‘The Power of Cute’ Explores the Complex Binaries in the Things We Adore

In Simon May's The Power of Cute, the uncanny nature of Cute is exemplified by both Hello Kitty and Kim Jong-il.

The Power of Cute
Simon May
Princeton University Press
March 2019

Cute is not all that appears to be. Or rather, as Simon May argues, cute is far more than it seems to be if we think of it as an expression of pleasure and connection that is deeply commodified in a culture of consumption. We don’t just buy and attend to cute things because they make us happy. May asks: “what if Cute isn’t a frivolous distraction from the zeitgeist but rather a powerful expression of the zeitgeist?” This is one of the questions he works to answer in The Power of Cute.

May argues that one of Cute’s charms is the perception that the Cute object, animal, or person is seen as innocent and helpless while in fact exerting power over the person who is charmed. If Cute is placed on a spectrum with sweet at one end and uncanny on the other, it makes sense that both polarities would be powerful in seizing the attention of those who engage with Cute. The uncanny nature of Cute is exemplified by both Hello Kitty and Kim Jong-il, although clearly they are very different kinds of blending the familiar with the monstrous.

May deploys a history of Cute as a way of assessing his argument the Cute is far more complex than what it appears to be. Mickey Mouse is the first exemplar of Cute in the discussion, and May argues that pre-World War II Mickey was depicted as a “thoroughly unprincipled go-getter” who “isn’t lacking a few evil intentions himself”. That’s a far cry from the beloved personification of Cute that bought a kingdom for Disney. The aftermath of a violent and horrifying war led to a cultural turn toward kindness and gentleness in the United States and throughout Europe. Perhaps most significantly is the post-war cultural transformation in Japan and the national identification with kawaii culture.

The maneki-neko (lucky cat) figure on the cover of The Power of Cute anticipates May’s discussion of kawaii that has established a global presence. Building on the binary argument he established early on, May depicts kawaii as being not just vulnerable but also ruthless about self-preservation, not just silly but also zany in a jarring manner. Drawing on the work of Japanese visual culture scholar Sharon Kinsella, May points out that kawaii is not just about the Cute object but is an attitude embodied by Japanese girls and women. This performance of Cute is a powerful element of kawaii and its cultural significance.

The nature of kawaii is, for May, the kind of binary that troubles some of his critics: “Kawaii doesn’t just eviscerate Japan of internal and external violence. It also does the very opposite: it allows violence to be expressed in an unsolemn, unthreatening way. As well as extirpating aggression, Cute also sublimates it.” One could argue that granting kawaii this much cultural currency is excessive, as it appears that Japanese culture is mostly about Cute and any other cultural trends are in response to it. However, May offers another perspective on kawaii, pointing out that Japanese culture has maintained a willingness to see spirits — sometimes lighthearted, sometimes less so — at work in nature and life. Any fan of anime, even Hayao Miyazaki films like Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro that have been reframed for Americans by Disney, will agree.

May’s take on the cuteness of Kim Jong-il, as well as his suggestion that cuteness is the key to understanding Donald Trump, may extend his arguments into a range that seems absurd. Turning the determination of Cute into a parlor game, Mays lays out his findings that Charlie Chaplin is not cute but Sean Connery is; Lady Gaga is not cute, but Marilyn Monroe is. The reader who is willing to step into this discourse will not only find the parlor game amusing, but can also understand the complexities of Cute by playing along.

In the preface to The Power of Cute, May says that his study of Cute is inspired by Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp‘”, as well as Harry Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit”. Although not an inspiration to May, Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema“, published in 1975, strikes similar notes. Although Mulvey popularized the idea of the male gaze in the essay, she was roundly critiqued by academics who saw her equation of the male gaze with the view of the film camera as discounting the role of women as spectators experiencing their own pleasures.

In response to the ongoing concerns with her theory, in 1981, Mulvey published “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ inspired by King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun”. “Afterthoughts…” pleads that the controversial perspective that negated the female view was intended as a provocation, rather than an affirmation. Like Laura Mulvey, Simon May might be inclined to revisit some of his more provocative arguments as a means of preserving the valuable insights he offers on the nature of Cute.

RATING 7 / 10