Draw a circle, and ray out from it the abject, the melancholic, the wicked, the childlike. Now in the zones between add the erotic, the ironic, the narcotic, and the kitsch. Intersperse the Romantic/Victorian, the Disney/consumerist, and the biologically deterministic. At the center of this many-spoked wheel lies a connective empty space. Label it CUTE.
What is cute? The technical definition encompasses revealing distinctions that tend to be elided in normal conversation, where cute is cute and everyone knows what this means. Cute by the book derives etymologically from 'acute,' and its establishing usage dates to circa 1731. From this root comes cute's first meaning, as clever or underhandedly shrewd, and its second, as impudent or smart-alecky—"Don't get cute." The standard connotation of dainty or delicate prettiness then leads to what might be termed mannerist cute—the cutesey, which (like the folksy) is defined by its excessive or self-conscious appeal to the unembarrassed core quality.
Such interconnections echo a number of distinctions present in the larger motif. Fundamentally, cute serves to displace, or neutralize, or reconceptualize in a positive/non-threatening direction; this is possible only to a certain degree, at which point the pendulum swings back the other way. Because it is a device of masking and semblance, cute is inherently circular (see Thesis No. I). Note how the dictionary definition enacts this closed progression, which has to do at every stage with things not being wholly what they seem. Cleverness shields or distances; it plays potentially hurtful games. Impertinence simplifies this game, softening the con artist's plot into a joke. Prettiness and daintiness further soften a barbed joke into an appeal or flirtation; self-conscious or excessive appeal becomes suspect. Suspicious appeal shades toward a con.
Cute marks a crucial absence. It guarantees, by definition, the nonappearance of malice, premeditation, irony, self-consciousness, accusation, or mercenary agenda. However, in its manufactured forms cute remains a major locus for—in some ways is synonymous with—the manipulative gesture, the prepackaged, consumable demonstration of (necessarily factitious) innocence, spontaneity, and need. Cute arises by manipulating the guarantee of non-manipulation. Professing its own demure and complete powerlessness, it gains power over and directs all interactions with it: parents wait upon the infant, not the other way around. Simultaneously referring to and negating its own vulnerability, cute functions as a self-fulfilling system, maintaining its image as 100% stolid and happy and obvious only by virtue of utter contingency.
Cute displaces and protects against violence by caricaturing the object of potential viola-tion. Drop-kicking a stuffed animal or crumpling an animal-baby poster, for example, might generate a faint transgressive whiff; either could conceivably make a small child cry. But neither compares to the moment for which such acts are prophylactic: it is horrifying to feel the fragile bones and heartbeat-warmth of the actual kitten in one's hands, and to feel those hands flexing, as if of their own atavistic accord, to crush. Even more so when the live kitten functions as a surrogate for said small child.
Put another way: William the cat is very cute each morning when he stalks, torments, and kills the cute stuffed robin and presents it to Rebecca and Ira in the bathroom, at their feet at the breakfast table, or in their bed. Actual dead robins, complete with mites and trailing blood, appearing in the same situations with the same frequency, would not be cute. Cute emerges as a ritualized and declawed sublimation of violence, a pantomime or parody neutralizing mortal threat. This threat arises at that juncture where the destructive meets the generative: Rebecca and Ira cradle William furry-belly-up in their arms, laughing, asking, "Have you met our son?"
The sexy- or porn-cute obviously constitutes a whole genre sui generis, characterized by the Playboy bunny, the chick, the arm-candy, the hey-baby. Boy-cute geared toward both females and males tends to cutesify adult or macho animal imagery—Tiger Beat, beefcake—rather than indulging ostentatiously infantile girl-cute models. As a term for "sexually desirable," cute marks a middle path: where "hot" and "innocent" might both be overwhelming (for different reasons), cute is available, plausible, manageable. One respondent queried about the meaning of cute insisted that males of her acquaintance identified sexually appealing women as cute only when they were also intelligent—a reversion, conscious or not, to the word's eighteenth-century origin in mental acumen, if not subterfuge. (See Thesis II.)
Cute might be thought of as a watered-down version of pretty; which is a watered-down version of beautiful; which is a watered-down version of sublime; which is a watered-down version of terrifying. In this regard, the cute is akin to the ridiculous, which is a watered-down version of the absurd, which is again a watered-down version of that which terrifies. By extension, this suggests that all representation, what-ever its stylistic bent, is tinged with an experience of terror: the terror of the convincingly ersatz, the killing disjuncture of the otherized, the pseudo-real. (See Theses IV, VI.)
The trouble with a Kitten is that Eventually it becomes a Cat
In keeping with its status as representational rather than natural, cute suggests an inherently fleeting, forgettable, throwaway quality, but this is distinct from ephemerality, since by its very vapidity or inoffensiveness, cute remains indestructible. Cute stabilizes infancy, or the frailty of old age, or the foolishly unconscious actions of a supposedly competent adult, by reframing them in an atemporal, non-biological, and consequence-free zone, not entirely unrelated to the fixed reality inside a picture.
What, then, of organic cute, the reflexive and visceral response stimulated by a playful baby or winsome gesture, animal or human? If beauty is symmetrical, proportionate, and shades toward perfection, while sublimity is awe-inspiring, jagged, and larger than life, then organic cute is disproportionate, asymmetrical, and smaller—lighter, more humorous, and less ironic—than life. The stabbing suddenness of organic cute, the irrepressible swoon it evokes, echoes back again to the acute not in its intelligence, but in its directness.
