September 5th, 2005


Cuteness and category

Living with a rabbit entails recognizing a series of "cute moments". They're mostly the moments when the rabbit, with utter fierceness and un-selfconsciousness, does something entirely stereotypical, like lying down suddenly in a characteristic posture, its hind legs stretched out, its tail taut, its eyes fixed and vacant yet alert. The thing that makes it cute is the rabbitness of it, the combination of relaxation and anxiety. Our rabbit is both a male and a prey animal, so it mixes the eternally timid alertness of a threatened beast low on the food chain with the swagger and confidence of a male. The interplay of those two contrasting stereotypes is also a source of comedy and "cuteness".

I was thinking about this in the light of yesterday's Gender Killer discussion. How desireable is it to "kill gender"? How liberating is it to stop relating to stereotypes? Is it even possible? (After all, gays and lesbians seem to use the stereotypes of gender just as much as anyone else does.) And do we renounce cuteness when we do it?

I scribbled some notes:

identity is limitation
identity is cute
limitation is cute
my identity
your identity
i want to be unlimited, but i want you to be cute... and limited
i want to be rounded, but i want you to be stereotypical
the relationship of cuteness to the categorical
things are cute when they behave instinctively, un-selfconsciously... when they approach the stereotypical
how can complexity ever compete, in the attractiveness stakes, with the rush of affectionate recognition we get when we see something stereotypical?

Okay, let's look at some of those ideas. Identity is limitation. This is confirmed in the realm of technology by the synthesizer. The more synths can do, the less they sound like synths. The more capable a synth is, the less cute it is. The cutest synths are the monophonic Moogs and Prophets made in the 70s. They're cute because they have a limited, stereotypical identity. We hear them, or see them, and think "That's a synth!" We love them for their limitation. They have a strong identity precisely because, in terms of range and capability, they're rather weak.

This establishes a link, perhaps an unexpected one, between identity and cuteness. When I find something cute, I find it attractive because it seems limited, stereotypical, determined by its category, even helpless. When Japanese women shout "kawaii!" it's reflexive on two sides: the women are acknowledging their own femininity by responding to something small, vulnerable and baby-shaped, but also acknowledging something limited, stereotypical and reflexive in the thing admired. It's cute because it is so much what it is, and can't help it. It's "concentrated essence of chihuahua", strictly observing its obligation to be what it is while we strictly observe our obligation to admire it.

But mightn't we have double standards? Mightn't we want complexity and individuality for ourselves, but cute limitation for others? Nobody wants to feel limited, after all. For instance, I pride myself on being culturally somewhat hybrid, born in Scotland, but much more than the stereotypical Scot. I pride myself on blurring my nationality, blurring my gender, blurring my class and my culture. I believe that I can "rise above" the circumstances of my formation, become rounded and complex, and be loved for that complexity. But has anyone ever been loved for their complexity? Don't we see, day in and day out, that simplicity and clear uncalculating categorical identity is far more "cute"?

And isn't it hypocritical of me to want to be loved for my complexity, but also love others for their simplicity? Because I can't deny that my attraction is somewhat generic. I am attracted to "Japanese art students". I like them to be more rather than less "Japanese". Once they started to become Japanese-French or Japanese-British or Japanese-American, I would start to find them less attractive, I think. I don't say this is morally right of me, but I observe it in myself. The cute and the generic are all tied up. I also like very feminine women, and once women start to mix up gender signifiers, to be tough and boyish, I find them less cute... even though I have a tendency to mix up gender signifiers myself! (Or do I find femininity enhanced by attempts to escape it? Those boyish girls are cute, but it's the moments when the mask slips and the act falters that are the cutest.)

So I aspire to be complex, but I can't help being attracted to the uncomplex. And perhaps I fail to see that when people find me cute, it's because, no matter how I dress, I am still helplessly male, helplessly bourgeois, helplessly Scottish. "Skirts can actually look great on men," said an article linked in yesterday's comments, filed in the Gender Issues section of the Guardian. "Unfortunately, most blokes simply aren't man enough to carry them off."

Most men "aren't man enough" to dress like a woman! The paradox suggests that category is all-powerful; in trying to escape it, we merely confirm it. That fatalism sounds depressing, but it does have a consolation attached. If, in the end, complexity is limited, then complexity is also cute.