Associate Professor, Media Studies and Anthropology, Purchase College, State University of New York
As a distinctly modern aesthetic concept, cuteness is a mass cultural form deeply entangled with consumption and advertising. According to cultural theorist Sianne Ngai, cuteness stands in opposition to major aesthetic concepts such as the sublime, the beautiful, and the glamorous. Unlike major aesthetic experiences, such as those that provoke inexpressible feelings of awe and wonder, the cute is encountered on a more mundane and everyday level. While the experience of the sublime invokes “moral and theological resonances” (Ngai 2012, 18), the cute is highly accessible and immediate. We encounter it in commodities that surround us on an everyday basis (ibid., 19). Ngai suggests that minor aesthetic categories like cuteness speak to our experience of art and aesthetics in late capitalism in more precise ways than classic aesthetic concepts like the sublime or the beautiful, which exert power and a sense of awe over the viewer. It is the seeming inconsequentiality and ubiquity of cuteness, and its ties to consumer capitalism, that is central to its affective and economic power. At the same time, however, the sheer availability and accessibility of mass-mediated cute objects provokes feelings of suspicion and derision from the consumer (ibid., 18).
The notion of cuteness is highly gendered and has been defined in terms of sweetness, delicateness, and helplessness. It is also a concept that is rooted in the child. Features that are typically associated with cuteness include round face, big eyes, and “largeness of head in proportion to the body” (Merish 1996, 187). More importantly, these properties of cuteness, “smallness, compactness, softness, simplicity, and pliancy—call forth specific affects: helplessness, pitifulness, and even despondency” (Ngai 2005, 816). In other words, there is a direct link between the material properties of cute objects (as soft, small, and pliable) and the affects they generate, specifically weakness and helplessness. By foregrounding their own weakness, cute objects paradoxically provoke aggressive reactions from consumers (Harris 2001; Merish 1996; Ngai 2005, 2012).
As many scholars have argued (Kinsella 1995; Merish 1996; Ngai 2005, 2012; Yano 2013), the cute object indexes a specific type of relationship between the consumer subject and the (weak) cute object predicated on feelings of care and empathy. The cute, in fact, “demands a maternal response and interpellates its viewers/consumers as ‘maternal’” (Merish 1996, 186). Importantly, as Ngai notes, such feelings of care and dependency can become transformed into feelings of aggression and domination over the seemingly helpless cute object. She explains that “in its exaggerated passivity and vulnerability, the cute object is as often intended to excite a consumer’s sadistic desires for mastery and control as much as his or her desire to cuddle” (Ngai 2005, 816–17). In other words, the feelings of empathy experienced by the subject can easily become transformed into its opposite: violence and aggression toward the cute object. Ngai explains that cuteness can evoke “warm and fuzzy feelings,” yet it can also provoke “ugly or aggressive feelings” (2012, 3).
The linkages between cuteness and violence are invoked as a form of anticuteness in the contemporary art world through the work of Murakami Takashi’s eerily cute Mr. DOB character and Nara Yoshitomo’s paintings of children aggressively brandishing knives. Nara’s work in particular evokes what some scholars have referred to as a “deformation of the cute” (Ivy 2010, 15). His paintings of “evil” children reveal an uncanniness (bukimi) that is perhaps contained within the notion of cuteness itself (ibid.). Ngai describes how Murakami’s DOB project perfectly encapsulates the tension inherent to cuteness: The cute object contains the power to be both “helpless and aggressive at the same time” (2012, 85).
Cuteness is translated as kawaii in Japanese. In many ways, the Japanese concept of kawaii resonates strongly with the English term for cute as they both invoke aesthetics of sweetness, delicateness, and innocence. Moreover, kawaii is etymologically rooted in the Japanese term for pitiful or pathetic (kawaiiso), thus, adding a “layer of vulnerability” (Yano 2013, 56) that is also contained within the notion of cute as described above. The contemporary understanding of kawaii is a fairly recent concept and has only been in existence since the 1960s (ibid., 56). The modern concept of kawaii has its roots in a term “whose principle meaning was ‘shy’ or ‘embarrassed’ and secondary meanings were ‘pathetic,’ ‘vulnerable,’ ‘darling,’ ‘loveable’ and ‘small’” (Kinsella 1995, 221–22). Kawaii has been variously defined by scholars as: “sweet, adorable, innocent, pure, simple, genuine, vulnerable, weak, and inexperienced social behavior and physical appearances” (ibid., 220); “charming, likable, plush, fluffy, endearing, acceptable, desirable, or some combination of the above” (Shiokawa 1999, 93–94); and “vulnerability, childishness, purity, sweetness, weakness, inexperience, and innocence” (Lukács 2015, 508). Described less as a formal set of stylistic conventions, anthropologist Anne Allison links kawaii to nostalgia, arguing that “cuteness involves emotional attachments to imaginary creations/creatures with resonances to childhood” (2003, 382).
