and really touched on what I couldn’t put into words why I liked Free. The fanservice doesn’t do much for me, but the emotional arcs are fulfilling.

    Also, I watch big robot anime. I also love building model kits of big robots. That said, I do not like animes that are just about getting the bigger, better machinery. I definitely don’t watch it for the robots. Gurren Lagan is more about the sheer force of charisma in some of the characters. Gundam is an intense political war, even when it is an AU like Gundam 00 or Iron Blooded Orphans. Both of which I highly recommend. I also recommend Macross Frontier, which is 40% musical, 30% battles, 30% love triangle.

  • Ryoken

    Great article. Loved every word of it, and kudos on the final focus on the show’s female character and how she serves as a stand in for the target audience of the show.

  • Ryoken

    I’d say that Revy and most of the female characters from Black Lagoon are a bit sexualized…but not in universe, were anyone leering or making a pass at them gets a bullet in response.
    Jokes aside, I liked your post; sexualization is not about a character’s design, but about said characters levels of empowerment over their sexuality.

  • Black Emolga

    “Is emotional fan service more admirable than physical fan service? What does its prevalence in anime marketed to girls say about young women and the people tasked with creating content for them?”

    One of the main differences I’ve noticed between erotic manga for women and erotic manga for men is there is generally a higher focus on romance in the women focused manga. This holds true even when content is focused on extreme kinks the characters will still fall in love and marry by the end.

  • iblessall

    This was a really fun read, and it was especially awesome to get both your perspective and that of your niece. I’ve seen both seasons of Free! (I couldn’t tell from your article if you’d seen both, or only the first one – if you haven’t seen Eternal Summer, it leans even more heavily into the character drama but more adroitly than the first imo) and really enjoyed both of them.

    It’s interesting to me to compare Free! to similar anime with all-female casts (Scorching Ping Pong Girls from a couple of seasons ago comes to mind) because at least as I see it, the core appeal points are essentially the same with only the presentation changed. And in parallel with that, I know queer women who loved SPPG and queer men who loved Free! And I guess I think that’s kind cool? The things we all like aren’t so different, really.

    • Dawnstorm

      I relate to your SPPG comparison; I personally thought of Saki. Saki, incidentally, initially had a single male character who got turned down and tuned out in the second season and there was no male character in the spin off. I haven’t seen the second season of Free! (and not even half of the first season), but I can’t see them de-emphasise Gou in the same way, since I always saw her embarrassment moments as a playful and cheerful way to signal that it’s okay to enjoy looking at exposed male torsos. Male characters in all-girl shows are more expendable when it comes to that function, hence the CGDCT genre.

      I sometimes wonder how much of the emotional content of such shows is genuinely gendered (for example it might be possible that the sort of openness and closeness portrayed in Free! might appeal to female viewers, but be uncomfortable for male viewers, because of differing social expectations in real life – or it may not), and how much of it is merely a gendered expectation – a heory that creators and publishers work with. If these working theories are wrong about the emotional appeal (broader than expected), but right about sexual appeal (about as narrow as expected), then you have “fanservice markers” in a show that might lose an audience they didn’t expect to have. So, to what extent is the emotional fanservice in Free! actually gendered? I don’t know. (Partly because I dropped it around the first time they went swimming in the sea. I don’t much like post-Hyouka/pre-Euphonium KyoAni and around Free! I hit critical mass, so I dropped the show. I’m told the Tamako Market film is worth watching?)

      I do remember when the cute-boys-doing-cute-things show Kimi to Boku came out I (boy) could relate a lot to the characters, while I heared some male viewers questioning why they need a gender-swapped show when it’s basically the same thing all over again (meaning they weren’t really credible boys – too effeminate). I did wonder what that makes me. Next season people would uniformly praise Daily Life of Highschool Boys, which I found mostly obnoxious, though sometimes brilliant. For what it’s worth, my impression is that that show’s more popular with both genders than Kimi to Boku at least in the west and on the web, but I don’t have numbers just my subjective impression (and I don’t get around all that much, even less back then).

      • SatelliteAnthem

        I totally share your sentiment about Kimi to Boku – I’ve always found Shun relateable in a way that many male-targeted anime protagonists aren’t. His empathy, his desire to take care of others and see them flourish (exemplified in the kindergarten flashback where he gets hung up about all the flowers dying in the winter), even the mediator role he plays among his friends – male characters very seldom have all these traits. And Shun is never portrayed as “weak” or “pathetic”, as he would be in a shounen series. Instead, it’s his soft, easy-going nature that endears him to his friends and the viewer. He’s never forced to man up or become more hot-blooded or whatever.

