The latest Hot Ryu meme is just one more example of what happens when the creativity of fans collides with media development. Often times when this happens it speaks volumes of what the fans consuming the media want.
Street Fighter recently released the new custom outfits for those who preorder the latest game, one of the more popular designs is one of Ryu which makes him bearded and shirtless. No longer is Ryu that baby faced Japanese boy of the past now he has transformed… into Hot Ryu.
It didn’t take long for a Meme to be born as Fans started developing the sort of personality this new Ryu would have. It is a similar fan-omenon that was seen with the Ryan Gosling “Hey Girl” Meme and Feminist Mad Max Meme. In an article discussing the new sexualized look, Maddy Myers explains that the focus of the Hot Ryu meme, like the male-focused memes before it, has “Ryu participating in an imagined relationship with someone, in both a sexual and an emotional sense.”
When you look at who Ryu was before the beard there isn’t much personality to him. He’s a fighter who represents the country of Japan. If you were to ask him what his hobbies were the simple answer might be, “Fight Ken and Train.” But now the Hot Ryu Meme has given him a personality that many fans find desirable. One that, combined with the new look, makes Ryu one of the Video Game World’s most eligible bachelors.
Since Street Fighter doesn’t focus on character development, personality, or backstory that leaves an open void in the fandom that fans are just itching to fill. It isn’t anything new and is one of the reasons things like fanfiction and role playing are so popular since it gives fans the opportunity to explore for themselves the history of a character. As Myer’s points out, what fans discover with the Hot Ryu meme is not merely a figure for the female gaze, but one who fits a characteristic female fans are looking for. A strong man who doesn’t belittle his imaginary female partner.
The same fascination was seen with the Feminist Mad Max Meme, a series of internet pictures that emphasized Mad Max’s feminist actions throughout the movie. In a world where female fans are seeking out strong feminist messages these two internet sensations are another way fangirls can express their desire.
Another example of this can be seen in how fans can interpret characters of a book or show as a Person of Color(PoC) or Queer. Hermione Granger of Harry Potter, isn’t lacking in personality but is seen in numerous pieces of fanart as a girl with dark skin. Fans cling to the single fact that nowhere in the seven book series is Hermione’s skin color discussed. Instead she is described as a girl with dark curly hair, a description that can be applied to a girl of any color. For many this small crack of detail was enough for them to establish a very plausible fan theory, one that speaks to a minority group. This is also a reason why fans theorize queer relationships among characters so often, as it would bring a different dynamic to groups that mainly consists of white/cis characters.
The connection fans feel towards characters is a bond established on first sight and grows over the course of the media. Where the creator might focus more on one aspect of the story instead of a fan favorite character is a spot where fans see opportunity. Sometimes these opportunities take the form of basic fanart or fanfiction and sometimes they spiral into something much more.
One of the biggest examples of how fans have come together to build personalities happened in the Free fandom before the anime even aired. Free is an anime by Kyoto Animation (KyoAni) in 2013, that features a boy’s swimming club. However, before it became an official anime it was an untitled project teased to fans in April of 2012 with two basic images and a basic 30 second promo.
There were no names for the characters, the swimming team, or really anything else regarding the anime, but yet a fandom was born and dubbed the Swimming Anime. Swimming Anime had its own tag on twitter and tumblr where fans would ship and discuss the character. Fanart was created and so were fictional personas, music videos were made, and there was even a dating sim game created for it.
The popularity of the show was so incredible that KyoAni announced their intention to make an official anime. That is right, fans were the reason Free was made. Before Free, KyoAni was most popular for doing shows centered around cutesy girls (K-On, Tamako Market), but the explosive interest in Swimming Anime revealed the need for a show that appealed more to the female audience.
When the official anime title and character names were announced fans were divided. In the year from the initial concept to the official release of the anime some things had changed, but ultimately fans seemed pleased to see the object of their attention finally get a twelve episode season. While Free went on to claim a second season and a large fandom, there is no doubt that the year of speculation that captivated fans in 2012 was a great time. Kotaku mused after the initial announcement of the anime, “Can the Swimming Anime be as good as it was when it wasn’t real? When it wasn’t real, fans could project as much as they want—which is what made it fun.”
It is an understandable fear. When a fan created personality doesn’t match up with what is presented in “canon” it is only natural that we all feel a little disappointed. It’s another missed opportunity to see minorities in media and where important discussions can be easily brushed under the rug. When Hot Ryu gets turned into a movie and proves to be a misogynistic jerk our lives will forever be ruined.
However, I should point out not all is lost. There are a few examples of times when show creators have heard and encouraged fan theories. In the case of Free, the show provided numerous fan service scenes and dimensional relationships between all the boys that made fangirls squeal. JK Rowling, while she hasn’t commented on the race bent Hermione has proven that she reads fan theories and supports them.
Fan theories are a powerful tool that writers can use to gauge the community on their media and see what might be lacking. While creator’s by no means are required to heed the voices of fans, there is no denying that the way people interpret media is a telling device of the issues we face as a community. When critics praise a well written gay couple, or criticize the token black character, or even turn a masculine manly man into a progressive feminist, fans are conveying a message of characters that effect them. Together, fans have a voice that can help writers, artists, and producers make inclusive media.