This very specific choose-your-own-adventure question is the start of my first fanservice survey (which is only two questions long – it’s a very short adventure). I started my fanservice assessment project with the goal of making it easy for people like me, who find fanservice an unwelcome distraction, to know at a glance whether a new anime is likely to put them off. To achieve that, I need to understand how most people would rank fanservice content on a scale of “I can live with that” to “Nope, insta-drop.”
My first attempt at guessing this ranking was very nudity-focused and based on memories of anime past from a pre-simulcast era. After half a year of watching a broad range of anime, including the first 1-3 episodes of most new anime in 2016, it’s clear that fanservice is much more nuanced than I remembered.
I divided it into six categories for this survey:
- Fanservice via character physique, e.g. gravity-defying breasts
- Fanservice via costume elements, e.g. soldiers in miniskirts
- Fanservice via animation choices, e.g. boob physics in close-up
- Fanservice via character traits, e.g. enjoying groping other women
- Fanservice via character interactions, e.g. accidental breast-grab
- Fanservice via situation framing, i.e. sexualising non-sexual scenarios
Within 24 hours of launching the survey on a women-focused anime community, I had over 60 responses. The survey is still open and gathering responses, but there are some interesting patterns even in these early results.
What fanservice is most likely to make people switch off the episode?
“[Fanservice via character interactions] is definitely the worst, in my opinion. As a woman, it’s incredibly off-putting to see female characters objectified in that way.”
“The rather absurd number of non-consensual staring/touching/groping/whatever scenes that seem to be rather common really ticks me off. Anything like that is enough for me to instantly turn off the show and erase it from my mind.”
“Humiliation-based fanservice is extremely bothersome – if it’s done against a character’s will or causes her distress, that can get me to drop a show instantly.”
You don’t need to identify as female to find this kind of encounter uncomfortable to watch. It’s troubling that anime goes back to this well so often, especially on the occasions it presents outright sexual assault as cute and her upset reactions as funny. It’s also just jarring on a storytelling level – nothing drags you out of being immersed in a story like rolling your eyes. These are the moments that make it impossible to recommend an anime to friends who don’t watch anime, no matter how good everything else may be.
What kind of fanservice is most likely to incline viewers to drop a show?
Fanservice via animation choices means everything about the animation of a character, covering boob physics, butt close-ups and awkward poses alike. It’s pretty straightforward to understand why animation choices might put people off; please see my earlier comment about eye-rolling.
“Any panty shots and I will stop watching the episode.”
“When she’s fighting and all her armour falls off.”
“When the camera is positioned solely to emphasize breasts/butt. Probably my least favorite type of fanservice because it’s so insidious.”
Regarding character traits, some people mentioned their dislike of ‘queerbaiting’, in which a female character emulates lesbian sexuality for the pleasure of straight male viewers without being a fully-fledged queer character in all the necessary complexity. Also in this category would be characters who often try to seduce the people around them, who have a fanservice-heavy hobby or job, or whose character traits are adjusted for convenience to produce more fanservice-friendly results:
“Why would a character expose tons of cleavage then be super shy? Why would a straight-shooting girl suddenly become demure in bed? If someone is obviously going out of their way to look and act sexy, then their personality should reflect that in some way, even if it’s to explain why the disconnect between personality and appearance exists. These things have to make sense.”
Fanservice via character traits often reflects bad writing by people who don’t care about consistent or satisfying characterisation for their female characters, and some incidents are more frustrating than others.
The answer is pretty simple then, and not exactly a high bar: give your female character a rounded and consistent personality, animate her for storytelling rather than titillation and don’t subject her to humiliating experiences played off for laughs. Do this and most people will not only stick around but also give you a pass on other fanservice elements you may be desperate to include.
What fanservice are people most likely to put up with?
According to survey results so far, this is the only category most people will generally put up with. For the remaining two categories, fanservice via character physique and fanservice via situation framing, responses were mixed.
The situation framing examples I had in mind were things like shower scenes or beach episodes, which can prioritise either the story or the imagined heterosexual male boner depending on the way characters are costumed, animated or interact with each other. My guess is that, as with the costuming, this is just so common that many viewers treat it as the price of admission to an otherwise appealing show, though there were more viewers overall who were prepared to drop the show over it than were likely to accept it.
One of the most unpleasant ways an anime can frame a situation for fanservice is through dialogue. If a male character announces that a female character has a great body or looks sexy in a particular outfit, this forcefully encourages viewers to see the female character in a sexual light. If you resist, it is an uncomfortable viewing experience, on the lines of the fanservice via interaction encounters discussed earlier. Female viewers will already inevitably have complicated feelings about their own self-image, relationships with men and experiences with objectifying comments in real life. It can hit close to home in a way that the more cartoony pratfall interactions cannot.
“I’m most likely to turn it off if there’s particularly gross or objectifying input from the main character about the fanservice. For example, I quit midway through [one series] due to the main character’s incessant objectification and conversation about the female lead.”
Fanservice via character physique is not simply having a female character with large breasts; simply portraying the female form does not constitute fanservice. It's all about context: if the majority of female characters have large breasts, if the character is in a demographic for which large breasts would be extremely implausible (e.g. middle school children) or if those breasts stay perky despite being held up by nothing, then that is fanservice via character physique. As with fanservice via situation framing, more respondents are prepared to drop the show over this than are likely to accept it, but the responses varied.
Commenters also pointed out a type of fanservice via character physique which I had not thought of: that of the sexualised childlike girl.
Fanservice via cuteness
“When the sexualized character is obviously underage, even if they’re a late teen.”
“Loli fanservice – skip the scene (if the show is exceptionally good) or drop the show.”
“Fanservice of underage characters make me want to puke.”
Shocking no-one, if you don’t enjoy fanservice then you’re really unlikely to appreciate an anime sexualising underage girls in any way.
There was also a negative response to a more general ‘fanservice via cuteness’ though, covering both scenes and shows that were not explicitly sexualised but “literally only exist to show a character being cute”:
“I do not mind [some fanservice] because the characters usually have some other personality. But those shows with ‘cute girls doing cute things’ really bother me because they’re just there to be cute and be fanservice.”
This objection to fanservice via cuteness extended to sexualising innocence:
“Blushing with baby-voice emulating sexual pleasure in an obviously non-sexual situation.”
“Where body parts are ‘extra sensitive’ and are basically a fanservice device used to make female characters… pretty much orgasm on-screen for no reason.”
“Using objects to symbolize a sexual encounter, like sucking a popsicle and letting liquid dribble out of their mouth. Who does that?”
These examples apply most easily to ecchi anime, but on the subtler end of the spectrum are young girls being possessive of older brother characters, accidentally arousing male characters around them and being oblivious to those characters’ blushes and thoughts of “She’s so cute!” and so on. This would come under fanservice via situation framing, fanservice via animation choices and/or fanservice via character interactions, depending on the situation.
Some will object to the idea that cuteness can count as sexualised fanservice. Cuteness does not have to be sexualised, of course, but moe and lolita characters represent a commercialised type of cuteness which targets heterosexual male viewers and sexualises its product for profit in certain contexts (e.g. in merchandise or publicity images). The fact that these characters can also be created or adored by women does not detract from this, and I accept the respondents’ input that this counts as sexualised fanservice.
Fanservice is not just about fanservice
“For me, how much I can tolerate fanservice has more to do with the frequency than the type. If fanservice overshadows plot (or IS the plot), I’d probably drop the show.”
“For most fanservice, I usually dislike it but I wouldn’t give up on it right away, unless the anime has no other redeeming qualities/the other aspects have nothing to write home about (e.g. bland/generic/bad plot, poorly written character, etc.)”
“Blatant fanservice puts me off immediately, and somewhat less blatant fanservice makes me wary and less willing to give it a shot.”
How these characters are written underneath the sexualisation matters a lot. Commenters specifically highlighted the way female characterisation can be negatively affected by romance plots, considering that a type of fanservice in itself:
“Emotional fanservice, where women fall in love with the [main character] for no apparent reason.”
“Sometimes you have strong female characters and once they fall in love with the [main character] they become weak and only live for his dick. They basically turn into a trophy wife… It makes me drop the series entirely.”
“Any show where every single female character throws themselves at the [main character] makes me throw up a little. I’m more okay with it if that’s the point of the show – it’s the shows where romance isn’t the main focus where it bothers me.”
Sexual fanservice represents prioritising objectifying female characters over developing female characters. It represents prioritising the gratification of the imagined heterosexual male boner over any other kind of viewer satisfaction. When it shows up on screen in the first episode, people who don’t enjoy fanservice are sent this message: this may be the first of many moments like this, because there is a chance this show cares more about turning certain people on than about biulding a solid story or interesting characters.
It’s not as simple as telling people who don’t enjoy fanservice to “just ignore those moments”, because those moments sow seeds of distrust which affect the way you view the entire anime. It’s also not as simple as “Just don’t watch ecchi or harem anime” – fanservice moments show up in plenty of shows outside these categories, whether they match the tone of the rest of the show or not. On the flip side of this, harem anime can absolutely have stories or characters appealing enough to offset the fanservice, something survey respondents are well aware of.
The most common survey response overall was that, even when put off, people who don’t enjoy fanservice will give most shows a chance to prove themselves worth watching in the next episode or two. In other words, as soon as you include any fanservice on your show, it goes into a goodwill deficit with viewers like the survey respondents. From that point, most shows have less than an hour left to a) negate that deficit and put it back on the same level as shows with no fanservice, and b) provide compelling reasons to generate enough positive goodwill that viewers will choose to watch this show over others. More anime is being produced and simulcast than ever, and people have finite amounts of time to give to cartoon characters. Prioritising storytelling and character crafting before cheesecake will buy valuable goodwill which could lead to retaining more viewers.
Which I suppose is the big question about fanservice: does it gain more viewers than it puts off?
Shows designed for titillation are one thing; I think most people who don’t enjoy fanservice are happy to accept early on that the story or characters in shows like this are unlikely to be satisfying enough to offset the multiple fanservice elements. I wonder though, how many people would honestly not watch an otherwise non-sexual anime if the few fanservice scenes in it were taken out? It seems pretty insulting to heterosexual male viewers to assume they can’t become interested in an anime without being lured in by T&A.