Panty and Stocking are some of the most uncouth characters, female or not, to appear in anime. They curse like Cartman, banter about sex, make their magical transformations on stripper poles, and generally have little respect for anybody. The basic premise of the show, on paper, sounds very much like Bayonetta's concept: the heroine uses her sex as a weapon. Panty and Stocking take off their panties and stockings, respectively, which then transform into guns and swords. As these objects have been traditionally fetishized in Western culture, we can assume psychoanalysis would have something to say here. Because I believe psychoanalysis in any form is deeply problematic, I'm not going to go there. But the fact that these heroines are, in a sense, reified fetish objects, is a very provocative concept which remains in playful tension with the actual contents of the show.
The first obstacle to sexualizing these characters is that their personalities are abrasive and don’t hold up to the tenants of traditional femininity: Panty is loud-mouthed, short-tempered, promiscuous, selfish, and violent; Stocking is cynical and anti-social, and shares her sister’s qualities of a quick temper and vulgar vocabulary. While Panty gets around, we find that she is the one using the men, not the other way around – she even mocks their sexual shortcomings. Stocking is the opposite in that sex does not seem to interest her, but she’s hardly vulnerable or innocent. Perhaps most crucially, men are utterly unimportant to these characters. Panty just uses men to fulfill her sex cravings, then leaves them in the dust. Stocking all but ignores them. Their male “leader” Garterbelt announces their missions, but is more an object of ridicule than a true authority figure. Similarly, their sidekick Brief is just a tag-along kid they nicknamed “Geek Boy”.
More central is the show’s visual style and the way it parodies familiar anime iconography. In the first episode, we see Panty with her panties around her ankles – while she sits on the toilet, contorting her face into a grimace as she, ahem, relieves herself. The toilet, which is possessed by a ghost, swallows her up, and she emerges only to be totally covered in shit. Later in the episode, as she and Stocking stride purposefully toward the enemy, our heroine still resembles a walking heap of dung. As the girls transform, they change from their highly-angular, super-deformed bodies into realistically hypersexual ones. Panty and Stocking only take on this glamorous pin-up “bishoujo” appearance for short sequences in some episodes – it is just as likely that they will be seen traveling through toilets, picking their noses, turning into robots, and so on. In another instance, cursed pastries cause Stocking to balloon up to zeppelin proportions in an episode which parodies fat-shaming in the mass media.
Because these female bodies are so fluid, so unpredictable, and address real bodily functions, Panty and Stocking are characters which totally destabilize the visual language* of anime erotica and fanservice in general (There are a handful of fanservice-centric episodes, but they are at least self-aware anomalies). Unlike Bayonetta, whose basic form never changes, and whose every move is eroticized, Panty and Stocking are characters who cycle through visual modes with carnivalesque ease – in a single fifteen minute-long episode they can be boorish, gross, absurd, sexy and badass. If they use their feminine wiles, it is purely for their own benefit – they know how to play the patriarchy. Ultimately they rise above the anime stereotypes; they are neither objects of erotic attention nor infantilized moe little-sister surrogates. We’ve had strong and well-rounded female characters in anime before, but rarely has any television show done so much work toward short-circuiting the male gaze.
*In a longer and more rigorous treatment of this subject I would use a semiotic approach informed by the lineage of Saussure, Pierce, and Barthes.
Through my recent essays I have tried to demonstrate that while there has been a proliferation of more “types” of female characters in media, they are still often constrained by impossible binaries or else simply objectified in new ways. As I turned my attention to the fetishization of innocence we sometimes see in anime, I realized I may have accidentally stereotyped the animation of Japan in an unfair way. It would be a gross misrepresentation to claim that the West favors “mature” female sexual objects while Japan favors “innocent” ones. Both cultures have media which encompass all possible “types,” from reactionary to transformative.
Of particular interest to me is the “mahou shoujo” (magical girl) genre and the way its various works have presented differing versions of female innocence, power, and sexuality. Formulaic, melodramatic, and fundamentally rooted in action and romance genres, mahou shoujo is considered a “low” popular girl’s genre – but its representations of women are uniquely challenging to the status quo.
As my fellow USC colleague Kris Ligman has pointed out, the animes The Rose of Versailles and its spiritual successor, Revolutionary Girl Utena, are both remarkable for their tropes of gender-bending and their presentations of heroines who take on masculine gender roles. In the famous Sailor Moon, the squad of magical girls consist of a number of character “types” who are equally validated: clumsy, hot-headed, nerdy, tomboyish, etc. In a sense these affirmational group-based shows recall American war films centered on diverse (racially and otherwise) groups of male soldiers. However, objections have been raised to the way the main character Usagi is swayed by romance and is occasionally saved by her personal prince charming, Tuxedo Mask. Other mahou shoujo titles like Pretear and Princess Tutu also operate on the same female stereotypes for their heroines: weakened by romance and strong emotions, and dependent on a male love interest.
