Bright Lights Film Journal

Freedom from the Pedomorphic Ideal: A Speculation on the Tragically Cute

“Beyond religion, we have resorted to a more modern neurosis to calm our terrors and complement our pretended ennui: cuteness.”

We could not abide by modernity’s relentless violence — in whose face we only feign stoicism — if we did not also fabricate for ourselves a painful innocence to assuage our fears and console our depressions. What soothes us, predictably, is the familiar, the narcissistic. Our consolations thus require a human face, though not the vindictive ones our supernatural history has provided. The ancients’ pantheistic Gods, abounding with double heads, multiplicities of all-seeing eyes, animalistic ears, and other exaggerated signs of intuition, only glowered and threatened. Even Athena, in sculpture, usually looks more pitying than gentle, and Mars, now forever linked with Gustav Holst’s belligerent ostinati, has far eclipsed Philophrosyne, Greek goddess of kindliness. The later monotheistic God became either scandalously human (the pretty, bleeding Jesus of medieval representations) or entirely faceless (in more modern, rational representation), and thus also failed to reveal a sympathetic face — indeed, the Christian equation between love and suffering destroyed the meanings of both. Beyond religion, then, we have resorted to a more modern neurosis to calm our terrors and complement our pretended ennui: cuteness.

Cuteness is a divine imperfection, a deformity that unites the impossibility of utter innocence with the miserable knowledge of what innocence pretends to be. Cuteness is usually defined by anatomical distention and plump innocence. Skinny innocence does exist, but is regarded in the West as primitive — for instance, the emaciated and pointy-breasted fertility icons common in tribal African societies. One imagines that African tribesmen might regard the Western fetish of the cute as somehow familiar; certainly cuteness is a kind of animism for the postindustrial or hyper-commercial universe. Botero realized the connection between the religious and the adorable in his slightly blasphemous Nun Eating an Apple (1981) [Figure 1: right], wherein the nun’s innocent rotundity is belied by a sinful apple she clutches as she anxiously looks askance. Her softness simultaneously evokes the pinkish skin of the adorable newborn and summons the sins that flesh inevitably must inherit. We sense, perhaps, the same juxtaposition of innocence and transgression in the absinthe-tinged deformity of W.C. Fields’ bulbous nose, a symbol of alcoholic experience that contradicts the infantilism of his flabby cheeks and baby face. Fields’ wit and erudition, however, thankfully deliver him from the realm of the abstract or supernatural icon to a solid and self-conscious human intelligence.

When we replace the idolatry of Gods with the idolatry of a commercialized cartoon character, corporate icon, or product mascot, we replace the aesthetic of the superhuman adult with that of the subhuman child. In the arrested development cuteness signifies, we perceive the failure of our maturities and the eternal possibilities we know will be soon corrupted. The traditional cartoon character must remain static, ageless, and incapable of pubescence, for only in an unreal timelessness will the wide-eyed find (im)mortal resistance. The cartoon or product mascot’s eternal, frozen smile conquers death passively and unheroically, yet more unfailingly than can any hero. Even the rotund fellow in the medical chart [Figure 2: Gastrointestinal Doom Demands a Happy Face, right] suffering from Metabolic Syndrome — which increases the likelihood of stroke and heart disease — grins in the face of his impending doom. How can a decent, wholehearted grin blind him to his own organs’ immanent revolt and wild spillage? Perhaps the answer becomes clearer when we recall the etymological link between “mascot,” that which sells, and “mask,” that which hides.

That the smile’s wide-eyed naiveté is an obvious lie does not impede the forward march of the adorable. Cuteness is not only as omnipresent as violence, but is also as cruel in its false consolations. The callousness of the ever-smiling yellow happy face — the visual doublespeak of the 1980s — could do little but become the ubiquitous irony of the 1990s and the unblinking depression of the next millennium. Pasting a happy façade on corporate dominion is not a uniquely American crime, to be sure; the politics of Madison Avenue and public television’s demented children’s programming are at root Stalinist procedures of forced happiness. Stalin had been dead two-and-half decades before Shostakovich’s satire Anti-formalist Rayok could receive a public performance; the American solution, of course, has been to fold satire in with popular culture all along, allowing the weapon to become indistinguishable from the crime.

