taking the nuclear option

Note: for those of short attention span I recommend reading the conclusion first and working back from there, as it makes far more sense in far fewer words than the rest of the post.

For the past few days I’ve been trying to come up with an effective example that could serve to illustrate what I see as the distinction between two- and three-dimensional fandom. In the end I realize that the best way to explain my point may be to begin with the most extreme case and work backward from there; it’s not a perfect solution but the imperfections of the case can hopefully be ironed out with further discussion.


Two-dimensional: Any image or motion picture in which the characters’ visual aspect is entirely fabricated by human artifice. This includes comics, graphic novels, animation (both traditional and computer-generated), video and computer games, etc.

Three-dimensional: Any image or motion picture in which the characters’ visual aspect is represented by one or more real human forms.

Fandom: The objectification of a person or thing by assigning it an arbitrary use or aesthetic value; further discussed below.

Anime: Unless otherwise noted, this term refers to the collection of modern Japanese two-dimensional visual culture that includes anime, manga, video games, etc.

The Nuclear Option

The case I want to start with today is one in which a distinction between two- and three-dimensionality has already been litigated. In the case of John D. Ashcroft, Attorney General, et al, Petitioners v. The Free Speech Coalition et al, the Supreme Court determined that “the right of producers to create child pornography using computer-generated images if those images are not “obscene” under Miller v. California, or produced using real children (New York v. Ferber) [is protected under the Constitution].” Setting aside issues of personal morality for now, let’s examine the reasoning behind this decision. As I see it, the Supreme Court is saying that there is a fundamental difference between the production and consumption of two- and three-dimensional art in that the former is a victimless act. However repulsive and morally abhorrent it may be, the sexual objectification of an entirely fictional character is qualitatively different from the objectification of a real human being.

This is a position I agree with, and is the basic foundation of my theory on the distinct nature of two-dimensional fandom. It is also a position that is controversial, and I expect it to draw a bright line between those who share my stance on the issue and those who don’t see a significant difference between two- and three-dimensionality in terms of fan orientation, consumption, and objectification. Before drawing that line, though, allow me one more example: the case of the Grand Theft Auto series of games. When playing GTA you’re put in the pilot’s seat and enabled to commit a range of fictional crimes against two-dimensional, fictional characters. What if your neighbors and local law enforcement staff were in their place, within the game world? If you think there is a qualitative difference between shooting a virtual representation of a fictional character and a virtual representation of your neighbor, you may agree with my position.

Both jerking it to kiddie porn and shooting your virtual neighbors are acts of objectification, reducing human images to base forms for sexual or violent consumption. The difference between the two examples is one of informed consent – the child is presumably exploited in the process of media creation, while if your neighbor was cast as an extra in GTA: Hometown Rampage he or she would participate with a knowledge that the kid next door would spend hours of quality time blowing their brains out. The informed consent distinction is a significant one, but not so for purposes of this argument. Both the consumption of child porn and our hypothetical neighborhood GTA cast are examples of the objectification of real human forms.

The difference between these two examples and the objectification that occurs in three-dimensional cinema is that filmic violence and sex are perpetrated by other characters within the media, and it is up to the viewer as consumer to accept or reject the position into which he is placed by the narrative. Regardless, the viewer is an observer, not an interested participant as he is in the consumption of pornography and violent video games. There are visual theorists that would argue this point but that’s another huge tangent I’m not prepared to address here.

Fandom and Objectification

So what does all this have to do with being an anime fan? I would contend that any act of fandom is an act of objectification. Not necessarily a negative, destructive or morally objectionable one, but by establishing the relationship of a fan to an admired thing – be it an actor, a movie, a band, a car, a sport, an athlete, a stick, a symphony orchestra, or an anime character, you become a participant in a set of codified social norms. These vary from fandom to fandom, but can generally be broken down into two categories: thing fandoms and people fandoms.

In the first case we have the fandom of things: cars, sticks, trains, guns, flowers, etc. These things, as objects, are by their nature meant to be treated as such – i.e. objectified. There is no other possible way to relate to objects than through objectification, assigning a use or aesthetic value to them and appreciating them for that attribute. Humans are value-placing beings and placing arbitrary value in objects is a matter of course. Given this, fans of objects have a wide variety of natural participatory avenues open to them: they can freely build, modify, and create their own objects in the pursuit and enjoyment of their hobby.

