I have a feeling this post isn’t going to do very well. The few times I’ve approached slightly meatier subjects, my readers were generally not that interested. But that’s o.k. This one will be a more for me post.
Right off the bat, I might as well warn you, this won’t be a debate. I’m not here to either condemn nor defend any particular aspect. So if you were looking for some confirmation bias, this will probably be a disappointing read.
I’ve spoken once or twice about my slightly confused views on the prevalence of fanservice in anime. Long story short, I generally like it. In fact I went into some detail trying to analyze where my particular comfort zone ended. In hindsight, I realized that I had left out a central element. One that I think is very important to take into consideration, especially when dealing with an impressionable audience.
I actually do not mind sexualization of characters. In some extreme circumstances it can make me uncomfortable but it doesn’t make me…angry. It most likely will not ruin the experience. What I have considerably more trouble with is objectification. And when those two elements are brought together, at the same time, I tend to have a more emotional reaction.
Just to be clear, there are plot lines that call for it, and mistreatment of characters is sometimes referred. However, when used gratuitously, it bothers me. In fact, objectification without sexualization also bothers me and can make a show difficult to enjoy.
This post here isn’t just to talk about myself as always. Don’t get me wrong I do love doing that. However, I felt a touch compelled to write this. I have had a conversation or two as of late that have led me to realize that some people use the terms interchangeably. They may actually be synonyms. I should never be trusted on questions of vocabulary.
As I understand it, Sexualizing a character is actively attributing physical and/or intellectual characteristics and behavior to elicit arousal or sexual attraction from the audience. This can be as blatant as putting imaginary people in skimpy outfits or as subtle and complex as trying to balance out just enough helpless behavior and inept thinking to make a character appear in need of protection with enough wit and grit to not make them overly childlike.
Anime fans, or indeed general media fans, are usually intimately (see what I did there?) familiar with a wide spectrum of sexualization. It’s closely associated with fanservice but in my opinion the two aren’t exactly the same thing. As I mentioned above, the idea of purposefully trying to make a character attractive to your audience doesn’t bother me at all. It seems rather reasonable in fact.
Objectification is a different beast. It’s reducing your character to being a passive agent of the narrative rather than an active, uhm, actor. That was a really bad sentence. Let me try again, objectifying a person is treating them like they are a thing….you know…an object. Ok, I think it’s time I start paraphrasing someone who’s better at this than I am.
If you’ve ever taken a psych or social studies or women’s studies class (I have not, closest was a philosophy class on mathematical logic…) You have probably heard the name Martha Nussbaum. She classified objectification into a few main categories as such… No no, don’t close the tab. I promise it won’t be that bad… It’s info that will help you hit on the hot feminist chick..or dude…
Instrumentality: Treating a person like a tool. We all feel this way at work from time to time. In anime, this can amount to introducing a character just so they can accomplish a specific task without actually giving them a personality. It can make people that have a lot of plot importance, stay completely undeveloped.
Denial of autonomy and Inertness. I ve grouped these together because they tend to be quite similar for our purposes. This is when characters are completely robbed of agency. Things happen to them and they passively subir events. They never instigate or decide anything.
Fungibility, Violability and Ownership: these are all the most literal forms of objectification. They mean treating a character as interchangeable with an object (I don’t know if regalia and Soul Eaters weapons fall into this category). Treating them as something that is acceptable to “break” either physically, emotionally or intellectually. And treating them like property. Now it’s one thing when a character objectified another, because the story involves some form of abuse. What I’m talking about, is when the plot does it. It happens occasionally with characters that are clones.
Finally denial of subjectivity. This is when a character’s feelings are treated as unimportant or nonexistent despite evidence to the contrary. It can happen sometimes after too much editing and your plot doesn’t have any time to let a character grieve or go through normal emotional process.
In the years we’ve also added notions of objectifying people by reducing them to their appearance or to one particular element of their personality.
Again I want to clarify. Characters objectifying each other is perfectly fine as far as I’m concerned. When the narrative does it however, it makes me feel creepy. And more importantly it makes for bad, underdeveloped characters. So fine, have random gusts of wind constantly blow up a character’s skirt, just give them some juicy dialogue along the way. Maybe have them try to come up with all sorts of tips and tricks to avoid the situation, that always fail. I dunno, maybe thing weights to the hem but that ultimately just pulls the whole skirt down…
Guys, did I just accidentally write a masterpiece? I m pretty sure I did….
