What is interesting about the way that Chun-Li has been eroticized is that her thighs violate typical beauty standards.
I like Chun Li. However, I am hard pressed to initially tell you why. Certainly, I know next to nothing about her as a character. After all, she is a part of a fighting game, not a genre known for its excessive interest in plot and character development. While I have beaten Street Fighter II as Chun-Li numerous times, I don’t remember what her ending was all about (then again, I can’t recall any of the endings of the various characters in the Street Fighter series). Mostly, all I know about her is what she looks like.
Chun-Li is an attractive enough character in my estimation. However, I wouldn’t say that I have the hots for her, though I know that there is a fan base that clearly does, especially (it would seem) because of a particular physical trait of hers (but more on that in a moment). However, if you asked me to name the more iconic female characters in video game history, I would likely include Chun-Li amongst characters that I tend to know something more about because they have been given at least slightly more personality than a fighting game character, women like Lara Croft, Samus Aran, Zelda, and even Princess Peach.
Of course, the overall significance of Street Fighter II is undeniable amongst fighting games. It is the game that is initially responsible for the growth of the mad popularity that fighting games enjoyed in the early ‘90s (Mortal Kombat would be released a year after Street Fighter II and did, of course, contribute to this popularity as well). Thus, Chun-Li serves as the initial representative of the female sex in the genre. In this sense, Chun-Li is the First Lady of fighting games, and she is unusual in some regards to how the genre has evolved in its representation of female fighters.
The evolution of the fighting game genre has seen a much greater emphasis on the kind of B-movie quality that this kind of game possesses. Certainly, it is a genre focused on violence as spectacle. These are games about people who beat each other up competitively. Much like B-movies, which are indeed more often concerned with what viewers see than with what they think about such a film’s plot or character development, this emphasis on providing banal and visceral pleasure through witnessing violence has only been complemented by the addition of developing characters that allow for additionally banal and visceral forms of spectacle, the explicitly sexual. Like the B-movie, fighting games seem to specialize in provoking a quick and dirty response to blood and breasts.
Capcom’s follow up series to the Street Fighter franchise was Darkstalkers, a game that largely used classic monsters and characters associated with the horror genre as models for its fighters (upping the potential for associations with violence) and a number of extraordinarily immodest female characters, like Felicia and Morrigan, that upped the potential for erotic spectacle. More infamously and more recently, the Soul Calibur series has included female characters of nearly impossible physical physiques, the sorts of women that if Russ Meyer were still alive, he would have certainly found the time to write scripts around should they also happen to be real. Other characters, like the ladies of Dead or Alive, have made even more explicit the impetus for presenting highly sexualized characterizations of women as part of the central spectacle in the fighting game genre. Not only are the Dead or Alive girls ludicrously endowed and underdressed, but they possess unlockable outfits, like bikinis, lingerie, and fetish costumes, suggesting that they are intended to be dressed up in order to be undressed by players’ eyes. The Dead or Alive spin off, Beach Volleyball, with its emphasis on voyeuristic activities, like photographing the posing and preening cast members, makes no effort to disguise the interest of the series in simply providing its fans the pleasure of leering at virtual flesh.
Taki from Soul Calibur
Seen in retrospect, Chun-Li is an extremely modest female fighting game character. While by no means a sexless character, Chun-Li has relatively reasonable proportions. Indeed, she looks practically pre-pubescent by comparison to Soul Calibur’s Taki for example. Additionally, Chun-Li's chest is also fully covered, not an especially common mode of dress for female characters in the genre these days. While she wears a modified qipao, the reason for it being slit up the thighs actually serves a functional purpose, one very much related to what Chun-Li does since such modification allows for movement that a more modest qipao would not.
Nevertheless, Chun-Li’s outfit does allow for the potential for voyeurism. This traditional Chinese apparel is made potentially more sexy because of its more contemporary modification, and indeed, players both then and now have focused on the exposure of the character’s thighs, resulting in many such players eroticizing them.
What is interesting about the way that Chun-Li has been eroticized, though, is that her thighs violate typical beauty standards. Certainly, a woman with thick thighs would not be one commonly acknowledged to be highly sought after in the United States for example. After all, the standard for the female body in America is most often the slimmest physique possible. Diminishing most parts of the female body is often much more desirable than building them up. That Chun-Li’s thighs violate this rule is additionally interesting because of what building the body represents in contrast to the traditional way that women have been fetishized often enough in both Western and Eastern culture, as fragile, but beautiful objects that are to be protected from things like effort. Chun-Li’s thighs, instead, seem to represent that she does something.
Other fighters in Street Fighter II are associated with specific types of fighting. Ken and Ryu are known for the ability to throw a kind of “fireball” and even more notably for their Dragon Punch. Dhalsim has those crazy stretchy limbs, and Vega is wickedly fast. Chun-Li’s special attacks tend to revolve around kicking.
As a result, Chun-Li’s sexuality becomes something more than an incidental quality to be admired merely because she inherently possesses an extraordinary physical trait. Chun-Li’s thighs might be eroticized, but they represent an earned physical extraordinariness. To admire them is to acknowledge that she has done something. Unlike the outrageous breasts of most contemporary fighting game characters (which actually seem even more unlikely given that these women would seem to need to possess an extraordinary athleticism and muscular development to achieve the impossible physical feats that they do perform -- such athleticism would seemingly reduce the possibility of such body types, not result in a proliferation of them), Chun-Li’s outrageous legs have some rational connection to the outrageous acts that she can perform. Chun-Li’s thighs are not merely something like decorative objects adorning a body for no discernable reason. Instead, if her thighs are to be admired, they are marked as powerful and functional parts of a body that is useful and capable. They suggest that we might admire Chun-Li for more than her body’s existence but for what it suggests that she can do.
As a result, while I don’t count myself amongst Chun-Li’s thigh fetishist fans, I do think that I might begin to get what is appealing about them because their appearance does actually provide some insight on the character. Indeed, if I don’t fully understand why I feel that I like Chun-Li as a character, it is possible that it might have something to do with her thighs.