Sacred Cows #8: Oh How Cute!
Next door to the teleological notion of Fun is another rather modern sacred cow. It’s something that crept in through the nursery as innocent as can be, yet has grown in the most bizarre ways to affect and influence our attitudes and behavior. And it’s the kind of thing that, if you point it out, makes people think there’s something wrong with you for even mentioning it. And folks will swear it’s an eternal notion, something ever present, and never questioned. And yet in the last hundred years it has been a serious source of smuggled concepts and ideas into lives that have no idea whatsoever that they are being infected. Postmodern hipsters cynically smile at it, while collecting its endlessly manufactured kitsch. It certainly has crossed international borders to become nearly universal. And it goes by such an innocuous name: Cute.
Cuteness is sometimes these days explained in purely biological terms: Big baby-like eyes, small chins, vulnerability. All of which is fine. But doesn’t really explain how we got to a place where these strange cartoonish images ,whether from Disney, Japan or baby animal porn, surround us in all sorts of strange locations. I descend into the basement of a church and find large posters of excruciatingly cute rodents and barnyard fowl having something to do with the Bible. Or I walk into my local post office in the depths the winter season to see an official USPS poster up on a window of a smiling big eyed cuddly snowman representing in some odd manner the federal government.
And I suppose there are people reading this who, already at this point, are starting to feel uncomfortable about my criticism of these images… which I can guarantee you is going to get a lot sharper before I’m done. I mean why am I attacking these Cute images? They’re Fun!! (If you’ve been reading this series you know exactly why this Fun defense is going survive about as long as a hamster, a cute cuddly baby hamster with saucer eyes, in a microwave.)
It comes down to the formulation of the idea that Cute is somehow baby-like. And violating a baby is unthinkable. So how can I critique the notion of the baby-like? And it is this big-eyed baby quality that is so seductive. And it is precisely because the Cute is beyond reproach that it then becomes the perfect vehicle for smuggling ideas. Disney understood that very well as Mickey Mouse morphed from rodent to round headed baby thing. The same can be said for certain styles of Japanese manga and anime. I mean Cream Lemon isn’t exactly the Seven Samurai. But beyond using cute imagery to import strange cargo into the geeky sectors of society the most pernicious result of these images is to give us the unassailable yet twisted conception of Cute itself.
Now before we get too far in this essay let me point out something that I shouldn’t have to say, yet I need to lest someone accuse me of it. I am not a misanthrope. At all. I love babies when they smile and giggle. I love kittens, puppies and bear cubs. And yes indeed they are cute with a small ‘c’. Anyone who knows me well knows I get along famously with children. No problem so far. But don’t ask me to like pictures on a wall with kittens and a silly bit of doggerel. That is way too far over the line.
And for that matter with today’s digital cameras and social networking just how many images of cute babies and kids do we have to look at? Yes I know. I know. Everyone is proud of their children. But the truth is this, in all honesty, those thousands of photos of our children do not mean as much to those outside of the immediate family as they do within. But the tyranny comes at this point for exactly the same reason. Who dares tell their friends to slow down with the reproductions of their young? It’s akin to attacking children. No one dares speak the truth.
Or let me put it another way. I have approximately ten photos of myself before the age of eight. And you know that seems just right. It makes my early life interesting. Poetic not prosaic. I have very strong recollections. Do we have any understanding of what we are doing to our children when they have hundreds, maybe thousands, of images of themselves available to gaze upon before they even have a functioning memory. Yes I appreciate having so much freedom to take endless shots. But Lord I miss the deliberation that film engendered.
Meanwhile back to our central subject! You know a culture creates images of things that have some sort of real meaning to them. They spend time making art that expresses the most important aspects of their society. Ancient Egyptians focused on death and the afterlife. The vast majority of their art was funerary. The classical Greeks sculpted their ideals. Look at their statues. During the Renaissance another ideal of a harmony between nature and the divine is evidenced. Look at Michelangelo or Botticelli. The Dutch during the Baroque Era sought to create a sense of the value of even the lowliest people in a very real world. Rembrandt and Vermeer come to mind. What does it therefore mean to see statues of Mickey Mouse, paintings of impossibly cute children, posters of weird big eyed cartoon characters? There has been a dark transformation here. These Cute things have replaced a well considered view of what it means to be human. They make us smile and laugh. Sometimes they are also used in inverted ways, see South Park, to elicit cynical variations of the same responses. “Oh My GOD! That is just so SICK!” (Translation “That’s just so Cute, but I’m far too cool to say it that way.”)
But the thing that keeps haunting me is this… How quickly these strange images have entered into our world and how protected they are. And so the serious question is this: Where did this new alien notion of the Cute come from? It was hardly here at all a hundred years ago. Now we are drowning in Cute detritus. It’s time to investigate a bit of Cutesy history.