Writing about sexual objectification in fighting games poses a unique problem, because every character in every fighting game is objectified by design. Not sexually objectified, per se – but treated as an interchangeable object.
Fighting game characterizations often consist of a small collection of key signifiers; the designers have to do a lot with very little when it comes to this genre. At their best, fighting games use “show don’t tell” methods to characterize a fighter with only a few clever strokes (e.g. Johnny Cage’s tattoo of his own name in Mortal Kombat shows his ostentatious personality). At their worst, fighting game designers fall back on racist and sexist tropes in order to define a character.
Street Fighter, given its stated premise that each character hails from and somehow represents a different country, often falls into regrettable territory when it comes to oversimplifying its heroes. So let’s keep that knowledge in mind as I attempt to tackle what might be too confusing and complicated a debate for a Friday afternoon: the difference between “sexiness” and “sexual objectification.”
First, let’s talk about “sexiness.” Where do attractiveness standards come from? We can certainly tell they exist in games simply by looking at the fandoms that have sprung up around various virtual favorites. It seems to me like society has a firm opinion as to what “sexy videogame women” should look like, whereas opinions on “sexy videogame men” seem … more complex. I wrote an article several years ago about how odd it is that the lady babes of games could share the same clothes, more or less, whereas beloved dudes of videogames seem to have more body diversity. (Although they could all do better. But I’ll get to that.)
For example, BioWare’s notable “hot guys” include Garrus, Thane, Fenris, Varric, Dorian, and Iron Bull – each of whom has their own determined, lustful fandom. In terms of body diversity (and species diversity), not to mention varied personalities and aesthetics and styles, there’s a whole lot to work with here. Definitely moreso than we see for female characters (even in BioWare games).
You read the Mary Sue, so I don’t need to explain to you that we live in a patriarchal society. But maybe you’re new here, and it truly does come as a shocker to hear that while our society has defined pretty explicit standards for female attractiveness, male attractiveness doesn’t have quite the same firm set of metrics. That’s changed a little bit, though not for the better; disordered eating among men, particularly gay men, has increased. That citation should tell you a lot about who is beset and judged by standards of attractiveness most often in our culture: women and queer people. That’s starting to change for men who aren’t queer, too, but that’s not a good thing. It’s vital to question why we find certain qualities attractive, and to try to undo some of the cultural expectations that we’ve all ingrained unconsciously about which qualities we enjoy.
It’s also good to remember that some of our ideas about “sexiness” when it comes to female bodies are, unfortunately, inspired by sexual objectification in the media. Here’s an example of how sexual objectification works: women’s bodies are used to sell products for all genders.
I’m not saying anyone is “bad” for liking what’s considered to be a conventionally attractive female form. I’m just saying you may want to consider that you’ve internalized those “tastes” via the media around you. As for the “men are visual when it comes to attractiveness tastes and women are not” myth, I think that arose because of sexist and reductive attitudes about sex itself, as though it’s a transaction that women perform passively and that men consume. I also think it’s often used as a reductive method to shut down conversations like the one we’re about to have. So, let’s instead take a page out of the Garrus fandom’s book when it comes to considering some more unique fantasies. About space dinosaurs. It’ll be good for us all, and good for society. Am I getting off-topic? Yes. Yes, I am.
Let’s talk about “Hot Ryu.” Also known as a new costume design for Ryu in Street Fighter V, which inspired a meme.
At first blush, the “Hot Ryu” meme seems to be in direct contradiction of everything I’ve just said, doesn’t it? He’s got absurd muscles, the sort that might require a person to consume high quantities of cod filets in order to maintain. But let’s leave aside his muscles for the moment, because I think the beard is actually what took Ryu’s look from “meh” to “yessss”. Some have theorized that his new beard hides the polygonal, play-dough shape of his chin, allowing him to rest gently on the “cartoonish cuteness” side of the Uncanny Valley. As for me, I just happen to like beards. Always have.
Ryu’s characterization is one that Street Fighter fans already know well: he’s the character who represents the country of Japan, complete with stereotypical stoicism and devotion to his training. He’s presented in contrast to Ken, who represents the over-the-top cockiness of Americans. Ken and Ryu’s rivalry has been central to the series since the very first Street Fighter … and it’s not particularly interesting, if you ask me. There’s very little characterization of either man beyond “this one represents Japan and this one represents the USA.” That’s been about it, for many years now.
“Hot Ryu” changed all of that. When the “Hot Ryu” meme began, inspired by little more than Ryu’s new beard design, entries in the meme focused on personifying and humanizing Ryu. The people who participated in this meme did not zoom in on shots of Ryu’s muscles and post the word “abs” over and over, although many references to his physicality did occur; the crux of the meme was about Ryu participating in an imagined relationship with someone, in both a sexual and an emotional sense.
Hot Ryu the type of dude to take you out for hikes in the mountains and support you the entire time as you take in how beautiful it is
— Bloody Honey (@BloodyBHoney) August 31, 2015
Hot Ryu reminds you that you should really take breaks from the internet every so often. “Let’s go for a run!” he says. — Gita Jackson✨ (@xoxogossipgita) August 31, 2015
@xoxogossipgita Hot Ryu has no idea what you’re talking about when you rant about RPG systems, but he loves how passionate you are.
— What, me misandry? (@Karebuncle) August 31, 2015
Almost instantly, “Hot Ryu” became a “boyfriend” character. It wasn’t just that people thought his beard was cute – although, they sure did – it was that he instantly got personified in a particular way. His physical appearance became secondary to the meme almost instantly, in spite of being the element that had theoretically kicked it off. I would guess that this is due to the fact that women and queer people already are used to framing “personality” as core to “sexiness.” (Refer to Garrus, once more.) The meme became less of a celebration of Ryu’s beard in particular, and more about a rallying call for the idea of a “sexy videogame man,” and what that fantasy might entail.
