This post contains series spoilers for Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt. Check out the series on DVD, upcoming Blu-Ray, or Funimation's streaming service.
Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt is known for flaunting its vulgarity and sexuality like a peacock attempting to woo a mate, but as a fan of the show I've noticed very little discussion about the role that romantic love plays in the show. In a series where one character keeps a sex diary making note of her conquests in the bedroom, it might seem silly to go looking for something as boring and typical and, well, mushy as heart-fluttering romance. However, it's there, buried beneath all the body fluids and filth, and its presence in show that seems to contrary to its goals is a curiosity, to say the least.
It should be news to no one that we, as humans living with other humans in the big dysfunctional family called "society," place value on human behavior, oftentimes in arbitrary ways. Sure, murder robs its victim of free will and a right-to-life, so that's right out, but there are other behaviors that don't really hurt anyone but which we've at some point deemed to be detrimental to our culture in some way. The type of consensual activities in which Panty engages throughout the series are acts which bother a lot of people; there are legions of concern trolls out there who, under the auspices of looking out for women's health, like to proclaim (loudly, frequently, and without being asked) that women engaging in sex with multiple partners is a Really Bad Thing™. Sex, they explain, is something to be enjoyed within the confines of marriage only, and primarily as a means of having TEH BAYBEEZ.
That's, of course, an extreme example, but even many of us who are quite a bit less uptight about life in general still rank "love" higher up our value system than "sex," which itself is probably a bit higher than "sex without any investment in the other person." A lifetime's worth of romantic stories, tales of love strengthened by adversity, media inundated with improbable romantic comedies... these things, stirred together with whatever bits of moral flavoring remain from our upbringing, have helped to establish a pecking order of what we consider "proper" behavior.
I say all this because this anime, as one might expect, puts a twist on what we might expect of a "romantic" story, allowing us to examine the inherent value in the type of love relationship that we may not otherwise question. The obvious example of this and what drove me to explore it as a topic was the Stocking-centric episode, "Ghost: The Phantom of Daten City." In this episode, Panty and Stocking are out looking for ghosts to hunt, but the conversation inevitably turns to the types of men the sisters like. Panty can't seem to get a handle on Stocking's "type," but Stocking hones in on a probable candidate on her own. The "man" she discovers is actually a ghost, and a foul-mouthed, slovenly one at that. To Panty's horror, Stocking is smitten with him and the two begin to date. Panty, believing that she knows what's best for Stocking, tries to convince her that her romance goes against the natural order of things - after all, angels are supposed to hunt ghosts, not fraternize with them. Eventually Stocking and the ghost make plans to elope, and Panty's last ditch effort to stop them falls flat. In the end, the ghost dematerializes; comprised of the regrets of men who never fell in love, finally falling in love is his defeat.
The episode is a strangely somber one for this show, and the undercurrent of hostility between the sisters here begins to seem less like a rivalry and more like the formation of a substantial rift; I personally consider it the point during which the characters begin to fundamentally differ on what their Earthly purpose is. While their conflict seems on the surface to be about whether the man to whom Stocking has chosen to devote herself is worth her time, on a broader level my impression is that this represents the clash between two very different life philosophies, with Stocking getting her first real taste of the type of relationship that we tend to hold in higher regard and Panty holding firm to her "sex is life" outlook.
With this show, though, it's never quite that simple. This episode introduces a lot of muddy half-formed ideas that could be construed as criticisms against one way of thinking or the other. Take the ghost, for example. Garterbelt explains that the ghost was "born from the lingering regrets of men who had never tasted the bitter sweetness of love." In essence, not experiencing romantic love creates enough of a negative sentiment to bring forth a monster. Yet love, in this case, is almost entirely presented as a punishment; Stocking follows the object of her affection around like a puppy, makes food for him, endures his verbal abuse, and then watches as he fades away to nothing. Love, as it unfolds here, is also almost exclusively about experiencing loss - the loss of one's self, the loss of one's dignity, and, in the end, the loss of the other person.
The episode plays off the idea of "love at first sight" by twisting it to become a factor in the inherent impermanence of Stocking's relationship with the ghost. For all that we value long-lasting relationships, we certainly romanticize the idea that two people's eyes could meet across a crowded room and they could fall instantly in love with one-another without one knowing one solitary thing about the other. When Stocking first lays eyes on the ghost, she exclaims that she "feels like [she] was born to meet this man," as the protagonists of romantic stories often do. As it turns out, that in itself was part of the manipulative power of the ghost; Stocking was, literally, born to meet and fall in love with the ghost, because the ghost can only be defeated by an angel, and only after fulfilling the conditions of its imprisonment on Earth. It was not a matter of profound chemistry, nor a matter of perfect timing. It was merely a the result of an angel's duty and a ghost's nature.
Those with a less cynical outlook than I might argue that it's Stocking's love for the ghost that allows her to see past his bad attitude, weird looks, and propensity to fart all the time to something more genuine that Panty, an outsider to the relationship, isn't privileged to see and cannot understand. This could certainly be the case; people who aren't interested in love are probably not going to understand what all the fuss is about. The question is, though, why does lacking interest in falling in love often seem to invalidate one's existence in the eyes of people who hold love in high regard?
I once got into an argument with someone on twitter (I know, I know) who stated that people who never have children (or have only pets) can never comprehend the sort of love a parent feels towards one's child. Taken literally, that's a true statement; I will never have children, so I have no idea one way or the other whether the love I would feel towards my hypothetical child would be of a different nature and intensity than the love I feel towards my husband or two cats. The implied meaning of the statement, however, was that the love between parent and child is of a higher value/more worthy than the love between a pet parent and their pet, so people like me who refer to themselves as their pets' "mom" need to check themselves. For the record, anyone who says something like this to me can go screw themselves and cease passing value judgments on the choices I've made in my life.
Stocking, in her anger at Panty's well-meaning (but intrusive and patronizing) attempts to stop her from seeing the ghost, states that Panty wouldn't understand what she's going through because Panty's never fallen in love. As with my example, the statement is technically true, but there's the embedded meaning that Panty's concern is entirely invalid simply because her life choices haven't included the type of relationship Stocking now seems to hold in high regard. The "news flash" here is that, in a way, this all goes back to slut-shaming; "good girls" fall and love and are faithful to one person, while "bad girls" just have sex. The "bad girls," by nature of their behavior, invalidate themselves in the eyes of those who are following society's "rules." Panty might be concern trolling a bit - both sisters seem capable enough of making their own choices and enduring the consequences of those choices, so Stocking doesn't need Panty to babysit - but it's her personal lovemaking habits which are held up as reason to discount her viewpoint. In this situation, there are several value judgments being passed on the lives of the characters by other characters, and the outcome is fundamentally negative.
In spite of the fact that the bulk of the sexual situations in this series are of the "free love" variety, I think it would be difficult to argue that the series makes a definitive statement about this as a superior manner of sexual interaction. My personal interpretation, though, is that this episode in particular does demonstrate that there are positive and negative aspects to almost any sort of relationship. The greater the extent of our feelings, the greater our pain may potentially be, but the less emotional involvement we have, the more it may feel as if we're just idling away our time. It's a choice that many people make in their lifetime, and only the people making that choice know what will provide them with the most satisfaction. So quit passing value judgments on other people's sex lives, damn it!
Next time, I want to finally dive into the role of "rules" (or "Rrrrruuuurrrruuuu") in this series. Stay Tuned!