Japan has developed a reputation for cute. The Sanrio Company has ensured the worldwide presence of the cutest creature around, Hello Kitty. Sanrio is a company that churns out the cute to the tune of $1 billion a year5. Cute has become a movement, but that comes with multiple implications. Cute can be positive, uplifting, reassuring. Cute can also be childish, superficial, and, at times, send mixed messages that can have negative implications.
Cute can reach across gender and generation. Cute makes people feel needed, makes them feel like they are taking care of something helpless. Japanese teenagers use cute as a way to fit in with their friends5
and, in the case of cute handwriting, as a way to communicate with them using a language and writing style3 that is all their own. Older Japanese females use cute as a way to use their mothering skills. Japan’s low birth-rate implies that fewer women are married with their own children. Hello Kitty and other cute creatures provide them with a way to express their nurturing talent. In addition to encouraging a mothering instinct, cute creatures encourage these women to retreat into innocence themselves.4 The everyday life of a Japanese woman can be extremely ordered and demanding, requiring an adherence to social roles that are stifling. Embracing cute allows for a break.
Cute is not just for Japanese women, however. All of Japanese society has embraced cute. Hello Kitty has a line of menswear and teenage boys are tattooed with other Sanrio characters. Cute has a way of permeating many facets of society. Banks, heavy-machinery, toilets, and so-called ‘Love-hotels’ are also given a cute makeover. These businesses and machines generally have a cold, harsh, dirty, or unpleasant connotation but cute changes that. A backhoe painted to look like a pink giraffe or a love hotel named after “Laura from Little House on the Prairie” puts a friendly face on an otherwise unfriendly and impersonal task. That pink giraffe and its driver are working together to get the job done. That love-hotel’s innocent name lends that innocence to the business at hand.6
What is negative about cute?
The love hotel with the innocent name is still a place where couples rent space to have sex but when named after a girl from a children’s novel the connection becomes twisted and the lines between mature sex partner and childlike fantasy figure become blurred. Mary Roach points out in Wired6 that:
“Some Japanese men are drawn more to the typical owner of cute merchandise than to the merchandise itself. The cuteness of a giggling girl clad in a Hello Kitty jumper isn’t entirely innocent. It ties in to what is well known in Japan as Lolicom, the Lolita complex. The phenomenon of the little girl as sexual object abounds in Tokyo: Vending machines sell schoolgirls’ used panties, which the girls sell to middlemen. “Image bars” specialize in escorts dressed in school uniforms. Telephone clubs feature bored adolescent girls earning spending money by talking dirty. Sex shops sell a porn magazine called anatomical illustrations of Junior High School Girls.”
The negative connotations of cute apply to more than just the blurred lines of sexy and innocent. Cute culture encourages consumption on a mass scale. Keeping up with cute implies embracing what might be perceived as frivolity and superficiality. “Cultural conservatives think this is rather dangerous as such values contribute to weak submissive women who purposely act clueless and never want to grow up. Feminists also deplore Hello Kitty and the values she represents.”7
What is positive about American cute?
Japan may be the leader in cute but America has certainly taken a turn for the adorable. YouTube is saturated with videos about laughing babies and sneezing pandas. These videos hardly scratch the surface of American cute culture. Sanrio’s first stand-alone store was in San Francisco.4 Americans embrace cute because they embrace youth. They associate getting old with its negative attributes such as becoming less attractive and perhaps becoming less relevant. American cuteness, similar to Japanese cuteness, lets its followers feel young again.4 It also gives them an escape from everyday life, which for American adults, tends to include a weak economy, a poor job market, thin relationships, and more. A smiling Christmas tree or a friendly helpful waffle maker can be uplifting and reassuring. A friendly face, even if it is on a multicolored robot ornament is encouraging.
What is negative about American cute?
American cute has many of the same implications as Japanese cute. Beauty products aimed at women are marketed in a way that suggests a return to infancy to be sexier. Fashion has taken cute and made it high fashion. A Vogue magazine Christmas fashion editorial has a ten-year-old as its central model. American cute has taken a light hearted movement and twisted it. Product campaigns are not the only place we see cute in a bad light. Society has two ways of looking at cute: “Cute objects are either lovely, or else they are delightfully absorbed in some technique that we ourselves take for granted.” Referring to adults as ‘cute’ implies that they are “innocent,” in need of “protection,” or are suffering from “slight inability.”1 None these phrases inspires confidence or authority in the person described.
Who consumes cute culture?
