Evangelion, Anime, and ‘Sexualisation’ as Moral Panic

The grey area between objectifying text and sexualising viewer

I’ve recently fallen down a Neon Genesis Evangelion rabbit hole. The release of the fourth film in the remake tetralogy (the ‘Rebuild’) woke up an obsession that’s been dormant since the early 2000s. In what is probably the best English-language critique of the original series, and one admirably untroubled by the obsessive attachment that still haunts fans like me, Film Crit Hulk argues:

It is utterly impossible to talk about Evangelion without first talking about how it outright sexualizes 14-year-olds. And it does not play coy with this subject. It sexualizes these characters with a brazen attitude that may seem completely alien to a Western audience.

Film Crit Hulk’s immediate response to the show’s depiction of minors is “YIKES!” — and even after dissecting the issue, their final word is still that peremptory, all-caps end of discussion. Evangelion unarguably has problematic attitudes to women and girls. But I think I think using the word ‘sexualisation’ is a problem for three reasons:

  1. the word itself is characteristic of a culture so scared of representing the sexuality of children that it misreads certain depictions of minors’ bodies as sexual depictions of minors.

This piece of writing is an attempt to offer a response more complex than the peremptory “YIKES!” to fans of anime (and media more broadly) who are troubled by what they see and perhaps by their own reactions to it. After all, there is no such thing as an unproblematic text, so if you were to discard all problematic texts you’d have nothing to read, watch or play. What matters is how you as a viewer approach the political problems of the texts you consume. Before I get in to any of that though, let’s talk about Evangelion.

Neon Genesis Evangelion — First Impact

Evangelion really struck a chord among young men in the late 1990s (myself included), and many of them still carry a torch for the show now (same). When the English translation of the final ‘Rebuild’ movie landed on Amazon Prime earlier this year, a friend sent me this meme:

I think this meme highlights two important things for the discussion to follow:

  1. A significant number of fans of Evangelion are men in their late 30s or early 40s, and

In a parody SCP Foundation piece, an adult security guard under the spell of an Evangelion-related anomaly divulges the impact the show had on him to one of the characters from the show: “I’m less ashamed of who I am because of you, Asuka. I really mean that.” Later another character notes that “quite frankly, we don’t have the resources available to dedicate studying an anomaly this mundane.” Clearly, obsession with Evangelion is annoying, but mundane enough that it can be wearily lampooned.

Even then, part of the joke is an elaborate imagined defence of the depiction of the 14-year-old female characters in the show:

Researcher Crone: Hey, I finally looked into this fucking show, why do all the kids wear skin-tight suits? Kinda weird.

Agent Stane: The sexualization is the fucking point, you absolute moron. Maybe if you used more than two brain-cells when analyzing media you can come to the conclusion that it’s an intentional critique of Japanese otaku culture’s sexual hang-ups and is meant as a trap to lure viewers in under the guise that the show is an ordinary anime. Did you ever think of that, you shit-clown?

Evangelion seems to sort its viewers into two camps — those men titillated by the voyeuristic depictions of teenagers’ bodies and defensive about it, and those who see the text itself as borderline pornographic. At the heart of this division is ‘sexualisation’.

Context matters

Before I go any further, let me be clear about one thing. The discussion I’m about to open could be misread as me arguing in favour of a sort of lecherous open season on teenage girls. I don’t want that. That’s basically already the world we live in, it’s not great for girls or for women, and the negative impacts of this sort of cultural representation on women’s lives are pretty well established. I’m trying to talk about men’s complicity in the texts they consume, especially when those texts include objectified depictions of female characters.

The YouTuber Noralities lays out the context of such objectification in this video. To summarise her argument, she points out that Japan’s laws on child porn have always been lax and have only recently begun to be tightened up after significant popular advocacy. She points out the shocking statistic that in 2020, for 29 years straight Japan had recorded its highest ever yearly total of child abuse cases. She also highlights the high-profile case of a manga artist being charged with possession of child pornography. This is the culture that produced Evangelion, and twenty years later, produced the Rebuild films, which have a noticeably more objectifying gaze than the original TV series. Anime clearly exists in a culture that marks out the sexual objectification of minors as acceptable.

