If there is one particularly awkward conversation in media critique, I would give the award to discussion surrounding the sexual interests of women, and tangentially, anyone attracted to men. Codified on the ‘obviously bad’ platform of media activism, the objectification and sexualization of women calls into question the pervasiveness of pandering to men’s interests by emphasizing sexual dimorphism based on men being powerful and women being their objects of pleasure. Besides the arguments of this outright not existing or doesn’t matter, the focus on sexualization brought up other inquiries: Can men be sexualized? Should men be sexualized? How exactly do we handle the sexy in our media? As straight women and queer people of all stripes became more visible and part of conversations in games, amorous and sexual interests that veer from the typically televised began to seep in, sometimes turning straight men into subjects to be looked at and allowing others the agency to look and express interest. But what is it that a critic or artist could learn about media and sexuality from the increased visibility of marginalized people? Like a burly angel sent down from on high, “Hot Ryu” shows that not only do people in games want attractive depictions of men, but that men need more thirst-inducing depictions of themselves to battle the toxic masculinity produced by the media, typically by other men.
It might be a little befuddling why there is such a big deal being made out of Hot Ryu. Ultimately, the only difference between him and any other depiction of Ryu is a beard, and sure some people like facial hair on a guy, but why the daddy cat calls and particular interest? So far, the pervasive conversation on sexualization in the media is very narrow in what aspects of a person could be considered sexual and therefore exaggerated to be a main point of focus for viewers. This focus is in line with men’s socialization, that body parts made to be covered up and only hinted at or revealed during intercourse are what can flag as sexual. However this isn’t the whole story, particularly since how men believe they are sexualized in the media, having muscular chests and arms, are not taboo to reveal in public. Because men often control the depiction of their gender in the media, they are looking for other men to identify with their characters, and men are not socialized with the expectation to be looked at sexually. Instead, they are depicted with a physical relationship with power, and men subconsciously expect other people to be attracted to that power. The hiccup is everyone isn’t necessarily attracted to the power men depict for themselves, rather traits that signal what kind of person they are especially as it relates to amorous and sexual activities. Coming from an American-centered industry, the beard, then, evokes qualities surrounding lumbersexuality, a fashion trend of ironic, exaggerated rugged masculinity that often centers around having a beard. It’s important to point this out because the main qualities of lumbersexuals are irony and reference, awareness that straight masculinity is crumbling under its own weight yet refuses to move and save itself. Despite Ryu being a Japanese character in a Japanese game, he can be co-opted into this particularly white American trend by simply being viewed by English-speaking audiences with American-influenced sensibilities, aided by the anime and Japanese video game convention of mukokuseki, or depicting Japanese characters as non-ethic-yet-vaguely-white. While bara conventions surely can be read into Hot Ryu, the lumbersexual is a prevalent mode he’s being interpreted by English-speaking communities accustomed to white-centered beauty. Hot Ryu doesn’t have to be actually white to exist in this context, and can co-exist with completely different reactions from other cultures, like Japan’s, whatever they may be.
Hot Ryu sparked a combination of this ironic masculinity with amorous interest despite what seems to be just a simple addition given the prevalence of grizzled white men in video games. Timing and broader familiarity with feminist analysis plays a part in this. Fighting games are notorious for sexulized depictions of women characters, and with Mika returning to Street Fighter, discussion was back around talking about unnecessary fanservice in an industry that should know better by now. Then out comes Hot Ryu, looking burlier than ever, in a way prepped to be looked at sexually much how the women are. Except it doesn’t work the same, rather, it’s absurd that just a beard would completely change how you see someone. But when beards are tightly wound in lumbersexual discourse, one is inclined to both roll their eyes yet lust after the wearer at the same time. When Hot Ryu became a meme and trend on social media, it wasn’t simply because he was hot to look at, but because his new beard entered him into ironic masculinity. The memes juxtaposed his hypermasculine persona, now moved into commentary because of the beard, against fan imagining of a sensitive and caring boyfriend, a trope contemporary men struggle with and parody through methods like lumbersexuality. Along with a sub-designation of Hot Ryu being Daddy Ryu, evoking the lumbersexual allowed those who like men to extrapolate fantasies in public through the irony men set up for themselves. Because there is a general lack of sexual flagging by straight guys in the media, people who like men outsourced that flagging to other symbols to engage with. Like wearing a red hanky in your right back pocket means you want to get fisted, having a quintessential lumberjack beard might mean you’re struggling with contemporary masculinity by making it a caricature. This means that the basic, yet uncommon, act of making men a subject, not object, of attraction is in itself a kind of critique.
So how does Hot Ryu change the sexualization conversation? Just on the (his) face, we see a reversal of standards on what constitutes something as sexy for consumption, namely complicating the power vs attractive object binary based on men’s socialized and marketed tastes. Instead we see audiences imbue agency through a knowing consumption, making a character a sexualized subject instead of object. The distinction is important, like the difference between retaining agency through choosing objectification, being the objectified subject, and being perceived as inherently an object for use. This creates a basis of critique of masculinity that isn’t solely on straight, cisgender men’s terms, as they resist being objectified through identifying with power and interpreting how they could be consumed through that lens instead of what actually is the case. Most importantly, this appropriation allows alternative visions of masculinity that are uncommon in media dominated by men depicting themselves but will likely relate to men through less exploitative ways as we continue to imagine future masculinities independent of oppressive power structures. The beard isn’t the end-goal, as it is wrapped in a lot of regressive politics, but when looking at strategies to challenge contemporary masculinity, we can cite these sorts of reactions and conversations for men on the ground level to reassess what men in power tell them masculinity is, and how masculinity functions in the everyday lives of those they affect.
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