The term kawaii proliferated during the 1960s in Japan as the commercial category of cuteness solidified and kawaii came to be widely and haphazardly used in everyday language and advertising. Kawaii culture emerged in tandem with Japan’s rapid postwar economic growth and strengthening consumer culture in the 1970s, during which the figure of the shōjo—a category created in the early twentieth century to mark “potentially disruptive girls and women between puberty and marriage”—was “transformed into a benign image, that of the consumer” (Yano 2004, 56). As a subculture “originally created and maintained by young women” (Lukács 2015, 496), cute culture flourished during the 1970s and 1980s; however, by the mid-1990s, kawaii culture became appropriated by manufacturers and soon spread to spheres outside girl-centered subcultures, including household goods, roadwork signs, and delivery trucks (ibid.).
A prevailing narrative among scholars, most prominently sociologist Sharon Kinsella, about the appeal of kawaii for young women in contemporary Japan has suggested that cute cultural forms (cute objects, fashion, and handwriting, to name a few) serve as a means for young women to reject the responsibilities of adult society. By this logic, cuteness signifies a romanticization of childhood (Kinsella 1995, 241). Through cute fashion, young women in the 1980s “acted pre-sexual and vulnerable in order to emphasize their immaturity and inability to carry out social responsibilities” (ibid., 243). Here, the cute aesthetic, a “demure, indolent little rebellion,” foregrounds the rejection of adult behaviors and attitudes, especially in the realm of sexuality. As I will explain in the next section, this inherent rebelliousness within cuteness is taken up in provocative ways by idol performers in the 2000s in Japan.
Anthropologist Brian McVeigh discusses the hegemonic and inescapable nature of kawaii culture throughout everyday life in Japan. He explains the consumption of cuteness in Japan as a form of resistance; as an aesthetic that is linked with young women, cuteness serves as a rejection of the “dominant ‘male’ productivist ideology of standardization, order, control, rationality and impersonality” (McVeigh 2000, 16). At the same time, however, McVeigh argues that there is an inherent tension to this mode of consumption. Resistance consumption, he suggests, “is where productivist and consumptivist ideologies come together and indeed, mutually reinforce each other” (ibid., 158). While consuming cuteness suggests the consumption of a counter-aesthetic, it is important to note that such acts of playful resistance are not consciously political acts and are often ironic (ibid.). In other words, in order to consume cuteness, one must necessarily participate in the capitalist system: “the consumption of cuteness, whether by young children, teens, or adults, supports and drives productive forces, which is turn manufacture cute material culture for the purpose of capital accumulation” (ibid., 160). This inherent tension to the consumption of cuteness plays out in the realm of ideology, official and unofficial. According to McVeigh, the popular consumption of cuteness operates as antiofficial ideology and plays out in the realms of consumption, leisure, play, and fantasy, whereas official ideology (as capitalist production) occurs in everyday life spheres, such as production, labor, work, and reality (ibid., 162). The official and antiofficial ideologies have distinct aesthetic codes, although they can occasionally intermingle, such as in the case of cute uniforms at private schools (ibid.).
The antiofficial ideology of cuteness, operating as a form of playful subversion, has dominated the entertainment industry. In particular, J-pop idols have long been viewed as paragons of cuteness. The legendary 1980s pop idol Matsuda Seiko was “to cute what Sid Vicious was to punk” (Kinsella 1995, 235). Through her childish attire and behavior to her fans, Matsuda’s performance of cuteness was girlish, innocent, and endearing, but, most importantly, it was nonthreatening. The goal for pop idols is to secure mass appeal by presenting an image of the “boy or girl next door”: inoffensive, lighthearted, and in the case of female performers, girlishly cute (Aoyagi 2005, 16). In analyzing the visual aesthetics and fashion techniques of female Japanese pop singers, Monden describes how they cultivate a sense of demure and feminine cuteness in ways that subvert the “negative stereotypes of girlish femininity” (2014, 280). Citing Kinsella’s description of cuteness as a “delicate revolt,” Monden points to the complex and gently subversive nature of the category of cuteness in relation to Japanese pop idols that perform in ways that emphasize “sweetness, demureness and femininity without hinting at sexual allure” (ibid., 282).