43 thoughts on “Objectifying vs Sexualizing in Anime”
I’m confused but oh well
It’s ok – you get use to it. I’ve been confused for years
I have just always felt that with media, there’s a noticeable sliding slope kinda thing with objectification. Some people see a character only as a pair of boobs, or glasses, while some only see them as a tsundere or vehicle for emotional validation for the protagonist… and I don’t especially see the difference between them. It’s like you are categorizing a character by their relation to your enjoyment of the series, and I feel that gets close to how a lot of people view interactions with real people in real life! And getting people to question the source of their inherent biases is usually good!
Sometimes the reaction to the attempt is instructive as well
I’ve probably used the words interchangeably in the past even though I know they aren’t the same thing because I’m lazy.
Honestly couldn’t tell you were my line is when it comes to sexualizing characters, I’ve found myself more grumpy about it recently even though I’m not really against fanservice or anything like that, I just think I’ve come across too many shows that do it and make everything seem out of place…. Honestly I can’t explain it, like for example I’m watching Goblin Slayer with Luc who is reviewing it and I personally don’t give a darn what Cow Girl looks like because overall she’s just a character drawn in a way to emphasis she has big boobs whereas there was something about the way the Sword Maiden was drawn that just made my skin crawl. I’m weird like that. I guess fanservice only ever bothers me when I feel it is out of place but it is one of those weird things that everyone has their boundaries with it.
As for objectifying of characters I think the problem with how people use the word comes from the conversational use of it. It is one of those words that people just don’t sometimes know the actual meaning of it so use it more as a loaded insult when they feel uncomfortable and their line has been crossed. My sister uses it a lot (she also doesn’t know what ironic means and uses it all the time in the wrong context) when she’s getting on a high horse with male friends. The funny thing is if I ever tried to point out that the way she tends to view men is actually objectifying them not sexualizing them like she thinks she’d get really offended.
Sounds like fun family conversations though!
Sexualization can be looked at many ways. In one sense, we are “sexualized” in puberty. Right when our single most important activity is “supposed” to be preparing for being a working adult or maybe college, biology rears its messy head and says, “Oh no. You don’t get off that easily. I’m going to force you to deal with sexuality on a massive scale. You won’t even recognize your bodies when I’m done with you. I’m going to put every primary and secondary sexual readiness signal you have into overdrive and jumpstart your sexual drive with an A-bomb.”
Anime is just playing to that. The audience is teens and young adults, primarily males but also a large number of females who have their own genres. If there is any part of them they want to be tickled, it isn’t their intellect. So the sexualization occurs inside us and fanservice, as well as romantic drama, in anime is just an extension of it.
I see nothing wrong with having a rush of lust for a visual representation of what you’d naturally lust for. I agree with you completely that this is not objectivization. A boy desiring a girl (or fill in your preferred gender combination) for the promise of her youthful physicality is a very HUMAN thing. An emotional bond often follows. It doesn’t happen in most other animals who have a brief period of fertility once a year and that’s it.
To the extent that anime is just moving pictures on a screen, any sexualization that happens is what we put into it. There are no pheromones to smell, no skin to touch, no hands to hold, no lips to kiss, no clothes to slowly slip off (or explosively rip off) nothing to fondle or stroke. It is just a picture. The viewers imbue this picture with their hopes and desires and fantasies. Since the real thing may not be readily available, it serves as a pressure release. (Or perhaps as an appetizer if the viewer does have a willing partner.)
It does NOT make a boy want to go out and use the next girl he sees like a blow-up doll. Or a slave. Or an interchangeable cog in a machine. Or a tool to be used as needed.
The will to treat individual human beings like inert material lies in the realm of the psychopath, the sociopath, the pathological narcissist, the pedophile and others who are either born fundamentally defective or spent a lifetime learning it from other defectives. Anime has no effect on that.
Fanservice is often in the eye of the beholder. Take the picture of the naked boy in your post. (Where did it come from?) To someone else, it might have fanservice value. Unless the show is about shoutacon, I don’t see it. Without even knowing the anime, I suspect it was done for humor and not sex appeal. Like that hero in MHA who loses his clothes when he uses his quirk. Or it could be revealing an important aspect of his character. He might be someone like me, after all. Context is everything.