If the analogy between capitalist advertisements and Stalinist social realism sounds like empty rhetoric, consider a recent advertising campaign for Pop Secret Homestyle Popcorn [Figures 3a and 3b: Stalinist Homestyle Popcorn, below]. An anthropomorphic, maternal corn kernel dressed in what must be called a Soviet Red Army uniform — with an admittedly paler version of the Soviet Red Star on her cap — poses as a crossing guard, Stalinist and happy, safeguarding jolly corn niblets being shepherded in a community school bus. Her sign advertises “free stuff” (i.e., socialist handouts) for the education of the masses. Exactly what type of “education” this might be remains deliberately mysterious and possibly irrelevant; the heartwarming smile is indoctrination enough, and the communist red absent from her cap is clearly displaced to the propagandizing placard that mesmerizes us with the “free” wares of a socialist utopia.

   

We also notice in the lower detail a rustic, Norman Rockwellian image of a corn-producing barn, yet the symbolism of social realism clearly towers over it, dwarfing it into insignificance. The womanly corn kernel’s otherworldly smile, at once painfully anthropomorphic and horribly inhuman, draws our attention like a magnet: her lie must be believed if we want to go on living.

Pop Secret’s irresistibly cute kernels draw on a now-accepted tenet of evolutionary psychobiology. The disproportionate, babyish features of the plump and invariably large-eyed pedomorph reflect an adult viewer’s infantile longing for apocryphal innocence and blissful arrested development. Every cute character — whether cartoon or product mascot — must remind us of an idealized infant who does not require language even though he may occasionally speak, and who denies death as much as s/he does reproductive sexuality. Conventional understandings of cuteness stem from the theories of psychologist Konrad Lorenz, whose bio-evolutionary models posited “innate releasing mechanisms” of affection that render humans ever-sympathetic toward and protective of the childlike. More often than not, the desired infantilism is signaled through exaggerations of the eyes, arguably our first and last means of encountering the world.

The behaviorist, certainly, would reject Lorenz’s claims of “innateness” and instead focus on the controls of culture. Indeed, it is clearly problematic to conflate the fabricated sentimentalities of innocence and corruption with the “bio-evolutionary” sentimentality of parentage. Daniel Harris has identified the primarily sadistic (i.e., cultural) aspects of cuteness, which, to use Schiller’s terms, are far more sentimental than naïve:

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. 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 . . .1

Cuteness undoubtedly becomes a kind of displaced, sentimental sadism in apparently innocuous cases — children’s toys, corporate mascots, didactic cartoons, and so forth. The sadistic theme holds true in the more radical case of Japanese kawaii, an ethos of exaggerated innocence exemplified by Sanrio’s frog “Keroppi” [Figure 4: Keroppi the Frog as an Orthopedic Back Cushion], whose eternal sanguinity belies a bow tie emblematic of the slaving professional classes to which he, ever-childlike, can never aspire. Kawaii is usually rationalized as an ethos of sociopolitical passivity, of the need to seek bogus succor in the servitude demanded of Japanese hierarchies. The more idiosyncratic varieties of Japanese porn confirm this equation between cuteness and subordination; consider, for instance, the bishonen‘s obedient feminization in Acceed — Raping Us Cuties 2 or Acceed: Sprouting, Sprouting Boys [Figures 5a and 5b: below], in which doll-like transvestite youth bow to their elders’ whips and scepters. The mythical innocence of cuteness is exposed as habitual perversion.

