Cute is the kind of thing we tend to accept as universal. The phrases “Make it cute,” “I want cute,” and “That’s cute,” seem to be speaking to something we can all understand. But is your cute really my cute? I don’t think so. I’ve been thinking about this for quite some time; partly because whenever the name “Disney” comes up it brings out the inner axe-murderer in me; partly because friends of mine now have small children and the things I find in their houses are to me, quite frankly, horrifying.
Two months ago I watched Bambi for the first time. OK … I didn’t watch the whole thing—after half an hour I had to retreat to the bathroom to throw up. But there was something very interesting. On the same DVD was an animated short called “The Old Mill.” It was actually quite nice. In it the animals don’t talk; they behave quite a bit like animals, and they look like animals … charming, unthreatening but proportionately correct: cute. And then, Bambi. In Bambi the animals are sickeningly saccharine, with huge eyes and long eyelashes. They speak in childish voices (lithps!) and use that shy, upward glance now largely reminiscent of Lady Diana. They behave like humans, in a creepy contortionist kind of way—with only the skin and colouring of animals remaining.
What amazed me was that “The Old Mill” and Bambi were made within a year of each other. And in fact, I was told that “The Old Mill” was a kind of test for the animation and scenery of Bambi. Leaving me to wonder, what the hell happened? At what point did animal characters become so hideously distorted, both in appearance and personality? Well, clearly it didn’t start here, as Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia and Dumbo were made in the 5 years prior to Bambi. (Please note, I hated Fantasia at the age of 10.) But I think there was something about Bambi that locked in a North American aesthetic of cute for generations to come.
The exaggeration of features : caricature vs. cute
A lot of what passes for cute seems to rely on a gross exaggeration of physical features. Hmmm …
Is this a caricature of an older, sad man, or is it one of Disney’s seven dwarves? On its own it is the former, but imagine it in motion with blinking eyes, and a little finger put up to that pouting mouth as one toe of its floppy foot plays along the floor. Cute hunh? If you say so …
Above caricature courtesy of this website.
Personally, the exaggerated features—and especially big eyes—creep me out. The bigger the eyes, the more revolted I am by the creature. Judging by toys for kids, I’m exactly the opposite of most people.
3 of these pigs are relatively cute to me. One is really, really not.
But whatever the size, the presence of eyes seems to be essential … or is it?
The trouble with tribbles is that they are also a rampant pest. Believe it or not, there are people in this world who think that bunnies are definitely not cute. In fact, it might be safe to say that anything in large hordes ceases to lose its cute factor. Surrounded by My Little Ponies? (follow that link). I’m freaked out, howabout you?
Smallness is also a required ingredient. Even when a cute image is rendered large, it’s important to understand its representation as something of a smaller size. Giant mice resemble rats, and are not cute. The dire warning to all potential puppy-buyers is often “Remember, they turn into dogs.”
One company that has captured a whole new market of cute is Alessi.
There we can easily witness that all you need to do is stick a face, or even a pair of eyes onto pretty much anything and it becomes cute. The addition of soft curves makes it instantly appealing and, designers take note, marketable.
Cute is in, and has been for some time, whether we realize it or not. From the VW bug to the Mini to the Smart car—not to mention the iPod. My so called research led me to a japanese site which serves quite well as an example of cute forms which have made it into our everyday products and living.
The forms and aesthetic of Japanese Manga (those eyes!) have influenced the design of running shoes, vehicles and a vast array of computer graphics. Then there’s Hello Kitty, embraced with both devotion and irony by everyone from little girls to big little girls. The North American infatuation with Hello Kitty has influenced a proliferation of simple forms in white and pink in graphic design. Note, Hello Kitty has no mouth. A mouth is not necessary to cute. I quite like Miffy, who has, um … a disconcerting “x” for both mouth and nose.
And then there’s this. See what I mean? Cute no more.
Cute can come in any colour, but the baby colours of pink, blue, white and yellow seem to be preferred. I’m a kind of cute naturalist, myself. I much prefer direct effigies of animals to those that have been tampered with aesthetically. I mean, c’mon, puppies and kittens are already cute! Why make them pastel colours and put big dewy eyes on them?
Add mega-anthropormorphic features like clothes and … uh oh. Care Bears. Sorry people, not cute. Not even remotely cute. Um, excuse me while I …
But cute colours alone are often employed for graphics, to give it that childish innocence that, uh, girls in particular, love. Oh, and then there’s white. Remember black? Remember when we wanted all our technology to be black? Not cute. These days it’s white. Or pink, or …
Cute icons have been around for decades as marketing mascots, designed to make products somehow more approachable, friendly and humanistic.
Why does our toilet paper need to be cute? Beats me, but somehow a path was made from toilet paper to soft to pillows to fat, anthropromorphic, cute pillows with heavy eyebrows. Another famous toilet paper employs all-white persian kittens—you know the one—from cute to ass-wiping: that’s quite the leap.
How did I get this far without talking about fur? Why are tribbles cute, even without eyes? Because they’re covered in fur. Fur is the great cutifier of all things (and we laugh at plushie fetishists).
To be honest furless newborns of any kind are just kindof maggotty to me (including humans).
Are eggs cute? Not sure. Kinda; but we eat them. However, cover it in fur, add a couple of eyes and … hey, you’re not having that for breakfast—how cruel are you?
I definitely think we need more fur in graphic design.
Just add sugar
Cute requires an essence of “sweetness” in order to qualify. A baby is cute with a bow, but not with fangs. Birds are cute, but not when they’re dead. However, I’ll take a dead bird over Tweety Bird any day.
How much of our aesthetic for cute is cultural? Quite a bit, I think. Basically, Americans have a higher tolerance for sugar than most. There’s more sugar in food in the US … and in fact, more sugar in sweets—chocolate bars reformulated for the American market tend to contain more sugar than the same product in, say, Britain. And Americans have a higher tolerance for sugar in their cute. Let’s compare …
That’s right, although Disney’s largest moneymaker is the Winnie the Pooh franchise, it is just another borrowed, transformed story from somewhere else. In this case, Britain. The original Winnie-the-Pooh was written by A.A. Milne in 1926, and was illustrated by E.H. Shepard.
The Disney makeover is not as horrific as some, but they have taken what I think are perfectly cute but respectable characters and stirred a whole lot of, um, honey into the pot. And just in case that wasn’t sweet enough for the young ’uns, they made Baby Pooh.
Disney’s characters have a whole lotta smiling going on. Compare to the E.H Shepard drawings above. They’re cute; just not grinning from ear to ear.
Furthermore, although I couldn’t possibly bear to sit through a viewing of the Disney movies, I find it hard to imagine that their Eeyore would ever say anything quite so cutting as this:
Proving that just because you’re cute, doesn’t mean you have to be stupid … or happy. I like my cute with a touch of the dark side.
(Now i think I know where i learned my sense of humour).
Just plain goofy
My home is not bereft of cute. There may be no Care Bears or Alessi toothpick holders, but I too have, from time to time, been stopped in my tracks by something so unbearably cute that I just had to have it near me. Allow me to introduce Owl Bear.
Yes, Owl Bear sometimes sits in my Aeron chair. Owl Bear is a little bit nutty. He looks slightly demonic, but he’s furry, has eyes and is, to me, very very cute. (He had a brother, who really was evil looking and I was very tempted by him as well, but alas, in the end I separated Owl Bear from his wicked black brother.)
Is a 5-headed duck thing cute? Are 10 eyes better than two? I saw the following bath scrubby glove in an airport and actually retraced my steps to buy it. I find it both hilarious and weirdly appealing. And I get a real kick out of rubbing those 5 ducks over my body in the shower.