Morphologically—that is, æsthetically—cute relies on big eyes, round heads, fat bellies. The limbs of the cute are stubby or nonexistent, its mouth abstracted or disproportionately tiny, its nose button, its ears enormous, or alternatively, invisible. Cute tumbles, toddles, waddles, rolls; it is visibly dependent, apparently engineered by natural selection to stimulate a nurturing response. If this is true in evolutionary terms, it follows that the surplus cuteness manufactured by culture might denote the culture's attempt to trick itself into kindness. One respondent defined it thus: "Cute makes you do things you wouldn't do otherwise." (See Thesis V.)
The evil (or drunken) clown; the devil-possessed doll; Star Trek's "Trouble with Tribbles": like porn-cute, wicked-cute depends upon camp. When cute goes bad, it deepens rather than transforms. Poisoned cute retains its outward appearance while proliferating cancerously toward a toxic/ comic exaggeration of itself. Its colors tend to darken from pure pastel; its contours sharpen or skew to the grotesque. Cute melodies lilt or rollick and repeat—when sped to mania or slowed to dirge, their whimsy boomerangs upon and guts itself. (See Thesis X.)
The linguistic analogue of cute is formed by a prolonged nonsense exhalation filtered through the mouth aligned as if to smile; when inflected improperly, these sounds become not porn-cute but directly porno-graphic: "awww," "oooohh," "mmmm." Since this lexicon is ostensibly derived from baby talk, perhaps it makes sense that it also gestures to the origin of babies. When such sounds coalesce into words, they often function as aliases for cute and rely on repe-tition and diminution, as if unconsciously articulating the concept's dual nature: "boo-boo," "snookums." The infamous suffixes—"-ie" or "-y" and, to a lesser extent in English, "-ette"—reverse toward the abstract, pulling normal words back into their malleable infancy as preverbal sound. Of course, this also has the predictably paradoxical effect of making unremarkable words foolish, of cutesifying them. (See Thesis No. VII.)
Cute in German: liebe or süss. Cute in Spanish: lindo. Cute in French: mignon. In Japan (which vies with the United States as self-anointed world capital of cute—it might be relevant that the most extreme and deliberate form of cute, the cutesy, originated as a term circa 1944, while these two powers were at war. (See Theses II,IX.) Cultural categorization identifies not only cute people and cute objects, but cute handwriting—an extreme rounding of the kanji which renders them almost illegible (see again Thesis X). This style is variously referred to as "round writing" (marui ji), "comic writing" (manga ji), "fake-child writing" (burikko ji) and "kitten writing" (koneko ji) (See Thesis IX.) An American theorist of Japanese cute also reports cute food—sugary, bland, pale in color, soft in texture—and, of course, many sartorial examples (see Thesis VII). Sayuri Koshino, a public-relations representative at Sanrio, the company responsible for the efflorescence of cute that is the Hello Kitty product line, explains:
I believe we are all born with actual physical organs of cute, tiny and valentine shaped, pulsing away in our cerebella. But I also believe that many of us, having developed harsh and realistic life attitudes, have repressed our cute impulses.
Toward a thesaurus of cute: adorable, amiable, animated, appealing, artless, artificial, attractive, available, bland, boring, bowdlerized, callow, cartoon, charming, childish, childlike, cloying, comfy, comic, consumable, cuddly, dainty, darling, dear, delicate, desirable, diminutive, dippy, easy, effeminate, embarrassed, engaging, flirtatious, foolish, free, friendly, frilly, frivolous, frolicking, furry, fuzzy, gentle, genuine, girlish, guileless, happy, happy-go-lucky, helpless, honest, idiotic, immature, inexperienced, infantile, ingenuous, ingratiating, innocent, innocuous, inoffensive, itsy-bitsy, juvenile, lovable, naïve, non-threatening, maudlin, miniature, mindless, mushy, natural, nostalgic, passive, pastel, pathetic, pert, petite, pink, popular, precocious, pretty, pure, quaint, quiet, round, rotund, saccharine, sappy, saucy, sexy, shallow, shy, silly, simpatico, simple, sincere, small, smarmy, smiley, soft, squashable, sugary, sweet, sympathetic, syrupy, tasteless, teeny, timeless, tiny, touching, unconscious, unironic, unsophisticated, unstructured, vapid, vulnerable, weak, winning, winsome, waiflike, wee.
- See Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition.
- Sharon Kinsella, "Cuties in Japan," in Women, Media, and Consumption in Japan, eds. Lise Skov and Brian Moeran (Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 1995), p. 253.
Frances Richard is a writer who lives in Brooklyn. She is the non-fiction editor of the journal Fence and an editor at Cabinet.
Cabinet is published by Immaterial Incorporated, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization. Cabinet receives generous support from the Lambent Foundation, the Orphiflamme Foundation, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the Opaline Fund, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts, the Danielson Foundation, the Katchadourian Family Foundation, and many individuals. All our events are free, the entire content of our many sold-out issues are on our site for free, and we offer our magazine and books at prices that are considerably below cost. Please consider supporting our work by making a tax-deductible donation by visiting here