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The Dark Side of Cute

Kittens in casts. Babies nudged to laugh every five seconds. Stuffed teddy bears left at killing-spree sites. We are so surrounded by the tyranny of cute that even multibillion-dollar corporations have cute names like "Google" and "Twitter," and the uncute business of insurance is represented in ads by a cute lizard with an English accent. (And yes, I too am guilty of spreading cuteness.)

What's up with the cute? Writer Jim Windolf has had enough and decided to try to get to the bottom of what he calls the "self-infantalization" of Americans. His conclusion? There's a dark, manipulative side to cute. If you want to know what it is,


In Daniel Harris's book Cute, Quaint, Hungry, and Romantic, he says that there's a hidden sadism to our love of cute, citing the barrage of images of cats falling, puppies slamming into mirrors, and even babies trapped in high chairs being prodded to laugh.


"The process of conveying cuteness to the viewer disempowers its objects," he writes, "forcing them into ridiculous situations and making them appear more ignorant and vulnerable than they really are. Adorable things are often most adorable in the middle of a pratfall or a blunder." In other words, they are cute insofar as they are helpless, and we, conferrers of cute, are all-powerful.

Becoming cute, conversely, is one way of disarming opponents or critics. It's not incidental, argues Windolf, that the cult of cute in the US emerged during the Bush years, when "the American image went from that of protector to invader, from defender of human rights to aggressor on the lookout for loopholes in the Geneva Conventions." Cuteness then, according to this theory, "came about as some sort of correction, as a way for us to convince ourselves and our friends that we're not as bad as our recent national actions have made us seem." (It reminds me of smiley emoticons at the end of passive-aggressive email messages and instant messages. In this case, American cute is like a ginormous cultural smiley face emoticon tacked on the end of dubious actions telling our allies we're not all that bad.)

Windolf traces American cute back to Japan's kawaii culture, which got huge 10 years ago but actually emerged at the end of WWII after it was "humiliated and emasculated." If you're interested in political and cultural psychoanalysis, I suggest reading this long essay. But whatever you do, remember — sometimes a cigar is just a cigar sometimes a cute kitten isn't just a cute kitten.


cheekyredhead cheekyredhead 7 years
It is always entertaining to see how far someone will go to make a point. While attacking cuteness this writer then used it as his own tool. How does misused puppies and kittens suddenly explain Kawaii culture? Devils advocate...I really REALLY dislike overly cute and syrupy sweet goo-goo-gaga stuff. I am a girly-girl but that doesn't automatically make me a "Hello Kitty for president" committee chairmen either. I look at this and think "Interesting--Intriguing" and then remember some idiot saying increased ice cream sales predicts sexual attacks. It is a nasty side effect and no indicator at all. So......cuteness is inherently sadistic? can't be.
lostbronte lostbronte 7 years
"The misery of the Bush years"? Someone's projecting their own political opinions to hilarious effect.
ariscari ariscari 7 years
Yes, I can agree that sometimes "cute" is used to disarm things, but its only a "sometimes", not always. If you condemn cute, then you're saying that people are sadists for enjoying pictures of babys and kittens doing silly things. Cuteness, curiosity, surprise, love; all these things we see in babies and animals are not just because of some sadistic streak society has.
briglass briglass 7 years
human babies have to be cute, otherwise their mothers will abandon them in favor of kawaii cell phone charms
mermei mermei 7 years
I'm sorry, the cuteness of Shirley Temple was balanced by screwball comedies. Typing too quickly, failing to proofread....
mermei mermei 7 years
Tres - he says that cuteness and misery are linked, something you can see through the example of postwar Japan. But he also suggests that the cuteness of the 30s was balanced by Shirley Temple, of the 50s Disney era was balanced by the culture of cool (Elvis and James Dean). So this is somehow a new and far more pronounced form of cuteness, one reason for which is the changes brought by Bush. To that, I say "bah humbug." Cuteness has always been there in modern times, and always counterbalanced. I find the rise of the internet and social networking, YouTube, etc. to be far more convincing than the misery of the Bush years as an explanation for why cuteness is so prevalent today.
CoralAmber CoralAmber 7 years
I can't believe someone else has this book :) I got it last year at B&N.
nancita nancita 7 years
This answers so many questions I've had about this; thanks for summing it up so well. I am fascinating by analytic takes on seemingly frivolous things.
Love-and-Sex Love-and-Sex 7 years
Mermei — the writer's argument is that in dark times, the cult of cute has emerged in response to a specific set of cultural/political circumstances. It happened during the Depression, and he claims it came back again in a different form during the Bush years and continues to linger.
mermei mermei 7 years
I think my favorite part was how the "cult of cute" that goes back at least to Shirley Temple and early Disney cartoons and which came over from Japan after the occupation is still somehow George W. Bush's fault. Neat trick.
jocupcake jocupcake 7 years
I agree with some of what this paper posits. I have never found manipulated set-ups cute (ex: the kittens in the photo, poking babies in high-chairs, etc). However, I see nothing wrong with equating inherent innocence with sweetness (and ultimately cuteness). Babies and puppies will always be cute and I see nothing wrong with that. Manufactured cuteness is the only issue. Case in point: Kawaii culture - it is downright disturbing.
MissSushi MissSushi 7 years
It always angered me when pictures of animals/kids falling or slamming into things were included in cute or funny videos, like America's funniest. I would complain every time, and no one but my mother has ever agreed with me.
GlowingMoon GlowingMoon 7 years
I think there's some truth to this.
plasticine1 plasticine1 7 years
my exboyfriend always used to tell me how cuuuuute i was, like a little kitty, i think it was his way of disarming me, or reminding me that i was just a play thing with no important opinions. this article is almost a "duh", only no one ever put it all that way. asshole men dismissing something a woman says (even anyone dismissing a child's opinion) by just thinking, "she's so cute, look shes getting mad!" is a pretty good example.
RoaringSilence RoaringSilence 7 years
Psshh.. cute is much older than 10 years! George Lucas invented it in 1983 (Ewoks) :p
Pistil Pistil 7 years
That's really interesting... Who doesn't love something cute? But I never thought to analyze that reaction, or the trend of cuteness in our culture.
genesisrocks genesisrocks 7 years
Aww, who could resist those faces?
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