An American riff on the majou shoujo genre, The Powerpuff Girls, offered solutions to some of these problems. Because the heroines were very young children, love interests were out of the question. The central man in their life is Professor Utonium, their father – but he is hardly a traditional parent. He’s presented as absent-minded, bumbling, and incapable of keeping up with his bright and far more powerful daughters, whom he can hardly control outside of getting them to bed at a reasonable hour. The Powerpuff Girls themselves, though childlike, are also strong and able heroes, letting little stand in their way of fighting evil.
This highly abridged history brings us to Panty & Stocking With Garterbelt, which is not only a parody of mahou shoujo, but a frenetic mashup of cliches and genres culled from both Japan and the West. In its simplified, angular, and colorful visual style it resembles the Powerpuff Girls; its R-rated gross-out humor recalls South Park; and its iconography draws from mahou shoujo, action films, video games, and other sources. It is a highly irreverant show which takes no prisoners in its efforts to shock, awe, and amuse its audience. What interests me is how the show systematically destabilizes familiar representations of women, by introducing “noise” into the depiction of women in anime.
The tradition of “fan service” in anime has seen a long-running codification of the representation of the female body. That is, as tropes of the panty-flash, breast jiggle, etc, became more entrenched and familiar in various genres, “fan service” became part of the visual language of representing the female form in anime. In especially egregious shows like Strike Witches, female genitalia becomes a spectacle in itself which frequently fills the screen space. In such anime fan service is so prevalent that, in effect, the female characters are in a state of constant sexualization which merely varies in intensity according to ritualized patterns of tension and release, hide and seek. This industrial tradition has served to further objectify women and privilege the quality of to-be-looked-at-ness, that is, to exalt their roles as objects of the male gaze.
One can argue that the phrase “male gaze” has been thrown around a lot, but that is for good reason. Despite the problems of Laura Mulvey’s classic article, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” some of her basic premises have been difficult to refute. In much mainstream film, men control the action of the film and, more indirectly, the gaze of the camera. Women are in turn limited to subordinate roles in the narrative, existing as objects of male visual attention (think Transformers). To summarize, women in classical narrative cinema have both lacked agency and have been objectified in systematic ways. We know conversely, as in the mahou shoujo, of course there are many stories where women are heroes, however the characters are still prone to normative/perscriptive ideals of femininity and subject to objectification.
So let me finally summarize the problems we are dealing with. Despite the narrative agency of female characters in anime, they are often subject to pervasive and even invasive forms of objectification which can reach disturbing heights in the most systematic, market-driven examples (as in Strike Witches). One of the most promising things I see in Panty and Stockings is how this language of objectification is corrupted from within – the characters resist objectification by destabilizing the normative assumptions attending female characters of traditional femininity and too-be-looked-at-ness.
I’ve already talked about how reblogging can help to blur the lines between communities. Besides this, reblogging can serve as a gesture of respect, as a way to promote someone else’s opinions. Reblogging gives the original author a bigger audience than before. Reblogging can also be used to express solidarity, as is often the case with politically-charged posts. Often on Twitter or Tumblr, confrontational statements about human rights, racial prejudice, and LGBTQ issues will be reblogged to show one’s identification, support, or solidarity with the author. In this way we can affirm that these people “are not alone” in their grievances, and show that we care about these problems. And in the act of reblogging these posts, we can make others aware of important social concerns.
We talk to each other about how much time we spend on Facebook and Twitter, about how much time we waste on it. Articles in periodicals like The New York Times, The Atlantic, and Slate bemoan how the Internet and social networking are frivolous and time-wasting. Expressed in these articles is a kind of helplessness which casts the user as a victim of the technology. We’re not victims. And if we want the web to be more meaningful, we should begin to produce content of substance instead of passively watching the Web like TV – whether it’s digital art or more thoughtful tweets. If we take the time to produce better content, the Web will be a better place.
[Short essays based on my conference paper, “Deterritorializing the World Web.”]
As on any online space, users on Twitter congregate around certain interests. What’s important is that there is no “group” system which allows users to separate themselves into private clubhouses. Many users follow tweeters from a variety of “communities,” which are porous to begin with. Also, retweeting constantly introduces us to new personalities we might follow. As we follow more people outside of our core communities and retweet them, the more we work to expand networks and blur the boundaries between groups. This leads to chance meetings and the exchange of fresh ideas.
[Short essays based on my conference paper, “Deterritorializing the World Web.”]