Call for Comments: Cuteness and Popular Culture

From Hannah: Happily, we’re surrounded by cute things. The Internet was made for photos of cute cats (and hedgehogs and teacup pigs and otters and puppies and wombats and foxes and all the baby animals). How many people have gone to see films like How to Train Your Dragon or The Secret Life of Pets because the cat-dragons — or just cats — produce a feeling of “awww?” has introduced me to perhaps the greatest video game of all time — Slimerancher — a farm sim that lets you raise adorable slimes that look like cats or fireflies or crystals or lava monsters. Kickstarter has given us tabletop games like Exploding Kittens and Root that, despite having very different objects, hold cute art in common. Kids and adults alike get stuffed animals on Valentine’s Day. Kawaii cultural objects like Hello Kitty are beloved by multiple generations across the globe.

I doubt it’s a surprise to say I love cute things (does anyone not?). Lately, however, I’ve been thinking about what does it mean to love the cute and what it even means when we call something cute. Sianne Ngai, an English professor at Chicago and author of Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (which I highly recommend), ties cuteness to being about “commodities and consumption,” arguing, “Cuteness is a way of aestheticizing powerlessness. It hinges on a sentimental attitude toward the diminutive and/or weak.” The argument of Our Aesthetic Categories is sure to contextualize its examination of cuteness in relation to late capitalism — perhaps the reason some may feel the need to consume or even dominate something deemed cute relates to the material conditions of labor. Other scholars have looked at the complexities of cuteness (such as in the edited collection of The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness): how it’s gendered, if it promotes positive or negative feelings, its connections to violence, its importance as an aesthetic globally — particularly in the U.S. and Japan.

When I first read Ngai’s argument that cuteness was “a way of aestheticizing powerlessness,” I initially thought of The Powerpuff Girls and Sailor Moon — two staple franchises from my childhood that employed the aesthetic of cuteness. The superheroes on my screen may have seemed “cute” but were more powerful than my other childhood hero Spider-man. As Simon May asks in The Power of Cute, “What if Cute isn’t just about powerlessness and innocence but also plays with, mocks, ironizes the value we attach to power—as well as our assumptions of who has power and who doesn’t?”

Perhaps it’s both. Cute is a complicated word, after all. I know I’ve been called “cute” dismissively just as much as I’ve been complimented for my “cute” clothes. A lot of popular culture with a “cute” aesthetic is marketed toward young girls or women, although the fanbases of something like My Little Pony may be entirely different than what you’d assume if you didn’t have the Internet. And, as Ngai emphasizes, cute has been explicitly tied to marketing and consumerism.

I’m interested in hearing from you, especially since I’m not a cute studies scholar. How do you experience or define the cute? What cute objects in popular culture play with the idea of or challenge cuteness? Does it even matter how we categorize objects aesthetically, anyway — and, if so, why?

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