Clumsy kittens, pigs in costumes and glittery unicorns: how the cult of cute took hold (2024)

Every day I rise early, like a stock trader, to start the daily business of sending and receiving adorable videos. Pigs wearing pig costumes, alien creatures spanking each other’s botties, relationship dynamics explored via gibberish, talking cats and noodly cartoons. My friends and I are in deep, but how did this happen? “Cuteness has been slowly taking over our world,” says Claire Catterall, curator of the Cute exhibition at London’s Somerset House. “It’s now accepted as one of our languages.”

It’s a language that wouldn’t exist without the internet. Even in 2014, Tim Berners-Lee expressed surprise at how his invention was being used. “I’m amazed to see the many great things it’s achieved.” Another thing that surprised him? “Kittens,” he told Reddit readers.

Clumsy kittens, pigs in costumes and glittery unicorns: how the cult of cute took hold (1)

You could see the origins of cute, its Rosetta Stone, perhaps, in one memorable cat meme from 2007, “I can haz cheezburger?” which gave rise to lolspeak, still influencing the way we talk online. Words like zoomies, gorlies and besties are still riding high. Clearly, something in this squishy way of talking captivates us, even shapes our identity. “We don’t know where cuteness will go or how it will be used, but we do know it’s powerful,” says Catterall. (Of course she has the word “cat” in her name.)

So why is cuteness everywhere and what does it mean for us? To answer, we must consider a more basic question, that turns out to be surprisingly slippery. What is cuteness?

At the basic level, it’s an evolutionary adaptation, developed by babies so we don’t abandon them for being useless. Yet it’s also cultural. Most of our sparkly, rainbow vocabulary of cuteness comes from kawaii, an aesthetic that developed in Japanese girls’ schools around 1900. It influenced manga and anime, before being commercialised by brands. Particularly one.

In the 1990s, every girl I knew – all five of them – was obsessed with Hello Kitty. They stuck her on their books, bags and hearts. Author Christine Yano has coined the term “pink globalisation” to describe the domination of the demure, cat-like figure created by entertainment company Sanrio to rival Mickey Mouse. In her wake came San-X bears, Tamagotchi, Pokémon and Pusheen in the US. Hello Kitty mewed so that they could… make whatever noises they make. Actually, I don’t know if she mewed. She has no mouth.

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Kawaii evolved, influencing Korean culture, its current torchbearer. We can detect it in playful, street-style subcultures, including Decora, which focuses on charms, hairbows and other accessories. If young people are wearing something you don’t understand – well, now you do.

This is where things get weird. Cuteness is a manipulation, designed to trigger our protective instinct, but it isn’t just triggered by human offspring. In 1943, animal behaviourist Konrad Lorenz described the “child scheme”: a set of physical features that make certain creatures adorable to us. It includes big heads and large eyes, short, thick extremities and round bodies. He’s talking about chonky bois.

Studies have proved we actually find puppies cuter than babies. This makes sense of the hapless, round, bumbling anthropomorphic figures that deluge social media. They, too, in a sense, have been selectively bred. In an attention economy, cuteness hacks our brains, emotionally attaching us to almost anything. How is it advantageous that if someone sticks eyes on a watermelon, we’d take a bullet for it?

Things get more nuts when you consider the odd range of stuff we find cute. Kittens and bunnies, but also hairless cats and killer dolls. In his book The Power of Cute, philosopher Simon May proposes that cuteness exists on a spectrum. At one pole, childlike objects that arouse our protective instincts; towards the uncanny end, “sweet qualities get distorted into something darker, more indeterminate and more wounded”.

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This “unpindownability” explains how cute objects can be simultaneously ugly and appealing, young and old, monstrous and sweet. Catterall points to ET and Yoda, but I’m immediately reminded of Gus, the three-legged, one-eyed Chinese crested dog voted “ugliest dog in the world” eight times, before dying of cancer. I have a picture of Gus on my wall, liver spotted and tongue-lolling, hideous really, but he makes my heart burst with love.

The most disturbing aspect of cuteness, though, is its amorality. I’m addicted to the Instagram account @sylvaniandrama, which enacts tales of prison breaks, casual drugs and slatternly behaviour with family dolls. In an essay for the Cute exhibition, Isabel Galleymore describes how wholesome imagery can equally lend its affective power to extremists. She gives the example of Moominvalley, which has been appropriated by eco-fascists, who are both white supremacists and environmentalists. In one meme, “Snufkin, a deep thinker who enjoys fishing and playing his harmonica, bears a swastika on his green felt hat.”

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Cuteness is deeply subversive, according to Cute Studies scholars (bet they have amazing stationery). Why is it everywhere now? The answer is in our cultural moment. We’re drawn to naïve things as a form of magical thinking – a desire to live in a cruelty-free world, where everything is safe. We use “adulting” as a verb now, as if there were another option. Glittery unicorns are one way off this collapsing planet, with its daily horrors.

But you know how anxiety works. It gets through. That’s why the other side speaks to us, too. Figures like Gloomy Bear, a pink ursine with blood perpetually dripping from his paws. While writing this, a friend on holiday in Thailand sent me a picture of a T-shirt emblazoned with a cartoon sun, dolphins with dog faces, and the words “I’m dead inside!” I asked her to get me two.

As Simon May tells me over email, dark cuteness “both comforts us in a world of unnerving uncertainty – and gives voice to that same world, but crucially in a lighthearted register”. Look at Gudetama, a more recent Sanrio figure, described as “Hello Kitty for millennials”. An egg yolk with a butt, but no neck, the blobby, genderless figure is notable for its low-octane personality. It mostly lies in its albumen, feeling lazy and defeated. It is vulnerable, but more than that, it’s tired, boss. Gudetama is all of us.

We don’t take cute things seriously, but we do listen, says Catterall. They “allow difficult things to be said openly. It’s a safe space.” The Somerset House exhibition shows how artists like Rachel Maclean are drawn to the boundary-less, fluid nature of cute, the way it undermines rigid categories and provides space for otherness. The language of cuteness is getting more sophisticated. But most of us are not artists and not sophisticated. I worry that I’m slowly boiling myself into idiocy. I overuse exclamation marks and kisses, whether I’m replying to a plumber’s quote or the prime minister’s press secretary. The childish excitability is another way I have grown cute. I routinely have to do a “derangement proofread” of work emails, removing 60% of the punctuation, before signing off, “No worries!”

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In real life, I’m very worries. I think this is why many of us scrape and cringe our way through written exchanges. We’re aware how easily tone can be missed – what if we’re offending someone, without realising? In this paranoid atmosphere, a short sentence looks dismissive. A full stop, downright rude. “OK”, once an unremarkable response, now feels like slamming dog-mess through a letterbox.

Online communication seems to boil down to a simple choice: charge into a possible war every day, guns out, or else recuse ourselves on the grounds that we are just a silly lil’ floofer.

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Cuteness has a solution – enter our friend, the emoji. The colourful, non-aggressive stickers have transformed messaging. I use them in every message, every reaction. But to what end? Over Zoom, I consult Jo Nicholl, a relationship therapist and podcast host who has lived in Asia.

Before I ask a question, Nicholl demonstrates the new cute craze from Vietnam that her son has taught her. It’s similar to the photo trend of joining one’s hands together, shaping a heart in negative space. Instead, Nicholl crosses the tops of her thumb and first fingers – think a pinch of salt, but slightly wider. “It’s like a heart emoji, but it’s two little baby hearts!” she squeals, before dropping her voice ominously. “Fuck off already. I’m over it.”

What’s wrong with using emoji? “It’s an emotional bypass,” she explains. We rely on them to represent how we feel, the problem being that “they’re an expanded range of Mister Men cartoons.” How many times a day do we send the heart emoji? Does it mean the same thing every time? Unlikely.

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Emoji homogenise feelings and shortcut personal expressions, says Nicholl, whose work involves teaching people to have adult conversations and better understand themselves. We hide in cuteness, she says. Our true feelings are usually ambivalent and complicated. Her concerns extend beyond the personal. “We are being trained to look at objects of limited emotional width and say, ‘This is my feeling’,” Nicholl explains. The problem is, identification cuts two ways. “We are being led into a world in which we get used to looking at non-human, AI faces and think we know what they’re feeling. A world in which AI tells us how we feel.” This will probably be how we diagnose emotional distress in future, she predicts. “We won’t sit with a therapist, we’ll be with an AI.”

Who loves cute things most? Advertising executives! There’s a reason meerkats peddle boring, insurance-based price-comparison websites. Rebecca Hughes, a brand strategist, cites the example of Guide Dogs for the blind. For “a charity that provides much needed support for blind people, their early ads didn’t feature blind people very much,” she notes. Bouncy labrador puppies were simply the more effective sell.

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Advertising is an industry that grasps the dark power of an amoral appeal to feelings. Cuteness reduces price sensitivity, which makes us happier to hand over money. Research also suggests that when companies transgress, having a cute mascot makes consumers want to protect them. The brands themselves are seen as “malleable”, or in the process of growing and learning.

