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.