   

However, Harris is wrong to say that cuteness is not “an aesthetic in the ordinary sense” on account of its grotesquerie, sadism, and unhappiness, for these elements constitute the very pity and fear of tragedy, one of the most normative aesthetics of all. The intentional deformities of Keroppi the Frog are ideologically little different from those of a Picasso, for all aesthetics — including realism — recast reality to seek truth. If Keroppi’s truth humiliates rather than enlightens — as do cubism’s fractured shocks — it is only the falsity of happiness’ pursuit that is humbled.

Furthermore, if cuteness is the delusional projection of adult manufacturers — which, on an obvious level, it must be — children uncomprehending of nostalgia should not respond to wide-eyed cartoons more than, say, fifty year-olds do.2 Perhaps small children cling to cuteness to retard maturation and avoid the world of adult responsibility they see vaguely in their futures. In the eyes of a child, the projection of Keroppi’s cuteness might also register as realistic: psychologists have long observed that the drawings of children in their formative years tend to combine body parts, conflating enlarged heads with tentative bodies, or omitting the bodies altogether, reducing humanity to stick figures of inquisitive heads and vulnerable limbs — the instruments of immediate sensory perception.

Regardless, much-touted evolutionary biology cannot explain the prevalence of the inverse cuteness fetish, the projection of premature development onto unknowing, prepubescent bodies. When junior beauty pageants and the fashion industry compel seven year-old girls to saunter around like gifted hookers, the doll-like child becomes not a nostalgic manipulation but a tightly wound anachronism, a future content within a present form. The precocious sexuality of “Miss Junior Whore” pageants also refutes the temporal stasis of the cute, pedomorphic icon. This fetish of accelerating a child’s growth — call it a “sentimental anti-sentimentalism” — might well find its epitome in a baby formula called “Bacon Baby” [Figure 6a: below], which for enigmatic reasons promises “four nutritious servings of bacon in every scoop.” The pig on the container’s exterior, like so many advertising anthropomorphs, delights in his unwitting cannibalism, meeting the consumer’s gaze head-on as he suckles from a bottle containing a liquefaction of his own powdered kind. More baffling in its biological anachronism is a Chinese doll [Figure 6b: below] that invites us to shave a baby afflicted with a massive head of orange hair that trails down into inexplicable tufts of underarm and pubic fur. The parent must liberate the child cursed with a prematurity of secondary sexual characteristics, thereby working to return innocence to its “natural” — that is, still exaggerated — state of bug-eyed hairlessness.

   

The betrayal of chimerical innocence, always too easily revealed, eventually bled into open cartoonish disgust, from Ralph Bakshi’s Heavy Traffic (1973) and the animations of Bill Plympton to the bodily fluids sophomorism of a Ren and Stimpy or South Park, whose perfectly circular urchins mock the mechanical simplicity of the cuteness reflex. Bolder still is Spongebob Squarepants, an overeager quadrangle whose sharp corners might rebuke the infantile cult of the round, but whose pathologically childish behavior obviously parodies the innocence principle. Spongebob’s ceaseless sanguinity becomes so nauseating that we — adults — must see it as a mockery of our own longing for innocence, lest we lose ourselves in the narcissistic artifice. Yet natural, biological grotesquerie also holds forth its own innocence: the deformed child, the double-monster, the midget, and the humpback are all cursed with a stasis as miraculous as that of an unchanging cartoon. We can only imagine that if cartoon characters were to become real, they would recognize their deformities as a curse.

This idea is portrayed graphically in painter Tim O’Brien’s hauntingly “organic” rendering of Charlie Brown [Figure 7: right]. Almost phrenologically obsessive in its attention to cranial idiosyncrasy, O’Brien suggests that cuteness, when rescued from ideality and surrendered to realism, harbors every primal terror and social humiliation. The Betty Boop aesthetic of ocular fervency is undone: here, Charlie Brown’s pin-sharp eyes bear witness to his own mortality, while the rotundity of his skull suggests not the groping awareness of a chrysalid child but the total despair of a spherical planet. Of course, as a realistic painting of a non-realistic cartoon, the image becomes the realization of an idealization of reality — a meta-idealism. Yet anyone who had suffered through The Peanuts as a child cannot deny the lugubrious air of depression that always hung around the necks of those poor orphans (Lucy practiced discount psychiatry, remember). O’Brien’s portrait, then, is not mere grotesquerie but an accurate excavation of truths long suspected.

