The P Word

It’s Not Panic
Hint: it’s in this picture, and it’s not ‘panic’

Certain parts of the anime and manga thought-world seem ripe for unembarassed attention, and so I turn my attention to p-

-anties. I’ve wanted to write something about panties for a long time. Wait, no, that came out wrong. What I mean is, for some time I have been contemplating what one could make, ‘mythology’-wise, of the portrayal of panties in anime. And perhaps it is important to emphasise first that I’m writing not about real panties but about the portrayal of panties; real ones are, as Crusader has recently and eloquently pointed out, often ‘nasty’.

With that out of the way, let’s figuratively dive in.

I: The Pantyshot

obliquus
pantyshot obliquus¹

Before we turn to the panties themselves, we should consider how we (the viewers) perceive them.

One of the advantages over live action that animation enjoys is the ability to place the viewpoint (‘camera’) in an impossible position, without the use of CGI or other pieces of trickery (by contrast to live action, one might see animation as being a stream of trickery, but that’s another subject). So one thing an animator can do is provide a pantyshot where only the viewer perceives the panties concerned (pantyshot arcanus) , often by using an impossible camera (pantyshot arcanus impossibilis).

To do so – priveleging the viewer – is a demonstration of power by the animators. (‘Look on these panties, ye mighty, and despair!’) Even the most chaste heterosexual male must feel a certain amount of guilty gratitude to animators who take him beyond the limits of live action into the world of implausible angles and see-through pavements. In its impossibility such a shot also foregrounds the constructed nature of what we’re watching.

There are instances where the panties are perceived by one or more characters (frequently male) within the story, as well as by the viewers (pantyshot partitus). This is the domain of the fortuitous gust of wind – another demonstration of power by the creative team – the peeping tom, the tangling of feet and the interruption of clothes-changing. Such pantyshots allow the animators an opportunity to alter a relationship within the story, though they’re more usually glossed over with a swift moment of embarrasment or violence – or both.

Finally there’s the indirect pantyshot. minami-ke had a number of these, done in a rather ironic fashion. This is where a character within the anime sees the underwear concerned, but the viewers do not (pantyshot obliquus). Unsurprisingly, this is often a tool to poke fun at the tradition of pantyshots within anime.

II: The Pantyshot

The way that the panties are perceived (or not) is very important, perhaps more important than the panties themselves. But we do eventually reach them, safely insulated by the joy of text.

Consider colour for a moment. The colour of any given girl’s panties will obviously set off lots of associations and connotations in the viewer’s mind. Most of these will be personal – it’s rare for two people to agree on what they associate a colour with.

As analysts, what can we do with colour, then? There must be some associations broad enough for us to play with them. White, or rather lack of colour, may have a specific significance. The fact that it is a lack of colour – that no dye has touched the cloth – might be tied up with virginity. Not on a simple correspondence basis – that white panties must be a symbol of virginity – but I’m sure there’s something about perceived cleanliness and unspoiltness going on. To quote Kurz, ‘[t]hose are panties! Beautiful, pure, white! End of communication!’

III: Breakdown

NBT
All panties have been removed from this Najica Blitz Tactics screencap

Part of the enjoyment of good mechanical design lies in mentally taking the mecha involved apart, in examining each part in turn in exquisite detail. The composition of mecha action usually panders, understandably, to this taste in what details it shows and how it shows them. This naturally tends to reinforce the perception of mecha as a passive object – something we break up and reassemble in our minds – rather than active subject. And this is all well and good: piloted mecha are usually passive, inanimate objects, after all.

The breaking-down process I describe above was not, however, first identified in mecha anime. It’s a classic way that various media are supposed to treat the female body – encouraging the (male) viewer to break it into components, and lose sight of the woman as a woman per se in the process.

Now, how prevalent this sort of thing is is an open question,² and men are not uniquely guilty, but the pantyshot is a rather overt – blatant, even – example.

IV: Why?

‘I’d like to think that only 12 year olds never exposed to porn get horny from fanservice.’ So sayeth Owen. Perhaps this is true. But – leaving aside the kinds of people who find pantyshots exciting – I think it’s interesting to consider quite why a pantyshot should be exciting. [Again, I should point out that real panties are generally unpleasant objects, best avoided.]

I think there are two elements to the excitement that the pantyshot provides to our hypothetical ’12-year-old never exposed to porn’. The first element is simple: it’s the ol’ power play. For most women, at most times, having one’s panties seen is embarassing to say the least. There’s an obvious gratification to be found in the known or unknown humiliation of the pantyshot. To the 12-year-old, there’s a sense of agency to be found here – at a time of life when the shift from being acted upon by one’s parents to acting independently is just beginning.

The second element is to do with partial information. It is a commonplace – especially among lingerie designers – that strategic concealment is more arousing than complete revelation. The pantyshot plugs neatly into this: it is an extraordinary glimpse of a world far removed from everyday experience (of the 12-year-old – I wouldn’t presume to assume about you, dear reader!) and at the same time it actually shows the viewer very little. What we see is a piece of fabric, or more accurately a cartoon representation of said piece of fabric. The pantyshot claims to feed the 12-year-old another piece of that seemingly-eternal puzzle, ‘What are girls like?’, while actually telling him very little.

Afterword

As you widen the focus of an entry, the analytical content becomes blunter. It’s much harder to say anything at all about panties as portrayed generally in anime than it is to cover the role of panties in a particular series. Perhaps the logical next step would be something like a survey-and-conclusions entry on panties in Shuffle!. (My inner 12-year-old can think of some good ‘absent presence’ jokes for Episode 11, too.)

