Simon May, The Power of Cute (image courtesy of Princeton University Press)

“Cuteness” is everywhere. Neighborhoods are praised if they have “cute” cafés; fashion and cosmetics brands such as Réalisation Par and Glossier promote beauty that is more innocent, dreamy, and childlike than overtly sexual — Réalisation Par, for example, calls their muses “dreamgirls”; and jewelry designer Tarina Tarantino made a name for herself for creating baubles that boldly reference Hello Kitty. Cuteness is prevalent in the art world as well, in works such as Jeff Koons’s balloon animals, Mark Ryden’s big-eyed ingénues, and Takashi Murakami’s brightly colored, anime-inspired artworks.

In The Power of Cute, Simon May attempts a philosophical exploration of “cute.” Starting from its title, the book presents a paradox. The author of Love, A History, May is quick to point out that “cute” is easy on the eye, but not easy as a concept. Often associated with small animals, newborns, and many other manifestations of helplessness, sweetness, and vulnerability, how does it derive its power?

May tries to define “cute” by comparing it to kindred ideas, including sweet and kitsch, yet the primary characteristic he attributes to it is its uncanniness. In fact, the book’s main argument is that we “deeply misunderstand Cute as a sensibility when we see it merely as an infantilizing aesthetic of powerlessness.” He adds that “cute” “is above all a teasing expression of the unclarity, the uncertainty, the uncanniness … at the heart of all existence.” Ambiguity — of character or form — is often intrinsic to cuteness. Hello Kitty, for example, might look like a saccharine kitten, but she has an impassive stare and no mouth; Pikachu, the yellow electric mouse from Pokemon, looks like a cuddly rodent but can unleash a deadly power and has a roguish behavior; the wrinkled E.T. resembles both a newborn baby and an elderly person; and even Micky Mouse, who epitomizes the benevolence and innocence of Disney, originally had a sadistic streak and a trickster-like personality.

May posits that “cute” is a modern-day iteration of the Renaissance archetype of the monstrous, which pertains not only to the frightening dimension of monsters, but also to dichotomies, such as comforting/discomforting, familiar/alien, charming/menacing — to what we would describe as fantastic or grotesque. For this reason, the author sees Kim Il-Sung and Donald Trump as embodiments of “cute,” because they pair a childlike and cartoonish appearance (they both look like overgrown babies) with fearsome political tactics. Trump, to him, comes across as a “genuine chimaera” rather than “straightforward devious” and Kim Il-Sung’s portrayal as androgynous rather than masculine in the regime’s poster art speaks to the ambiguity of “cute.”

Cuteness began to gain favor after World War II. May cites America and Japan as the main nations to adopt its aesthetic. In the West, cuteness converges with the evolution of children from being extra mouths to feed and, later, a valuable labor force to being supreme objects of love, surpassing romantic partners, a shift that started at the end of the 19th century. The first use in the English language of “cute” dates back to 1731, when it was a shortened form of “acute,” meaning “sharp.” It was only in the 1830s that it started to convey an idea of innocence, albeit an impish one. May cites Shirley Temple, whom he dubs the “angelic imp.” Her image, in fact, slid between naivety and wisdom, epitomized by her flirtatious innocence. “In other words, she is by no means merely sweet.”

It’s easier to see the power of “cute” in Japan, where kawaii has actual cultural ambassadors. As May explains, after World War II, the word kawaii, which initially indicated helplessness, came to represent “girl culture,” as expressed primarily in shoujo (young girl) manga, where protagonists appear to be vulnerable and in need of protection, but they have a defiant, and self-sufficient side. Hayao Miyazaki’s female protagonists, for example, combine femininity with resilience and moral fortitude, without making a great spectacle out of any of these characteristics.

Through kawaii, May elaborates, violence can be expressed in a non-threatening way. “As well as extirpating aggression,” he writes, “Cute also sublimates it.” In the 1997 video game Final Fantasy VII, for instance, characters physically abuse one another and the female lead is gutted with a samurai sword at the halfway point. Yet, the “cute” and the cartoonish graphics (big eyes, petite bodies) offset the horrors the characters face. In a different way, the animated series Aggretsuko mobilizes cuteness as Sanrio Corporation characters, such as an adorable red panda, a fennec fox, and other fluffy creatures, experience everyday office drudgery, as well as workplace harassment and general malaise.

May raises a good question when it comes to differentiating cuteness from the kitsch and the sweet. Cute can be inventive and shocking while kitsch oftentimes remains in the realm of nostalgia. “Kitsch tends, or at least strives, to evoke only the comforting, evicting anything painful, disquieting, or dismaying from its realm,” he writes. And sweetness is a sanitized version of cuteness, lacking the sense of the uncanny.

May also sees “cute,” and its impenetrable, duplicitous nature, as the antidote to the modern “cult of sincerity,” where we create and perform oversharing and confessional personas. Cute artifacts “are not interested in parading their truthfulness,” writes May. “They rest on unresolvable ambivalences.” Full volumes could be written about the “confessional” aesthetic we witness on social media, where personality disorders are glamorized and vulnerability is infantilized through the clever use of filters that can alter our appearances to look more anime-like. This might deserve a standalone monograph. But as “cute” and the “cult of sincerity” both permeate American culture in different ways, this is a point I wish May had developed further.

For those who independently learned about “cute” through an overeager consumption of comics, cartoons, and the pop-surrealist art of Murakami, Yoshitomo Nara, and the like (hello there) Simon May’s book is a concise, yet thoughtful compendium that condenses material from fashion books and magazines, over-educated tumblr blogs, and scholarly essays in one neat package. May cleverly connects dots between these, without breaking much new ground. Yet, those who have never given much thought to Cute, or have downright dismissed it, will discover how multi-dimensional it is. Anyone who is fascinated by the uncanny, impenetrable, or contradictory can’t ignore “cute.”

The Power of Cute by Simon May (2019) is published by Princeton University Press and is available from Amazon and other online retailers.

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Angelica Frey

Angelica Frey is a writer, editor, and translator living in Brooklyn. Originally from Milan, she writes about the arts, culture, food, and fashion.

One reply on “Taking Cuteness Seriously”

  1. Sianne Ngai, who has been a professor at both Stanford and the U of Chicago, has been writing insightful analysis of cuteness for many years, including the paper “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde” (2005) and the book “Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting,” 2012. I did not find anything written about her work in hyperallergic, which seems at best an unfortunate oversight you would do well to correct.

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