Recently, Capcom announced that the preorder bonuses for Street Fighter V would be alternate costumes for characters. One of these costumes, attainable only by preordering at Gamestop, is a new look for Ryu, one of the most iconic characters. In this costume, Ryu is shirtless and sporting a full beard. The internet went wild with this news. The new Ryu, now dubbed “Hot Ryu,” quickly spread in all forms: fanart, articles, even a trend of tweeting out how Hot Ryu embodied the perfect boyfriend (you can check the hashtag #HotRyu on Twitter for examples of that). And this all happened on the very day that this new Ryu was unveiled.
In a word, it made me uncomfortable.
It took me a little bit to interrogate why exactly I was made uncomfortable by this sudden craze, and it suddenly struck me that this new, bearded Ryu embodied what is held up by many straight, bi and gay men, as well as quite a few straight and bi women, as the most popular and desirable trend in male sexual culture. As a gay man, it struck home doubly for me.
Gay male sexual culture has always acted as a pendulum, swinging between conforming to current straight male trends and outright rejecting them. When I was growing up, the twink was king. Twinks (thin, usually with little body hair, and usually younger men) were a rejection of what was considered hot in straight men at the time. Being gay was a statement in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, and twinks defined that statement. It also embodied what I could never be. I never thought of myself as “hot.” I was skinny, but that was all I had in common with twinks.
Now, of course, the pendulum has swung the other way. Now what is considered hot for most gay males is a guy who is “masc,” or masculine; someone who displays magnified traits of a “traditional male” (sometimes this is referred to as “straight-acting,” if you want to know just how closely to conformity the pendulum has swung). If you work out, have a six-pack, and have a beard, you are the epitome of attractiveness (for the most part. This discounts bear culture, for instance. I’m simply referring to a large percentage of gay males, not everyone). This, in turn, has caused a backlash towards anyone who doesn’t conform to these ideals, and can take the form of fat shaming, racism and even something that looks a lot like homophobia.
Even if you aren’t directly confronted by this, being in an environment dominated by gay men who follow this model can be crushing. Since I graduated college, I gained some weight (like many do, I’m sure). I thought my metabolism would last forever, which it of course didn’t. I’m not fat by any means, just a little overweight, and even that is enough to feel like you don’t belong in certain spaces. In San Francisco, this magnified feeling is even more amplified. You can walk by one of the several “gay gyms” in the city and instantly feel worthless. The posters taped to the windows and signs standing outside make it clear: you are a lesser gay man if you don’t work out. There’s also the troubling notion that if you aren’t attracted to these ideals (as I am usually not) then there must be something wrong with you.
Like I said, though, gay male sexual culture is merely conforming to straight standards at this point in time. It is also magnifying these trends, but it still is feeding off the idea of what straight culture says the “perfect man” is. This is interesting to me, because while we are in an era that tries to embrace the male that expresses himself and is sensitive, physically we still want him to be hypermasculine. The other problem with this: where does that leave all the men who fall outside of that spectrum (and there are a lot of them!)? The unsaid statement in this equation is also what makes me feel worthless when I pass by a gym full of gay guys who spend the day there: that the inverse is also true. If you aren’t working out, if you don’t have a six-pack, if you don’t have a beard, you aren’t hot. You aren’t anything.
Obviously this isn’t a conscious choice that is being made. Nobody sets out to make others feel bad about themselves by holding up an ideal that, frankly, they feel is attractive. What you find attractive is largely out of your hands, after all. At some point, however, this becomes systemic. At some point it is no longer about what one person finds attractive and, instead, it becomes a cultural norm. And at some point these norms start to become oppressive. Ryu was always someone that was considered to be an attractive character, and he’s certainly been featured shirtless before, but slap a beard on him and now he’s not just hot, he is a perfect man too? Does that mean that Ryu without a beard suddenly is less attractive because he is less “masculine?”
As an interesting contrast to how the internet reacted to Bearded Ryu, just a week prior, Rainbow Mika (or R. Mika) was announced as a new character for Street Fighter V. Rainbow Mika is a wrestler, dressed in an incredibly revealing singlet. She, like Bearded Ryu, is presented as sexual and as strong. The internet responded, some with outrage, others trying to keep a more even-handed opinion (see former Paste assistant editor Maddy Myers’ piece at The Mary Sue for a great example of the latter). The response is a complete turnaround from the response to Bearded Ryu. Whereas they are both sexual images, R. Mika appears to be more objectified in an industry that already has a problem with objectifying women. Men, on the other hand, are rarely sexualized in the way that Bearded Ryu is. And while Ryu’s alternate costume can serve both as a sexual image for those who are attracted to him as well as a power fantasy for the straight males the character was designed for, R. Mika doesn’t seem to be designed to also be a power fantasy for women.
There are cultural systems in play that tug at everyone, telling them that they need to look and act certain ways to fit in. This is something that has been true for most of history, and it is something that people have at times accepted and at other times have struggled against. It’s not an easy issue to solve, but it is something that we as a society can interrogate. When you lift up an image, even a videogame character, as a sort of physical ideal, remember who you are leaving behind when you make that statement.
Bryce Duzan is a freelance journalist and game designer, and strives to bring a queer perspective to board games and tabletop RPGs. He can be found on Twitter with the handle @Spincut.