My Take

Adult fetishes mark Hello Kitty's 40th birthday

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 March, 2014, 4:22am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 March, 2014, 4:22am

Western feminists complain about pink princesses and Barbie dolls for being bad role models and imposing unrealistic standards of femininity on young girls. In Asia, parents probably should blame ubiquitous cute Japanese cartoon characters like Hello Kitty for infantilising not just children but adults.

It's the 40th birthday of the mouthless kitten. I wish I could join in the festivities and not be a party spoiler.

For sure, the Japanese cartoon character and his many friends such as My Melody (a rabbit), Keroppi (a frog) and Badtz-Maru (a penguin) have much in common with their Western cousins. Cartoonists, east and west, instinctively draw their characters with babyish features. This is the essence of cuteness. Psychologists and biologists have shown that people instinctively become protective when they see cute babies and young animals. Because the young are defenceless, evolution makes sure we have such protective responses to increase their chances of survival.

Cartoons are a semi/unconscious attempt to capitalise on this evolutionary trait. But the main difference between Western and Japanese toons like Hello Kitty appears to be their cultural effect. Western cartoon figures like Barbie and Mickey and Minnie Mouse confine their influence primarily to children. With Hello Kitty and the gang, though, their influence extends to adults. The cult of cuteness, while amusing to observe, has an unwholesome effect on many of its followers. I know an office colleague who used to have everything with a branded Hello Kitty on her desk: a Hello Kitty computer keyboard, mug, tissue box and phone cover. Another woman I once knew fetishised the same way about My Melody.

"Hello Kitty has become a part of life," said Caroline Tsang Shui-kwan, Sanrio Hong Kong's chief operating officer for Asia, who added that handling the kitten was like managing a human star. She can say that again. The Sanrio toon stars, of which Kitty has been consistently the most popular, collectively earned 74.2 billion yen (HK$5.67 billion) for the company last year alone, of which merchandising is a major income source. A large churn of that profit, I would bet, came from their adult fans.