Why did Pokémon’s Ash have such a hold over us?

In our new series, Pin-Ups, we unpack the appeal of yesteryear sex symbols who informed our current preferences. 

by Beatrice Hazlehurst
15 September 2021, 8:47am

Welcome to Pin-Ups, where we explore our conventional or controversial obsessions with the stars who awakened our sexuality.

What was it that made Ash Ketchum from Pokémon so damn hot? Was it the fingerless gloves-trucker hat combo — a ‘fit best accessorised these days with a skateboard and a healthy dose of emotional unavailability. Or was it his utter devotion to Pikachu? It certainly didn’t matter that he was only a 10-year-old, two-dimensional cartoon voiced mostly by female actors (depending on what language you watched it in).

For many now perpetually-online millennials, the show peaked around the time of our pre-pubescence: caps were spun backwards à la Ash, and cards were traded in the schoolyard before their inevitable confiscation. Perhaps that’s why, when many of us were in the grips of young adulthood, so many of us risked bodily harm to “catch ‘em all” playing Pokemon Go (and streams of the show’s theme song rose 400% in 2016). This is how we end up with cosplay, alongside hyper-intellectualised debates in mainstream media as to who is more of a ‘dish’ — series lead Ash or his travel companion, 15-year-old Brock.

For me, it was Ash and only Ash — and I’m not alone. For better or worse, searching ‘Ash Ketchum hentai’ will reveal a host of very popular Pokémon-themed porn, starring rudimentary recreations of the iconic cartoon. Then there’s the fan art re-imagining Ash in adulthood (hot, frequently in a very steampunk, East Brooklyn way), often portrayed in a relationship with a grown-up version of fellow protagonist Misty, a 10-year-old water Pokémon trainer who was shipped with both Ash and Brock.

Of course, Ash did have many conventionally attractive features, namely a square jaw and thick hair. He had the litheness of a natural athlete that would prepare fans for dual-obsessions with the likes of All-American 17 Again-era Zac Efron and sallow, indie heroes such as Penn Badgley in, well, everything, or the frontman of any emo rock-pop band of the mid 00s — perhaps today best exemplified by a Shawn Mendes-type.

Ash obviously did not exude any of the confidence of these (human) men. Brock famously hit on everyone the trio encountered on their travels, but Ash did not, which, at 10 years old, was probably an appropriate call — save for will-they-won’t-they relationship with Misty. Nonetheless, he would maintain the kind of powerful media presence outside of Pokémon that is often only achieved by teen idols. He’s been drawn into some of the most popular cartoons of the past three decades, including The Simpsons and South Park. In an episode of The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon asks a girl out with the line, "And as Ash Ketchum said to Pikachu, I choose you."

For that reason, I’m attesting that Ash’s enduring appeal was derived from his, well, literal character. There was an inherent goodness in Ash, coupled with an inimitable ‘cool’ that saw him come out on top even when the odds were often, and entirely, stacked against him. The subtext was Ash Ketchum, with the help of Pikachu, could protect you in the face of any adversity. In a sea of bad boys of motorbike-riding, guitar-playing, toxically hyper-masc alt-bros on television, Ash was the good guy. So we continue to choose him.

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