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Cloying Times

As anxiety mounts over the ongoing war and plummeting economy, people find refuge in cute

By Sharon Steel

 

If Rudolph Giuliani had a brain in his head, he would have forgone standard campaign buttons reading “Rudy” or “9/11” and instead passed out buttons with his mug next to that of his new running mate: Hello Kitty.

Could it have hurt? Not judging by the cuteness surge currently blitzkrieging pop culture, a not-so-subtle coping skill in a time where our death-and-despair tolerability is well past the breaking point. Kitty is just one newly ubiquitous symbol on the Cuteness Grid, and not far from her are Juno (the film’s precious soundtrack peaked at No. 1 on both the Billboard album chart and the iTunes Soundtrack chart), the viral, aggressively adorable nonsense language of lolspeak, and the twee literary oeuvre of Mc Sweeney’s. Each manifests a different gradation of cuteness, with cuteness, of course, being the collective cultural cure-all to our problems.

Making sense of cuteness is a special challenge. In effect, the things that make cuteness so singular now are also the very reasons it’s become so potent: uncertainty about a planet embroiled in a bizarre mélange of war and genocide; concern about an economic future of which no one seems to have direct control; confusion about interpersonal relationships at a time when gender roles are being redefined; a revolutionary social scene that’s evolving exclusively online.

One way to ease our own anxiety and keep the larger, more pervasive issues of angst at bay is to embrace anything and everything that looks like it wants to be cuddled. That, however, is just the tip of the warm-and-fuzzy iceberg.

Cute stuff has always had the alchemical power to transform our leaden troubles into heart-wrenching, smile-juggernaut gold. It’s Darwinian. From a purely biological perspective, cuteness is the first survival skill we’re given: It comes in our manual before we even know how to read it. Before the age of civilization, cuteness prevented us from chucking newborn infants into the woods when they cried, or abandoning them altogether when they pooped themselves. Even Cro-Magnon types felt the natural instinct to protect poor, defenseless, teensy-weensy babies. (Round heads, toothless grins, and tiny, squishy bodies didn’t hurt, either.)

Since cuteness has forever been one of our evolutionary advantages—something that arrives prepacked in our DNA—it’s only logical that we find it embedded in nearly every aspect of our culture. And that we turn to cuteness when things seem most dire (and our ghastly economy and endless war in Iraq—the two issues of most concern to voters in this election cycle—sure as fuck seem dire).

There are multifaceted gradations of cuteness that provide us with an easy out, a short-term means of forgetting about the sickening post-postmodernist distress and sociopolitical angst currently plaguing us. Cuddling up to cuteness is one kind of instinctive defense mechanism. It’s an almost childlike sort of regression that is, in a sense, part of the organic reaction to all the crap that’s out there. In this age of instant gratification, there are glorious and inventive techniques for ages 0–forever to shield themselves from unpleasantness.

“We’ve had manifestations of this cute business, through good times and bad, militaristically,” says Robert Thompson, a professor of television and pop culture at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School. “We’re living in dangerous times. There’s a fear of terrorism and a war we have no idea how to manage. That’s going to bleed over into lots of different things.” These “cycles of cute,” as Thompson calls them, might transcend the news, though they tend to hint at the gloominess that’s ever-present, regardless of what’s on Page One.

If there is anything cuter than a photo of a snuggly kitten, it is a photo of a snuggly kitten festooned with intentionally misspelled cutesy text. After sparking an Interweb sensation in early 2007, icanhascheezburger.com has continued to prove its lasting value in Internet meme paydirt. The site began with the posting of a photo, a single pudgy, glassy-eyed, smirking gray feline with the words “I Can Has Cheezburger?” written above the kitty. It may have been accidental, it may have been part of a grand scheme, but either way it was the loudest salvo yet in the recent cuteness surge.

It also birthed the term “lolcat,” a coinage referring specifically to the combination of kitty photos and the intentionally misspelled baby-talk captions that accompanied them. It hasn’t hit Webster’s yet, but urbandictionary.com has five different entries for “lolcat.” (And 37 entries for “lolz.”) No matter which one you trust most, the “lol” root, clearly, comes from Internet abbreviation-speak for “LOL,” meaning “Laugh Out Loud.” OMG!!! Teh kitteh fren-zee iz makin us lolz!

