Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt: Breaking the mold of classic feminism
In 2010 Studio Gainax created Panty and Stocking with Gartbelt. A raunchy comedy about two fallen angels named Panty and Stocking Anarchy, who are forced to slay ghosts to earn their way back into heaven. The 13 episode series was praised for its art style reminiscent of western cartoons and the twist ending that surprised fans. But like one of Gainax’s previous shows, Fooly Cooly, PASWG’s comedy also works as a commentary on how society approaches and views sexuality. Fooly Cooly was more about the sexual insecurities that adolescents deal with as they’re coming of age. PASWG, on the other hand, is mostly about sexual deviance in society. It openly mocks the hypocrisy and exposes flaws with popular feminist rhetoric. Most notably, Lara Mulvey’s theory the “male gaze.”
The Male Gaze
In 1975 Laura Mulvey wrote, “The visual pleasure and narrative cinema.” In it, she criticized three of Alfred Hitchcock’s films to prove the existence of “the male gaze” (Mulvey, luxonline.org). According to Mulvey, the “male gaze” (Mulvey, luxonline.org) is a subsection of “gaze theory” (Mulvey, luxonline.org) that focuses on how female characters in visual media are objectified for the viewing pleasure of males. Lara Mulvey believed that if we could understand how gaze theory worked, we could prevent female characters from being exploited in visual media. Now, most people will agree that this has yet to become a reality. The reason for that is a lack of normalization in female sexuality.
The idea be putting forward is not an original one. It originates from sex-positive feminism. It is a more recent school of thought within feminism formed in the early 1980s. It believes sexual freedom is closely tied to gender equality. The ideas held by sex-positive feminists are, at times, divisive as many support pornography and the hookup culture. This is because they do not believe raunchy displays of sexuality are inherently degrading. Instead, they think approaching sex in a way that allows men and women to explore their sexual desires can lead to sexual liberation. This not only allows individuals to maintain their dignity but also their safety and ability to give consent. That last part needs to be stressed, as it is often disregarded when looking at the ideas held by sex-positive feminists.
The main counter-argument against this concept is that it’s believed that sex-positive feminist actions only help maintain patriarchal power over women. This is due to the history surrounding raunch culture, the practice of openly displaying one’s sexuality. Traditional feminists like Ariel Levy believe that raunchy displays of sexuality only uphold patriarchal institutions. This is because raunch culture is typically only acceptable in male spaces like strip clubs and porn sites. Ariel Levy and other traditional feminist fear support could turn into validation for women engaging in debaucheries that could be exploited by men. This concern is understandable. An important aspect that is overlooked is that women are still allowing how they display their sexuality to be dictated by others’ ideas.
Instead of pursuing sexual practices that are fulfilling to themselves, women instead hide their desires. Those who openly explore it are mocked for it. This practice is better known as slut-shaming. The problem with traditional feminism is it only addresses the inequalities that women face when exploring their sexuality. But it does not have the tools necessary to help with allowing women to express their sexuality. This is why female characters often lack nuance in regards to their sexuality in visual media.
Archetypes for Her
Typically female characters fall into one of four archetypes when depicting their sexuality. You will have a virgin, someone who has no sexual experience. Then there is the seductress. This character is experienced in sex and occasionally uses it to manipulate others. You also have the wronged woman, a character who has been spurned by her lover. In some cases, they also suffered some form of sexual violence. Finally, the iron maiden is a character with no discernible interest in sex and is mostly career-oriented. These archetypes are typically interchangeable with other ones, such as the seductress could be swapped for the femme fatale. This is because any difference between them and their altered variations are mostly pedantic.
There is nothing wrong with using archetypes for constructing a character, as they are often used as the foundations for a character’s role in a story. But typically, they are then developed to further to make them unique. This leads to a more nuanced character. The problem with this is that a female character’s sexuality rarely moves past the archetypes they pull inspiration from. This could be due to no one wanting to address the female character’s sexuality. As when female characters display that aspect of their life, it leads to backlash about being exploited for male viewers. The best example of this can be seen with Lara Croft.
What is Objectification?
Since her debut in 1996, Lara has been the source of debate surrounding how female characters are portrayed in visual media. The original Lara is often cited as an example of a negative representation of female characters in gaming. Regularly this version of Lara is considered “made by men for teenage boys” (TheVerge, Plante). While the 2013 reboot, Lara is viewed as a triumph over “trashy intentions…repurposed for good.” (TheVerge, Plante) But this is clearly a misrepresentation of Lara Croft’s character in the original series and her lead designer Toby Gard’s intentions.
