“Hello Kitty has no mouth”: essay on the soft power of cuteness in Japanese culture

Her blank eyes gaze at you from her white face, her button nose a sunshine yellow. A dainty bow rests askew on her left ear, the color matching the day’s adorable—not to mention perfectly coordinated—outfit. Cute, one almost overlooks an important feature: the mouth. Hello Kitty, the embodiment of cute, has no mouth. After more than 30 years, she remains a popular and recognizable character, with generation after generation of young girls falling in love—or at least consumer lust—with Hello Kitty, their zeal for collecting the fancy goods at times extending in adulthood. Why the interest (both love and loathing for the character) in Hello Kitty and all things kawaii? What factors have contributed to her rise and continued success on a global scale? Finally, what are the implications of a mouthless Hello Kitty in terms of gender stereotypes and agency?

A discussion of Hello Kitty is nearly impossible without an explanation of kawaii and the culture that surrounds the term. Historically, the rise of cuteness is traced back to the 1970s, with the popularization of cute handwriting and manga and disillusionment with earlier student riots and subsequent capitalization of those trends by the fancy goods industry (Kinsella, 1995:225). Though the general meaning of the word is “cute,” the qualities and connotations associated with the term are many. As Kinsella writes, a survey among men and women in 1992 revealed a number of other terms associated with kawaii, including: childlike, innocent, naïve, unconscious, natural, emotional contact between individuals, fashionable, associated with animals, and weak (1995:237-240). Kawaii is a produced style and aesthetic as well as an inherent quality a person, place, or thing possesses.

Through cute images, the signifiers of infantilism—weakness, helplessness, childishness, and dependence—become things to aspire to or things to mimic. In an American society that lauds autonomy and independence, the underlying qualities represented by kawaii images, which are primarily associated with young girls, remain problematic. Without a mouth, Hello Kitty has neither voice nor agency. The image of Hello Kitty further perpetuates the stereotype of the docile Asian female.

Read the whole text by J ennilee Tuazon here

So cute! (Attribution LicenseAttribution License, Tom@HK on Flickr via everystockphoto)

Attribution LicenseAttribution License, Tom@HK on Flickr via everystockphoto

Categories: The Idle Ethnographer, Visual Sociology

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2 replies »

  1. i love hello kitty thats why i put hello kitty essay.

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