The recently completed anime series Sanrio Boys is a bit of an oddity in the anime-as-commercial trend, both in its premise and themes. First, there’s the way its product is presented. Sanrio Boys doesn’t bother to sneakily integrate its product into an unrelated premise or build an entire world around its toy (as seen in series like Yu-Gi-Oh! or Beyblade), but instead explicitly presents the Sanrio toy line, including Hello Kitty, as something available at any store right around the corner. It’s a very blatant approach, almost commendable in its honesty.
Its other unusual quality is the kind of audience it wants to target, as its themes are designed to attract new clientele. Specifically, it’s aimed at those who previously felt discouraged from showing interest in its products with a simple message at its core: “It’s okay to be a man and like girly things” (…followed by a short pause and the addendum that you might as well start with some Sanrio toys at a nearby store).
Sanrio’s often pink and always fluffy mascots are considerably more popular with girls or young women, who would have been the obvious choice as anime spokespeople for the company’s line-up. But since its launch in 2015, the multimedia franchise Sanrio Boys has consisted of cute guys of various archetypes, each representing one of five Sanrio characters (at least in the anime; other iterations are at seven now).
And while there’s certainly a male audience for handsome dudes and fluffy mascots (like the guy writing this article), the anime also wants to reach out to those conditioned to dislike cute things. The series is confident in its ability to appeal to its existing base with the premise of five pretty, pretty lads; but it also addresses its male viewers through its musings on—and challenges of—traditional ideas about masculinity.
Our point-of-view character is Kouta, who, like many young men, at some point turned from a cheerful kid into an insecure and cynical teenager. While Kouta initially loved the Pompompurin doll his grandmother gave him, the other boys his age teased him so relentlessly that he ended up rejecting both the doll and his relationship with his grandmother, while also developing a number of insecurities.
Those insecurities would last into his teenage years, which is maybe the worst time for the development of new and the continuation of old interests. High school is often a time when our likes and dislikes aren’t just decided by our own fondness for them, but also by the way the people around us react, or the way we expect them to.
Kouta finds schoolmates with similar interests only by accident, and even then he still projects his insecurities onto them, fearing prejudices and the possibility he might be seen as childish or creepy. Luckily, his new partners in shameless consumerism are already mostly past those inhibitions and accept him unconditionally. Even so, it’s still a slow journey for Kouta to be able to accept himself, his friends, and their mutual hobby.
Kouta’s friends serve as a solid subversion of more common male group dynamics in media, which usually present “the feminine one” as a sort of outsider: a prancing weirdo who’s obsessed with looks, is loud and obnoxious, and gets a little too close for comfort to his friends. But here, the dainty Yuu serves as an anchor for the main cast, as he’s the most open about his passions and manages to ignore any irritated looks or whispered insults by his schoolmates. His infatuation with My Melody is one of the only juvenile indulgences he has left in a life full of unwanted responsibilities, so he can’t let anyone spoil it for him.
Yuu can get defensive in direct confrontations, however, especially when his friends are treated in a similar way, and exhibits an aggression that clashes with his otherwise gentle disposition. In spite of his pastel fashion sense and love of Sanrio, even he struggles with the toxic concept that violence is the answer to interpersonal conflict.
Ryou has perhaps the longest journey to accepting Sanrio and himself. His childhood interests are supported and even pushed onto him by his own family, yet he actively tries to fight any aspects of himself that would be cliche for a boy mostly raised by women.
His hobbies are the only thing he can really actively change about himself, unlike, for example, his frail build that occasionally gets him mistaken for a girl or his heavily implied romantic interest in Seiichirou. Ryou goes as far as trying to push his personal fight onto the other boys and actively resents them for not exhibiting the same self-loathing he does. His resentment only increases after finding out his one close acquaintance had secretly been on the Sanrio bandwagon.
There are different attitudes towards masculinity at play here, either trying to redefine and expand what it can mean or reinforcing more traditional views. Shunsuke turns toward fictional characters after deeming relationships with actual people too unreliable. Seiichirou takes responsibility on himself to the point of exhaustion, striving to be self-sufficient and avoid opening up about his problems even when it makes him physically ill.
But despite any individual struggles, these good pure boys eventually flock together to provide a support network for each other, so they can wholly be themselves without having to worry about seeming weird to anyone. And it’s just… really nice to see how the show handles that without the slightest hint of irony or cynicism, especially considering how often feminine interests or behavior in men is ridiculed, if not outright demonized. Sanrio isn’t the perfect fix to their problems, but it becomes an outlet for them to communicate and lean on each other in a more healthy, supportive way.
Sanrio Boys isn’t just challenging many harmful real-world ideas about masculinity; it’s also providing an alternative for the way fiction depicts men with feminine traits. Historically speaking, there’s a noticeable correlation between a male character’s degree of femininity and their role in a story. More subtle aspects of that tend to be reserved for villains, as it’s an easy tool for othering them: a slender build, revealing clothes, ladylike gestures, maybe some make-up.
They are presented as unsettling, unnatural, and are arguably aimed at straight male insecurities by integrating attractive feminine features into the gender they are normally not attracted to. This might also be why this kind of character is often seductive, at times even predatory.
Multiple Final Fantasy villains fall into that exact mold. Just a few months ago, DEVILMAN crybaby gave us a new iteration of a more literal interpretation of that concept, with Satan transforming into a much more feminine figure as he remembers his past memories and becomes the overt antagonist. Western media has instances like Silence of the Lambs’ Buffalo Bill as an example of trans-coded characters as psychopaths, while the lingerie-clad Dr. Frank N Furter of The Rocky Horror Picture show (played with scene-chewing bravado by Tim Curry) is both a commentary on and another example of this trope.
Camp, queer-coded characters can also be on the good guys’ side, though they’re frequently the butt of jokes or act as implicit threats. Leeron in Gurren Lagann and Fred in Outlaw Star relentlessly hit on the presumed-straight leads. One Piece went beyond individual characters and filled an entire island with “okama” like Bon Kurei and Emporio Ivankov, who are usually AMAB characters presenting female but can become femme-passing with a gesture.
These characters can range from helpful to kindhearted to truly heroic, but their visual design and outlandish behavior almost always makes them something to laugh about at first—characters who are strange “others” rather than relatable protagonists. They’re defined by stark contrasts between their actual looks and behaviors and what would culturally be expected of men. Sanrio Boys, meanwhile, attempts to challenge this trend both through its more positive depictions of feminine-coded interests and by showcasing a diversity of personalities.
While every character gets the same overarching trait of a typically feminine hobby, it’s not the only thing that defines them, allowing for the variation of an often-stale archetype. Ranging from the muscular and athletic head of the student council to the long-haired bishounen heartthrob, their love of Sanrio is just one of several aspects of their personalities, tied to their lives through links to pivotal childhood moments and the connections they represent between friends and family.
The boys’ mutual support and understanding allow them to flourish in an otherwise antagonistic environment, where they’re being chastised simply for deviating from a restrictive and ultimately damaging view of manhood. Or at least, they were being chastised, until their unfiltered joy and enthusiasm start to spread through the boys’ own efforts and some participatory theatre.
Sanrio Boys is still very much a commercial endeavor and doesn’t stray too far from more typical slice-of-life shows (aside from the blatant advertising). But it’s a good example of how successfully nailing certain aspects that few shows even attempt can elevate otherwise flawed material. Its non-restrictive ideas about masculinity are refreshing and delightful, and something more series could benefit from.