In a 1998 interview with Gamasutra, Toby Gard went on to say that “It was never the intention to create some kind of ‘page 3’ girl to star in Tomb Raider. The idea was to create a female character who was a heroine, you know, cool, collected, in control.” (Gamasutra, Gard) In his interview, he acknowledges how he exaggerated certain features on Lara but defended the design.
It’s ridiculous to say that portraying stylized people is degrading. You can represent an over the top hero figure by augmenting characteristics like a jutting jaw, wide shoulders, thin waist, etc. (Gamasutra, Gard)
In-game, Lara is not objectified. Objectification does not mean merely having a specific body type. Objectification is the process in which a character is reduced to an object. This is often done by having a hyper-focus on a character’s physical traits. This makes “their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.” (Mulvey Luxonline.org) When attention is drawn to a character’s physical traits for no reason other than voyeurism, that is when they are being objectified. Despite what people would like to say about the classic Lara, this does not occur in the game. Never in-game is she framed to lead the player to focus on her in a sexually voyeuristic manner. The camera’s only purpose is to the story and highlighting clues for gameplay. To look at Lara in a voyeuristic way, the player would have to use the camera to look at Lara actively.
The hypersexuality most associate with Lara comes from the advertisements used to market the game. Almost all the ads for the early Tomb Raider 1996 games had a sexual undertone. The best example of this comes from the Tomb Raider 1996 sweat commercial. In this commercial, a nude woman can be seen while a man is kissing along her neck, with the narrator asking, “what makes you sweat.” This ad does not accurately portray what the game is about. Nowhere in-game is there a scene where Lara is romantically involved with anyone. Nor is there much sexual tension. Most of the game is an action-adventure. This ad creates a cognitive dissonance between Lara in marketing versus the game. This leads to a misrepresentation of her character. This is one reason Toby Gard left after the first Tomb Raider, as he wanted “more extensive control over marketing and PR decisions” (Gard, Gamasutra). There is no doubt that the commercials marketing the character used sex appeal to sell the game. But the nature of Lara Croft cannot be judged off that alone as her in-game depiction is entirely different. Lara’s early incarnations did live up to Toby Gard’s goal of a “cool, collected, in control” heroine.
Here Comes a new Challenger
The Mass Effect Series (specifically Mass Effect 2) is one of the clearest examples of female objectification. Due to the way the game frames the scenes so the player can observe the female character’s bodies. This is most noticeable in the dialogue segments involving Miranda. As when Shepard is talking to Miranda, the camera tends to find its way behind her. This is done whether you are playing a male or female version of Shepard. This is because Miranda was initially planned to be the first bisexual non-Asari character in the series. Add to the fact that Shepard is often framed in a low angled shot during these scenes; it becomes clear that this is meant to fulfill a power fantasy for the player. And the player is clearly expected to identify with Shepard. Since Shepherd is created by the player and Shepherd’s choices are the player’s choices. The Tomb Raider series differs in this regard. This is because the story only acts to give context for the players’ actions in Tomb Raider (1996). The same cannot be said of Mass Effect since the player choosing how the story develops is part of the game. This is an important distinction as it is the key to separating sexual attraction from sexual objectification.
What sexual objectification does is reduces a person down to an object. This makes them a thing to be acted upon to fulfill one’s own sexual desires. While when someone develops a sexual attraction, it is an occurrence that happens when an individual finds traits appealing in another. This is because it occurs free of the visual tricks that we use to simulate sexual attraction in visual media. But are the female characters in Mass Effect merely an object for the player to enact their sexual fantasies?
From a technical standpoint, yes, the women of Mass Effect are only objects. And so long as the player fulfills specific requirements, they will always successfully court the character of their desire. But what objectification does is it reduces an individual to merely being an object, and the women of Mass Effect have too much nuance to be only an object. When one actually thinks about Miranda’s character, they will see several layers to her personality. On the surface, Miranda is an abrasive person. She regularly talks about her abilities and arguably perfect genetics, but this is due to her insecurities about her creation. This insecurity stems from the fact that she was cloned from her father’s DNA, and everything she has accomplished was planned by either her father or the Illusive Man. This deepens her insecurities and is one of many reasons for her having high standards for herself. She desires to prove to herself that she is more than a tool for others to use.