Ordinary people who used to scoff at emoticons and the overuse of AIM acronyms were suddenly saying things exactly like this, all the time. Though the original lolcat meme, called “Caturday,” first started in the 4chan message boards years ago, I Can Has Cheezburger was instrumental in breaking the animal-based image macros and the phonetic “lolspeak” vernacular into the mainstream.

I Can Has Cheezburger isn’t the only site trafficking in pictures of cute cats saying and doing cute things. There’s also cuteoverload.com, kittenwar.com, and babyanimalz.com, just to name a few. Still, I Can Has Cheezburger is the first thing that Google belches up when you search “lolcat,” and it houses thousands of user-submitted pictures of cute “kittehs,” hamsters, walruses—any animal, in almost any circumstance, as long as it’s strange, funny, bizarre, or cute enough for users to vote it in and comment on. An average of 8,000 submissions are sent in per day (O RLY? YA RLY), according to site administrator Ben Huh. As to the ephemeral appeal of the site itself—visitors go there for the cute pictures, the cheekiness of language, the public opportunity to riff on the validity of the pictures in lolspeak, or any combination of these—Huh says it can’t be pinned down.

“The tough part about running the site is providing a daily update of pictures that hits every one of those subgroups,” he says. “What the cats do is provide a nonthreatening form of expression of someone’s sense of humor.”

Other zealous lolcat-inspired ventures include LolSecretz (a mash-up of I Can Has Cheezburger and PostSecret, a Web site where users anonymously submit postcards of their deepest, most classified private info) and Lolcatbible, the translation of the entire Holy Testament into “lolspeak.” In the latter, Genesis commences thusly: “Oh hai. In teh beginnin Ceiling Cat maded teh skiez An da Urfs, but he did not eated dem.”

This past week, after a two-day auction, lolcats finally made the official transition from Web to print: Gotham Books bought the rights to publish an I Can Has Cheezburger spin-off tome. Literary agent Kate McKean told Mediabistro’s Galleycat blog that site icon Professor Happycat will “guide the reader through the different memes with brief definitions and context, while still capturing the absurd humor of the site.”

In their most personal writings—such as e-mails or blog posts—lolcat users claim they find a sense of liberation in the language. “A lot of people use our pictures on their blogs, when they’re going on a rant about something,” says Huh. “They’ll post a picture of a lolcat doing something funny that’s related. They usually do that because it cuts the sharpness. ‘Oh, I had a crappy day, my boss really sucks!’ And then they’ll post a picture of Boss Cat, which is, like, ‘Come into My Office!’ ”

But lolcats also have the potential to slice away at the starkness of issues on a much larger scale, from death to globalization to conflicts in the Middle East. Huh recalls one popular posting of a suicidal lolcat, featuring a black background and one tiny white paw sticking up from the page. “Goodbye, cruel world,” was all it said.

Then, on the first of the year, I Can Has Cheezburger posted a “Happy Noo Year” image of an Israeli defense solider who, clutching his M-16, was crouching down to pet a kitten sitting at his feet. “We wish you the peace on erf,” the administrators wrote, and the caption on the photo read “No Fite, Just Rubs.” The picture was one of the most popular photos of the day, and has since received 3,533 Diggs on digg.com, a user-submitted news-article popularity Web site that also ranks photos. The image ultimately garnered 231 comments on I Can Has Cheezburger before the administrators locked them down so the site could load faster.

“This isn’t what we would call a traditional lolcat,” says Huh of the photo. “This isn’t, ‘Ha ha, this is funny,’ but it did resonate with a lot of people. . . . This one was special for us.”

Lolcats aren’t the only kitties that have managed to generate cultural phenomena. In Japan, Hello Kitty is, quite literally, everywhere. You can clothe yourself in Hello Kitty threads (underwear, outerwear, diamond-encrusted jewelry), douse yourself in Hello Kitty cosmetics, fill your apartment with Hello Kitty décor, cook a Hello Kitty breakfast with Kitty’s head burned in the toast made by your Hello Kitty toaster, withdraw money from your Hello Kitty Consolidated Account at Dah Sing Bank, write interoffice memos on Hello Kitty stationery with an endless series of Hello Kitty pens and pencils, cruise around in your Hello Kitty car, play music on your Hello Kitty stereo, and, on the weekends, spend your free time tooling around Puroland, an indoor theme park in Tokyo run by Sanrio, the company that owns and licenses Kitty’s image.