In the second case we have the fandom of people: actors, athletes, musicians, celebrities, etc. While the natural mode of relating with objects is through objectification (assigning them an arbitrary use/aesthetic value), the natural mode of relating with other humans is qualitatively different. Normal human relationships are grown organically through sustained contact and communication within a social framework, eventually developing into what we normally refer to as a “relationship” between individuals. The fandom relationship is quite different; it is remote, objectified, unnatural for this reason and more strictly codified than other sorts of relationships. The person in the role of “fan” is restricted in regard to what he can do vis a vis the person who is the object of that fandom; invasion of personal privacy and other forms of personal access are frowned upon. Unlike the hands-on relationship of object fandoms, the fandom of people forbids sustained close contact. It is this codified relationship that differentiates “fandom” from “friendship” in human terms.

Falling somewhere between these two extremes is the province of this discussion: media fandom. Physical media itself is an object which can be collected and manipulated, but the actors can only be approached thorugh the codified objectification outlined above. You may be able to see where I’m going with this: as the Supreme Court said in its opinion regarding child pornography, there are certain rules that govern human relationships. Children should not be exploited, actors and private citizens should have their privacy respected. Two-dimensional characters, on the other hand, have no such rights. They are, in essence, objects.

And that’s the crux of my argument. As objects, two-dimensional characters can be created, manipulated and collected, interacted with in all sorts of ways that three-dimensional characters cannot – at least not within the bounds of law and social more. This creates natural opportunities for the extension of a media fandom in unprecedented ways, as we see in the case of anime, manga, gaming and related pursuits. Doujinshi, garage kits, cosplay, fansubbing, and anime music videos are only some of the avenues of fandom made increasingly viable by the nature of two-dimensional characters as objects. Additionally, the transition of fan to creator becomes an organic one when the medium is an object; the more immersed in and practiced one becomes in the fandom the more naturally these skills are applied to perpetuating the objectified item itself.

A further and more radical argument that can be made is the moe one: that it is precisely because the character is an object and has no life beyond the screen that it is easier to immerse oneself in two-dimensional fandom. Unlike an actor who walks off the set back into his or her private life, the 2D fan can rest easy with the knowledge that the character they admire is perfectly consistent with what he has come to know and love on screen. This pure, simple essence is comforting to those who ascribe to this (admittedly fringe) element of the fandom.

Possible Objections

“Dude, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m an anime fan ’cause I like to go to cons and screw insecure underage chicks- err, meet people with the same hobby. That’s it.”

This is what I would call the “anime as pastime” argument. I wouldn’t say it’s really a fandom, though, as it doesn’t involve the objectification of the pastime; it’s just a catalyst for human interaction. For example I might say that I’m a baseball fan, but mean that I enjoy getting together to play (or watch) ball with my buddies on Sunday afternoons. If what I actually meant was that I was a fan of the game mechanics then I would be a fan of baseball as an object; if what I meant was that I liked keeping track of the players then I would be a people fan. With anime it’s the same deal: some people use it as a way to meet other like-minded people, but this is “fandom” in a looser sense than I’ve defined it here.

“What about us seiyuu/cosplayer/idol fans? Where do we fit in?”

You’ve just identified yourselves as people fans, not object (anime character) fans. Next.

“So you’re saying I can’t be an anime fan if I don’t involve myself in making something related to it?”

Not necessarily. You’re a fan of anime as a medium, though, not as an object. The hands on approach only applies if you see anime as an object to be manipulated through fan activity; as a media fan you collect and watch but don’t participate in further interaction.

“I just like anime for the story, and all this “objectification” talk is a load of crap.”

See above; you’re probably a fan of anime as a storytelling medium instead of a tinkerer who sees the work as a malleable object. Different strokes for different folks.

“You think pedophilia is ok? You sick fuck.”

I think there’s a difference between exploiting real children without their informed consent and drawing pictures of naked girls. The former is a hideous, unforgivable crime. At this point I don’t have a determined moral stance on the latter.


In the end it seems that there are several different levels of anime fandom. First we have “anime as pastime” fans, people who consume anime as a means to some other end and would just as soon replace it with something else that would suit the same purpose. This category shades into the “anime as medium” fans, those who see special significance in the visual form, style, storytelling or other aspects of the medium and often enjoy collecting it. This in turn shades into the third category of “anime as object,” those fans who see anime as something to emulate, play around with, modify, parody, and write lengthy blog posts about. It is this third category for whom the difference between two- and three-dimensionality becomes significant, and the thrust of this piece may thus be lost on those not ascribing to this particular type of fandom. I probably should have put this all in the introduction, but it’s only in the process of writing that I’ve been able to hash it out. If you’ve made it this far, congratulations – I daresay it would make more sense if read from back to front.