Her high standards also carry over to her romantic life. It is never directly stated, but if the player takes the time to read the Shadow Brokers dossier on Shepard’s crew, they will learn many personal secrets. One of Miranda’s secrets is that she uses a dating site known as IPartner Connections. And despite looking for a partner, she is often reluctant to talk to the men who message her. She often will immediately dismiss them if their medical history does not meet her standards. Miranda is also one of the few characters that have shown an interest in starting a family. But due to her genetics physically cannot.
Miranda is a paradox due to being clearly objectified. Despite that, her character is given enough depth that her body cannot merely define her. This line from the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit by Jessica Rabbit is the best example of the paradox surrounding Miranda, “You don’t know how hard it is being a woman looking the way I do.” (Who framed Roger Rabbit 1988) This line perfectly encapsulates the problem surrounding female characters in visual media. Because even when female characters are given an elaborate back story, they often become the target of sexual exploitation. This is something that male characters rarely have to face. Because typically, when the female gaze is introduced to visual media, it is in service of a power fantasy.
The Female Gaze
Typically the female gaze enters visual media after a thin or overweight male character becomes incredibly muscular. After the transformation, they become more desirable to the females in their series. The best example of this can be seen in how Akira becomes sexually desired by the girls at his high school after becoming the Devilman in Devilman Crybaby. His human form becomes much taller, muscular, and sexually endowed. But despite the female gaze often being used to reinforce the male power fantasy, it is just as detrimental as the male gaze. Since the female gaze is still reducing an individual down to an object, this leads to a negative body image, much like the male gaze. The pressure put on individuals to attain a body type purely for sex appeal is unhealthy. This is mainly because the features displayed are often unachievable. Since animation and film exaggerate certain traits through editing. But society still expects people to achieve these looks somehow and overlooks those who fail to. This pressure can lead to insecurity and anxiety. It’s for this very reason that sexuality needs to be acknowledged and normalized for everyone.
Raise a Little Hell
So far, the closet piece of visual media to actually do this is Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt PASWG. It exposes many of the problems surrounding women’s status and how both genders view sexuality in media due to it being a satire. It openly acknowledges aspects covered here and exposes the inherent hypocrisy behind sexuality in society.
The men of PASWG are almost all deviants. Throughout the series, you can see the men lusting after the women in the background. Taking any opportunity to look up a skirt or have some form of sexual release. Despite it never being actually verbalized, the women are clearly treated as objects to fulfill those desires. This is most evident in the sequences where Panty and Stocking are seen transforming to fight the monster of the week.
Now, typically Panty and Stocking are drawn in style reminiscent of the late 1990’s western cartoons. But for these sequences, they are drawn in style like a modern-day anime. The way they are framed in these segments is meant to highlight their bodies. This is all done while the men cheer them on. They have hearts in their eyes and their tongues hanging out their heads. Clearly, this segment is satirizing the magical girl transformation sequence in anime. The fact that this trope was chosen to be satirized is essential. Since magical girls typically represent female characters that have power without discarding their more feminine traits. Yet, in PASWG, the magical girl transformation is literally treated as a striptease.
The reason for this is to mock how this trope was initially meant to be a celebration of the power that female characters could wield while never discarding their feminine aspects. But now it is used as a means of sexually exploiting female characters. This is done through fan service moments via panty shots and states of half dress. Examples of this can be seen in Kill La Kill, Demon Fighter Kocho, One Punch Man, and Fate/Kaleid. This displays how easily actions intended as a form of female empowerment can be subverted for sexual exploitation. The harsh reality that PASWG brings to light is no matter what women do; there will always be individuals who can exploit and objectify them. This is why removing certain body types and hiding a female’s sexuality is pointless. Those who want to can still take advantage of it for their own sexual gratification. This raises the question of how do you stop sexual exploitation when it can occur despite the intent?
The way PASWG handles the problems surrounding sexuality is through satire. Like many other satires, PASWG exposes the inherent hypocrisies of society. One such example is in the episode “Sex and the Daten City,” where Panty reveals her sex tape at her film’s premiere. This act is immediately met with backlash. It leads to her becoming a pariah, and her sponsors that initially supported her film cut ties with her. This is done similarly to the way many real-life celebrities are treated when their sex tapes are revealed.
