The cuteness surge

Why, in desperate times, we turn to lolcats, twee songs, and mute kittens
By SHARON STEEL  |  February 1, 2008

Hello, kawaii: Can cute make the world a safer place? 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 is the number two album in the country this week, as well as number one on the iTunes Soundtrack chart), the viral, aggressively adorable nonsense language of lolspeak, and the twee literary oeuvre of McSweeney’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, what makes 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.

Survival of the cutest
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 pre-packed 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-post-modernist distress and socio-political 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.

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