The all-girl, Japanese, heavy metal, idol-fusion group Babymetal formed in 2010 out of the idol unit Sakura Gakuin (Cherry Blossom Academy). Three members make up the band: lead singer and dancer Su-metal (Nakamoto Suzuka), who is backed by “screaming” and dancing Yuimetal (Mizuno Yui) and Moametal (Kikuchi Moa), all girls currently under the age of eighteen (who were twelve and ten at the time they initially formed). Babymetal is especially illuminative of cuteness because their performances and staging invoke the inherent violence, horror, and aggression tied to our encounter with cuteness itself. They play with notions of cuteness and girlishness in a genre—heavy metal—that is often marked as hypermasculine and violent. Babymetal’s vision of metal evokes cuteness’s intertwining with violence and aggressiveness. Despite having achieved a robust global fan base, there are still some within the global metal community who view the band as inauthentic or suspect. The critiques and affective responses to Babymetal’s music reveal the power of cuteness to make viewers feel “a sense of manipulation or exploitation,” as if they are being duped (Ngai 2012, 24). Babymetal’s complex performance aesthetics invoke cuteness as inherently weak, vulnerable, and tied to girlhood. Because of the inherent semantic flexibility of cuteness, however, they are able to deform these qualities in jarring and unexpected ways, ultimately transforming cuteness into a subversive aesthetic state (Plourde 2018).
Their first major label single, “Ijime, Dame, Zettai” (No more bullying), released in 2013, reached number six on the Japanese Oricon weekly singles chart. Babymetal’s aesthetic is decidedly antithetical to the delicate and lighthearted style of most female idol groups, who seek affective connections and intimacy with fans through constructing a sense of everydayness. This is most vividly evoked by the hugely popular idol supergroup AKB48—promoted as “idols that you can meet”—who connect with fans through live daily shows and “handshake event” contests (Galbraith and Karlin 2012, 20). Babymetal eschews many conventions of female idol performers, namely idol photography such as gravure (gurabia), glossy photographs of idols in swimsuits (ibid., 191). In contrast to most pop idols, who wear nonthreatening attire and pose coyly with “bared teeth and sparkling eyes” (Aoyagi 2005, 75), Babymetal ironically rejects this saccharine packaging of idol groups and rarely pose smiling, instead either looking demurely menacing or coy. They often gaze directly and unflinchingly at the camera, often with their arms defiantly crossed. They wear black attire, sometimes with splashes of red, in a style that has been compared to Gothic Lolita—frilly, flouncy skirts paired with combat boots, spiked leather wristbands, black leather gloves, black hooded capes, and faux chain-mail tops.
Although Babymetal’s roots are in the idol pop world, the band was created by their producer Kobametal as a means of reinvigorating the Japanese metal scene. Yet Babymetal does not fit neatly into either category. Babymetal draws on a complex set of musical genres, performance styles, and heavy metal tropes and imagery that confound both idol pop and heavy metal genre conventions. Their music is a dizzying and indiscriminate mix of genres that would seem to be incompatible: speed metal, J-pop, dub step, and reggae, among others. Global media coverage of Babymetal, much of it overwhelmingly positive, often expresses bewilderment at their form of cute metal. Such confusion among global audiences suggests surprise over the inherent “semantic flexibility” of kawaii itself, for one does not expect metal to be cute or performed by three young girls. Their recordings are often housed in the idol section of chain record stores in Japan, although they are often positioned on the outskirts in a section devoted entirely to them. Yet their recordings are sometimes housed in the metal genre section in smaller Japanese record store chains. Babymetal receives frequent mainstream media coverage in Japan, much of which is from within the metal scene. Detailed live reviews of their tours, both domestic and global, and album reviews are the subject of regular missives in Japanese metal magazines such as Headbang. Gesturing to the widely understood nature of cuteness as an open and flexible semantic consumer category in Japan, Babymetal’s form of cute metal is not registered as implausible or illegitimate by Japanese fans or journalists. The “baby” in the name itself suggests a new genre (metal, idol, and pop fusion) that is in its infancy, and the band’s members position themselves as leaders of this newfound genre of cute metal that dramatically contrasts with the cultivated presentation of the J-pop idol as the cute and nonthreatening “girl next door.”
