Thoughts on Free!, Shounen Ai, and the Female Gaze
In this image, Matsuoka Rin and his new dorm buddy are talking about which bunk bed goes to whom, but the screenwriters of Free! Eternal Summer like to have their fun with the script.
Not that I’m complaining. At this point, I don’t think anyone pretends to watch this series for its compelling storyline. We’re here for the boys and the fanservice, and Free! delivers spectacularly on both points.
A month or so ago, I read an article somewhere pointing out that Game of Thrones fails the female gaze, that while there is no shortage of breasts and bums in the series, we have yet to see male nudity exposed to even half that extent. And true, while there are handsome men to be seen at each turn, they are hardly ever depicted in a fashion that aims to rouse the same excitement in female or female-identifying audience members that all the naked ladies on the show give the men.
The lack of emphasis on the female gaze is not a new issue anywhere. In anime, a show branded ecchi is most certain to have boob shots, upskirts and at least one onsen scene where female bodies are at the mercy of steam rising to cover the correct parts.
But while there is nothing in the term ecchi that should imply that the sexy parts involve women only, it’s completely understood that there will not be an equal amount, or even any, exposure on the men’s part. No boxer shorts hanging a little too low on manly hips, or loin towels flipping at the onsen to show firm buttocks, or completely unnecessary close-ups of sweat rolling along the crevices of chiseled abs. None of that. Ecchi, and even hentai, is for the male gaze.
I enjoy Free! because it attempts to reverse that gaze. Impossibly hot high school boys strut around in nothing but their swimsuits for over half an episode, and even more precious than the nudity is how the camera favors female eyes, which is what sets Free! apart from other series with naked bishounen. In Fairy Tail, for instance, a running gag on Gray Fullbuster is that he unconsciously strips even during inappropriate times, and Natsu Dragneel himself wears only a vest on top of his muscled torso. Despite this though, as in Game of Thrones, neither Gray nor Natsu are ever depicted in a manner that aim to elicit arousal in women.
Compare the sensuality of the image above versus this screencap of Nanase Haru unzipping his fly.
But this isn’t to say that Free! is a woman’s paradise. For one, Free! gravely lacks prominent female characters. We only have 2 that matter, and they don’t even matter all that much, quite unlike, say, Aito Yuuki of last season’s The Comic Artist and Assistants. Said series fetishizes 4 different women, and Aito’s only purpose is to be the pervert from whose perspective the audience sees the girls, but despite that, he’s terribly important to the story, and it even revolves around him. In contrast, Matsuoka Gou, who is supposed to more or less serve the same purpose in Free!, can be written off the plot without much cause. The commentary that accompany her muscle sightseeing also tends to be repetitive, which makes me wonder whether there aren’t enough women in the screenwriting team.
Free! seems a man’s world still, and that shows even more in how it’s sexier when it touches into yaoi territory. Why is it so taboo for men and women to be on equal footing, especially when it comes to sexual desire and depiction, that media has to substitute another man in the woman’s place?
After all, that’s predominantly what yaoi is. As far as I know and I’ve read, yaoi is not a realistic portrayal of gay relationships, a telling statistic being that it targets female audiences and is written mostly by female authors. I assume, based partly on my own experience, that this is because women are able to identify with the uke of the pair, who is for all intents and purposes a woman, but endowed with glorified man parts. Female sexuality is so unexplored and unavailable in media that women must make do with putting themselves in the shoes of feminine men.
Free! attempts to prioritize the female gaze and it succeeds, but seemingly only by discarding female characters altogether. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy Free! and its endless supply of hot guys. I just can’t help wondering how much nicer it would be if there was a woman involved in at least some of the eye sex and the innuendos, which is why the appearance of Mikoshiba Momotarou is such a welcome blessing, although I very much doubt that Gou is going to be roped into anything remotely sexy anytime soon.
Still, Mikoshiba’s blank face while staring at the homemade cookie that turns out to have been made by Ryugazaki Rei, a guy, and not Gou as he had thought, was certainly one of Episode 3’s highlights for me.
I guess what I’m meaning to ask here is, when are we going to get a mainstream series, otome game adaptations not counted, where men can be sexy without being gay, where men are permitted to be objects of female desire?
I’d love to see a show that has both sexy men and women, where the camera does not favor just one perspective. If there are to be underboob shots, there must be an equal amount of frames that linger on the deep Vs of masculine pelvises and definitely more boys dancing like this: