The cuteness surge

By SHARON STEEL  |  February 1, 2008

If you have the inclination, you can even book a flight on EVA Air’s Hello Kitty jet, a special edition EVA Airbus 330-200 that is “painted nose-to-tail with super-sized characters from the charming world of Hello Kitty.” And that’s not all: flight attendants are decked out in Hello Kitty apparel, in-flight Hello Kitty meals are served, and the inside of the cabin is plastered with Hello Kitty’s image everywhere you turn. Consider Disney’s recent campaigns to expand from a toddler and tween obsession to a lifestyle brand for adults, with wedding dresses, furniture, fashion, and vacations. Sanrio figured out that secret ages ago.

“They love it very much,” says Yuko Kawanishi, a sociologist at Tokyo Gakugei University. “There’s a basic fondness among Japanese people for anything cute. Hello Kitty is just one example of that.” This past month, word out of Japan is that Hello Kitty will be marketed to young men, too. The line of bags, watches, and shirts will soon be available in the US.

The Land of the Rising Sun has long been a source of cute imports for the US, as we’ve adopted endless cute Japanese trends, known there as kawaii. Kawaii doesn’t have a real English translation, although it’s been appropriated to mean “cute.” But its meaning is so much more layered than that — kawaii is cool, amazing, trendy, extraordinary, fabulous, must-have, and on and on and on. It’s a feeling, a way of life, an aesthetic sensibility, and a high compliment rolled in one. Besides an affinity for character goods like Hello Kitty, My Melody, Little Twin Stars, and Pochacco, Americans have taken Pokemon, Sailor Moon, and other manga, a love of anime, and toys like Tamagachi and Lolita-Goth cos-play fashion, and made them our own. One need only observe Gwen Stefani and her Harajuku girls or Takashi Murakami’s limited-edition Superflat Louis Vitton bags to note how far kawaii has seeped into our own aesthetic.

The chronicles of twee-ification
What happens when you distill Chuck Klosterman, FOUND magazine, and Miranda July down to their artistic essences? At their core, they’re pretty much the same thing: offbeat, but just so; eccentric, but not too; awkward, but self-aware; quirky, but formulaic in their quirkiness. Each embodies a sensibility that slowly, with great purpose, has been morphing from cult-status to mass-appreciation. It’s now hitting upon an explosive convergence in the mainstream.

A coy combination of quirk (various cultural productions considered cute and fun despite their damaged, lame quality, à la not only the movie Napoleon Dynamite, but also the “Vote for Pedro” T-shirt phenomenon it spawned), kitsch (ironically appreciated found art, such as pink lawn flamingos and velvet Elvis paintings), cheese (Wayne’s World and Chicken Soup for the Soul), camp (Susan Sontag described it as the cultural elite’s brilliant excuse to enjoy and love the low-brow), and cuteness — call this mixture “quatsch,” if you will — has grown into the dominant affectation in contemporary youth culture. Who appreciates this kind of thing? It used to be hipsters, back when hipsterdom was still nervously measured as a sub-culture. These days, though, it seems everyone is a quatsch aficionado — it just depends on how you prefer to get your fix.

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