January 3, 2006

Cute!

Natalie Angier on cuteness, which was big this past year. It's not just pandas and penguins. It's also that ooh-look-at-my-belly fashion. What make us perceive cute? It's some primal response to baby:
The human cuteness detector is set at such a low bar, researchers said, that it sweeps in and deems cute practically anything remotely resembling a human baby or a part thereof, and so ends up including the young of virtually every mammalian species, fuzzy-headed birds like Japanese cranes, woolly bear caterpillars, a bobbing balloon, a big round rock stacked on a smaller rock, a colon, a hyphen and a close parenthesis typed in succession.

The greater the number of cute cues that an animal or object happens to possess, or the more exaggerated the signals may be, the louder and more italicized are the squeals provoked.

Cuteness is distinct from beauty, researchers say, emphasizing rounded over sculptured, soft over refined, clumsy over quick. Beauty attracts admiration and demands a pedestal; cuteness attracts affection and demands a lap. Beauty is rare and brutal, despoiled by a single pimple. Cuteness is commonplace and generous, content on occasion to cosegregate with homeliness.
When do we want cuteness more than beauty? Beauty's more serious and challenging. Cuteness is fun. Relaxing! Yes, let's baby ourselves and love cuteness.

(Here's a cute little blog devoted to cuteness.)

Cuteness may be easygoing and nice, but there are some serious challenges involved in understanding its uses and effects. From Angier:
Experts point out that the cuteness craze is particularly acute in Japan, where it goes by the name "kawaii" and has infiltrated the most masculine of redoubts. Truck drivers display Hello Kitty-style figurines on their dashboards. The police enliven safety billboards and wanted posters with two perky mouselike mascots, Pipo kun and Pipo chan.

Behind the kawaii phenomenon, according to Brian J. McVeigh, a scholar of East Asian studies at the University of Arizona, is the strongly hierarchical nature of Japanese culture. "Cuteness is used to soften up the vertical society," he said, "to soften power relations and present authority without being threatening."
So: watch out for cuteness!

19 comments:

frogala said...

Steven Jay Gould analyzed cuteness years ago in his essay, "A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse"

here is a link to a copy of it:
http://www.towson.edu/~sallen/COURSES/311/ESSAYS/MM.html

Hoots said...

Don't overlook Cute Overload (dot-com), yet another warm fuzzy. I get more cuteness than I can take from those pernicious email forwards.

Elizabeth said...

cuteoverload.com is my cuteness fix of choice. It has a sense of irony, but damn, everything is really, really cute, too.

I have a little spinning gif I like, a Hello, Kitty/Lovecraft mashup called Hello, Chthlu!

I like my cute filtered through cynicism.

Smilin' Jack said...

What make us perceive cute? It's some primal response to baby...practically anything remotely resembling a human baby or a part thereof, and so ends up including the young of virtually every mammalian species

Of course that makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. The puzzling thing is that most of us perceive the young of other species to be cuter than human babies, who often look rather unappealing unless they're your own.

Hazy Dave said...

When they take something already designed for cuteness and then proceed to make the eyes even bigger, and the head even more disproportionately large, they approach the line between cute and repulsive. "Disney Babies"? Yeeesh. And all those Japanese cartoon characters with enormous eyes perched on supermodel lanky schoolgirl frames blur the line between cute and creepy too, at least when you consider people my age watching the darn things. Then again, when I read Natalie Angier's mention of "a colon", my first thought was not of punctuation marks, so perhaps twistedness is in the mind of the beholder to some extent.

vbspurs said...

As a girl who had wall-to-wall Hello Kitty in my bedroom, I find cuteness cute.

However, when I went to Japan for my gap year, I was astounded at the fetish for "little girls" as celebrated in Japanese culture.

Lolita is one thing, since Nabokov treats her as an adult.

But the Hello Kitty aspect where women knowingly kit themselves out to look like little girls, and big burly men (comparatively) in Japan ogle them, is disgusting.

Ick.

BTW, have you noticed how "ick" is a very cute word?

Cheers,
Victoria

Rockeye said...

Its been my experience that cute and helpless are closely connected. Tiny babies, puppies, kittens, you get the idea. I'm a nurse and sometimes I'll hear in report a patient described a a "cute old guy." Invariably that means demented but a pleasant non-violent dementia. While Lalia Ali (the boxer and M. Ali's daughter) might be attractive I seriously doubt anyone would call her cute. No element of helplessness there.

Ron said...

Like, Oh, M'God, who is totally cuter, Valerie Plame or Judith Miller, fersure!

Icepick said...

Here's more of The Misadventures of Hello-Cthulhu.

