I vividly remember the comments that Free first received back in 2013. “Who wants this fujoshit?”, “wow this is gay”, “it’s just fanservice for girls.” Now, I was on /a/ at that point, so my understanding of the vibe surrounding the show in those early days is understandably biased by the community I was a part of. That said, it would be simply obtuse to claim this attitude isn’t present in other forums of discussion. A significant number of male otaku are unwilling to give a real chance to Free and other shows like it merely because they come across as being “pandering to fujoshi”. The issue with labelling all female otaku as fujoshi aside, there’s a number of serious issues with this outlook. I’m not going to bury the lede here: yes, Free panders to a specific audience, as does any other piece of media. That it’s so consistently belittled for doing so is merely a sign of the latent misogyny that lingers like a phantom in the hallowed halls of anime discussion.
Let me preface my points here by making one thing clear: it’s okay to not like Free and it’s even okay to not like Free because it’s focused on boys. This video is, in no sense, an attempt to shame you for being a straight guy. I may not be one myself but I am a lesbian, boys do not appeal to me, I’m so disinterested in men that I renounced being one and have run from maleness as quickly as my feet have allowed. I, too, tend to prefer series focused almost entirely on girls a la K-On or Aria. Of the many anime I’ve given a 10/10 only 4 of them have male protagonists and in all but two of those cases, my favorite character is female. I’m a mouthpiece for yuri fandom, an ambassador for Kirara. Guys categorically do nothing for me in terms of attractiveness, so they have a higher bar to clear in making me come to like them and I’m not exactly an eager acrobat. Anyway, no need to belabor the point. Simply put, I hardly spend much of my time watching the seasonal female-aimed anime with ikemen galore. For a series like Free or SideM to grab me, it has to be incredibly good. That I’m open to them at all isn’t even proof of my superiority to the lowly masses who scoff at the mere hint of a male muscle. I have friends who just don’t watch series like that outright and that’s a perfectly acceptable choice to make.
Hooooooowever. That you can turn your noses up at series like Free in a perfectly acceptable way is not, in any sense, evidence of the fact that doing so is the norm. Rather, a few minutes spent in the discourse surrounding these series in primarily male-oriented circles will reveal that these shows are dismissed out of hand entirely because of who they aim for. “I don’t want to watch this because I don’t like manservice” is a perfectly fine statement, though in some cases it betrays a misunderstanding of what the show is actually like. “I don’t want to watch this because it’s fujoshit” indicates a deeper, perhaps subconscious misogynistic impulse, one that needs to be examined and snuffed out if we’re to create a balanced and welcoming community.
First, it’s worth looking at how shows like Free are treated compared to similar series, ones which are probably aimed at men and without a doubt focused on girls. Fortunately for comparison’s sake, we have Harukana Receive this season, which makes for a great parallel. Another anime about a summer sport, it too features less clothing than you’d be able to get away with in any other serious show. In both cases, the activity itself is not merely an excuse to deliver titillation and tits so you can touch yourself but is there to function as an actual vehicle for drama and characterization. They’re remarkably similar series, really, with the various rivalries and partnerships in the sport actively compared to relationships. And of course, both have a significant amount of gay subtext laced between their characters.
But, Harukana is treated differently than Free. Of course, there’s the basic fact that straight guys are into the sweet, sweet T&A that Harukana provides while utterly uninterested in the smorgasbord of muscles that Free has on offer. But the differences go further. Even when Harukana is considered a fanservice show first and foremost — something that does happen, I can’t deny that certain viewers are turned off by all the ass — there’s none of the implicit, “this show is fujoshit, aimed at women, and thus wrong.” Men are used to being pandered to in media, something that’s just as true in anime as in life generally. The male gaze may not be appealing to every guy but it doesn’t feel viscerally off-putting the way that its counterpart does, at least not to the same degree. Those who manage to make it past Free’s barrier of boys are able to engage with it for what it is, a stellar character drama with absurd production but many never make it that far even if they’d enjoy it because there are preconceptions when it comes to the idea of “shows aimed at women”. People will give Harukana a chance, even if they aren’t interested in the fanservice, in a way that doesn’t really happen for Free, at least not in male-dominated communities.
