Voyeurism’s Damage to Visual Stories

I don’t typically watch anime, but when I do, it’s usually reruns of Avatar: The Last Airbender (and some of the sequel series The Legend of Korra). Otherwise, I stick mostly with sci-fi and other forms of speculative fiction.

Another anime series Shannon and I worked through a few years back was Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood, based on the Manga of the same name. A moment occurs in this series where a bit of nudity interrupts the flow of the story. Shannon explains in a recent blog post, The Rape of Winry Rockbell:

Let me set the scene. A teenage girl, after a long and dangerous journey, finally arrives at the home of someone who is not out to kill her: another teenage girl. Though they don’t know each other well, they both immediately recognize a friend. The traveler’s new friend runs a bath for her, pulling a curtain around the tub so she can have some privacy. As our traveler undresses and washes off the dust and weariness of the journey, she feels safe enough in this intimate setting to divulge her growing feelings for a boy they mutually know. She blushes as she shares, glad that no one can see her in this moment of emotional and physical vulnerability. . . .

She is a character with hopes and dreams and a robust, well-developed personality. She is a young woman (not of legal age) at her most vulnerable, in what should be a safe space, sharing deep feelings, and we the audience are invited to ogle her barely-covered breasts, wondering if those bubbles will move.

The article explores several other examples of story-intruding titillation, then points out the following:

You’ll notice that the women in these examples are usually in some sort of vulnerable position aside from their state of undress: sharing feelings, having her wishes denied, being hurt. In these moments of heightened emotion, instead of feeling along with her, we are distanced from her. And the distance is not just from the character’s emotions, but from her (and our) very humanity. It’s as if we are expected to relish a chance to be base, to take advantage of vulnerability rather than reach out in sympathy.

Because she had so much to say, Shannon had to save some of her material (arguably, the best parts) for a follow-up post: Naked: Essential or Detrimental to Visual Stories? This piece shows how fan service can damage a story through three tactics: 1) messing with character identification, 2) voyeurism, and 3) hijacking full immersion. Here’s just a snippet to whet your appetite:

When a character is dehumanized in a concentration camp, we hold onto their humanity for them. When a character is killed, it’s their humanity that moves us. But in voyeuristic situations, the characters’ humanity is damaged in the eyes of the viewer as they become objects, not people.

A good story helps us celebrate and cling to humanity. Even “dehumanizing” stories about slavery or brainwashing, ultimately, should give us more desire to be human, not less. But by turning viewers into voyeurs, the screen invites us to shut off caring for characters in the moments they are most vulnerable.  It makes US act less human. This, to me, cannot be an ultimately redemptive or empowering story.

Yes, Shannon links to several of my own articles on this topic. That aside, both of the above articles are, in and of themselves, excellent. I recommend checking them out.