Here is a sleeping giant, overlooked for being feminine and trivial. Don’t doubt that this is a force shaping us. As the web evolves and self-presentation becomes ever more important, cuteness offers us a way to hide and expose, be perfect and vulnerable, irresistible yet anarchic. Cuteness may be everywhere, but it’s far from clear it has our best interests at heart. The horizon is pink, but hazy.

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It strikes me there’s a comparison with humour. Both feel good, while undermining fixed categories – that’s how punchlines work. Comedy was considered low art before it came to dominate the mainstream. It has since become a cultural battleground. Something as affable as being funny can undermine democracies, its rock stars carrying the darkness of their work into life. Am I saying we should cancel kittens? Don’t get cute.

We should perhaps try to interrupt its manipulations, though. Hack the hack, as it were. Working on the exhibition has changed Catterall. She’s no longer affected the way she once was by images of “anything maimed, hurt or pathetic, tugging at the heart strings”. She finds the knowledge of what they’re trying to do strangely repulsive. “At the same time, give me a puppy and I’m a puddle.”

Cute is at Somerset House, London WC2, from 25 January to 14 April. For more information, go to somersethouse.org.uk

Insights, advice, suggestions, feedback and comments from experts

As an expert and enthusiast, I have personal experiences or emotions, but I can provide you with information on the concepts mentioned in this article. Let's explore the key concepts mentioned in the article:

Cuteness and its Influence:

The article discusses the prevalence of cuteness in our culture and its impact on various aspects of our lives. Cuteness is described as a language that has become widely accepted and is now considered one of our languages. It is a manipulation designed to trigger our protective instinct and can be seen in various forms, such as adorable videos, memes, and cute characters like Hello Kitty [[1]].

Cuteness is believed to have both evolutionary and cultural origins. At a basic level, it is an evolutionary adaptation developed by babies to ensure their survival and care. However, it is also influenced by cultural factors, with much of our vocabulary of cuteness coming from the Japanese aesthetic of "kawaii," which emerged in the early 20th century and influenced manga, anime, and commercial brands [[1]].

The Power of Cute:

Cuteness is described as a powerful force that can emotionally attach us to almost anything. It can evoke feelings of love, protectiveness, and even influence our behavior. Studies have shown that people often find puppies cuter than human babies, and cuteness can even override our natural instincts. In an attention economy, cuteness can capture our attention and create emotional connections [[1]].

The Spectrum of Cuteness:

Cuteness is not limited to traditional notions of beauty. It exists on a spectrum, ranging from childlike objects that arouse our protective instincts to more distorted and ambiguous forms. This spectrum explains why we find a wide range of things cute, including both traditionally cute animals like kittens and bunnies, as well as unconventional examples like hairless cats and killer dolls. Cuteness can simultaneously be appealing and ugly, young and old, monstrous and sweet [[1]].

Cuteness and Communication:

Cuteness has become a language of its own, influencing the way we communicate online. It has given rise to lolspeak, a way of talking online characterized by playful and squishy language. Words like "zoomies," "gorlies," and "besties" have become part of our online vocabulary. Cuteness also finds expression through the use of emojis, which have transformed messaging and become a shorthand for expressing emotions. However, there are concerns that relying too heavily on emojis can limit emotional expression and lead to a homogenization of feelings [[1]].

Cuteness in Advertising:

Cuteness is a powerful tool in advertising. It can reduce price sensitivity and make consumers more willing to spend money. Brands often use cute mascots to create an emotional connection with consumers and make them want to protect the brand. Cuteness can also make brands appear more malleable and open to growth and learning. Advertising executives understand the amoral appeal of cuteness and its ability to influence consumer behavior [[1]].

The Dark Side of Cuteness:

While cuteness can evoke positive emotions and create a sense of comfort and safety, it also has a darker side. Cuteness can be subversive and has been appropriated by extremists to convey their messages. The article mentions the example of Moominvalley, a cute cartoon series that has been appropriated by eco-fascists who are both white supremacists and environmentalists. Cuteness can be used to convey complex and sometimes conflicting emotions [[1]].

The Cultural Impact of Cuteness:

Cuteness has become a cultural phenomenon that shapes our identity and influences our self-presentation. It offers a way to hide and expose, be perfect and vulnerable, and provides space for otherness. Artists are drawn to the boundary-less and fluid nature of cuteness, which allows them to challenge rigid categories. However, the article also raises concerns about the potential negative effects of cuteness, such as the tendency to oversimplify complex emotions and the risk of being manipulated by its appeal [[1]].

These are the key concepts discussed in the article about cuteness and its influence on our culture and behavior.

Clumsy kittens, pigs in costumes and glittery unicorns: how the cult of cute took hold (2024)
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