        This is partly what fascinates me about these “cute boys doing cute things” shows, or shows ostensibly targeted towards straight young women. You often see the boys act emotionally vulnerable or nurturing, acting in otherwise “un-masculine” ways, and the narrative doesn’t punish them for that. Perhaps it plays into a “male fanservice” of having attractive yet emotional boys, but if so, it’s the complete opposite of de-humanising fanservice to me.

        I’d definitely recommend Royal Tutor Haine which aired earlier this year as another example of this trend. All the boys in that show are very warm and caring, yet each in his own distinctive way.

        • Dawnstorm

          Interestingly, Kimi to Boku is shounen (the manga was published in a shounen mag). So Shun is actually a male-targeted character. This is why i wonder to what extent we can call the emotional content in all-boy shows “fanservice”. For example, there’s a rooftop scene in episode one where they all talk about their kindergarten experience. During the entire conversation Yuta (the responsible twin) is brushing Shun’s hair. I can easily imagine people calling that “fujoshi bait” or something like that. But, well, it’s shounen.

          To some degree we have a chicken-egg question here: is it fanservice because we think it is? But to what degree?

  • Ashen

    Awesome article! (One of my favorites in a while and that’s saying something)

    I agree that Free! is hardly the champion of feminism and sublime storytelling but what it does right it does very right. I myself gave the show a shot once it started airing after I’d read about the controversy of its promo (i.e. the outcry of some angry straight male anime fans who were outraged that KyoAni–the studio known for “cute girls doing cute things” would DARE tackle the mind-blowing topic “cute BOYS doing cute things”).

    I came in expecting a fluffy fanservice show for girls and while it was undeniably, gleefully that, Free! was also a much more emotionally-driven (at times soapy) anime than I ever expected and it was ultimately that that made me fall in love with it, beyond the visual eye candy it had some measure of character depth and a compelling overarching plot with Rin. Over-dramatic as all hell but also very effective.

    I actually enjoyed the second season far more for its greater focus on plot and character dynamics.

  • Inksquid43

    I wonder if people on the site can point out good academic texts to read as a starting point to understand and form informed opinions on the discussion of fanservice. This would be especially useful for people like me with no background in literature or gender studies.

    • Ashen

      I would also be highly interested in such suggested reading.

  • rugose-appendage

    Annie said:

    Most of the anime I had watched at that point had definitely been created with a straight male audience in mind

    I don’t think she’s claiming fanservice featuring a female character will only be “for” straight men. Instead she’s pointing out most of the fanservice she’s seen have strong signs they were created for a straight male audience. There are many good ways to judge what sort of audience creators had in mind with fanservice, which are covered well in the great Fans vs Service category here on AniFem. Identifying how the intention of the creator comes out in a work doesn’t mean you hold unfounded beliefs about who is attracted to whom.

  • Black Emolga

    “Ecchi anime is not about “love” but mostly fanservice and sexual comedy which is only enjoyable when you are bored.”

    I didn’t say anything about ecchi anime I was specifically talking about erotic manga. The types of manga I am talking about aren’t typically made into anime because they contain graphic sex not just fanservice. And although there are exceptions to the rule. In general erotic manga marketed to men is labeled “Ero Manga” is marketed as porn is made by men and features little to no romance. While erotic manga marketed to women is labeled as “Ladies Comics” or “Teens Love”, is marketed as erotic romance is made by women and features a comparatively higher focus on romance and emotional connections even when the sexual content is similar to or even more extreme than the stuff in ero manga.

    “Also while they get names like Shounen and Shoujo its merely the main target audience and not always aimed at a selected audience. People tend to organize them depending on content but many Manga/Anime considered shoujo has many male viewers sometimes exceeding female fans and the same goes for Shonen.”

    This is only partially true. It’s very common for women and girls to watch seinen and shonen anime it is far less common for men to watch shoujo and josei.

    “Also marriage or choosing a single partner is not always a must. In reverse harem genre the girl can romance or have sex with more than one person. I have found some Eroge aimed at girls however most dont get translated to English. I saw a article in Lewdgamer about an Otome Eroge with two male heroes for the female protag being translated officially. I cant remeber the name though”

    I didn’t mean they literally always marry just that it’s a extremely common trope in the genre. Also romance and non-monogamy aren’t mutually exclusive many “Ladies Comics” feature reverse harems were the heroine has sex with all the men and either ends with her marrying the guy she likes the most being in polyamorous relationship with all of them.