The dark side of ‘cute’ culture

12 September 2020

9:00 AM

12 September 2020

9:00 AM

I have become allergic to ‘cute’, bad-tempered biddy that I am. Cuteness and the requirement to be cute have spread like pondweed across children’s TV and out into the adult internet. Cute culture is a way of worshipping youth — cute characters by definition have babyish features: big heads and eyes, fat cheeks and clumsy bodies — and one of the many reasons I’m hostile is that I’m pretty sure youth-worship is exactly the opposite of what youth needs. ‘These Paw Patrol pups,’ I asked my son one day, as we watched his favourite superhero cartoon dogs save a grateful baby whale, ‘do they ever rescue ugly old animals?’ ‘No, not really,’ he said. ‘Old things aren’t cute.’

I’m cross, in part, because I feel guilty. During lockdown, I let my son watch too much TV. By the end of home-schooled term, 20 minutes of Paw Patrol had morphed into 40 minutes of whatever he fancied from age-appropriate Netflix. And it would have continued that way had I not begun to notice the effects: a constant cooing, a three–syllable ‘aaah’ ending with an upward inflection, followed by ‘it’s so cute’. Out walking, everywhere was ‘cute’: pigeons hobbling on club feet, ‘Aw, so cute.’ Flies: ‘Cute.’ Next door’s pit bull: ‘Cute.’ One day in the park we saw two snails mating, locked in a slimy hermaphroditic tango. ‘Is it cute?’ he asked, confused. If it wasn’t cute, it didn’t compute.

In the middle of the last century Konrad Lorenz proposed the concept of the baby schema (Kindchenschema), a set of features — big eyes, big wobbly head — that provoke a care-giving response. Studies done since confirm that most non-psychos, when they see something baby-faced, receive a little hit of delicious dopamine. When I paid proper attention to Netflix, I realised there’s been an outbreak of Kindchenschemain Toon Town. Every character in the most popular programmes for younger kids had the same features: big domed heads, button noses and huge wide-apart eyes. Cars, buses, pups, aliens, monsters: all the same, unless they were baddies, in which case the formula was reversed — tiny eyes and giant noses.

Think back. It wasn’t always this way. Danger Mouse, Inspector Gadget, Tom and Jerry, He-Man, none of them cute really, and perhaps not so moreish either. When I cut off the Paw Patrol supply, my son melts down and begs like a meth-head for another episode. What if it’s not the screen he’s craving, so much as the cute? What if those Pups are just drug mules, purveyors of baby schema dopamine to the under-fives?

You might sensibly suggest that there are better things to worry about. Cute might be emetic but it’s harmless, and the kids will grow out of it soon enough. Except it’s not, and they don’t. The fashion for ‘cute’ in the West emerged from a fad called kawaiiin late 20th-century Japan. Something is kawaii if it’s loveable with childish proportions. A big head and big, wide-apart eyes, timid, often blushing. Kawaii began in the 1970s as a ‘cute’ style of handwriting invented by teenage girls — think hearts over the letter ‘i’ — before taking over comics in the 1980s. Then rose the great household god of Japanese cute — Hello Kitty — followed by Pikachu, the squeaky little star of Nintendo’s Pokémon game. In Japan, no one grows out of cute. There are Hello Kitty clothes, Hello Kitty theme parks and a fleet of Hello Kitty passenger jets; houses and cars are designed in kawaii style. In Taiwan, the former president, Chen Shui-bian — A-bian — had his image made into a kawaiidoll with the big round eyes of an eight-year-old, and a little cult grew up around it.

And because kids don’t grow out of cute, now there’s kawaiisex. Lolita fashion — grown women dressing as cute schoolgirls — has been popular for a while in both the East and the West. The second most searched-for sort of porn across the world is hentai — cartoon porn. (Don’t look it up.) But if you really want to stare into the dark heart of cute, check out Britain’s own kawaii ‘cosplay’ crossover star: Belle Delphine. Belle is a 20-year-old Instagram celebrity who takes soft porn shots of herself dressed up as a seductive child with cat ears, sometimes meowing like a kitten. She has millions of fans, some of whom recently paid £25 for a small vial of her bath water. There’s something terribly wrong with Belle — some deliberate inversion of innocence, and I’d think that even if she hadn’t posed for one pic with ‘Hail Satan’ written on her leg.

Think of the iPhone photo filters the kids use, most often they enlarge the eyes and shrink the nose and chin. Ditto plastic surgery. And why do you think cats have taken over the internet? Because they’re so classy and aloof? Nope. Cats are boneless little psychopaths, but they happen to conform almost perfectly to the baby schema: big head, wide-apart eyes, tiny button nose. It’ll serve the little horrors right when the Japanese fashion for dressing your cat like a Victorian baby arrives here. Across the UK for the past few months people have eased their fear of Covid by forking out thousands — sometimes tens of thousands — for French bulldogs, dogs that look like babies. There’ll be a book to be written one day about the coronavirus French bulldog bubble, but I don’t think it’ll have a pretty end.

The scarier and the more chaotic the world gets, the more looting, the more Trump, the more adults cling to cute. I have millennial friends on Facebook who are as woke as it’s possible to be. They’re right up to speed on intersectionality and forever demanding we give communism a chance. They should be paid a living wage, they say, so as to play Nintendo’s Pokémon Go game all day. Pokémon Go involves chasing and capturing little baby-faced cartoon monsters. ‘End late-stage capitalism now.’ ‘I caught a Squirtle — so cute!’ The fact that Nintendo is the world’s largest multinational media company, worth more than $90 billion and counting, doesn’t seem to matter. It’s all about feeling, not thinking these days. Logic just isn’t cute.

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