Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic
Cuteness is not an aesthetic in the ordinary sense of the word and must by no means be mistaken for the physically appealing, the attractive. In fact, it is closely linked to the grotesque, the malformed. So Shy Sherri, for instance, is an anatomical disaster. Her legs are painfully swollen, her fingers useless pink stumps that seem to have been lopped off at the knuckles, and her rosy cheeks so bloated that her face is actually wider than it is long. Medieval or renaissance images of the Christ child, those obese monstrosities whose muscularity always strikes the modern viewer as bafflingly inaccurate, make an interesting comparison. In an era like our own, which prides itself on its ability to achieve effects of uncanny realism, the disfigured putti of the 'Baby Face' series of dolls mark a decline rather than an advance in the representation of children, an eerie throwback to the slant-eyed sphinxes in Sienese icons: alien, carnivorous-looking creatures who are, in many ways, as pictorially inexact as So Shy Sherri.
Far from being an accident of bad craftsmanship, the element of the grotesque in cuteness is perfectly deliberate and must be viewed as the explicit intention of objects that elicit from us the complex emotions we feel when we encounter the fat faces and squat, ruddy bodies of creatures like the Trolls, with their pot bellies, pug noses, and teased-up mops of brightly colored hair. The grotesque is cute because the grotesque is pitiable, and pity is the primary emotion of this seductive and manipulative aesthetic that arouses our sympathies by creating anatomical pariahs, like the Cabbage Patch Dolls or even E.T., whose odd proportions and lack of symmetry diverge wildly from the relative balance and uniformity of ordinary bodies. The aesthetic of cuteness creates a class of outcasts and mutations, a ready-made race of lovable inferiors whom both children and adults collect, patronize, and enslave in the protective concubinage of vast harems of homely dolls and snugglesome misfits. Something becomes cute not necessarily because of a quality it has but because of a quality it lacks, a certain neediness and inability to stand alone, as if it were an indigent starveling, lonely and rejected because of a hideousness we find more touching than unsightly.
The koalas, pandas, and lambs of the stuffed animal series 'Lost 'n Founds' directly allude to this state of homeless destitution. With their 'adorable "so-sad" eyes' that shed real tears, these shameless examples of the waif or pauper syndrome seem to be begging to be rescued from their defenseless state, so tellingly emphasized by paws as cumbersome as boxing gloves—absurd appendages that lie uselessly in their laps, totally free of any of the prehensile functions hands usually serve. Because it generates enticing images like these of ugliness and dejection, cuteness has become essential to the marketplace, in that advertisers have learned that consumers will 'adopt' products that create, often in their packaging alone, an aura ofmotherlessness, ostracism, and melancholy, the silent desperation of the lost puppy dog clamoring to be befriended—namely, to be bought.
Cuteness, in short, is not something we find in our children but something we do to them. Because it aestheticizes unhappiness, helplessness, and deformity, it almost always involves an act of sadism on the part of its creator, who makes an unconscious attempt to maim, hobble, and embarrass the thing he seeks to idolize, as in the case of 'Little Mutt,' a teddy bear with a game leg that a British manufacturer has even fitted with an orthopedic boot. The process of conveying cuteness to the viewer disempowers its objects, forcing them into ridiculous situations and making them appear more ignorant and vulnerable than they really are. Adorable things are often most adorable in the middle of a pratfall or a blunder: Winnie the Pooh, with his snout stuck in the hive; the 101 dalmatians of Disney's classic, collapsing in double splits and sprawling across the ice; Love-a-Lot Bear, in the movie The Care Bears, who stares disconsolately out at us with a paint bucket overturned on his head; or, the grimmest example of the cruelty of cuteness, the real fainting goat, which has acquired of late a perverse chic as a pet (bred with myatonia, a genetic heart defect, it coyly folds up and faints every time you scream at it). Although the gaze we turn on the cute thing seems maternal and solicitous, it is in actuality transformative and will stop at nothing to appease its hunger for expressing pity and big-heartedness, even at the cost of mutilating the object of its affections. The French-manufactured 'Vet Set' takes the neediness of cuteness to macabre extremes: The kit is equipped with a wounded stuffed puppy whose imploring eyes seem to wince as it patiently awaits the physician, who can alleviate its suffering with a wide array of bandages, tourniquets, syringes, and even a stethoscope to monitor the irregular, fluttering thump of a mechanical heart that actually beats.
If cuteness is the aesthetic of deformity and dejection, it is also the aesthetic of sleep. Although adorable things can be bright eyed and bushy tailed, the pose we find cutest of all is not that of a rambunctious infant screaming at the top of his lungs but that of the docile sleepyhead, his chin nestled drunkenly in the crook of someone's neck, wearing the pjs in the FAO Schwarz catalog that consist of a full-length leopard suit made of spotted fur or a 'sweet confection of lace' with fuzzy marabou touches of pristine white down sewn like a tutu around the waist. The world of cute things is transfixed by the spell of the sandman, full of napping lotus eaters whose chief attraction lies in their dormant and languorous postures, their defenseless immobility.