End the cult of cuteness with Mr Men

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 December, 2011, 12:00am


It's never a good idea when your company's sales rely too much on a single product. And when that product, however popular, is in its fourth decade, you are tempting fate. That's the situation in which Sanrio, the Japanese children's cartoon powerhouse, finds itself when its biggest star, Hello Kitty, accounts for 80 per cent of overseas revenue and 60 per cent domestically.

So investors heaved a sigh of relief and the company's depressed stocks shot up last week when it announced it was buying the rights to Roger Hargreaves' classic Mr Men and Little Miss children's series, currently owned by the beleaguered British media firm Chorion. That is none too soon, and not only from an investment point of view.

Parents know how the world-conquering mouthless cat, born in the early 1970s, has been infantilising generations of children, especially girls, in Japan, Hong Kong and elsewhere. While those Hargreaves characters have helped countless young children learn their English vocabulary, their Sanrio counterparts have the effect of fetishising cuteness as a model for social behaviour.

Hello Kitty, and her Sanrio cousins My Melody (a rabbit), Keroppi (a frog), and Badtz-Maru (a penguin), among others, have been the epitome of cute - a dominant cultural and marketing trend, from fashion to toys, in Japan. Given the undue influence of Japanese pop culture in Hong Kong, the cult of cuteness, if sometimes amusing, has had an unwholesome impact on children, especially girls, here.

Western feminists may fret about how pink princesses and Barbie dolls impose unrealistic standards of femininity on girls; in Asia, parents have cute Japanese cartoon characters to worry about.

But if some Japanese Mr Men and Little Miss Sunshine can get young children learning new words instead of dressing up like cute dolls, that is something to celebrate.