Friday, January 20, 2006

Cute In Theory ( an introduction)

Is Jabba the Hut cute?*

Here in the manse of fluffy dollars, the SB and I have been consuming mass quantities of pizza and quaffing copious amounts "frothy amber goodness" and musing on the question "what makes something cute?" Over at m.n.f.b. (my new favorite blog) Cute Overload, proprietor Meg has been compiling / developing something she calls "the rules of cuteness." And her timing seems just right.

You see, we're not really so interested in beauty anymore. I mean, we like it and all, but the question of cuteness -- Cuteness Studies, if you will -- seems somehow more relevant. I'm not sure why this is so. Perhaps is the post-Thomas Kinkaid, post-museum, post-mall, post-nature age that's made extra room in our imaginations for the cute. And, I'm working only on hunches here, but I suspect our interest in the cute will overlap with my interest feminist politics and the SB's fondness for all things Marxist.

Areas of interest:

--"cuteness" and capitalism. The whole point of fluffy dollars has been to investigate the connectedness between the fluffy and the dollar, so this question is particularly compelling. From the sheer delight elicited by seeing windows full of mass produced Totoros in Little Tokyo to the sheer horror of reading about the puppy mills that stock mall pet stores.

-- "cuteness" and sexuality. "cuteness" are a non-gendered category, despite it's associations with femininity and "girlie-ness."

-- "cuteness" and feminism. Riot grrl ("huggy bear" et al)
-- areas where the membrane between the cute and the grotesque seems incredibly thin or where the cute and grotesque actually overlap (i.e. Jabba the hut?)
-- the semiotics of cuteness, cross-pollination, and cooptation. Paris Hilton and Hello Kitty, Hello Kitty vibrators, ect.

-- "cuteness" and the categories of "human," "animal," and "other"
-- "cuteness" and youth, "cuteness" and wisdom
--"cuteness" and aggression or the transformation / perversion of something cute into something aggressive and evil (i.e. gremlins, Willow, Hillary Duff)
--"cuteness" and class

-- "cuteness" and propriety. Check out the comment thread from this post over at CO. I HATE it when people tell other people what to do! Yuck.
--"cuteness" as an elicitor of both euphoria and empathy (Awwww....)

This little investigation should pair nicely with our "cutie crack" feature. What do you think? Does cute make you high?

*for the record, I do not think Jabba the Hut is cute. He reminds me of snot or a flaccid penis. This is, I believe, a popular opinion. So then why did/do people think Ectoplasm (he has similar qualities), the little ghost from Ghostbusters, was/is cute?


juniper pearl said...

it's all about the warbly baby voice, and i'm sure he's helped by his smallness. too, ectoplasm was just kind of playing pranks, and jabba was lecherously eying scantily clad princesses.

cute is most definitely addicting. that's why i don't let myself go into the kitten room at the animal shelter anymore.

femme feral said...

Hi JP!

yes. I agree. The characterization plays a big part in the cuteness. So I need to add that category. And of course that would include vocalization and facial expression.

WHY is cute addictive? Is it an emotional thing? Cute things make me feel happy and hopeful and full of love and benevolence. The main thing that I respond to is fluff -- it's so soft and cuddly.

speaking of cute, I love your little pink icon!

femme feral said...

also, I should have included this in the original post: Wiki's entry on cuteness:

Elyce Rae Helford said...

Ghostbuster ghosts were bright colored, lime green and purple, as I recall. Jabba is the color of illness: "puke" green, grayish like death -- hence not cute. He's also wrinkly = old = not cute. He is himself snottish, whereas the Ghostbuster ghosts deposited their snot on others (kids love to do that), hence cute.

As for Hillary Duff, I'm sorry to say I took my son to see the gendered mess that is Cheaper By the Dozen 2, and Miss Duff was abysmal - TRULY bad, not-cute acting.

Check out my own post on cuteness if you get a minute at . It's the topic du jour!

femme feral said...

hey elyce, I'm heading over to check out your post now. It's interesting because sometimes old / wrinkly stuff is cute -- old doting grannies and bassett hounds for example.

also, another area to explore -- cuteness and repetition. no matter how many times I see hello kitty she looks cute, but the tazmanian devil and marvin the martian get less cute.

and also the not cute that pretends to be cute - precious moments, hummels, and even big bird. Am I alone in thinking these aforementioned things are not cute?

Emily Lloyd said...

Good point about Precious Moments. Also, a LOT of the Valentine's Day stuffed animals out there...lolling tongues, giant googly eyes, not cute. I want to think more about this and post at my own blog. Also related: the rise, over the past few years, of supercute cartoon animals on women's jammies and underwear (Hello Kitty, yes, but also Tinkerbell, Care Bears, etc.) And the cuteness of anime faces in general, though that opens up a whole other window of cultural issues.

femme feral said...

hey emily! thanks for expanding the discussion! will def head over to yr blog to check out your post.