By transforming and reappropriating heavy metal into something cute, Babymetal’s performances reveal the impossibility of defining kawaii solely as a set of rigid characteristics: vulnerability, weakness, and fragility. Instead, their version of cute metal evokes the “semantic openness” (Lukács 2015, 506) of the concept of kawaii itself. Babymetal’s kawaii aesthetic confounds and overturns conventional or normative notions of cuteness as grounded in qualities of helplessness, softness, and delicacy. The band revels in and inhabits conventions of girlish cuteness while also critically and ironically commenting on the gendered nature of such conventions. For example, they often introduce themselves in live performances, whether on stage or on television, by saying “Babymetal desu”(We are Babymetal), pronouncing the copula desu with a childish lisp, in a cute and ironic wordplay that transforms their statement into what sounds like “Babymetal death,” which is, incidentally, also the name of one of their songs. Here, their use of Japanese linguistically intertwines cuteness and childishness with classic metal aesthetics of darkness and intensity. In the video for their 2013 single, “Ijime, Dame Zettai,” Babymetal transforms dark, horror, and gothic imagery into an unabashed, yet cheerfully cute, antibullying anthem. Babymetal’s vision of cute metal confounds the standard narrative of cuteness as marked by qualities of innocence, softness, and femininity through their performance of cuteness in terms of power, energy, and intensity.
Anthropologist Laura Miller examines the economic appeal of cuteness as it is mobilized as a form of soft power by the Japanese government under the “Cool Japan” initiative. Miller critiques the mode of “uncomplicated” cuteness that is propagated under this ideology as essentializing and eroticizing “girls and women, putting them into service for the state in a contemporary version of geisha commodification” (2011, 19). As she argues, this type of normative cuteness, in which women are positioned solely as objects of desire, disregards women and girls who “fail to conform to the narrow model of cute femininity” (ibid.). Here, Miller points to “warped cute” or “anticute” aesthetics within contemporary girl culture that are disavowed under Cool Japan; for example, kimo kawaii, “cuteness that gives you the creeps” or busu kawaii, “cute even though homely” (ibid., 25).
In her analysis of net idols, young women who gained fame in the 1990s and early 2000s in Japan through personal websites, anthropologist Gabriella Lukács examines how the subversive and resistant potential of cuteness is becoming transformed by economic and political forces in recessionary Japan. Arguing against the common view that cuteness predominantly suggests “escapism from and resistance to adult society,” Lukács draws on the emotional labor performed by net idols to argue that the production of cute itself is a form of labor (2015, 496). Net idols perform cuteness for their fans in ways that invoke the “semantic flexibility” of cuteness; thus, complicating the assumption that “cute connotes a particular physical appearance or behavior that a stable set of signifiers can describe” (ibid., 497). The complexity, dynamism, and semantic openness of cuteness continue to provoke a range of responses in consumers and fans, including inciting the maternal instinct (care and empathy for the cute object), horror and violence, desire, pity, or childhood nostalgia. The “semantic flexibility” of cuteness is contingent on the affective labor necessary to maintaining the novelty of cute, and in the case of Babymetal, a cuteness that undermines cuteness. The novelty of cuteness must be continually reworked by finding new ways to make it troubling, threatening, or complicated. Indeed, Babymetal’s provocative deformation of cuteness reveals the inherent complexities and contradictions of the category itself and serves to potentially disrupt normative discourses on cuteness.
Ivy describes Nara’s images as bukimi kawaii (eerily cute); the viewer’s inability to determine whether the image is cute or creepy is itself, as Ivy points out, uncanny. ↑
Prior to this, kawaii was referred to as kawayushi (from the prewar era until 1945) and later became referred to as kawayui (postwar era until 1970). ↑
Here, we can think of the popular J-pop artist Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, who has described her music and performances as being informed by a sense of the grotesque and surreal. ↑
While outside the scope of this essay, it is worth pointing out how these female net idols, as “cute” entertainers, had to perform unpaid emotional labor in order to be successful and increase their (primarily male) fan base. Thus, their performance of cute, as Lukács points out, is situated firmly in the domain of work, and not in play or fantasy (2015, 489). ↑
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