A cute angle

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 January, 2010, 12:00am

It is a universal phenomenon that sex sells. But, in Japan, even sex has to take a back seat when it comes to advertising in commercial media and popular culture in general. Few actresses and models appeal unless they are cute. The cult of cuteness reins over the land to such an extent that one cannot talk sensibly about contemporary Japanese culture without considering the question of what it means to be cute. The problem has been haunting me since my recent holiday in the land of the rising sun. One reason is that more than any other country, even America, Japan has a predominant influence on Hong Kong's pop culture. We are, after all, highly derivative. What, then, is cuteness?

All my life, I have only come across three discussions of cuteness that actually make sense. In his book Guerrilla Metaphysics, contemporary philosopher Graham Harman takes a brief excursion from more serious metaphysical issues to consider the nature of cuteness. He writes: 'Cute objects are either lovely, or else they are delightfully absorbed in some technique that we ourselves take for granted. That is to say, certain actions are performed by certain worldly agents with a regularity and ease devoid of any hesitation. Horses gallop, donkeys eat, humans write letters, and native speakers of a language use it fluently.

'The labours of such agents become 'cute' when they are slightly underequipped for their task: a newborn horse trying to prance on its skinny, awkward legs; a sweet little donkey trying to eat a big pile of hay with its sweet little mouth and tongue; a child handing us a thank-you note with imperfect grammar; a foreigner misusing our language in slightly incorrect but delightfully vivid fashion. In each of these cases, the cute agent is one that makes use of implements of which it is not fully in command.'

Underequipment among juvenile beings captures what I think is the Western notion of cuteness, exemplified by the kind of cute animals you find on postcards and calendars. But it doesn't quite do it for the Japanese variety of Hello Kitty, My Melody and GothLoli, or Gothic Lolita.

Let's now consider the theories of the biologists Stephen Jay Gould and Konrad Lorenz. Though they were not considering cuteness per se, they serve as an indispensable guide. Lorenz famously argued that the physical features of human babies work as 'behavioural cues' for adults. Their immature features trigger responses such as disarming tenderness, affection and nurturing. There may well be other responses such as annoyance and cruelty, but Lorenz was talking about most people, not the odd psychopath who gets a kick out of harming babies.

These features, wrote Lorenz, include: 'A relatively large head, predominance of the brain capsule, large and low-lying eyes, bulging cheeks region, short and thick extremities, a springy elastic consistency, and clumsy movements,' - the last ? la Harman. Such juvenile features are also exhibited by the young of many animals, triggering similarly protective responses. That's why we find animals cute. Gould and Konrad called this 'a biologically inappropriate response'.

Cartoonists, east and west, instinctively understand and capitalise on it with their animated characters. As a result, we have practically cartoonised the entire animal kingdom. In one of his most delightful essays, Gould considered the evolving features of the world's most famous cartoon character - Mickey Mouse. From the time he debuted in the 1928 Steamboat Willie, his features went through a progressive reverse and became increasingly juvenile. This was matched by his growing popularity, which eventually conquered the world.

Not all cartoon characters are clumsy; Pokemon, for example, has superpowers. But they all exhibit physically infantile or juvenile features, otherwise, they haven't a chance to become popular. This theory also offers clues as to why it is fashionable to act cute in Japan, and why large segments of its fashion industry cater to making women cute and sexy. Combining sex and cuteness in cartoons is (almost) a taboo in the west, but it's as natural as sin in Japan. But this is a topic for another column.

Alex Lo is a senior writer at the Post