We have established that cute is everywhere. Sanrio’s Hello Kitty is a worldwide ambassador of cute but she can be a bit pushy. Japanese teens report that consuming cute helps them fit in with their friends and feel the pressure to collect all the Hello Kitty merchandise. With upwards of 15,000 products, that can be quite a task. Additionally, the pressure is on even those who do not desire to participate in cute culture. In his article, in the Journal of Material Culture, McVeigh reports, “a number of individuals explained to [him] that though they do not really care for Hello Kitty, they feel they must a ct as if they do.”5 We can see that cute is not completely innocent.
How do Japanese media use the lens of cute to view women?
Hiroto Murasawa, an authority on beauty, warns that cute culture can instill “a mentalitiy the breeds non-assertion, individuals who choose to stand out get beaten down.” With this mindset, more women are acting like children and engaging in childlike and childish behavior. Women are tending to giggle more, speak in an intentionally high-pitched voice, wear childish clothing, throw temper tantrums or act purposely clueless. A restaurant featuring maids that are eternally 17 years old perpetuates this youthful submissiveness. The media encourages this cute display by broadcasting television shows hosted by teenagers, promoting pop stars that cry on command or idolizing actresses who ensure no one ever finds not cute.2
What does cute culture mean for American women?
The pressure for American women to be cute is applied from all forms of media. Aside from the sexualizing of children, we see television shows that reflect an infantilizing of women and a trend toward more harmless, less outwardly intelligent leading female characters whose main goal can often be perceived as achieving the approval of the men around them.
Television listings supply a surprisingly long list of shows about women in their 20s and 30s, but are called, or refer to themselves as, girls. Girls, Two Broke Girls, New Girl, The Big Bang Theory and The Mindy Project all feature women whose ages range from 24 to 35 and are single, insecure, sexualized and often directionless. American media supports cute and increases the pressure on those who are not cute to conform.
Cute can be a positive thing, as I’ve shown, but the power of adorable is overshadowing a darker implication. The pressure to be cute, and the results of that pressure, can be dangerous. Mass consumption, superficiality, sexualized children and infantile women are not positive outcomes of this movement. We have to be careful not to put a smiling, pastel, rounded face on these facts.
1) Cute is adorable and innocent and comforting, but as we’ve seen, it can have a darker side. Can these two ever be separate again?
2) Sharon Kineslla’s Cuties in Japan tells us that cute is a form of resistance in Japan. It is a way to refuse to take part in adult responsibilities. Based on television shows such as New Girl and Jersey Shore, is that true in America?
3) If cute is a form of resistance, what can be said about the pressure to consume more of it to fit in?
1)Bogost, Ian. “Ian Bogost – A Theory of Cuteness.” Ian Bogost – A Theory of Cuteness. Ian Bogost, 12 Aug. 2009. Web. 13 Nov. 2012. <http://m.bogost.com/blog/a_theory_of_cuteness.shtml>.
2)Kageyama, Yuri. “Japan Struggles with ‘cute’ Image | The San Diego Union-Tribune.” Japan Struggles with ‘cute’ Image | The San Diego Union-Tribune. UT San Diego, 15 June 2006. Web. 14 Nov. 2012. <http://www.utsandiego.com/uniontrib/20060615/news_1b15japan.html>.
3)Kineslla, Sharon. “Cuties in Japan.” Women, Media, and Consumption in Japan. By Lise Skov and Brian Moeran. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i, 1995. 222-54. Print.
4)Kovarovic, Sara. “Hello Kitty: A Brand Made of Cuteness.” Journal of Culture and Retail Image. Drexel University’s Design & Merchandising Program, n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2012. <http://www.library.drexel.edu/publications/dsmr/kovarovic%20final.pdf>.
5)Mcveigh, Brian. J. “How Hello Kitty Commodifies the Cute, Cool and Camp: ‘Consumutopia’ versus ‘Control’ in Japan.” Journal of Material Culture 5.2 (2000): 225-45. Print.
6)Roach, Mary. “Wired 7.12: Cute Inc.” Wired.com. Conde Nast Digital, Dec. 1999. Web. 14 Nov. 2012. <http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/7.12/cute_pr.html>.
7)Turczyn, Coury. “PopCult Magazine/Hello Kitty.” PopCult Magazine/Hello Kitty. PopCult, 2003. Web. 13 Nov. 2012. <http://popcultmag.com/criticalmass/books/kitty/hellokitty1.html>.