Tsubasa’s skirt-blowing scene in Kizumonogatari is written off by many as fanservice but it tells us a lot about her. Because it genuinely advances her character development I don’t call it fanservice. Same thing for Zero Two’s fishing scene in DitF. My personal definition of fanservice requires it to be purely gratuitous. Imagine an anime set in central Amazonia or maybe prediscovery Australia or the Kalahari of the 1700s or prediscovery Tahiti. Or the Olduvai Gorge during the dawn of humankind. If you didn’t have full frontal nakedness all over the place, your anime would be a simple lie. Most clothing would be purely gratuitous. The whole thing would be fanservice to please people who couldn’t deal with nudity.
I also have no issue with sexualization
And I just spent 7 paragraphs and enough time to have written my own blog on the subject just to agree with you. I must look silly.
Not at all – In fact you said it so well I had nothing to add
I have to learn to be incomplete and unclear.
Good thoughts on an interesting topic!
To me, sexualization and objectification are almost opposites. Sexuality is an inseparable part of the human condition – with very few exceptions, we’re all sexual beings, so sexualizing a character, when done properly, is one of the things a writer can do to make them feel more human and relatable. Objectification, on the other hand, reduces the character to a tool or plot device, which lessens or even eliminates their humanity. Now certainly sexualization and objectification can overlap – see 99% of all female hentai characters ever – but that’s where discussions of agency, initiative, and intent come into play.
Long story short, I have no issues with the sexualization of characters in and of itself, although the “how” and “why” of it matters. Objectification, on the other hand, especially when it’s done to someone who’s supposed to be an important character, is lazy/sloppy writing at best, and potentially malignant at worst.
I completely agree. You said it better mind you.
It’s my impression that in anime panty shots the emberrassment is part of the appeal: rather than feeling for the character, you’re supposed to think “Aww, she’s embarrassed. How cute!” I’d say that they’re very often objectifying over sexualising, even. It’s like an aknowledgement of a dynamic: it’s an accident – nobody’s fault. No amount of dialogue is going to make a difference, here, though scene composition might.
What I think is that this sort of objectification isn’t really a problem per se, in fiction. That’s just how fantasies work, and people usually can tell the difference between real life and that. It’s just that when you don’t get it under control you have a Mineta problem. Nobody wants to be Mineta. Many shows have the open pervert be a supporting comedy character, sometimes the “best friend”. Some of the shows, though, put the “pervert” in the main character role (Sora no Otoshimono is probably the most obvious and famous example). It’s the fantasy in its purest form: no face saving tactics necessary. Shows for the unashamed fantasizer. Open fanservice shows are rarely a problem; not your thing, you don’t have to watch, and won’t miss out much.
I think objectification is part and parcel of the sex drive, to be honest. Sexualisation in itself isn’t objectification, but it’s the method of choice for sexual objectification. Sometimes sexual things a de-sexualised, and sometimes non-sexual things are sexualised, and sometimes sexualised things are presented for what they are. A lot of sexualisation (a method) is used for objectification (an effect) – not usually consciously. But there’s another important difference, I’d say, and that’s partial vs. total objectification.
Anime girl eating a banana: sexualised? If so, does that objectify her? If so, to what extent? That’s the sequence of inquiry I imagine. (But it’s a crooked path and confusion threatens with every step.)
Sex drive is highly influenced by education and social mores I think. With my background (and possibly gender) objectification is anathema to sex drive. There’s something deeply ingrained about wanting to be with someone who is intellectually impressive, for lack of a better word “strong”. Passive, meek or embarrassed is not how sex has ever been sold to me.
For instance, take a character like Ryuko. She is highly sexualized, and by necessity of the plot rather than her own initiative. She’s even embarrassed by it. Yet I never got the impression that she was a passive agent in the story or that her intellectual or emotional aspects were irrelevant to the story. Basically I never got the impression that she was dehumanized by the plot no matter how overtly sexualized it was. And I found that quite attractive as opposed to the dozens of fanservice characters whose names I don’t remember.