In the West we have almost the exact opposite approach. There is a large academic literature critical of the idea of ‘sexualisation’, but one quote, from the first sentence of the preface of the book The Lolita Effect (2008) sums up the brunt of this criticism pretty neatly: “children are sexual beings.” We really struggle with the notion of children having a sexuality, partially because we are so anxious that recognising it at all makes them prey to adult men. This is a rational fear backed up by statistics and experience, but like many such rational fears, it has disproportionate and often censorious effects. In Western media, the sexuality of children enters an almost unrepresentable state at around the age of 10 to 18. It’s easier to censor it completely than to acknowledge its complexity.

Consider the police raid on a 2008 Bill Henson exhibition in Australia because the artworks depicted naked 12 and 13 year old girls. This is despite the fact that said artworks contained no sexual content whatsover. Consider this Huffington Post reaction to Moonrise Kingdom’s (2012) chaste depictions of teen sexuality, or the controversy that attended the release of Kids (1995) in Australia. The Western approach undoubtedly protects children from sexual assault better than the Japanese model. It also renders the sexuality of children nearly invisible in popular culture. It means that Westerners are much more likely to interpret any depiction of teenage girls’ bodies as sexual depictions regardless of their content. For this reason, fears of ‘sexualisation’ have all the dimensions of a moral panic. This is the source of Film Crit Hulk’s “YIKES!”

Defining ‘sexualisation’

At first blush, the word implies a process by which a a body becomes a sexual object; hence sexual-ised. Thus it presupposes that said body was not sexual to begin with, and that sexual-isation can make a body, or a representation of a body, somehow objectively or inherently sexual. So, step one: sexualisation is the process through which sex itself becomes indelibly written on the body.

By establishing that there are non-sexual bodies, the idea of ‘sexualisation’ implies that there are bodies that should never be considered as sexual. In fact, the word is only ever used to describe the inappropriate attribution of erotic or sexual character to a body. Nobody bothers to talk about appropriate sexualisation, which presumably must occur for erotic desire to function. Which therefore makes ‘sexualisation’ about morality — most obvious when discussing children — and thus makes it entirely culturally contingent.

Culturally contingent sexual morality is at the heart of the discomfort Westerners experience when engaging with animated Japanese depictions of teenage girls. As Film Crit Hulk says, Evangelion “believes it is operating in a ‘normal’ range that is not our normal”. So, step two: Some bodies must be preserved as primarily un-sexual to conform to cultural or moral norms of sexuality.

And here’s the rub: conceptually a body or a representation thereof cannot be both inherently (un)sexual and also contextually (un)sexual.* The tension between hard and fuzzy boundaries to describe the same thing points to a troubling subject lurking in any analysis of “sexualisation”: the viewer. So here we get to the real, subjective questions:

  • Who sexualises, and what enables or restrains sexualisation?

‘Sexualisation’ is a rhetorical fait accompli that conceals these questions under its wowserism, but I think they’re worth engaging with and answering.

On unconsciously occupying the position of sexualising subject

I felt confronted by Film Crit Hulk’s immediate identification of the ‘sexualisation’ of Asuka and Rei. I’d be lying if I said it was all conceptual dissatisfaction with the word; I responded that way partly because on re-watching the show again recently, I simply couldn’t see it.

I had a bit of a crisis at this realisation — was I somehow broken? Was my own internalised misogyny preventing me from seeing something that should be obvious? Like apparently everyone else, Asuka has been one of my favourite fictional characters of all time since she stormed onto the scene in episode 8 of the original series of Evangelion. Was my attachment to Asuka just a response to the sheer erotic accessibility of her pubescent body on screen? And if so, am I some sort of pervert?**

But there’s another available read, which is that I just didn’t find anything in the show particularly erotic. These are teenagers, and quite clearly pitched as such to the audience. There’s also a huge difference between the near-nudity of a skin-tight bodysuit and sex. The way ‘sexualisation’ is bandied about is too bound up in metatextual moral questions to acknowledge that the viewer’s own cultural context is a key part of the equation.

I think when placed in the context of the discussion above, there are two elements to ‘sexualisation’ at play here:

  1. Sexualisation is made possible by the way the text frames its characters, but

Texts can thus position viewers as sexualising subjects, but that does not mean all viewers experience a given character as ‘sexualised’. This is how sexualisation can be both inherent and contextual, objective and subjective. This is related to the ‘male gaze’: a disembodied (though thoroughly gendered) perspective that prioritises access to women’s bodies as objects of sexual gratification. I think it’s useful to bring up the word ‘object’ and its counterpart ‘objectification,’ here which I think is a much less morally-charged term than ‘sexualisation’.

