Ember (sour_idealist) wrote,

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First rant: Fanservice and feminism

I've been thinking lately.

My tastes in media tend towards action and adventure stories, rather than romance and drama, and let's face it: Most action-focused stories are aimed partly or wholly at a male audience. For me this is particularly highlighted when I'm watching anime or reading manga, since (as far as my understanding goes) those are more firmly sorted into the different demographics of shonen, seinen, shojo, and josei (teen boys, adult men, teen girls, and adult women, respectively.) Most of the shows I like fall into the former catagories; I don't watch many movies, but when I do, they're things like the new Sherlock Holmes or Star Trek XI, not chick flicks. As to video games, my current favorite is Final Fantasy XIII, and you know what they say about the Final Fantasy series: "The guys look like girls and the girls look like", well, I won't go into that, but it's complimentary in regards to their looks and uncomplimentary in regards to their modesty.

Which brings me to the point: it isn't just the video games. Most of the visual media I enjoy includes male-oriented fanservice, i.e. a certain amount of bared female flesh.

I never really thought about this, to be honest. I just kind of accepted that as part of the deal, even enjoyed the display on a couple of occasions. As long as the action was cool, the plot intriguing, and the characters relatable (or the kind of characters you love to hate), I was fine. However, I recently ran across a casual mention that one of my favorite shows, Black Lagoon, is sexist, or at least "not exactly an outstanding example of gender equality", and it triggered some thoughts that have been brewing for a while.

I always thought of the show as the opposite of sexist. The series contains numerous examples of women I think are well-built characters. "Strong" is a tricky word in this series, as is "good", since the show is about criminals and modern-day pirates in the world's underbelly. You wouldn't call many of the characters role models. However, the cast is full of independent, competent women. First there's Revy, the only woman on the crew of the titular pirate/smuggler delivery ship. I can here you rolling your eyes already - "Only girl, and you thinks it's not sexist?" But wait a minute. When one woman is added to a predominantly male group, normally it's so she can serve as the emotional heart, right? Not Revy. She's the crew's gunslinger, hired to keep them safe. The crew's emotional heart is the nonviolent, fish-out-of-water male lead, Rock. (I love this element of it, by the way. I love seeing a male play the nurturing, nonviolent role and be treated as strong for it.) Revy is a violent, bitter nihilist whose character arc parallels that of male antiheroes ranging from Han Solo to Artemis Fowl to Avatar: The Last Airbender's Zuko.

Also, remember when I said that I could hear you complaining about the 3:1 male-female ratio in the main cast? The main cast doesn't entirely consist of the pirate crew. Several citizens of the local Crime City (called Roanapur)  make regular appearances, and guess what? We've got more awesome ladies.

First, there's Balalaika, a disgruntled former member of the Russian military who left after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Incidentally, she's also in her fifties or sixties. Then there's Eda, who's a nun at a local Catholic church, which happens to be a front for a gun-smuggling organization. This should already tell you that Sister Eda is a competent fighter, and she has her own motivations as well. The church is headed by the exceedingly elderly Sister Yolanda, who wields a gold-plated Desert Eagle one-handed. (This show has no regard for the laws of physics; as long as it's cool enough, it works.) Other recurring characters include knife-wielding, confident bounty hunter Shenhua, chainsaw-wielding and quirky Sawyer the Cleaner, and a primary antagonist of not one but two arcs: Roberta, an ex-FARC guerilla who got tired of constantly fighting for no real cause, but lost none of her skill. Despite opposing the protagonists, she's presented sympathetically and gets a fair amount of character development. The final anime arc also included the antagonist character Yukio, a teenage girl who got unwillingly dragged into her family's Yakuza warfare. She's another interesting character, and her struggle to uphold her family's honor, cling to her ideals, and survive made for a horribly tragic arc peppered with interesting choices.

To me, at least, a show this full of interesting, competent women with their own independent lives counts as pretty feminist. Sure, some of them mess up occasionally. We have words for characters who don't: Flat character, poorly-written character, Mary Sue, and boring. Sure, some of the women serve under a man, but they always continue to make active decisions, and their opinions are respected. Roberta's employer treats her as family; Revy's boss, Dutch, treats her as a second-in-command; Yukio has a male bodyguard, but he follows her orders. (Also, she's a demure and ladylike high school student until she gets dragged into the Yakuza wars. Of course she needs a bodyguard at first.)

So why would the show be considered sexist? Well, there are a few possibilities. One is that the other person wasn't really thinking about it, since this all started with a passing reference. Another is disagreement about writing quality; perhaps they just didn't think as highly of the characterization. However, I suspect their issue was less subjective: fanservice.

Revy looks like this:            This is Shenhua:                                     

Those two are the most heavily sexualized, if memory serves me, but they're not the only ones. Balalaika is more modestly dressed, but I'm told some still find her attractive.

Roberta, despite a realistically cut uniform, plays to people with a thing for maids:
Girl in a maid dress carrying a gun and a parasol

Eda is usually in a full, thoroughly modest nun habit, but in one episode she sheds the uniform and rivals Revy:
Revy and Eda
That's her on the left.

See what I mean? Nobody's going to say that this show doesn't sexualize women. I'm curious as to whether that automatically makes it sexist.  If there were just as many gratuitously half-dressed men as women, I'd say it definitely had a clean bill of health. There are shows that do that; Code Geass, for example, provides equal-opportunity fanservice. And I'm going to call that far from sexist, since it's treating the genders equally and by definition sexism is treating one gender differently. However, much as I love Black Lagoon, it sexualizes women more. Is that inherently bad?

Let's look at some other examples - Final Fantasy XIII, for example. I'm not yet able to do a complete analysis, granted, but I can still take a look - at Lightning, for example:

She's a cold, powerful ex-military antihero wracked with guilt for failing to protect her little sister, well able to keep her head in a hideous crisis, and a strong but capable loner who needs nobody to protect her - in fact, both in-gameplay and in-story she's a protector first, a nurturer second. She warms up over the course of the game, but it's not treated as becoming more "feminine" or nurturing; it's finding more people to protect.

Here's another example: Fang. She's casual, confident, callous. She's even more of a protector than Lightning, right down to her combat roles. She makes questionable decisions, but she's tough.

These aren't the only girls in the series. With side character and "one of the boys," LeBreau; tough mom with a rocket launcher, Nora Estheim;  major character (narrator, in fact) Vanille, an ever-chirpy girl with absolutely no reason to be so happy; Jihl Nabaat, a villainous member of the military mentioned to have graduated at the top of her class; Serah Farron, a surprisingly likeable and personable take on the sweet, girly archetype; and others, the show is chock-full of interesting women. Does the fact that most of them are attractive and a number of them are scantily dressed make it sexist?

Well, what's the main issue with sexualizing women? To my understanding, it's usually treated as synonymous with objectifying women, i.e. (if you'll forgive a Capt. Obvious moment) treating women as mere objects, without minds, emotions or value aside from their bodies. However, as I have tried to demonstrate with the above examples (and, come to that, has been demonstrated with men throughout the history of media), it's perfectly possible to create a sexually attractive character without making her invalid. So, I'm going to conclude that as long as the sexualized characters are treated as people, showing off the characters' attributes isn't the downfall of feminsim. And if someone thinks that fanservice discredits a character, perhaps they should think whether there might be more to both characters and people than a pretty face.

That said, I'm curious as to what others think, both about the issue and about my stance on it. Thoughts, world?
Tags: black lagoon, feminism, final fantasy xiii

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