But perhaps what this entry would benefit from most would be others’ views. I appreciate that writing any serious remarks on the possible meanings surrounding the pantyshot may cause you to lose all self respect, but arguably that’s already happened if you’ve read this far.

Notes

1. Just to illustrate the joys of typography (yes, it’s fascinating) I thought I’d justify my decisions on this caption. I conventionally italicise captions. But faux-Latin is a foreign language, and so is normally italicised (but see below) within normal text; to indicate this, it has to be de-italicised in caption text. To further complicate the issue, Latin is written either in full-upper or full-lower case, so I can’t capitalise the first letter of the caption as I normally would. The rules of English are truly an art masquerading as a science, and the MHRA can just go and play [/ Can't touch this / Can't touch this / Can't touch this] for all I care.

[The exceptions to the 'italicise foreign words and phrases' rule are foreign words and phrases commonly used in English (such as 'cul-de-sac' or - in this otakusphere context - 'shojo'); an especially complex example is 'etc.', which as an abbreviation is normally not italicised as it's in common use - but the full phrase 'et cetera' is rare enough to require italics, at least in my opinion.]

As a final thought, note my not-so-arbitrary decision that the noun ‘pantyshot’ is masculine as far as Latin grammar is concerned.

2. Though I’d direct your attention to the tropes of the Petrarchan sonnett, to the cinematography of Michael Bay and to Sir Mix-a-Lot‘s striking statement that an unknown, idealised woman (shades of Petrarch’s Laura here?) has ‘little in the middle but she got much back’. Now I’ve linked Sir Mix-a-Lot to the sonnet tradition; I have achieved cultureclasm nirvana. I shall retire to a cave behind a waterfall, where I will receive acolytes and meditate.

Blogiography

  • CCY once wrote an entry which tackled the issue of fanservice in a serious way.
  • As did Stripey.

For the record, I disagree with them. But I said this entry would be about analysis not moral argument. Analysis is productive and something I specialise in, while 1500 words about why fanservice is A Bad Thing could [and probably has] be[en] done better by someone else (though you missed an opportunity if you didn’t title it ‘Bouncing Breasts Have Left Me In Despair!’)

  • [NSFW] The Mission to Deep Space recently featured an interesting post , which is a good, serious attempt to track the different levels of ‘ero’ content in eroge. (But when I say NSFW, I mean NSFW.)

4 responses to “The P Word

  1. My only regret about this post is being gratuitously quoted regarding 12 year-olds, even if it sounds totally appropriate in context. I digress.

    What I meant in my usual self-referential way in making that quote was this: Pantyshots are more satirical and social than they are titillating and erotic. With the exception of hentai, anime in general will almost inevitably display pantyshots where the target audience is of an age more disposed towards elements of its ilk that are more hardcore, which means that only the most innocent and sheltered of viewers will find it to be what people claim it does.

    I do understand that part of the umbrage comes from objectification and manipulative desensitisation towards what’s basically a taboo to display in public, but it always gets my goat whenever I hear people not watching something like, say, R+V due to pantyshots. These opinions are more superficial than most, and make no sense; it’s one thing to have pantyshots in a show, another to make them the visual focus while having a solid story derived on actual content, and yet another to have it be the visual AND story content.

    I find that a lot of people are unable to separate panties and story like the more conservative Muslim countries (and some would say, America) do religion and state. That the panties are there is one thing, that the story is relatively unscathed by it is another matter.

    Hypocrisy at work? You bet. Note that some people have been unable to watch ef due to this very mental block, or wilful blinder wearing, as I call it, in place. It’s not so much what the thing does in practice as it is the very idea of that thing, be it Shaft’s symbols or Gonzo’s pantyshots, and I find this very questionable, not to mention sad and close-minded, when it comes to watching something. Style is not substance. Pantyshots are style. Mistaking it for substance is committing a fallacy. I’ve found that Ubu Roi’s writings, juxtaposing the manga with the anime, have helped temper my opinion as to why R+V is still worth a shot, and I’ll be sticking to my opinion until further notice.

    This comment is also way too bloody long, so let me know if you want elaboration on anything. I’d rather leave explanations about some of my points out unless you don’t understand/want them.

  2. Ah . . . as you’ve probably noted by now, I have a tendency to grab others’ remarks and use them for my own purposes. I’m sure it’s true – up to a point – that the pantyshot is more common in series which are not aimed at the ’12-year-olds’ who are most likely to find them arousing. But your phrase neatly summed up the kind of schoolboy sexuality which I wanted to explore. (If pantyshots are most often satirical, why isn’t the pantyshot obliquus more common?)

    I think I’d have to disagree about distinguishing between style and substance, but I think I disagree with the choice of the terms rather than the basic distinction, if what you’re referring to are the differences between pantyshots being present, pantyshots being focused upon but not the core interest of the show, and pantyshots both being focused upon and being the core interest of the show. I’m not sure I’d choose to use style and substance to describe that – the two are, as far as I’m concerned, probably indistinguishable.

    Now, I’d say that Rosario + Vampire (since it was used as an example) shades into ecchi territory, but it isn’t in the league of – say – Eiken. There’s plot, humour and a slightly idiosyncratic romance too (whether these are any good is another question). I’d say there were much better reasons not to watch R + V than the pantyshots; but then this blog tries to avoid claims about what’s good, or what people should watch. Others do it better. [Yes, I am working on an entry about affection and quality, but it's a slow business.]

    I think there are valid arguments around the pantyshot’s role in objectifying the girl involved, about the pantyshot’s role in damaging anime’s reputation and about the pantyshot’s role in taking up time which could be more usefully spent animating something else (like big robots, fighting). A lot of that, however, could be said about fanservice more generally – and indeed not only in anime.

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