Assuming you’re talking about Kill la Kill, I agree about Ryuko. I also agree that the sex drive is influenced by social upbringing. My personal experience with the sex drive, though, is as a pure force of attraction, triggered by I-don’t-know-what. I’m an aromantic, so one reading of the phrase “be with someone” falls away from the start (as a teen I though romance was just friendship with sex, and a socially mandated but negotiable exclusivity deal). And the other meaning of the phrase… Well, I don’t much like to be touched (I’m fine with hugs as greetings, but I’m not going to initiate), so most of it is way off my comfort zone. I imagine when you feel both sexual attraction and romantic feelings at the same time, they wouldn’t be easy to pry apart.
I find the terminology here confusing. For example, I’m not sure if Kill la Kill is highly sexualised, or if it just takes the usual tropes and de-sexualises them so that their natural appeal can come through again. Ryuko’s underwear scenes, for example, definitely take the tropiness out of the usual what-colour-are-your-panties-I-bet-they’re-white nonsense. Her underwear actually looks comfortable, and that in a medium that sees things like the form-fitted breast(s)-plate of the female main character in Sacred Blacksmith. That’s one sexualised piece of armour: all I could think of was that I can’t be easy to squeeze the breasts into there, and that I certainly wouldn’t want to enter combat like that. If someone struck that plate with, say, mace. (I needn’t have worried: the plate is apparently so brittle that it falls apart at mere contact.)
Does such an absurd piece of armour dehumanise the character, though? I mean, it took me about half an episode to get used to it, and I really never thought about it again. There’s some social signalling going on here, and the message might re-inforce partriarchal structures, but that’s not necessarily going to prevent me from empathising with the character. Anime is full of that sort of thing. And if you define objectification as a particular mode of dehumanisation, I feel I can’t quite answer the question: a character is both subject and object, and as an object it (<–) might carry ideological subtext – but the character's still a character, too. It's not even rare in anime. It's a bit like how wearing a T-shirt with the logo from a company you don't like very much isn't the end of you.
Basically, I don't think objectification (treating people as things) is automatically dehumanising, because you can objectify them in one respect, but not in another, and how you feel about that depends on personal priorities. In some respects, say in situations where being treated as a person would mean invasive questions, it might be preferrable to remain an object (if you'd be treated like a subject in the important situations).
Objectivization has turned into a kind of thought crime. (I’m not talking about psychopaths or entitled narcissists. They are defective merchandise, not ordinary people.) A pretty woman walks down the street, male heads turn and certain strains of feminists freak out. The guys are just doing what the last million years of evolution tells them to do. (I will admit that boys need to be taught the proper etiquette for girl-watching. It is a lost art.)
There is no reason to believe that any of those guys who turned their heads have any gender hostility towards her or think of her as inert material. They just think she looks hot. They aren’t discounting her humanity, they are appreciating the part of her humanity they can be aware of. (If they get vocal and obnoxious about it, that is different. Need to be taught a substantial lesson in manners.)
I mean seriously. Someone gets upset at what is going on in another person’s head? That IS thoughtcrime. And the only way men will ever stop contemplating the visuals of a woman is to poke out their eyes or to neuter them.
Excellent discussion! Can’t wait for parts 2-4.
(See how clever that was in getting you to continue on the topic?)
I’d love to hear what a 1st, 2nd and 3rd wave feminist would say about it and compare and contrast.
well you know what one 3rd wave feminist had to say…
This was a great post! I always love posts like this that talk about these kinds of topics. I have no problem with sexualisation as I understand it’s a big part of anime and it helps to sell the series and get many viewers attention. Whilst it’s not always my cup of tea I cannot say I’m ever bothered by it. Objectification though is another kettle of fish as putting a character to that kind of level is just awful. I mean, it makes sense to use it in psychological horror and those kinds of genres but it’s still so very wrong. You really separated the two and I had no idea there were different types of objectification!
Yes – I’m so happy someone got something out of this!
Yes I did! Thanks for sharing this info! 😊
Thank you for writing a post that clearly the defines the two, and the difference between them. I get it, but I wonder if some other people do or if they simply define anything sexual as objectification, and objectification as BAD as a knee jerk reaction.
In real life finding someone sexually attractive is far from objectifying them. In fact, because you find them sexually attractive, you’re more likely to want to get to know them – and if you do that, then you discover who they are as a person. Once they are a person, they can’t be an object unless you have a mental or personality disorder where you see everyone as an object except yourself.