I also wanted to add a comment I made over at elyce's blog: cuteness is often complicated by other signfiers, which is why defining cuteness is so difficult. In other words, cuteness is easily perverted / manipulated. Yet, as elyce points out, the "bs" bar is set perhaps even lower than the "cuteness" bar. hence the trying to be cute but not really cute precious moments, kids of juice commercials...

juniper pearl said...

most cute wears off, like anything else, and a lot of times it becomes cloying over time, the way a flower bouquet is great when you first set it on the table and closing your throat by the end of the day. the japanese, though, have done serious scientific research into what visual aspects of cuteness people respond to most strongly (the head being bigger than the body is always a huge winner, and rounded shapes beat out angular or more realistic ones) and are clearly utilizing that information to the max; it isn't a fluke that hello kitty is infinitely darling--she was practically genetically engineered to enchant the masses. if you haven't heard about it, there was an anime series that ran on adult swim for a while called paranoia agent that involved a cartoon character lulling the nation into a stupor with its cuteness (it was a lot more involved than that, that's just the currently pertinent bit). the amazing thing is, even knowing the degree to which i'm being manipulated, i am still utterly powerless against pandy happy. oh, that little face!

it's an emotional thing, sure, but emotions are chemical things. we think of cute things like cartoons and animals as being sort of defenseless, so the desire to protect them is a big factor. it seems that girls are disproportionately affected by the adorable, so the response could be somewhat maternal in nature, but i wouldn't presume to make guesses about the biochemical pathways involved.

i stole my icon from dogshitter wants, a cartoon that is both stiflingly cute and dizzyingly bizarre, which is how i like my cartoons best. there's a link on my page.

femme feral said...

paranoia agent, huh? I have to check that out. The chemical aspect totally fascinates me. Unfortunately, I have a very sloppy understanding of science, and I tend to muddle things up or re-imagine them to make sense to me (perhaps something I have in common with Karl Pilkington??) But there's something about the stupid/stupor "happy happy joy joy" aspect of the cute that def seems to stimulate something in my head. Could one be "cuted" into a stupor? If so, I wanna go there.

ren said...

I'm a little slow in commenting on this, but I can't resist. Sorry this post is so long, but you got my lit-crit brain going. I'm intersted in the idea of cute to evil transformation --" 'cuteness' and aggression or the transformation / perversion of something cute into something aggressive and evil (i.e. gremlins, Willow, Hillary uff)"(FF). That is straight out of the Victorian Gothic sensibility. I just read _The Monk_, the novel purported to be the prototypical Gothic novel,
and the transformative business was apparent on nearly every page. Things appealing and unattainably divine go superfast to things terrifying but oh-so-craveably irresistable. Like Dracula--you think to yourself as you read/watch (or engage in whatever medium through which you prefer to intake information) "ew, ew, ew, but damn he's really sexy." So, people spend
thier entire lives trying to apprehend the significance of this rather schizophrenic sensibility.
I see it, so far, but I may change my mind, as a mapping out of why people are such internally
complex and spiritually diverse creatures. Humans constantly battle instinctive drives to surpass soulless-, or spiritless-ness. Cuteness gone bloody-fanged merely strives to represent this human fear of succumbing to primal motivations, of failing to attain spiritual
viability or enlightenment. It's why so much anime has little big-eyed teenagers piloting mechs responsive to the pilot's emotional state, and why the purpose of the mech/pilot dual form is to combat fearsome, unfathomable creatures, or wicked, jaded adult-sized mech/pilot teams.
These are new expressions of the Victorian Gothic sensibility--cute-to-iiieeeee-gads! is possibly my favorite topic these days! Did I mention I am a very big dork for watching anime so much?

elizalou said...

Too late for anything substantial, but I thought I would throw this out there for you. Cute or not? It's fluffy, to be sure. It's a bunny rabbit. But is it as cute as Slimer? I think the fact that it's bred and groomed to look as it does makes it less cute. Does naturalness have something to do with cuteness, at least on a living animal level?

One, two, three, discuss.

femme feral said...

I think that bunny is really cute, but I get where you're coming from with that natural thing. But I love shih tzus, and they were bred to be small and playful and fluffy. And I love ruby red grapefruit, which was bred to be sweet and large and tangy. But I don't like the idea of frankenfood or genetically engineered / patented corn. The line between these things is very fuzzy in my head, and I admit that I don't really know the science of it. Can anyone clue me in?