Recall that the earliest cartoons neither begged for pathos nor idealized purity; Windsor McCay’s “Gertie the Dinosaur” is only nominally charming, and the stop-motion animations of Starewicz foreshadowed the repulsions of the surrealists. Even Olive Oyl was vile and monstrous, and as a child I wondered why Popeye — rather monstrous himself — lusted after her schoolmarm’s haircut, mannish feet, and vestigial bosom. The transformation of early cartoon characters from imps to innocents was apparently a shrewd, deliberate move. In his well-known analysis of Mickey Mouse3, Stephen Jay Gould has observed that, over time, the size of the rodent’s head gradually increased as his body gradually shrank, in accordance with biogenetic predispositions toward large-eyed endearment. Adjustments in his proportions, furthermore, had socio-psychological ramifications: as Mickey Mouse’s body transformed, so did his behavior, and the mischievous scamp of Steamboat Willie (1928) steadily became the wide-eyed conformist of later Disney shorts. Because we equate innocence with submissiveness, we can pause to note that holistic size is itself a determinate factor of submission. When a character’s disproportionate features are retained but its absolute size is augmented, its cuteness, in turn, diminishes. Consider here the image of Hostess’ “Twinkie the Kid,” [Figure 8: right] made titanic with helium. When depicted on a carton of artificial cakes, he endearingly lassoes children into cream-filled obesity, but when he, well inflated, towers above mortals as a four-story God-Child, his iconic preciousness descends into mere parody.

It remains unclear, perhaps, whether audiences “naturally” responded more positively toward Mickey Mouse’s large-headed incarnation or were slowly manipulated by animators conscious of the biological imperative of their aesthetic. That Disney once sold “Mickey Burgers” — beef patties in the shape of great vermin heads, barbequed (according to the pictured advertisement) by Mickey himself in his later, more cheerful stages of cranial development — nevertheless attests to the servile aspects of the large-headed, pedomorphic body. And innocence, once more, is here expressed as closet cannibalism, as the ecstatic rodent means to absorb and naturalize a minced reconstitution of his own essence.

Problematically, the bio-evolutionary presumption of “innate releasing mechanisms” assumes that we all — even those of us who despise children — will automatically swoon when embellished eyeballs stare back at us. Yet we know perceptions of cuteness aren’t universal; for example, Japanese audiences weaned on kawaii would certainly view the Muppets not as endearments but as the cut-rate and disturbing collection of rags they are. If the cuteness response is truly innate, it must be inescapable, deterministic, and untempered by sociology; yet there are many images that are “formulaically” cute (i.e., rounded, infantile, and not necessarily artistic) but that pose distinct cultural and semiotic problems. If cuteness is, most simply, a failure of human sentiment, at what point does the sentiment fail?

For lack of a perfect example, let us return to our implicit theme of consumption by focusing on the debatably cute cartoon mascot of the “On-Cor” Frozen Food Empire, an anthropomorphic chicken nugget called Lil’ Redi (that is his trademark) [Figure 10: below ].4 Though he is as genitally vacant as G.I. Joe, he does not require the plastic soldier’s overcompensatory M-16 to socialize male children — his untied sneakers and inverted athletic cap already broadcast the restless masculinity of wild youth.

His given (Christian?) name, “Redi,” suggests human aspirations of futurity and willingness, yet we are unsure whether his “readiness” is grammatically and philosophically active (ready to serve) or passive (ready to be consumed). He remains etiologically ambiguous, at once an artifact of the factory and, in the distant past, originating from what was once a living, breathing bird. Importantly, though he seems (almost) fully breaded, he is not wholly chicken: his arms, legs, tongue, and possibly eyes seem humanoid, and thus he is not totally edible, reminding us that, unlike cannibals, we do not eat anthropomorphs with which we (partly) identify. The Pillsbury Dough Boy, on the other hand, is entirely dough, save for his liquid blue eyes — he harbors no vestigial limbs from a prior evolution, and we therefore greet his childlike command to consume with greater zeal.