This is not to claim that ‘objectification’ is some kind of clinical or values-free word. Objectification of women in media sucks too. But shifting to this term will let me consider the way Evangelion positions female characters as objects of the male gaze while also considering the political consequences of calling such positioning ‘sexualisation’.

(Source: the Hawkeye Initiative)

Perhaps one of the best ways to quickly tease out the difference is with reference to the Hawkeye Initiative, which draws out the gendered double standard in the ways women are depicted in comic books by putting men in their place. The image undeniably positions both subjects as objects for the viewer’s gratification — but there’s no actual sex in either image. It might be the artworks’ framing that presents the viewer with objects to desire, but it’s our cultural understandings of sex that makes us see sex in these images.

How texts position the viewer as a sexualising subject

So let’s talk about how Evangelion objectifies its characters. Before we do this, I think it’s very important to note that the requests texts make of their viewers change over time. In the case of Evangelion and its Rebuilds, you can see just how much the male gaze has changed in the last 20 years. The original series gets a lot of its ‘fan service’ from the characters getting into or out of the bath or shower. There are some obvious exceptions like the infamous hospital scene in End of Evangelion (1997) or Shinji visiting Rei’s apartment, but these scenes also do some pretty good character work. The fact that Rei doesn’t care about Shinji seeing her naked but that Shinji gets embarrassed tells us something about both of their characters, even if the scene also uses Rei’s naked body for a pretty cheap and very gendered laugh.

On a recent rewatch, none of this stuff felt particularly erotically charged to me, though many of these scenes and the ultra-skintight ‘plugsuits’ are undoubtedly voyeuristic and arguably gratuitous. I was certainly not unmoved by the fan service when first watching the show at age 17, but people and cultures change. I can still see at age 40 that the show wants me to ogle Rei and Asuka, but it’s significantly less insistent about it than it was in 1999, and when compared to the rebuilds now.

The rebuilds’ attitude to the two young women’s bodies is… difficult to behold as an adult Westerner. Here are some screenshots to show you what I mean. To set the tone, I want to show you how brazen these films get. Evangelion is an unashamedly horny text and below is the most egregious example. The cut opens with Shinji’s face in the centre of the screen, framed by Sakura’s thighs. You’re already looking at him because that’s who Sakura has been talking to. As Sakura falls to her knees, her vulva falls right into your eyeline. The cut uses the grammar of cinema to pretty much force you to look at Sakura’s genitals.

(source: Evangelion 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time)

Sakura is at least an adult by this point. The Rebuilds are slightly less brazen when it deals with the teenagers — but only slightly:

By the cinematic grammar of shot-reverse shot, Shinji seems to be talking to… Asuka’s crotch? (source: Evangelion 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo)
This time he seems to be having a conversation with Rei’s thigh gap (source: Evangelion 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time)
This is, for all intents and purposes, a 14-year-old girl. To paraphrase Hannah Gadsby — this was a choice. (source: Evangelion 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time)

It’s pretty clear from the framing of these shots (and they are, sadly, typical) which parts of Asuka’s and Rei’s bodies the text thinks are important. And this is troubling when you consider that the characters are coded as teenagers. Sure, one of the movies points out that Asuka has aged 14 years mentally while her body has stayed the same, but that just feels even more troubling. What sort of person is erotically attracted to an adult’s mind in a teenager’s body? The literary archetype is obviously Humbert Humbert. And here is the moral question at the heart of ‘sexualisation’. Where a critique of objectification points out the fact that the text unironically positions the viewer as Humbert but remains agnostic on the viewer’s morality, a critique of sexualisation assumes the viewer shares the abhorrent moral position of the text.

These images are objectifying images, definitely. At best they position the viewer to ogle the characters the way a hypothetical pervert might ogle schoolgirls on a train, at worst the character poses would not be out of place in porn. But there is nothing inherently or objectively sexual about them; there’s no sex going on and nobody is talking about sex in the scenes they’re taking from. The viewer is the thing introducing sex into the equation. That’s the viewer’s complicity in the text’s objectification. The text can take you into a strip club, and it can pay for a lap dance. But you are the one who gets – or does not get – aroused.

Why does this matter?

This might sound like I’m making excuses for Evangelion, or for the offputting horniness of anime in general. I’m really not. As a long-time fan of the show, this discomforts me. I hate having to include a disclaimer about “weird gender shit” when I recommend this incredible work to my friends. There are just no excuses for this beyond “the artist was horny and knew his audience was too, and anime has some weird attitudes to adolescent girls”.