And this brings me back to what I was saying earlier. Every single anime you watch is, in some ways, pandering. I guess if you find some indie animator like rapparu who’s making things for themselves and not for profit, that may not be the case but you’d be hard-pressed to convince me that the corporate stooges controlling committees have any motive but money on the mind, and thus, a demographic they must aim to appeal to. It’s true that not all works pander on an explicitly sexual level, as fanservice-laden series do no matter who they’re directed towards, but there’s some sort of pandering going on whether you recognize it or not because if there weren’t, the series would have no audience it could safely rely upon. The rare show that truly does get funded in spite of being a pure passion project with no clear point of appeal is just that, an exception, one that proves the rule.
Once you accept that everything is pandering, it becomes hard to justify throwing something in the trash just because it’s given that oh so horrifying label: fujobait. Let’s really unpack what it means to criticize something for being aimed at women, or even fujoshi if we’re giving the benefit of the doubt to the series’ detractors and believing that they separate the two.
Women have always been otaku. Of course, back when the term was more clearly derogatory it was easy to use men as the common scapegoat, as it fell in nicely with pre-existing stereotypes about a certain group of unproductive, unlikeable failures. However, even back then women existed, enjoying the same media as their male comrades alongside content aimed more specifically at them. But as time has gone on, women have begun taking more and more seats at the proverbial table. Series like Free and Yuri on Ice might have some men who like them but it’s no mystery who’s buying all those Blu-Rays. Hell, other popular works like Love Love which maintain success in a market where BD sales are rapidly declining are notable for having a significant minority of female followers; in the West it occasionally seems to be a majority. Women are exercising their power in the industry now, rising up the ranks of various staff listings and pushing for series to be aimed towards them. If you’re used to media that near exclusively panders to you, at least outside the stray shoujo adaptation every once in a while, then the massive sales some of these series get could mark a real paradigm shift and an uncomfortable one at that. The reaction to this being a misogynistic attack on the women who enjoy these works is a problem but unfortunately it’s not an unexpected one if you understand the general dynamics of fandom. After all, “to the privileged, equality feels like oppression” and male otaku have certainly been privileged in having works aimed at them until now.
Of course, someone could counter this and point out how certain people, probably described as feminists or SJWs, criticize series like Harukana for being male pandering all the time. They might claim that just as a place like 4chan can like that show and hate Free, so too can Tumblr hate Harukana and love their speedo-wearing boys. But that’s no more than a whataboutism. The latter group is significantly less powerful and a good bit smaller in the industry. Straight female fans may not love the bouncing boobs that populate many works in the medium but they tend to accept them as a simple fact of how things work. Even if that weren’t the case, I’d gladly criticize them too. It’s fine not to like shows aimed mainly at men or mainly at women but utterly writing them off is wrong in either case and you don’t have to look hard to see me arguing with my fellow feminists.
I’ll freely admit that I’d love Free a hell of a lot more if you replaced all the boys with girls. The scenes that focus on fanservice are hardly the bulk of the show — I wouldn’t be raving about season three every single week if that were the case — but it is there and I’d switch it for something that actually appealed to me in a heartbeat. However, I was still willing to give the show a shot and when I did, I managed to enjoy it when my preconceptions weren’t blinding me to its points of appeal. This is an ability that I need to develop further, of course. I’m sure that plenty of the male idol shows I’ve skipped without second thought every season actually had some interesting stuff to say, though I can at least take solace in the knowledge I do the same to many female idol shows as well. But I’m not so haughty a person that I can’t admit when I myself am part of a problem, as I’m willing to do here.
Like I said at the start, those who just can’t enjoy shows about boys can go on doing so. Far be it from someone with my proclivities to shame you for that. But if you can enjoy those types of works, if you can like your HeroAcas, your Haikyuus, your Hunter x Hunters, and your Hajime no Ippos, then please, give these series a shot. They have lots to them beyond the fanservice, much as a show like Harukana Receive does and I want nothing more than for everyone to try the works which they have the potential to adore. Shutting yourself out of a potential favorite simply because it’s made for women is silly and besides being grounded in a subconscious, almost certainly accidental misogyny, it’s simply harmful to yourself. I believe that this community has the ability to become a great place, one that can help many as it has helped me. You don’t have to like Free to contribute to that but at the very least you need to not judge it for being aimed at women.