You’ve seen him. You’ve heard him. There’s a strong likelihood you’ve played as him. Prince Zagreus has been an unavoidable presence online ever since the game Hades was born (or, reborn, from a lengthy period in early access) back in September. People have a lot of time for the Prince of Hell. I know I do. There’s something about Zagreus that recalls the earlier days of the internet — with his gray skin and blazing, mismatched eyes he could be ripped straight from the pages of a Homestuck fanfiction — and his melodramatic quasi-mythological origins bring to mind Buffy or Supernatural. You know, that era of YA TV when characters could face off against the most wretched denizens of human imagination and still find time to crack wise. And Zagreus is something else the world has cried out for: an honest to god hunk.
In a broad sense, a hunk is a character that appeals to the tastes of a male-attracted audience. You cannot make one out of whole cloth; he must be seen and appreciated, known and loved. Fan art is a good way to measure success. A hunk is first and foremost an aesthetic product, so when hundreds of illustrators feel moved to bust out the old Wacom tablet and pay tribute to a certain male character — and when their art is liked, shared, cosigned and underwritten by thousands more — friend, you’ve struck hunky gold. And it’s heartwarming to see so many strangers coming together to enjoy such a simple thing. Mutual joy is a pretty rare commodity online these days.
There’s a chance that my words so far, or even just the headline of this piece, have moved you to anger. If so, let me offer some soothing rebuttals:
- This is stupid! Yes, I know.
- If men can be sexualized, women can be sexualized as well! Couldn’t agree more.
- Go back to Tumblr! I wish I could. Sadly, sex is banned there now.
Nice, okay. Now that’s out of the way I can get down to some real journalism.
Cracking the Formula
So what makes a good hunk? As with religion, anyone’s taste in hunks is a deeply personal and private thing. I have, however, been working on a universal theory of hunkiness. For academic purposes, obviously. A classical hunk is distinguishable by a few key characteristics. For starters he needs a pretty face and a good build. Rippling muscles are nice, but not as integral as you might assume. He must be pure-hearted and honest to a fault, as well as just a little bit dim. Too much cunning is unbefitting of a hunk! Lastly he must be an idealist, working earnestly towards a lofty, ambitious goal: defending the planet from the Shinra corporation, becoming the world’s greatest sword fighter in honor of his childhood best friend, that sort of thing.
This psychological side of hunkdom is something many mainstream creators still struggle with when attempting to tap the hunk market. Take, for example, anime defense lawyer Phoenix Wright. This is a character who styles his hair with a utility knife and wears the same cheap-ass blue suit every day to a job for which he is hopelessly, disastrously underqualified. On paper he looks completely undateable. But the fan artists go nuts for this guy. Why? Because he’s got the soul of a golden retriever. Pure, good-natured helpfulness, from the tip of his toes to the ends of his mullet spikes.
Sharpening Wright’s likability — the yin to his yang, the toast to his beans — is prosecutor Miles Edgeworth. Edgeworth is the platonic ideal of a hunk’s foil: smooth, charismatic, prodigiously intelligent, dogging Wright’s every move in a rivalry that crosses personal and professional boundaries. They’re in love, basically, is what I’m trying to say.
Parallels can be drawn to another of the great hunks, possibly the greatest, in the opinion of this writer: the Dragon of Dojima, Kazuma Kiryu, hero of the beloved Yakuza series. He’s beautiful (duh), kind (saves babies and puppies), not very bright (the villains scheme circles around him) and has one lofty goal (to use his position as a career criminal to STOP ALL CRIME). For a foil he is gifted with Majima, a man who spends every second of his free time trying to psychologically destroy Kiryu by popping out of bins, surprising him in drag, and generally being a real kooky guy. Kiryu and Majima are, of course, also very much in love. Are you starting to see the pattern?
Yes, we had to get here eventually. Even among female audiences, hunks get big bonus points for being gay — or at least queer coded. It can seem counterintuitive, I know. But not without precedent. Even in 2020, searching the word “lesbian” online will bring up a lot of content that is patently not aimed at lesbians. But in this instance, I think the motivation is a bit different. Straight men do not write 300,000 word slow burn AU fanfic about, say, Rachel and Monica from Friends falling in love over the course of a single heat-soaked summer. Unless they do. In which case, my DMs are open, lads.
I think this comes back to the core appeal of the hunk: the fantasy of a man who is at once impossibly sexy and completely non-threatening. Straight women tend to feel safe among gay guys, hence why bachelorette parties swarm to LGBTQ nightclubs like boozed-up locusts. Yes, creepy male behavior is a part of it. But there’s also a safety in the unobtainable. It’s the same reason that so many hunks are written as slow, oblivious dummies. Attractive people are scary! Attractive people who know they’re attractive are absolutely fucking terrifying.
So we can observe that beneath the faultlessly smooth skin of a hunk swirls a miasma of contradictions: gay but available, stupid but not ignorant, emotionally vulnerable and yet physically invincible. Real men are not, cannot be like this. Nor should they be.
So what then? Are hunks toxic? Are they trash? Do we need to cancel them? Christ, no. They just need to be seen for what they are: a fantasy.
I meant it before, when I said that women can be sexualized. There’s nothing inherently wrong with boob windows, or a combat grade miniskirt. The issue arises when this style of writing and presenting women becomes so ubiquitous that viewers take them to be a reflection of reality. I don’t think there’s too much danger of that happening with hunks. Female artists are quickly and mercilessly lampooned for storylines that tread into silly or self-indulgent territory. Meanwhile, James Bond is on his 25th movie. Go figure…
My point is, everybody deserves to have a bit of fun now and then. And hunks are fun. When done right, anyone can enjoy a good hunk, straight men included. They’re a refreshing kind of silly; vulnerable rather than tough, sweet instead of cynical, openly fluid in their sexuality. Imaginary as they are, there’s a little hunk in all of us. And I think that’s just grand.