So that’s a hard and fast dividing line as far as anime or any other entertainment. Oh, look, a pretty person (boy or girl). Now – did the writers give them a personality to go with the looks, or are they just a decoration, or a tool? (plot device anyone?) It’s that simple. If they ARE a tool or plot device, that might be okay – maybe the story is the reaction of others to this attractive person causing them to do dumb shit. It can also fall flat on it’s face.
If they are really there JUST to be pretty, then I can find that pretty irritating. I can’t help it, I get curious. I wonder what s/he is thinking, or feeling, or planning, or wants, or needs… and if instead s/he is treated as if none of that exists, I kind of get mad on his/her behalf. Hey, what does the pretty boy think? So if I get to feeling offended on behalf of any main character in an anime, I’m probably going to end up dropping it. If only because I can’t watch them ignore him/her any more.
But drop it because I saw her panties, or his awesome pecs? Um…no.
Or panties AND awesome pecs!!! This masterpiece anime is really coming together
What about minor characters that come and go? Not everyone can be a fully fleshed out 3D person.
This was a really informative post. I’m always quite interested in reading your points on “slightly meatier subjects”! Well, I love your other posts too, and it’s not like they’re not meaty…ahhh you know what I mean!
It’s lunch time here…meaty…
Wait a minute, you’re a vegetarian, aren’t you? 🤔
I am. But I still associate meat with food,
Nicely done! Back when I reviewed Gourmet Girl Graffiti for the old Crunchyroll Takeout newsletter, I dedicated a paragraph of the review to distinguishing between the terms sensual and sensuous:
“That said, I feel that the show also unnecessarily emphasizes and sensualizes certain aspects of eating, making particularly suggestive use of swallowing and moaning. Sensuous need not mean sensual, and I find the show’s deliberate approximation of the terms to be insulting to its audience and detrimental to its own premise. Still, I would be remiss as a reviewer should I fail to recognize the importance of the show’s yuri and fetish overtones in advancing the overall storyline, especially given that the implied correlation between eating and sensual pleasure can exist. Ultimately, then, this can be watched as either a yuri series with a rather pronounced and sophomoric oral fixation or as a tender slice-of-life series exploring the importance of family and friends–perhaps even both. Either way, just be sure to bring a snack!”
Well that was certainly a delicious description
+5 for a wonderful post!
In my own mind, sexualization is not objectification–even if the line is blurred by media.
Sexualization, or to sexualize, per Meriam-Webster is defined as “to make sexual, endow with a sexual character or quality.” I don’t see objectification as such in any way. The objectification of, in this case, a character seems to be more stripping their humanity and personal qualities in order to transform them into a device for the plot, or for another character, to exploit.
One can come to understand a character who is sexualized, and it may be through their physical appearance, or through their own actions (barring the fact that they aren’t used as a device for some purpose). You could have a bombshell female character who is headstrong in their beliefs and has a fiery personality, but looking at said character she is wrapped deep in the plot and useful to the cast in a multitude of ways (strategically, emotionally, personally), but she needs to be USEFUL.
If said character is simply the damsel in distress who can’t seem to help herself or is a supporting character who is only there to look pretty, I think a story has taken a dive into objectification–think trophy or prize. Asuna in Fairy Dance is actually one example I love using. She was sexualized in the Aincrad arc with her animation quality and Kirito’s view of her upon seeing her in the Knights of the Blood Oath garbs, but once she was trapped (in a bird cage of all things!–a cage!) she was objectified as that crazy man’s play-thing who couldn’t do anything to help herself.
There are plenty of other examples, but I think you get the point.
If a character is helpful to the narrative sexualization is fine; if the character becomes a device to move the story forward for other characters and their motives, that’s objectification–it’s stripping them of their personality.
Just my take on things…
(I hope this wasn’t convoluted…)
I should also add, since my stupid self forgot, male characters can also be sexualized and objectified in stories, although I think it’s far too rare and we see female characters taking to the forefront of the topic…
Actually, male characters do get objectified quite a bit as tools or plot devices.
I used a naked boy pic specifically to show it’s not a gender exclusive issue. I hope that got across.
It’s not cause I wanted a naked boy on my blog or anything…
It was not convoluted it was super interesting!
I didn’t go into it much but what I personally dislike the most is in fact puritinical objectification. Characters that are only there to be *innocent*. Nothing else…. so boring….
