[7 May 2013]
Here’s the truth: I never gave much thought to Hello Kitty until my young daughter became aware of her. Then, without warning, I was buying Hello Kitty t-shirts, bedroom slippers, band-aids, toothbrushes, and almost any thing else that bore her cherubic face and yellow nose. Then, and only then, did I realize that Hello Kitty was so ubiquitous, so unavoidable in popular culture, that she rivaled the pinnacle of Western culture in presence: Disney.
Despite her omni-presence, however, I still don’t see her in public; Hello Kitty has melted into the background, another part of the landscape of our culture along with Walmart and Nike. And I’m no closer to understanding how that happened than when I first began reading Christine Yano’s Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek Across the Pacific.
The fanaticism that surrounds Hello Kitty on all sides, from blind hatred to unquestioning loyalty, is unfathomable. Yano, for all of her meticulous research and personal communications with fans, Sanrio employees, authors, and others, does an exceptional job of mining the Hello Kitty multiverse. Despite her persistence, however, by the end of the book, the surface has only been scratched. Yano, too, gets sucked into the gravitational pull of the kitty and explores areas of lesser interest or importance. For example, while it’s hilariously unsettling to read about the Facebook user group, “I hate Hello Kitty”, and a few outlying Christian churches that believe Hello Kitty is influencing young children to deliberately disobey their parents, it hardly moves the discourse of Hello Kitty’s worldly domination into a new light.
In other respects, Yano, has moved Hello Kitty into a new light by digging below the surface and giving the pop culture icon her full academic due. If popular culture is prone to disposable (mostly Eastern) heroes and fads (e.g., Pokemon, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, etc.), Hello Kitty is the exception to the rule. She has dominated from East to West, in her native home of Japan all the way to Africa, Europe, and the Americas. Integrated as part of Japan’s “cute” culture (kawaii), Hello Kitty has a history all her own.
Her changes have been minuscule—the removal of black outline, the addition of a red bow—and Sanrio has basically kept with a formula of non-branding: they don’t make waves, but consistently keep Hello Kitty at the forefront with new items, they adopt a publicity model where “finding out that a punk group has begun sporting Hello Kitty paraphernalia does not necessarily cause excessive handwringing at Sanrio; rather this maybe the cause for celebration, generating product lines that build and extend Sanrio’s brand,” and they maintain that happiness is what Hello Kitty is all about. Their mantra is their slogan, “Small gift, big smile.” It’s almost enough to believe that Hello Kitty isn’t actually consumer product, but a self-defining icon with real feelings. Almost.
At her core, Hello Kitty is still a product on various levels—a product of the “cute-cool” Japanese culture that borders eerily on the realm of pedophilia, a product of innocence and appeal to sex workers and children alike, and a product in the absolute literal sense, where collectors and fans obsess over new Hello Kitty merchandise because “it makes [them] feel happy.” (Much to Sanrio’s delight, because happy customers spend money.) Yano hears the “happy” mantra over and over from personal interviews she conducts, which, it should be noted, she transcribes and includes rather than piecing them together in an academic jumble. The personal interviews give Pink Globalization an intimate feel, mimicking the personal connection that fans speak of, instead of the cold, distance that academic theory brings to such an intimate subject.
All of which point to one undeniable fact about Hello Kitty: no one can articulate exactly what it is about Hello Kitty that they are drawn to. Her’s is an unconscious connection, a subversive draw.
With any force as strong as Hello Kitty, this subversion is both celebrated and reviled—a theme that Yano examines over and over, in a multitude of examples. And yet, Yano’s book hits a big stride when she explores the ripple effects of Hello Kitty among cultures and groups rather than individuals. The positive and negative effects on cultures—especially Asian-Americans and the gay community—are almost palpable and expressed in outrageous ways. The ways that Hello Kitty empowers and subverts the identities of others is an exploration that deserves wider attention. And Yano, a chair of anthropology at University of Hawai’i, Manoa, is in comfortable terrain to be our guide to Hello Kitty’s effect (and affect) across her lovers and detractors alike.
There are quibbles that I have with Yano’s book. It has a 40 page introduction that can tedious. Though it’s a question of audience that I don’t feel academia has successfully addressed: the net of popular culture is cast wider than on insular academic topics, but its appeal is made more narrow by stuffy elements of the text (i.e., academic theory). Additionally, some of Yano’s personal communications with Hello Kitty fans seem superfluous, not advancing the discussion beyond collective recollections of personal experiences with Hello Kitty. And the beginning and ending chapters of her book are the ones that sink beneath their own queries, not the middle chapters that can be glossed over for intro and conclusive punch.
Pink Globalization isn’t a primer for Hello Kitty lovers, it’s a deep dive into the tale of the small feline that has dominated culture from East to West—all without saying a word or making a sound. Not every icon can make that claim, but, then again, not every icon is Hello Kitty.