Lil’ Redi’s eyes, though hardly as mirror-like as those of anime naïfs, are large enough to comfort yet not realistic enough to suggest a human soul — an intentional move, no doubt, for if Lil’ Redi harbored an aspirational soul, Christian children would be less inclined to dunk him in sauce. Just as Lil’ Redi must be simultaneously humanized and dehumanized, his conspicuous white gloves must express both civilized hygiene and retiring servility. The white-gloved hand — which figures not only in the barbequing Mickey Mouse above but in images of Bugs Bunny and countless advertising mascots5 — first appears only to accentuate what otherwise would be a stick figure. Yet the white gloves evince a servility perfectly consistent with the ethos of the pedomorphically powerless.6

This servility, obviously, is an illusion, the propaganda of the marketplace; it is the consumer who is servile and willing to be obediently consumed, and the breaded poultry icon that is paternalistic, conquering us with a knowing wink. As we worship imaginary innocence and concede to our passive desires to be manipulated and eaten — for who among us truly craves the terrific responsibility of freedom? — we become trapped within the fatal artifice of the cute. This sense of entrapment is represented literally in the anthropomorph, who is inhuman yet trapped within an aspirationally human form. I use “aspirational” ironically, of course: the entrapment is permanent because the cartoon can never live truly or humanly. The Pinocchio story is here oddly relevant, for the grotesque puppet’s desire for organic reality is the inverse of the audience’s longstanding, Keatonesque desire to puncture the cinematic screen and become unreal. The desire to live is ultimately Pinnochio’s primordial lie.

The more an image of cuteness fails in its intended pathos, the more deformity becomes itself deformed, and the more acutely we become aware of our existential entrapment between the miserably organic and the adorably ideal. Consider, for instance, this mascot [Figure 11a: below] for Knorr, a commercial brand of soups and sauces. As a human being trapped literally within a synthetic skin suggestive of vegetation, the mascot signifies both consumer and consumed, and the pasted smile once again expresses the jubilance we take in our economic cannibalism.7 I cannot exactly identify what the creature is supposed to be, though we know he is no butcher, as he wields only a spoon. He — I assume maleness, if only because the mandate to consume has been historically male — has a lower torso, hands, and tongue whose green implies spinach or broccoli, while carrots hang from his belt like carpenter’s tools. His demented head is likewise hard to understand, though its yellow implies a content of corn. Regardless, as he himself may be the only food available, we assume he will eventually stir himself into a soup, thereby fulfilling consumerism’s self-destructive mandates. We can better appreciate the Knorr mascot’s monstrous horror when we juxtapose him with a converse image of bodily entrapment. The pictured performance artist [Figure 11b: below] has transformed his face into a realistic corn cob, deriding the aesthetics of evolutionary biology by devolving his species into niblets and husks; the artist’s reverse anthropomorphism mocks our passive desire to be consumed, rebuffing the conviction of the corporate happy face that commercialism should be evolution’s next logical step.

   

Other examples of failed anthropomorphism — that is, failed pathos — are no doubt more obvious, as shown by this man pretending to be a canister of automotive lubricant. [Figure 12a: below] The affective fallacy is here alarmingly fallacious — at best, futurism is here swallowed whole by capitalism and reaches its most pessimistic and mechanical conclusions, as the human face is lost and skin takes on the hue and sheen of Shell Motor Oil. For every attempt to paradoxically access a strange pathos by denying humanity, however, I suspect there is a counterexample that delights in horrible personification. The image of this oddly human dog [Figure 12b: below] suggests that humanity can be imprisoned within the subhuman as easily as within the inhuman. We needn’t worry about our social entrapments, though, for our souls may contentedly if temporarily reside elsewhere, in some other lovable skin.8 But we cannot overlook that the dog’s owners have humiliated it with a birthday cap and placed before it some starchy cookie or pie; the absurd personification, protesting too much, can only result again in a charade of abject horror, in the realization of Charlie Brown’s organic terror.