For example, Nico of Justice Points told me that she didn’t find the Ryu design to be physically attractive, but she still participated in the meme: “It wasn’t really about his looks – he was still granted agency via most of the meme tweets by constructing a personality from what is perceived to be good traits from men.”
When I asked my friends about their thoughts on the meme, they compared it to the memes “Feminist Ryan Gosling” and “Feminist Mad Max.” The latter is a similar example of a fictional guy who seems to have feminist values; it’s clear from the mythos of Street Fighter that gender equality has been achieved, plus the world of the game supposes that everybody has magic powers that would allow men and women to compete in balanced battle. Given the fictional world in which Ryu lives, it’s not too much of a leap to presume that he would be a fantastic boyfriend – and it’s as nice a fantasy as any of the others presented by the world of Street Fighter.
Although important commentary has been made about the possible implications of fetishizing Ryu’s muscles and beard, and perhaps more should be said about how this plays into his characterization as a Japanese man, I think it’s also important to note how often the “Hot Ryu” meme divorced itself from fetishizing Ryu’s physical form, instead catapulting into exploring a pretend personality for him. In other words, it seems to me as though when women and queer people fixate upon a “sexy male character,” they first clarify: “let’s make sure he doesn’t treat us like shit.” That is considered what’s sexy above all, and that is why characters like Garrus and Thane have massive followings – it’s not because people think space dinosaurs are sexy. Okay, some people do, but for most people it’s the fact that Garrus has been personified and humanized by excellent writing and voice acting. Since Ryu lacks those things, a fandom rose to create it for him.
This presents a stark and deeply depressing contrast to how women in fighting games have been treated. Not only do the women announced for Street Fighter V so far – Cammy, R. Mika, and Chun-Li – have all the same body types, they also are sexually objectified by the camera in a way that simply does not happen to the male characters. When Cammy performs her Special in Street Fighter V, her crotch is central during the slow-panning shot that happens in the middle of the move; this also happens to characters like Ken, but the difference is that Ken is wearing baggy pants, in contrast to Cammy’s thong leotard, so the outline of his genitals cannot be clearly seen. It’s not only that the women are wearing small outfits; it’s that the camera lingers on their backsides and cleavage during the slow-motion sequences of their intros, outros, and special attacks. The result is that the fandom is encouraged to comment about R. Mika’s looks (refer to the YouTube comments on her announcement video for examples). The game humanizes her by giving her funny lines and cool moves, but the camera dehumanizes her at every turn.
As a fan, I know that Chun-Li, Cammy, and R. Mika each have differing, unique personalities. From what I’ve seen of R. Mika’s personality and jokes so far, I love it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I end up using her as one of my mains. And here’s the part that’s really going to blow some minds: I even find all these of these women to be attractive. Mostly for their personalities, because that’s pretty much how women and queer people are encouraged to roll in our society, but I also love that each of these women have rippling muscles and a cool sense of style. And yet, the way that the camera frames their crotches and breasts? It unnerves me, because it feels like their body parts are being presented to me as objects that I am meant to see as sexually appealing. And that type of dehumanization is hard for me to watch.
I also recently read another queer woman’s take on the duality of how women’s breasts are represented in games, specifically vis-a-vis Quiet’s character in Metal Gear Solid V. The sexual objectification of women dehumanizes them and removes their ability to participate, consent, and have sexual agency. To give some examples in the “positive” column, I’ve written before about how I actually liked Bayonetta’s ownership of her own sexuality (with some caveats, admittedly), and how I think a fan-made porn game about Elizabeth Comstock gave her more agency than she had in BioShock: Infinite. I like the idea of a woman character having sexual agency in a game. I even like “sexy” portrayals of characters, although I do think it’s worth delving into what we mean when we talk about “sexiness,” (e.g. body diversity, race, etc.) and whether we’re bringing any hang-ups along with us as we navigate those murky waters.
So, I hope I’ve made it clear that I’m not against the idea of “sexiness.” But “sexual objectification” – the way that the camera treats Cammy and R. Mika – well, that I just can’t abide. The presentation of their bodies as sexual objects that lack agency makes me feel uncomfortable. Looking at an image of boobs, without contextualizing them as belonging to a consenting person, or even contextualizing them as part of a human body doing regular human stuff (e.g. breastfeeding), can lead people to develop internalized body image issues, not to mention that it can lead to an inability to enjoy sex. It’s not “empowering” to present bodies in this fashion – it’s the opposite of empowering, because it removes agency from the person to whom those body parts are attached.
Again, this is very difficult to define in the context of fighting games, given the way these games treat bodies as interchangeable gears in a fun machine. But the way that Street Fighter V presents Ryu and the other male characters does differ significantly from the way in which R. Mika gets presented, and the next time you watch the animations for the characters’ special moves and pick out their costumes, I hope you’ll notice those differences and bear them in mind. Because those differences have led to a difference in how fans treat Ryu versus how they treat R. Mika, and I really think that’s a shame. When people talk about “Hot Ryu,” they humanize and personify him, because he is already treated like a human by the game and by society. But there is no meme about cuddling with R. Mika on the couch while watching Netflix with her, because she is perceived as a sex object, not a person. And that is really too bad! Because R. Mika would probably be a very hilarious and delightful girlfriend, based on what we know about her so far. Also, that meme sounds like it would be extremely cute!
It is okay to have a crush on a fictional videogame character. It is okay to find that character sexy. It is okay to write reams of fanfiction about them. It is more than just okay! And if you ask me, the best fantasy is one that prizes a partner’s humanity and participation. That seems like a sentiment worthy of endless memification.
(image via Capcom)
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