If you have the inclination, you can even book a flight on EVA Air’s Hello Kitty jet, a special edition EVA Airbus 330-200 that is “painted nose-to-tail with super-sized characters from the charming world of Hello Kitty.” And that’s not all: Flight attendants are decked out in Hello Kitty apparel, in-flight Hello Kitty meals are served, and the inside of the cabin is plastered with Hello Kitty’s image everywhere you turn. Consider Disney’s recent campaigns to expand from a toddler and tween obsession to a lifestyle brand for adults, with wedding dresses, furniture, fashion, and vacations. Sanrio figured out that secret ages ago.

“They love it very much,” says Yuko Kawanishi, a sociologist at Tokyo Gakugei University. “There’s a basic fondness among Japanese people for anything cute. Hello Kitty is just one example of that.” This past month, word out of Japan is that Hello Kitty will be marketed to young men, too. The line of bags, watches, and shirts will soon be available in the United States.

The Land of the Rising Sun has long been a source of cute imports for the United States, as we’ve adopted endless cute Japanese trends, known there as kawaii. Kawaii doesn’t have a real English translation, although it’s been appropriated to mean “cute.” But its meaning is so much more layered than that: Kawaii is cool, amazing, trendy, extraordinary, fabulous, must-have, and on and on and on. It’s a feeling, a way of life, an aesthetic sensibility, and a high compliment rolled in one. Besides an affinity for character goods like Hello Kitty, My Melody, Little Twin Stars, and Pochacco, Americans have taken Pokemon, Sailor Moon, and other manga, a love of anime, and toys like Tamagachi and Lolita-Goth cos-play fashion, and made them our own. One need only observe Gwen Stefani and her Harajuku girls or Takashi Murakami’s limited-edition Superflat Louis Vitton bags to note how far kawaii has seeped into our own aesthetic.

What happens when you distill Chuck Klosterman, FOUND magazine, and Miranda July down to their artistic essences? At their core, they’re pretty much the same thing: offbeat, but just so; eccentric, but not too; awkward, but self-aware; quirky, but formulaic in their quirkiness. Each embodies a sensibility that slowly, with great purpose, has been morphing from cult status to mass appreciation. It’s now hitting upon an explosive convergence in the mainstream.

A coy combination of quirk (various cultural productions considered cute and fun despite their damaged, lame quality, à la not only the movie Napoleon Dynamite, but also the “Vote for Pedro” T-shirt phenomenon it spawned), kitsch (ironically appreciated found art, such as pink lawn flamingos and velvet Elvis paintings), cheese (Wayne’s World and Chicken Soup for the Soul), camp (Susan Sontag described it as the cultural elite’s brilliant excuse to enjoy and love the lowbrow), and cuteness—call this mixture “quatsch,” if you will—has grown into the dominant affectation in contemporary youth culture. Who appreciates this kind of thing? It used to be hipsters, back when hipsterdom was still nervously measured as a subculture. These days, though, it seems everyone is a quatsch aficionado—it just depends on how you prefer to get your fix.

“Quirk has been defanged and embraced by the mainstream,” says Joshua Glenn, who writes “Brainiac,” a blog and weekly column for the Boston Globe’s Ideas section. Glenn cites Wes Anderson’s post–Bottle Rocket films, John Waters’ post-Polyester movies, and the acting styles of people like Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman and Jason Bateman as examples of mainstream quirk. (A couple of years ago, the movement’s indie poster boy was the character of Seth Cohen, everyone’s favorite Death Cab for Cutie–listening, comic-book reading navel-gazer from the canceled Fox drama The O.C., although that honor seems to have been transferred onto Michael Cera of Arrested Development, Superbad, and Juno fame.) “It’s all been rendered palatable, ‘gettable,’ ” says Glenn.

