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.
“We’ve had manifestations of this cute business, through good times and bad, militaristically,” says Robert Thompson, a professor of television and pop-culture at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School. “We’re living in dangerous times. There’s a fear of terrorism and a war we have no idea how to manage. That’s going to bleed over into lots of different things.” These “cycles of cute,” as Thompson calls them, might transcend the news, though they tend to hint at the gloominess that’s ever-present, regardless of what’s on Page One.
All your kittehs are belong to us
If there is anything cuter than a photo of a snuggly kitten, it is a photo of a snuggly kitten festooned with intentionally misspelled cutesy text. After sparking an Interweb sensation in early 2007, icanhascheezburger.com has continued to prove its lasting value in Internet meme paydirt. The site began with the posting of a photo, a single pudgy, glassy-eyed, smirking gray feline with the words “I Can Has Cheezburger?” written above the kitty. It may have been accidental, it may have been part of a grand scheme, but either way it was the loudest salvo yet in the recent cuteness surge.
It also birthed the term “lolcat,” a coinage referring specifically to the combination of kitty photos and the intentionally misspelled baby-talk captions that accompanied them. It hasn’t hit Webster’s yet, but urbandictionary.com has five different entries for “lolcat.” (And 37 entries for “lolz.”) No matter which one you trust most, the “lol” root, clearly, comes from Internet abbreviation-speak for “LOL,” meaning “Laugh Out Loud.” OMG!!! Teh kitteh fren-zee iz makin us lolz!
Ordinary people who used to scoff at emoticons and the overuse of AIM acronyms were suddenly saying things exactly like this, all the time. Though the original lolcat meme, called “Caturday,” first started in the 4chan message boards years ago, I Can Has Cheezburger was instrumental in breaking the animal-based image macros and the phonetic “lolspeak” vernacular into the mainstream.