The Myth of Fanservice

I contemplated starting this piece with a definition. We can’t talk of a subject we don’t understand, after all. I decided against it for one particular reason: we all think we know what fanservice is all about. Not only that, we all feel pretty damn sure that we can differentiate fanservice from regular writing decisions made taking into account chemistry, network likes and/or dislikes, actors schedules and/or behavior and just a general sense of where the writers want the plot to go. We’re all experts.

Or, we think we are.

Truth is, the term fanservice, as the fandom would employ it today has no real definition. That’s right, fanservice is actually in the eye of the beholder, because, in its origins, the term was used to describe scenes and/or storylines designed specifically to “excite” the viewer. And I do mean excite in the literal way, usually presenting a character (typically female) in hypersexualized outfits for the enjoyment of the mostly male readers/viewers.

Think manga – even comics.

In the last few years, however, the term has evolved to encompass anything that has little to no plot-redeeming value, but makes the viewer suddenly sit up and pay attention. If it has little impact on the actual story, but it pleases the audience, it’s usually considered fan-service. Some people, of course, have nicer terms for this – especially when it’s something short and innocuous, terms like Easter eggs.

But, I guess those nice people aren’t reading this. And since we have no other accepted definition of fanservice, we’re going to go with the last one. Consequently, this is the same one I’ve often seen used in arguments online, and it’s the starting point in what seems like a never-ending dispute. The term is employed alternatively by both sides of every “competing” fandom, as some sort of an insult. Your favorite character/ship/bromance is merely fanservice, they will scream, and the people they’ve directed that so-called insult will get mad and a whole thing about how each and every thing you don’t’ like is surely fanservice will follow.

Except, by any and all existing definitions, most of the things people want to claim as fanservice are just …not examples of that. Not if we use the original definition, and certainly not if we use the fandom “accepted” definition.

Relationships, in particular, seem to be attacked with this term regularly. Emma and Hook get all the screen time! FANSERVICE! Oliver and Felicity were not together in the comics! FANSERVICE! It’s like I can’t go a day without hearing the term bandied about by people who just don’t enjoy a relationship, or, alternatively, and most ironically, from people who just want another relationship to be canon.

(And, really, don’t cry fanservice while you’re asking for “fanservice” – that’s a) Guaranteed to backfire and b) Makes your argument seem petty and immature)

Not enjoying a relationship is perfectly fine. Few things are universally liked, and even less are universally hated. You are not necessarily wrong for choosing to like something that’s not happening, or for choosing to dislike what is. You are, however, wrong in thinking that, in a medium like television, viewer opinion is more important than network approval, chemistry and/or the writing team’s likes and dislikes.

Seasons are planned months, sometimes even years in advance. Particular storylines are crafted, polished and filmed months before they ever reach the viewing audience. By the time a show has any real and credible data about the fan’s opinion to a storyline/character, they’re usually so deep into what they already planned that it’s impossible to back out. Maybe, when a season ends a show can reevaluate, but to claim that, in the middle of a season, a show is changing something and/or introducing something because of “fan service” is not just misguided its plain wrong.

The argument is even more absurd when it comes to books, which are plotted, written, edited and published without much outside influence other than a few trusted friends. No, George R. R Martin didn’t write a particular fan theory into the books because he found it on Reddit, he’s had the books planned (sadly, not written) for ages.

Moreover, to claim that storylines that are three, four years in the making, storylines that involve the main characters and their continued evolution as human beings are merely “fan service” is to twist an already hard to define concept into something unrecognizable. Love is part of life, and sometimes a reason for change, be it for better or worse. It might not affect the plot in the way a villain does, but it advances it.

Want to know what fanservice is? Years of little hints with nothing to show for it. Tiny nods of, yes, maybe, in another universe, this could have worked. A touch in the shoulder from time to time. A kiss in the cheek once a season. Taking an essential element from a character in another medium and turning it into just a gimmick. Looks that go on for a touch too long and then no one ever brings up again. Teasing something you never mean to deliver, that’s fanservice.

Actually writing a couple, building a show around them, showing their highs and lows, their mistakes and their achievements? That’s pretty much the opposite of fanservice.

It’s just art imitating life. The good, the bad and the ugly parts.

Now, I’m not saying everyone has to like it. Like what you like. Ship what you want to ship. But when you’re going to argue against a canon couple, please refrain from using the term fanservice. To paraphrase The Princess Bride: It doesn’t really mean what you think it means.


  1. I’ve been saying this so much for the last three years I’m surprised I still have a voice left. The people who want to use this won’t hear otherwise. And so long as they get a reaction from the people they’re using it against, they’ll keep doing it. What CAN help (and what this article will hopefully achieve) is educating everyone else so that when the haters try to pull this out, we can ALL roll our eyes, ignore it and move on. 🙂

  2. This was a fantastic article. Truthfully until the past year I never heard the term fan service until getting into Arrow. I just block those people out because I don’t care to change their opinion and they aren’t changing mine. Generally my rule of thumb is to support and love my characters while talking with fellow fans. If I don’t like or care about a character I generally ignore them. It’s far less of a headache than dealing with some of the jerk fan boys.

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