Hit the archives and work your way up to the present. An amateur's work, it's kind of hit or miss, but at times sidesplitting.

Eli Blake said...

Smilin' Jack:

I find all babies cute, whether my own or not.

I will agree that it is an evolutionary trait-- without it, few humans would survive past their second birthday, what with needing twenty-four hour attention and all. And, it sure saved my daughter that she was cute, when she was two and my wife came out and saw her standing on the couch with a bottle of honey, just pouring it all over the couch.

Eli Blake said...

Also, something doesn't necessarily have to at all resemble a baby in order to be cute. I've seen people talk about an old Metropolitan (remember those cars) as cute, as well as a tree, a work of origami, and a silver cup.

Elizabeth said...

Icepick, thanks for that link!

Cute is easily misapplied. Last night a beautifully restored, shiny, black '75 Cadillac Eldorado pulled up to a light and my partner said "Cute car!" I was aghast.

Balfegor said...

But the Hello Kitty aspect where women knowingly kit themselves out to look like little girls, and big burly men (comparatively) in Japan ogle them, is disgusting.

Ick.


Hah! But that is nothing to the whole enjo kousai (援助交際) thing, where it's actual schoolgirls being ogled and worse. I don't know when you went, but in the past ten years or so, this is supposed to have become a widespread problem in the major cities.

reader_iam said...

Elizabeth:

The word "cute" was tainted for me long ago by the phrase "Don't get cute with me."

Therefore, the word cute inherently carries cynicism for me, though I fight against it and use the word "properly" when I have to use it.

Babies, cute? Naah ... they're either beautiful or, when no any such thing, they're "absolutely beautiful."

Definitely the safest path ...

Ryan Hatch said...

アンアルトハウスは女性ブロガ人の中で、一ばんかわいいですよ!

Ernst Blofeld said...

http://photos1.blogger.com/blogger/7296/1489/400/Kalashnikitty.jpg

Hello Kitty meets the AK-47!

And some guy got pink furniture for his young daughter's AR-15:

http://www.chameleonweaponry.com/samples/pinkar-r.jpg

vbspurs said...

Balfegor wrote:

Hah! But that is nothing to the whole enjo kousai (援助交際) thing, where it's actual schoolgirls being ogled and worse. I don't know when you went, but in the past ten years or so, this is supposed to have become a widespread problem in the major cities.

I stayed around the Tokyo prefectures.

I believe modern Japanese culture also has the phenomenon of "stylism", which makes people of all ages dress up as a character from manga or anime, etc.

I saw many Evangelion rip-offs too.

Ryan wrote:

アンアルトハウスは女性ブロガ人の中で、一ばんかわいいですよ!

*LOL*

Cheers,
Victoria

Slac said...

Althouse kana would be more like アルットハッス, especially with the Wisconsin accent of shortening the "oo."

There I just gotta go and ruin the fun.

The Japanese have made not just a cultural but an economic realization of "cute!" for decades. When it's finished penetrating the rest of the world, I think we'll see cuteness evolve to a more conceptual instead of an overloaded sensory phenomenon.

People's ideas and behaviors will be cute, instead of the rote sound of their speech or mannerisms. Characters in stories of all shapes and sizes will be cute, instead of cute-looking.

Japanese entertainment is already on top of this. It caters to young adults who want to preserve their cuteness into a strong, autonomous adulthood, despite changing physical appearance. The high pitch of female speech in Japan is going out of style with their liberation, and is now being used as a kind of satire. Cuteness is becoming more associated with funny, not just fun. Animation, which has traditionally appealed to children, has been long evolving as an art form to adjust to adult life. Same with comics and video games. This is happening in other Asian countries, the Americas, and Europe, but well behind the Japanese.

Their culture looks very strange to us now, but its elements will be common later. We won't notice their passing much because we will be enjoying it. The ephemeral image of "return to innocence" will give it strong market appeal in a world less and less innocent.

The sexualizing of young girls in Japan (which is not as rampant as people think) is not for their cuteness and not part of the cute! phenomenon, at least not primarily. Rather, it extends mostly from the old culture. You know, like the kind the West had not that long ago, the one that says girls are property and should be entirely obedient. Combine that with the fact that they never had a culture that condemned sex as evil and, well, there you go.

It's the job of our culture now to set an example that sex with kids is wrong. Shoot. We're not doing a great job of that either, now are we?

BI Solutions Provider said...

To define cuteness is relative as i some may say Japanese kids looks cuter than others, within the category of kids, whereas some may not say so. Hmm about me, cuteness means something charming to see and our eyes love to see. The hello kitty cute dashboard figures may be making the truck drivers happy there huh..