   

These alternating examples of anthropomorphic affectation and embarrassing fallacy put into my mind that a hybrid of the two aesthetics — or, if you prefer, the two tragedies — is unlikely. Dissatisfied with our human failures and frailties, we either ensconce ourselves in otherness or entrap otherness within humanity, infecting the world with our anthropomorphisms so that there can be no other option (thus, the humanoids of Avatar all seem like ridiculously proportioned runway models who spend exactly the same amount of time at the gym). I was therefore surprised to discover that a demented garment manufacturer has tried to solve our problem of entrapment by creating out of cloth an eternal womb that organically joins independent adult and dependent infant. Offering a porthole for a baby’s head to gain (limited) access to the world, the pictured sweater [Figure 13: below] fuses the fantastic powerlessness of eternal childhood and the fantastic power of eternal parentage into one “hybridized” mother-child bargain.

This obviously neurotic woman desires eternal pregnancy, presumably to maintain some sense of gender identity or pay homage to a primitive fertility fetish. Unlike Giger’s chest-bursting alien, the child — like all of us, perhaps — remains a prisoner of the womb. Presumably he will be toilet trained, schooled, discover that the earth revolves around the sun, and fall in love entirely within the confines of his Freudian straightjacket. Yet his body cannot change — in his manufactured womb, he remains stunted, frozen, and cute. One day, the natural dictates of biology will overtake them: the mother will expire in forty or so years, her body will decompose, and the child, still arrested at the age of one, will finally crawl from his claustrophobic gulch to gain a sense of the world. As he leaves behind the moldering skeleton of his captor, he now ages normally and lives — until the day he, too, decides to procreate.

  1. Harris, Daniel. Cute, Quaint, Hungry, and Romantic: The Aesthetics of Consumerism. New York: Da Capo Press, 2000, p. 3. []
  2. I do acknowledge the existence of the Hello Kitty vibrator; nevertheless, it is unclear whether children would be naturally drawn to Hello Kitty waffle makers or toilet seats if adults did not coerce them with advertising or weigh them down with envious projections of innocence. []
  3. Available at http://www.monmsci.net/~kbaldwin/mickey.pdf []
  4. Certainly, there are other possible examples that blur the difference between the technically cute and the actually repellent. Consider, for example, recent TV advertisements in which foot fungus (c.f., “Lamisil”) or nasal mucous (c.f., “Musinex”) appear as semi-anthropomorphic hobgoblins frolicking in human flesh and tissue. Nevertheless, the prancing, plump globs of green mucous who rejoice in their host’s sinus cavities (before being medically ejected) remain cuter than the host himself, a bland, thirty-something Caucasian nonentity. []
  5. Compare the servile and hygienic white gloves of the fin de siècle Mr. Peanut, Hostess Cake mascots, etc. Interestingly, the anal-retentive Porky Pig and infantile Elmer Fudd are usually without gloves, unlike Bugs Bunny. []
  6. Compare the Hamburger Helper mascot, who is entirely a servile hand. At the same time, there are obviously other markers of servility; in the world of pancake syrup, for instance, the slave archetype Aunt Jemima is more servile than the WASP-ish Mrs. Butterworth. []
  7. The ubiquity of product mascots’ smiles seems to have no exceptions, save the slightly suicidal face that bizarrely (though appropriately) advertises the national chain of Kumon Learning Centers. One wonders if Kosher products — Matzo ball soup, perhaps — should depict a suffering face. []
  8. Certainly, not everyone agrees that personified animals should be lovable. In 1931, the Hunanese reportedly banned Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland because it was deemed immoral for anthropomorphic animals to evince “superior” human qualities. []