A sophisticate’s taste for quatsch can be satiated in the critical ideology of McSweeney’s, David Eggers’ sprawling literary enterprise that publishes The Believer, literary journal Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and a rotating catalogue of fiction titles. For all the good Eggers’ company and his nonprofit work has done, there’s something tenaciously adorable about McSweeney’s that his audience finds simply delightful. Others don’t seem to find much pleasure in the whimsical, “Oh, the places you’ll go!” project packaging; the universal “aggressive air of innocence,” as The New York Times critic Judith Shulevitz called it, of their overall tone; or in what n+1 condemned as the “wide-eyed, juvenile, faux-naïf” tone of their editorial text. Why not just get it over with and call it “McTweeney’s?” McTweeney’s, then, is the next generation of quatschy publishing, and it’s no surprise that it’s often aligned itself with like-minded indie darlings—bands such as the Mates of State, comedians such as Flight of the Conchords’ Eugene Mirman, and no shortage of geek-chic fans.

At the other end of the spectrum is quatsch at its most artful and ingratiating. The chief example of this is Juno, a film recently nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Its competitors were four other movies, each sadder, more violent, and gloomier than the last. Juno, a film that some believe fits perfectly into the romantic-comedy genre while simultaneously breaking that mold, has risen like a phoenix from the ashes of its phony-humble beginnings as an off-center, idiosyncratic coming-of-age tale ever since it premiered in theaters in December. Much like 2006’s supposed underdog arts sensation, Little Miss Sunshine, Juno was poised to utilize its apparent edginess as a launching pad for mainstream crossover victory. This unavoidable pattern combined with the calculated wave of pre-buzz and word-of-mouth endorsements until, suddenly, stripper-cum-blogger turned best-selling author and Juno screenplay writer Diablo Cody found herself pink-cheeked on Oprah’s couch alongside tour-de-force riot-grrrl (yet slated for an upcoming issue of Teen Vogue) actress Ellen Page.

Oprah isn’t a woman known for her restraint, and she loudly predicted—several times—that Cody would be walking home from the Oscars with a golden statue (and she was right). Seen through the prism of palatable hipster irreverency, Juno is to film what Coldplay once was to pop music. And though it’s received its own fair share of backlash, Cody, director Reitman, the featured actors (especially Cera), and Kimya Dawson (half of the twee-folk duo the Moldy Peaches; she composed the majority of the film’s nursery-rhyme indie soundtrack) are the reigning sovereigns of the latest lucrative tribute to our culture’s insatiable desire for twee.

But isn’t this contradiction—the supposed anti–It People reigning as our newest crowned pinups and celebrities—what one would expect of a sensibility that’s metastasized across our culture, spurned on by the warm glow of the Zeitgeist? So much of what we enjoy has been twee-ified: NPR, retro fashion, veganism, urban crafting, blogging on Tumblr, even the awkward, uncomfortable face that the sweatshirt-clad Dawson kept making when she appeared on The View with Moldy Peaches collaborator Adam Green to perform “Anyone Else But You,” Juno’s romantic blankie of a theme song. Her expression seemed to say, “Aren’t I too real, too odd, to be here? Why do all of these people want to listen to me? Will my edgy, strange little songs lose their value now that so many people can hear them?”

Oh, but we do want to listen to her, and her fear at being recognized and overapplauded merely adds to the inexplicable allure. We soothe ourselves with the quatsch paradox, this effortless aptitude some have at promoting their cuteness as a grand ideal—along the way, cuteness becomes an even bigger character than they are. A twist on this maneuver was achieved by a gun enthusiast in California who customized an AR-15—DIYing an “evil black rifle,” as he deemed it on riflegear.com, into a “cute and cuddly” gift. He painted it Hello Kitty pink, with flower designs and a decal of Kitty herself holding her own firearm, then posted pictures of his wife shooting with it at the gun range.

Quatsch is the new consensus, and while it offers temporary refuge from all the big baddies, it also prevents us from seriously reckoning with it. Big-eyed, agreeable, and utterly unthreatening, it’s striking out at whatever gets between it and its precocious rampage. Instead of hiding from it, we run toward it, unable to decide whether to coo at it or hold it close.

Succumbing to the draw of escapist entertainment, we relieve our office tedium with 15 minutes a day spent ogling esoteric cat pictures, reading absurdist literature, or watching movies and TV that isolates poseurs while simultaneously promoting them. Quatsch might make you giggle like a schoolgirl, and it might give you reason to put off the search for a decent therapist, but it’s no permanent solution. It isn’t even a tangible safe haven. The therapeutic potential of a good hug can go only so far.

Sharon Steel is a staff writer at the Boston Phoenix, where this article first appeared.


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