You know what really burns Jim Windolf's ass? All this cuteness everywhere! Kittehs! Puppehs! Bun-buns! Cupcakes! Smart Cars! Obama! (Don't ask.) If we don't put an end to it, we're going to become a nation of
"Social misery and cuteness seem to be linked," writes Windolf for Vanity Fair, which is the kind of line that makes this article fascinating, even if one is not so frightened by the tyranny of cuteness as the author is. Windolf covers a lot of ground in his quest to uncover why people won't quit sending him YouTube videos of laughing babies. In addition to social science, there's regular old science (cuteness is physically addictive!), business (the evolution of the Geico gecko from more realistic reptile to big-eyed, bipedal moppet), psychology (helpless and needy things are cutest, creating a "rather sick power relationship between lovers of cuteness and the objects"), linguistics ("What is the antonym for 'cutegasm'? Because that's what I'm having right now"), and history (Japan started kicking the world's ass at cute after WWII, and now that so many Americans are co-opting Japanese pop culture, "It is strange, but possibly correct, to think that every time we gaze on a cute image these days we are seeing some weird aftereffect of World War II. The cuteness created by our bombs has come back to seduce us"). And then there's music, food, cars, and a bunch of questionable bullshit.
Let's focus on that last one. Among the things Windolf identifies as part of the "tsunami of cuteness" washing over our shores: Snuggies, candy bars, cuddle parties, the teenage hugging epidemic (there is one, evidently), and yes, President Obama. Note to Windolf: At least 95% of declarations that the president is "cute" are because saying the president is "hot" would be unseemly, especially when we all love his wife. Pictures of him playing with Bo or swinging his niece in the air are "cute" because puppies and babies are cute, and also because handsome, powerful men playing with puppies and babies are hot. And the rest of these things are not actually about cuteness, but about comfort and (arguably) a regression to childhood, which Windolf conflates with cuteness.
The simultaneous popularity of all of these things is probably no coincidence, and the idea that it's all at least partly a result of "social misery" — wars, a recession, etc., — seems sound. But still, "cuteness" does not equal "anything comforting." Chocolate and hugs and blankets with sleeves might make me feel better for a moment, in much the same way as visiting The Daily Puppy does, but they do not make me squeal involuntarily and want to own five hundred of them and name them and express my love for them with deliberately poor spelling and grammar. (Well, except for the dog-shaped Godiva truffles I saw recently, or certain blankets printed with puppehs and kittehs and bun-buns, or tiny children who give enthusiastic hugs... you get the picture.) Cute is its own thing.
So, to understand the power of cute — Windolf's ostensible goal — you have to start there: Cute is its own thing. And the internet-based cute phenomenon is its own thing again. Windolf only gets around to my very first thought about the meteoric rise of online cuteness as a "quick aside" toward the end: "maybe the cuteness has come for us because of the huge change we've gone through in the last decade in terms of our relationships with our machines." Yes! The machines on which we view the cuteness are indeed related to our ravenous appetite for it! Except, his theories about that are still kinda weak:
The cuteness craze may represent a nostalgia for a lost world. Or maybe we're trying, in some pathetic way, to animate our machines, to imbue them with sounds and images that strike at the deepest part of what it means to be human: our desire to take care of helpless creatures. We're like those office workers of the 1960s and 1970s who tried to beat back the alienation they felt as a result of being the first people to inhabit sterile-seeming cubicles eight hours a day by putting up that poster of the cute little kitten hanging from the tree.
First, it can't just be nostalgia for a lost world when a large percentage of cute-lovers are young enough that they haven't lost a damned thing; they grew up online. And second, those of us who are actively engaged in the sorts of internet communities that gave rise to the whole cuteness explosion are not interacting with "our machines" but with other human beings, via e-mail, instant messaging, social media, multi-user games, discussion boards, comments sections on blogs, etc. We are not sitting around with our soulless gadgets feeling lonely and wishing we had a kitty to pet; we are talking to other people all the time. And that's exactly why we need to look at pictures of cute things: to calm down from talking to other people, who can be real assholes. The universality of cuteness is exactly its appeal at that point: Even if you can't agree with a semi-anonymous stranger about politics, religion or television, you can agree that a sneezing baby panda is hilariously adorable, and everyone feels better about the world.
In fact, bringing enemies (or at least surprising friends) together is a thriving subcategory of Internet Cuteness. There is a reason why Cute Overload's "interspecies snorgling" tag is one of the most popular. I have yet to literally see a lion lie down with a lamb, but I've seen a Rhodesian Ridgeback lie down with a micropiglet, a bobcat with a fawn, and a tiger with a chimp. And said tiger/chimp combo is an example of an even cuter subcategory of interspecies snorgling: interspecies adoption. Seeing a chimp taking care of an orphaned tiger cub or a hound nursing an abandoned squirrel is the kind of thing that makes me think if I ever ran across a needy, stray Republican, I, too would be generous enough to overcome our natural aversion to each other and help out. That feels good.
But then, I'm a big old girl. And although he never explicitly says so, I can't help thinking that's part of Windolf's problem with all this dastardly cute shit: It's so feminine! And yet, regular people like it! The hell? In his discussion of how Japan came to lead the world in cute, he quotes Roland Kelts, author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S. : "One theory, which has been proposed by a lot of Japanese artists and academics, is that, after the humiliation and emasculation of Japan in the postwar years, Japan developed this quasi-queer position of ‘little brother' or ‘little boy.' If you become ‘little brother' or ‘little boy,' the only way you can get big brother's or fat man's attention is by being so cute or puppy-like that he has to take care of you." There is absolutely no unpacking of the ideas that A) an entire country can be "emasculated"; B) this is necessarily a bad thing, synonymous with humiliation; C) the ultimate symbol of power, even to metaphorical dependent children, is a large man — not a mother; or that D) being childlike is "quasi-queer," which is offensive enough on its own, but also clearly implies "sissy," i.e., "girly." We're just supposed to automatically agree that this is a bad scene, and if we don't want America to become one big symbolic
boy child, we all need to nut up and quit forwarding that goddamned laughing baby video.
For generations, kids couldn't wait until they reached adulthood so they could smoke, drink, eat four-course meals, make money, drive cars, have sex, and, if they were the type to join the military, legally kill other human beings. Now we would rather log on and tune out, preferably in the womb-like comfort of a Snuggie, which is the perfect thing to wear as we gaze at photos of kittens while gnawing on delicious cupcakes.
Listen, except for legally killing other human beings, I not only looked forward to all those things eagerly as a child, but continue to be actively grateful that I'm finally allowed to do them at nearly 35. I do not romanticize childhood at all, much less wish I could return to a simpler time, when I had to ask permission to cross the street. And yet, I also enjoy kittens, cupcakes and Snuggies. There is plenty of room in the world for sex, drugs, rock and roll, war, greed, hatred, Cute Overload and Smart Cars, all at the same time. Not to mention blistering satire of cute culture, which Windolf mentions as a ray of hope, and which I also find delightful. (Not delightful? LOLcats and dogs delivering twee messages about pet adoption and military heroism. That is too much sap even for me, people.)
Windolf's still not optimistic, however. "I would not doubt the power of cuteness. It will bat its lashes and crinkle its nose, and it will smother its critics with its softness," he concludes. Um, dude? You know what one of the very best things about cute shit is? Unlike war, an economic downturn, or living without health insurance, for instance, it's not actually scary.
Image from White House Flickr Pool
Addicted to Cute [Vanity Fair]