Friday, March 8, 2013

Essentially Cute or Naturally Wild?

If you're familiar with Jerry Griswold's Feeling Like a Kid, you know that he describes the five hallmark traits of the quintessential child (and as a result, of great children's literature) as Snugness, Smallness, Scariness, Aliveness, and Lightness. Be this a universal truth or a construction of society, you are bound to find at least one of these elements in your favorite children's tale.

But what about cuteness? 

I know, I know, bear with me here. I also think immediately of fluffy kittens and doe-eyed babies, and well, cuteness is hardly a requirement of being, feeling, or acting like a child. It most certainly does not capture the essence of childhood either. In fact, cuteness would seem to be a performative concept--I can only deem something cute if it delivers, acts out, fulfills particular requirements for my judgement. However, as an idea closely (if not wholly) related to the child, cuteness could be viewed as a psychological imperative, a completely natural assessment that occurs unintentionally but with great critique about the child, and ultimately, about ourselves (or how we view ourselves, how it makes us feel). 

A recent blog post on The Moving Castle introduces the subject of Cuteness Studies as a potentially new arena of children's culture (if not children's literature specifically), raising interesting points about the nature of its authenticity:
So in the 20th and 21st centuries, when we're as industrialized and mechanized and computerized as we've ever been, when humans feel increasingly isolated or alienated from themselves and other humans, when everyone with the wealth privilege to experience it is feeling the many pressures of modernity, a thing that is not manufacture[d], non mechanized, non technological has tremendous appeal. There's a lot of buzz about "the search for authenticity," blah blah, but that drive to locate something real in a world that feels chock-full of artifice is very strong. The fact that authenticity is as much a construct as anything else is beside the point (for the moment, anyway).
The author necessarily relates it back to nostalgia, and briefly discusses the binary constructed through it: the Cute versus the viewer of said cuteness. Check it out and see what you make of it. I may stick to my very "un-Cute" interests personally, but the cognitive aspects of conceiving something or someone as cute certainly has potential.

But if cuteness isn't really your thing, you might prefer a large dose of wildness. The Bowers Museum, none-too-far in Santa Ana, is running an amazing exhibit on Maurice Sendak titled, "Maurice Sendak: 50 Years, 50 Words, 50 Reasons" from February 16 to April 28. Developed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the publishing of Where the Wild Things Are, this exhibit highlights Sendak's work as early as his teens, with glimpses of many a "wild thing" and art made for friends and fans. I don't think the love and admiration for Sendak will ever die out, and with the recent printings of many of his most notable (and last) interviews, Sendak remains a steadfast influence and icon of children's literature. So if you have the time, visit the exhibit before it leaves Orange County for its national tour.

More details can be found here.


  1. This idea of "cuteness" as a field of study is fascinating. Your post reminded me of an essay that I read and wrote a paper on back when I was a freshman in college. Written by Daniel Harris, the essay was titled "Cuteness" and explored the idea of cuteness as grotesque. Harris used examples of dolls (which would be freakishly malformed if they were human) and also posited that parents were disappointed in their children because, as actual human beings, they didn't meet some commodified standard of what is cute.

    I actually kind of hated the article when I was 18. Perhaps I should read it again.

  2. Oh that's a terrible image! Children as dolls! But intriguing no less. I'm sure your reading of it now would be monumentally different.

    But he raises an interesting point that correlates directly I think with what the blogger I referred to was discussing: the parents' disappointment stems from their perception and construction of what is cute. Thus cuteness, though performed by the child, is only labeled as such by the adult. Does the very fact that cuteness is a viewed, is a commodity, make it grotesque from the very start?

    Jerry Griswold mentioned to me a term to consider amidst all this: Neoteny. I believe it's the physical lack of development on some persons so that they retain juvenile features (big eyes, round head, flat face etc). That, I think, opens a whole new can of worms. So cute IS definable?