The hypocrisy of this situation is that people publicly have a problem with pornography. But when they’re alone, they have no issues with indulging in it. This shows that the stigma surrounding pornography is mostly a performance. Instead of actually being honest about their desires and who they really are, people would instead present a facade. That is something that Panty and Stocking do not do in the series, and this is mostly what sex-positive feminism is about. It is not about going out and overindulging in sex despite that being something Panty often does. It is more about pursuing a sexual lifestyle that suits the individual. This is vital not only for female characters but also for all media characters if sexuality is to become normalized.
The praise many artists and writers get for creating characters like the 2013 Lara Croft is problematic. As they never adequately address the questions about how sex appeal should be handled. These acts are more regressive than progressive. In Tomb Raider 1996, Lara’s sexuality was on display during the story. She would actively respond to men like Larson Conway when they flirted with her. Her response was a part of her character. Instead of addressing the complex history surrounding how we view sex appeal and sexuality in visual media, the 2013 Lara Croft removes it. This leads to simplistic characters that entirely avoid that conversation. Ultimately all this does is create females characters who appear Asexual or have their sexuality be a non-factor for most of the story. If that were a deliberate choice the writer made, it would be fine since being reserved sexually is a character trait. But based on the interviews and articles, it seems writers want to address this topic. They want to acknowledge how women have been treated and how they are viewed sexually. For that to happen, writers have to make a real statement.
This does not mean every character should be like Panty and Stocking or that every female character should star in their own raunchy comedy. The issue surrounding sex in visual media is a serious problem. Whether we are talking about using sex to sell products, exploring sexual identity, having a healthy body image, or depicting sexual violence in visual media. Yet, when discussing that aspect about female characters like Lara Croft, we put a much heavier focus on their appearance. When instead, we should be focusing on how sex shapes their character or factors into the narrative.
Many articles on sites like The Verge and Forbes like to praise Lara 2013 for her sense of agency. But, these traits already existed in the classic version. There is even a credible argument that the classic Lara had more agency than the current interpretation. Lara 2013 often finds herself forced to continue her adventures due to the magical item she is pursuing. This is because the events only give her one path forward. In the 2013 game, she is literally trapped on an island unless she solves the mystery. While the classic Lara could choose to stop her quest at several points, but decides to continue forward anyway.
There is no denying some of the more problematic aspects surrounding characters like the 1996 Lara or Miranda from Mass Effect. But often, the issues people take with them is limited to their bodies and ignore other aspects of their personality. Critics should start raising their standards for female characters beyond they exist, and they are dressed conservatively. Until that happens, we will never be able to explore sexuality healthily properly.
What should be learned from PASWG is sexuality is fluid and will be unique for every individual. Simply expecting characters to adhere to one set of values will not work. This best seen in the last two episodes of the series.
Near the end of the series Stocking returns to heaven after gathering enough heaven coins, while Panty is left behind. This is done because instead of hunting ghost like Stocking, Panty chooses to have sex. Something she continues to do even after Stocking has left. This leads to her getting her hymen magically restored. It’s implied that this is punishment for her irresponsible behavior and Garterbelt knowingly played a role in this. Her restored hymen left her unable to access her divine powers and robbed her of her status as an angel. After hitting the lowest point in her life Panty decides to live a more wholesome sex-free life on a farm with her grandma.
While there is no denying that Panty’s lifestyle gets in the way of her duties as an angel, her grandmother disapproves of the change in her character. She goes on to tell Panty that “A woman is a free creature. Do what’s in your heart” (Tracie, PASWG S1: E13). The lesson Panty’s grandmother was trying to teach her was that not everyone is going to approve of how you live your life. But that doesn’t mean that you’ve made the wrong decision. So, long as you’re living life on your own terms. This mentality is what ultimately saves the day. Panty’s lack of shame over who she is allows her to lose her virginity and regain her angelic powers.
Sure I’m just a little Bitch and proud of it. But, guess what douche bag? That’s not the point. News flash I don’t need special fucking powers to beat the shit out of you. You and your half-dead face can give a speech about hymens, demon, and whatever weird words supposedly mean shit. But doesn’t change the fact that if any of you twisted mother fuckers get in my way I’m going to kick some twisted ass assess. Hear me dick I’m a hot bitch named Panty and no matter anyone says I do what I fucking want. (Panty Anarchy, PASWG S1: E13)
What needs to be understood about sexuality is how it’s displayed is going be different for everyone. While those displays certainly can be criticized and examined, ultimately, individuals need to be true to themselves. And while not everyone may agree with that decision. There should at least be respect for it. Otherwise, we will return to a time where people were persecuted for their sexual practices.
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