This is a great post, and you separate the two quite well. This is something I was trying to (though way more general) get across in my previous post about anime fandom, which you should totally make a post in Irina (hint hint, tag, tag :p )
I am a big defender and proponent of Fanservice when it is done correctly, or used in a story that is built for it. High School DxD works because of the sexiness, the boobs, the butts and all that. But Fairy Tail, for example, turned me off greatly with how much of it was shoved into a story that frankly didn’t need it. There are hits and misses (some would argue more misses) when it comes to this area. But anime and fanservice go together like PB and J, and to deny it is just fooling yourself. As long as it is used correctly (whatever that is for the individual viewer) I say bring it on.
Anyway, awesome post Irina.
Fandoms scare me a little…
I’m completely with you. If anything I’m even ok with useless fanservice – I mean you got to sell your product someho, I get that.
Fanservice and Boobs have pretty much kept the anime industry alive through all the ups and downs. Sex sells, that’s the naked (heh) truth.
I’ll call out bullshit when I see it, but again, denying that Anime and Fanservice aren’t joined at the hip is just a fools errand.
I rather enjoyed Fairy Tail. I got the sense that that is just how they lived. Uninhibited and free. Erza, Natsu, Grey, Mavis, and some others didn’t seem to have the slightest problem with social nudity. In that crowd, barely-there outfits are to be expected. After you see huge boobs almost bursting out of the halter top a hundred times in the first season it ought not to have any more impact.
The real fanservice – IMHO – is that every adult female had a nearly identical body. A Barbie Doll body that even the Barbie Dolls don’t have anymore. That is a purely economic issue. They know the “statistical average” of the bodies most male fans want to see. Giving us a variety of bodies – even if they kept them all attractive in their own way – is expensive. So they settle on one that represents the peak in the Bell curve of male fan interest.
I’d rather see a range of females from flat to voluptuous, tall to short, and having genuinely different faces – and NONE of them worried about their bust size. That would cost money.
A good point, and “Namiface” as I call it is something a lot of animes are known for. However my point was that Fairy Tail often puts the characters into sexual scenarios that have no baring on the plot, and normally in plot heavy moments.
Unlike say DxD where that is introduced from the start (it’s in the fucking opening theme), Fairy Tail was built of being an action series first, but then heaped on tons of unnesscary fanservice at just the worst moments. Go back and read later parts of the series and you’ll find yourself going “Is that show really needed?” or “Was that really right considering the context of the scene?”
Is it a deal breaker? No..Fairy Tail has another massive problem that ruins it, but it’s something that sticks out when it shouldn’t.
You’re on the money with this one, and I’m glad you recognise the difference between sexualisation (absolutely fine, highly enjoyable) and objectification (at best, boring; at worst, a shitty thing to do). All too many critics these days — particularly feminist critics, it has to be said — conflate the two.
A highly sexualised aesthetic can be a lot of fun. For me, it adds an air of “honesty” to the work in question. It doesn’t preclude it from saying anything meaningful — in fact that openness, honesty and understanding that this is “for adults” often leads to more weighty subject matter being tackled — and it can be a lot of fun. Good examples: Bayonetta, Senran Kagura, Neptunia to a slightly lesser extent. 18+ visual novels fall into this category, too; the presence of explicit sex scenes absolutely does not mean the women involved are being objectified, assuming the VN has a decent story. (There are also pure nukige, of course, but I avoid those for exactly the reasons we’re talking about here.)
I’ve actually come across relatively few genuine examples of objectification in the media that I’ve enjoyed over the past few years. Highly sexualised stuff? Sure, loads of it, and I love it. Objectification, though? No; like you, I need some interesting dialogue, some characterisation, something to make me care about the character in question. Hell, I don’t even look at hentai where I don’t feel like I “get to know” the characters a bit — even if that’s just through reactions and body language.
This isn’t to say it doesn’t exist, of course — I’ve given just one example above — but I do wish some people would understand the distinction we’ve talked about here a bit better.
I think it’s important to not demonize sexuality. When we start to blindly beleive that any form of sexualization is inherently problematic, it tends to cause problems. It may be a coincidence, but I find that societies where sexuality is highly regulated and sexualization is looked down on, tend to not be too accepting of women.., (i.e down right mysogenic) If anything as I feminist, I would invite people to embrace well cafted explicit material (as they would any other.)