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‘Like a tiny kitten waiting to pounce:’ Inside the cult of cute

By Zara Khan, CNN

(CNN) — A fluffy, doe-eyed kitten adorned with a rainbow and a unicorn horn may, at first glance, stir up images of childishness or innocence. However, this cute creature is more powerful than it may first appear.

From pets to children to wide-eyed toys, social media filters, emojis and internet memes, “cuteness” is one of the most prominent aesthetics of our digitally saturated age, and a veritable industry in itself. Made popular by its seemingly unthreatening nature, cute’s quest for world domination suggests there is more to the phenomenon than its charming exterior might imply.

How cuteness has taken over our world — and why — is a subject being explored in “Cute,” a new (and the first ever) exhibition devoted to the movement at London’s Somerset House.

“By creatively unpacking cute’s many guises, we can not only understand something about ourselves … but also about how we relate to each other and the world around us,” said Somerset House’s director of exhibitions, Cliff Lauson, at the show’s opening.

The origins of cute

It started with cats. When Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the internet, was asked to name one use of the internet he did not anticipate, he answered with a single word — “kittens.”

It’s evocative of how Claire Catterall, senior curator at Somerset House, described cuteness in a speech to open the exhibit: “Like a tiny kitten waiting to pounce, its power and influence has slowly crept up on us.”

Cats, naturally, feature prominently in “Cute,” from the famed and colorful 19th-century drawings of artist Louis Wain — credited with changing the way the Edwardian British public felt about felines by portraying cats as lovable, playful creatures doing things humans did, such as having tea or celebrating Christmas — to artist Andy Holden’s contemporary collection of eclectic feline figurines left to him by his late grandmother (titled “Cat-tharsis”). Both capture the key tenets of cute: being unthreatening and adorable.

Joshua Dale, author of “Irresistible: How Cuteness Wired our Brains and Conquered the World,” believes there’s an innate psychological reason we’re drawn to these qualities. Seeing something cute, “gets the brain ready for certain kinds of behaviors associated with caregiving,” he told CNN.

There’s a sociological drive, too. The roots of the widespread adoption of cuteness lie in the 19th century, when lowering child mortality and a decreased birth rate meant childhood came to be regarded as a cherished experience and something to be prolonged. The Industrial Revolution and the rise of mass production allowed cuteness to be unleashed on the world — toys, books and illustrations could, increasingly, be made easily and cheaply.

Cute began being marketed to American adults in the 1950s, notes Isabelle Galleymore, a poet and consultant for the exhibition. American women, then newly equipped with jobs and disposable income en masse, became part of the consumer class. Products such as “soft toys or blankets with cute designs on them” were designed to “supposedly tap into women’s maternal instincts,” she told CNN.

The ‘kawaii’ effect

Integral to the global phenomena of cute, the exhibition asserts, is “kawaii,” a Japanese word which literally translates as “cuteness.”

According to the exhibition, modern kawaii culture was born in 1914 when artist and illustrator Yumeji Takehisa opened a shop in downtown Tokyo selling accessories and stationery with Western motifs such as mushrooms and castles designed to appeal to schoolgirls.

For Simon May, a professor of philosophy at King’s College London and author of “The Power of Cute,” kawaii is just part of a story which involves the country of Japan more broadly. “(It’s) the first and so-far only country to present itself to the world as cute,” he said of the nation, a stance he attributed in large part to the “peaceable, unthreatening image,” Japan sought to present to the world after 1945, repudiating militarism and power.

Of course, no exploration of kawaii would be complete without the global phenomenon and “ambassador to cuteness,” as the exhibition affectionately calls her: Hello Kitty.

Born of turbulent times after Japan’s first oil crisis in the 1970s, Hello Kitty was created as a character to help sell new products. And sell she did, appearing on everything from sneakers and paper towels to chopsticks, airplanes and panini makers. In 2015, analysts estimated Hello Kitty accounted for roughly 75% of parent company Sanrio’s $142 million annual operating profit, and that it brought in most of the company’s yearly $600 million in revenue.

So carefully protected are her now-classic features that, the exhibition notes, a rare version of the mouthless doll produced with an open mouth was enough to spark controversy amongst fans. However, the Japanese cute phenomenon has not always been as saccharine as it may at first appear. As the 20th century progressed and cute’s power grew, the movement also began to explore darker, more critical themes. Take the explosion of rebellious streetstyle in Tokyo — so-called “Harajuku style” — often seen as a pushback against Japan’s strict societal norms. “(There is) something really empowering about the kawaii-inspired fashions of Japan” said Galleymore, as they’re not just sweet but often contain combinations of “cute and grotesque imagery.”

An escape from life’s realities

Cute is also touted as a response to life’s complexities. The exhibition installation “Sugar-coated pill,” which features cuddly toys produced by banks and pharmaceutical companies, explores how cuteness is sometimes deployed to soften the unpalatable — financial challenges, for example, or illness.

Scottish artist Rachel Maclean’s 2021 mixed media piece “!step on no petS Step on no pets!,” meanwhile, depicts distorted unicorns dancing among flames in an unsettling yet innocent fairytale world. Embracing this duality is part of what makes the exhibition unique, said Maclean, adding: “It offers the chance to explore the complexity and ambiguity embedded within the seemingly simple and charming.”

Cute’s power to give the workaday some escapist glitz can also be seen on an individual level every day via phone filters that turn us into squishy avatars, glossing over our adult features, enlarging our eyes, pinking our cheeks and changing our online identities at the touch of a button.

While cute might, in many ways, still be seen as trivial, what is fascinating about it is how it maintains such a hold on our modern world. “It’s fascinating as a window into the zeitgeist,” May told CNN, “For what it tells us about who we are.”

™ & © 2024 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

“Cute” is showing at Somerset House in London until April 14, 2024.

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