The male gaze is a term from feminist film theory referring to how characters on screen are presented by the those behind the camera in order to put the audience in the position of heterosexual male viewers, whether they like it or not. It’s an established theory which has inspired a body of nuanced discussion on how this relates to spectators who aren’t white or heterosexual, for example, or filmmakers who aren’t heterosexual men.
This post focuses on the core premise of the male gaze theory: on screen, men are active; they watch. Women are passive; they are watched. The premiere of this year’s Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash has a scene which contains both blatant examples of the male gaze in action and a moment which challenges the male gaze more directly than you might expect.
Grimgar is a light novel adaptation which – surprise! – stars a regular guy who gets whisked from modern day Japan to a medieval fantasy world full of monsters, heroes and beautiful women. The regular guy in question is an inoffensive everyman called Haruhiro. He shows up with a large group of other young men and women who soon forget where they came from, occasionally coming out with words like ‘cellphone’ or ‘game’ and only realising afterwards that they have no idea what these words mean.
The strongest guy in their group of arrivals takes other strong-looking people and forms a party. Haruhiro is one of the ones left over, and they form their own party. Intelligent, self-assured Manato becomes a Priest and leads the group. Gentle giant Moguzo becomes a Warrior and the obnoxious Ranta becomes a Dark Knight. Cheerful, friendly Yume becomes a Hunter and shy, nervous Shihoru becomes a Mage. Both Yume and Shihoru are decently characterised over the course of the series… but they are also designed to be butt and boobs eye candy respectively. Grimgar is not remotely subtle about this.
Grimgar‘s premiere starts showing its fanservice-friendly side after 14 minutes of solid worldbuilding. The most uncomfortable scene comes near the end of the episode, when the group are resting together.
At this point, they are all complete amateurs at their respective skills, but Ranta chooses to call out Yume for almost hitting him and Haruhiro with an arrow the day before. Yume refuses to be fazed by this, so Ranta shifts gears to make it about her looks, calling her “flat-chested.” Yume seems surprised but otherwise doesn’t react, and Ranta drags Shihoru into the conversation for no reason whatsoever, saying “I only forgives people like Shihoru who try to disguise their large boobs.”
Shihoru is obviously mortified to have attention drawn to her chest and instantly pulls her knees up to hide as much of her body as possible. She tells Ranta that she is just fat, which he twists into her being “the type of girl that other girls don’t like” for calling herself fat when she’s obviously not.
She continues to insists that she is just fat, her voice getting quieter as she gets closer to tears.
When she starts to cry Ranta is shocked, tells her it’s nothing to cry over, to which she responds that she isn’t crying and he insists that she is, upsetting her further. Eventually Yume steps in to protect Shihoru, even going so far as to point her bow at Ranta.
Unfortunately, Yume’s protection also descends into sexualising the unwilling Shihoru. Yume pulls Shihoru closer, talking about how soft she is even though she looks so thin, and how good she smells.
Shihoru is obviously uncomfortable and asks her to stop, while Ranta starts getting a nosebleed and encourages them to keep going.
This is only broken up by Manato deciding it’s time to go, saying, “Sorry to break up the fun” – completely ignoring the fact that Shihoru is very obviously not having fun.
On that note… This entire time Moguzo and Manato have said nothing. Haruhiro only made a couple of snide side comments to Ranta which didn’t actually address his treatment of Shihoru. This rings true to me; frankly, I’ve always found other women to be more reliable back-up against an awful guy in a group than the other guys. There are plenty of decent men who sit on the sidelines of incidents like this either because they are oblivious to the woman’s discomfort or because they don’t know what else to do. That Yume was the one to step up and protect Shihoru was a touch I appreciated.
It feels as true to life as Ranta failing to hurt Yume by talking about her archery mistakes so trying to make her feel bad about her appearance instead. Women in the real world deal with this kind of treatment all the time. If an intentional nod to the subtler obstacles and microaggressions women face in everyday social situations, Grimgar would deserve an awful lot more credit than I tend to give it.
There are several layers of sexualisation going on in this scene of Shihoru’s humiliation:
- The clothes Yume and Shihoru are wearing, less practical than the men’s outfits and showing more skin, passively makes it easier for the audience to sexualise these women
- Ranta’s dialogue about the female characters’ breasts actively invites the audience to sexualise these women
- The animation and framing of Shihoru puts the audience in a position where sexualising her is the default
- Yume’s interaction with Shihoru, and its reception by Ranta, actively sexualises these women
This whole scene is truly unpleasant to watch, especially for anyone who has ever been a young woman humiliated by a man in public for the way she looks. One thing saves it: the use of point of view. We are put directly in Haruhiro’s POV and see through his eyes, then we are put in Shihoru’s POV to give her character the (non-verbal) final word on the scene. These are important challenges to the male gaze, which the rest of the scene has been catering to from every angle.
When Ranta mentions Shihoru’s breasts for the first time Haruhiro’s eyes are drawn to Shihoru’s body, which is framed without her head. For that moment he is just looking at a pair of breasts and the body they’re attached to, not at Shihoru the person.
However, he either senses her looking at him or remembers himself and looks at her face – which is hurt and vulnerable.
Haruhiro instantly and awkwardly apologises, making no excuses or explanations. He was in the wrong and he knows it. He just wants her to know he is sorry.
Shihoru accepts his apology, but pulls her knees in even tighter and curls up a little more, trying to hide as much of herself as possible. She bears no ill will towards Haruhiro, but she doesn’t want to be looked at.
In male gaze theory, men are active and women are passive. Men are watchers, women are watched. In this moment however, Haruhiro looks at Shihoru – and Shihoru looks right back. The watched becomes active and watches the watcher. Just having her meet his gaze challenges it, but that she knows exactly what he was looking at and shows him the distress he has caused results in him apologising for his gaze. It’s a pretty subversive moment amidst a lot of sexualisation played straight.
It also contributes to Haruhiro’s characterisation. This use of his POV simply presents Haruhiro as a decent guy with wandering eyes – the type women with breasts like Shihoru’s deal with all the time from a young age. Haruhiro is well-meaning, but weak. He is decent, but not noble. The conversation between Ranta, Yume and Shihoru serves no purpose that couldn’t have been achieved without non-sequitur gendered insults, but this small interaction between Haruhiro and Shihoru helps to build a foundation for his character which will come into play later in the series.
The final shot of that scene is of Shihoru pulling her hat on and down as far as possible. It will resonate with any woman who has buttoned up her shirt a little higher or pulled her coat a little tighter around her after being cat called in the street. While we don’t literally see through her eyes as we do when we shift to Haruhiro’s POV, a close-up of this small, relatable moment puts us in Shihoru’s shoes and sets the tone for what we have just witnessed. Our final impression of the scene is not of Haruhiro’s guilt or Ranta’s arousal, but Shihoru’s discomfort.
Of all the isekai (‘transported to a fantasy world’) shows this year, Grimgar is the one to most directly subvert the male gaze, but it also spends plenty of time catering to it. However, there is something very down-to-earth and human about Grimgar that I think no other isekai show this year can claim, partly because it scatters moments like this throughout the series for its female characters. By the end of the series all the main characters have been fleshed out and become closer for reasons that have nothing to do with romance. The final episode even contains an homage to this scene with some role reversal and greater significance – though sadly with gendered insults still intact.