Discerning Cuteness Part 1: The Premise
A virtue that all felines and primates alike should cultivate is intellectual flexibility. When confronted by an apparent deficiency in your ideas, you should absorb the blow and analyze the damage rather than ignore the pain. The hit will have landed either way, and these challenges are wonderful ways to reexamine assumptions to see if they are adequately providing the answers you are asking of them.
It’s been well-known in my immediate social circle that I have a particular attitude toward cuteness. That view was informed by an intensive study of artist Takashi Murakami （村上隆）and other artists in his Kaikai Kiki collective as well as a number of other postmodern Japanese and American artists including Henmaru Machino, Jeff Koons, and Yoshitomo Nara. Examples of their work are included below:
(This is where I note that I could not find anything by Henmaru Machino that was appropriate to show here. Google at your peril and in private or in the company of trusted friends.)
One article became especially central to my understanding of cuteness and the accompanying discomfort I feel with it, especially as applied to human beings and artistic representations thereof. That article was called “Cuteness and the Avant-Garde” and it supplied this definition of some of cuteness’ attributes:
“Smallness, compactness, softness, simplicity [and] pliancy.”¹
The article then extrapolates from that that these physical attributes evoke certain affects: “helplessness, pitifulness, and even despondency.”
A cute object or person, therefore, will possess these qualities. When one wants to make a cute object, one has to make it more iconic, softening harsh edges, simplifying its outlines, and enlarging round parts of it–eyes, mouth, breasts, etc. Mere stylization, of course, is not sufficient for cuteness. Cuteness is distinguished from beauty or glamour in that it diminishes rather than glorifies that which possesses it. Cute things are also highly tactile in a way that austerely beautiful, majestic or glamorous objects are not. We may look at a photograph of a beautiful mountain, but it does not induce in us a desire to hug or squeeze the mountain. Look, however, at a picture of something soft, round, and infantile, and we wish to do all these things to it. Cute things are touchable, or are meant to be. Children’s toys, representations of “cute” animals (more on this later) in animation and art, and even people can be made into diminished objects of tactile desire through being represented as smaller, rounder, and, most importantly, more passive and pathetic. Something with claws cannot be cute because it has the capacity to harm. Something intelligent and knowledgeable is also fairly disqualified from being cute, or at least have something other than cuteness as a defining aspect. When cuteness is applied to representations of people and animals, we imagine them to be bashful, naïve, clingy, and highly emotive, maybe with a speech impediment or undeveloped vocabulary. In other words, we imagine this:
What does one do with a baby? Why, one cuddles, nurtures, protects, and speaks idiotically. Babies are helpless, round-headed, toothless (that’s key), needy creatures. Now, if you were to call a baby cute–or perhaps a puppy or kitten–I think you would be within your rights. There is nothing inherently strange about calling a baby cute. Babies are the archetypal embodiments of cuteness. It is when we start representing other things as cute that we run into trouble, for it requires making simplifications that cut against the obvious symbolic and aesthetic values of the things we are representing. Murakami and the others I have mentioned often highlight this by emphasizing the creepiness that emerges when cuteness is mingled with sexuality and violence.
Something that is cute is by its nature tactile, passive, and pathetic. It is, therefore, a perfect target for the projection of violent and sexual fantasies. Because they have little experience or will or knowledge of their own, they are easily seduced. Because of their lack of defenses and softness, they are easily thrashed or punished. For the latter, their highly stylized and rounded affect also contributes to their suitability for violent abuse. Their features are pliable and squishy, which means they can be harmed without any thought of being destroyed.
There, in a nutshell, is my view on why cuteness can be such a destructive and negative attribute, especially when applied to adult human beings and other objects that ought not be represented as lovable fluff-balls. Cuteness diminishes, defines objects as being passive, inarticulate, simple, and harmless, and carries an implicit connection to violence and sexual exploitation.
In the next post, I will be complicating and in some ways modifying this theory with the help of an anime I mentioned in the last post, Polar Bear Café. For now contemplate this bit of kitsch I found:
1. Ngai, Sianne. “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde.” Critical Inquiry 31.4 (2005): 816. Jstor.