It might also sound like I’m splitting hairs, and I might be, a bit. But I think there’s an important political difference between objectification and sexualisation. To my ears, the admonishing tone that so often accompanies these critical discussions of “sexualisation” in media (“YIKES!”) assumes that all viewers experience these texts as sexual texts. I think we can have a productive discussion of the ways texts represent women and the harms such representations do while also engaging viewers experiencing culture shock or ready to question their own erotic attachment to problematic texts.

With that in mind, I want to return to the questions I posed above and try to answer them.

Who sexualises, and what enables or restrains sexualisation? I would argue that the viewer sexualises rather than the text, but the text can do work to enable or restrain the process.

Who is complicit in the process? The viewer again, but the broader culture in which the text is situated at the moment of viewing is also implicated.

Can a character be ‘sexualised’ in the absence of a viewer? Put differently, can a text sexualise in a vaccum? No, I don’t think it can. A text can present a female character as the object of a sexualising male gaze, but ‘sexualisation’ is about a relation between a viewer and a text, and through it, to the broader cultural context that condemns or enables it.

What are the political consequences of sexualisation, and on whom do they fall? I think it would be gauche to claim that the primary victims of this sort of portrayal aren’t women, and young women at that. Of course the cinematic male gaze impacts and influences the way men look at women in the real world, and of course any text that asks its audience to ogle teenage women’s bodies is engaged in a feedback loop with a culture that turns a blind eye to the sexual assault of minors.

But the reason I wanted to write this piece was because I think there is a secondary set of political consequences that impact men who are living in a misogynist culture while trying to be less awful to women. Anime is often troubling to Westerners because we do not share the mores of the culture that produced it. Thus shock at Evangelion’s treatment of girls and women does not come from the text — it comes from you, the viewer. What matters is how you respond to that shock.

I italicised a few “alsos” in my analysis above. In a scene where Asuka or Rei are naked, the nudity can be both gratuitous and also important for character development. We need to acknowledge that the “alsos” are hard to deal with as a male viewer who also wants to take feminism seriously. When a text tries so hard to position you as a sexualising subject, and that text is also a brilliant work of fiction, it’s hard to deal with.

To put it in the terms of this analysis, male viewers need to be able to spot objectification in texts or they will likely be accused of sexualisation.

I want to finish with an example. Of all the deeply objectifying scenes in the Rebuild movies, the one that unsettles me most is the one of Asuka trying to get to sleep in Thrice Upon a Time.

(source: Evangelion 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time)
(source: Evangelion 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time)

The scene is undeniably positioning the viewer to read her teenage body as an erotic object. She’s slowly writhing around on the bed in her underwear, shot from an angle that accentuates said underwear. But she’s also saying “I’m tired of pretending to sleep. Will I ever be able to sleep again?” The fiction has established that the previous catastrophes have pushed the world into a permanent summer. Earlier scenes show lushly animated torrential rain. The effect is to perfectly conjure up the insanity-inducing existential dread of insomnia in a humid climate.

I’ve wrestled with insomnia at times in my life. I’ve also lived most of my life in a humid climate where the nights are miserably damp. I’ve thrashed around on a bed in my underwear so desperate for sleep that the past and the future slip away and only the tightly-wound, stringy present remains. I recognise Asuka in that moment. Acknowledging that Asuka is one of my all-time favourite fictional characters, I read this scene as profoundly intimate, rather than erotic. I know the film is trying to position me to ogle her, but the result, for me at least, is identification.

Reading texts as a man in a misogynist culture can be difficult, especially when you want to be part of a change to that culture, but the good news is that your discomfort is politically productive. Lean into that discomfort, recognise your complicity in what the text is asking you to do, question it, resist it, and decry it. The text might objectify its characters, but you don’t have to sexualise them.

*This is, of course, not strictly true. The difference between sexuality as the law defines it through the age of consent as a limit and as it might be biologically imagined via our understanding of puberty as a process makes possible a body that can be “inherently” ready to engage in coitus but is “contextually” prohibited. The fuzziness of ‘sexualisation’ is easily intelligible because the cultural understanding of sexuality it’s built on is also fuzzy.

**I raised the possibility that I was in love with a fictional teenager with my therapist, who cut me off immediately with a laugh and told me, no, I just identified really strongly with her. Given how much I’ve always hated Shinji, I think she might be right, and that might be scarier.

PhD in Modern History and government functionary. One-time historian of peace and protest, now researching and writing about work.