Psychology Magazine

The Power of "cute"

By Deric Bownds @DericBownds
I want to point MindBlog readers to an article by Simon May at aeon.co that encapsulates the contents of his new book "The Power of Cute" (2019), and to a Trends in Cognitive Sciences review article by Kringelbach et al. on cuteness that summarizes work on brain activities underlying survival related cuteness responses. The latter article's introduction notes that the prevailing view of cuteness...
...came from the founding fathers of ethology, Nobel prizewinners Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen. They proposed that the cute facial features of infants form a ‘Kindchenschema’ (infant schema), a prime example of an ‘innate releasing mechanism’ that unlocks instinctual behaviours...These characteristics contribute to ‘cuteness’ and propel our caregiving behaviours, which is vital because infants need our constant attention to survive and thrive. Infants attract us through all our senses, which helps make cuteness one of the most basic and powerful forces shaping our behavior.
May considers the increasing popularity of child-like figures in popular culture and asks:
In such uncertain and uneasy times, and with so much injustice, hate and intolerance threatening the world, don’t we have more serious things to focus on than the escapades of that feline girl-figure Hello Kitty? Or Pokémon, the video-game franchise that’s hot again in 2019...The craze for all things cute is motivated, most obviously, by the urge to escape from precisely such a threatening world into a garden of innocence in which childlike qualities arouse deliciously protective feelings, and bestow contentment and solace. Cute cues include behaviours that appear helpless, harmless, charming and yielding, and anatomical features such as outsize heads, protruding foreheads, saucer-like eyes, retreating chins and clumsy gaits.
May suggests that the increasingly popularity of cuteness derives not only from the 'sweet' end of the whole spectrum of cuteness but also from moving towards the 'uncanny' and ambiguous end, a....
...faintly menacing subversion of boundaries – between the fragile and the resilient, the reassuring and the unsettling, the innocent and the knowing – when presented in cute’s frivolous, teasing idiom, is central to its immense popularity... ‘unpindownability’, as we might call it, that pervades cute – the erosion of borders between what used to be seen as distinct or discontinuous realms, such as childhood and adulthood – is also reflected in the blurred gender of many cute objects such as Balloon Dog or a lot of Pokémon. It is reflected, too, in their frequent blending of human and nonhuman forms, as in the cat-girl Hello Kitty. And in their often undefinable age...In such ways, cute is attuned to an era that is no longer so wedded to such hallowed dichotomies as masculine and feminine, sexual and nonsexual, adult and child, being and becoming, transient and eternal, body and soul, absolute and contingent, and even good and bad.
Although attraction to such cute objects as the mouthless, fingerless Hello Kitty can express a desire for power, cuteness can also parody and subvert power by playing with the viewer’s sense of her own power, now painting her into a dominant pose, now sowing uncertainty about who is really in charge...

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