I love cute as much as anyone else, I suppose, although it’s not a quality I have possessed since early childhood I’m afraid. Many things are cute, though: puppies, babies, toddlers… and they all seem to have certain attributes in common: large, or prominent eyes, larger than expected head, and so on –neoteny, it’s called. They all seem vulnerable, and deserving of protection. Needing cuddling.
And yet, apart from agreeing affably with doting parents describing their newborns, or singles obsessing over their new puppies, I didn’t give cuteness any extra thought, I have to admit. I mean, cute is, well, cute. There didn’t seem to be any need to dwell on the features, or deify their appearance. But an older article by Joel Frohlich, then a PhD student at UCLA, about cuteness in Aeon did tweak my interest: https://aeon.co/ideas/how-the-cute-pikachu-is-a-chocolate-milkshake-for-the-brain
Perhaps it was the etymology of the word that initially intrigued me. ‘The word emerged as a shortened form of the word ‘acute’, originally meaning sharp, clever or shrewd. Schoolboys in the United States began using cute to mean pretty or attractive in the early 19th century. But cuteness also implies weakness. Mignon, the French word for cute or dainty, is the origin of the English word ‘minion’, a weak follower or underling… It was not until the 20th century that the Nobel laureates Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen described the ‘infant schema’ that humans find cute or endearing: round eyes, chubby cheeks, high eyebrows, a small chin and a high head-to-body-size ratio. These features serve an important evolutionary purpose by helping the brain recognise helpless infants who need our attention and affection for their survival.’
In other words, ‘cute’ was a mechanism to elicit protection and caring. Indeed it seems to be neurologically wired. MRI studies of adults presented with infant faces revealed that the ‘brain starts recognising faces as cute or infantile in less than a seventh of a second after the face is presented.’ These stimuli activate ‘the nucleus accumbens, a critical piece of neural machinery in the brain’s reward circuit. The nucleus accumbens contains neurons that release dopamine.’
But it can be tricked, so ‘baby-like features might exceed those of real infants, making the character a supernormal stimulus: unbearably adorable, but without the high maintenance of a real baby.’ So, is cuteness in these circumstances, actually a Trojan Horse? An interesting thought.
Cuteness is situational -or at least, should be. Cuteness out of context can be frightening, and even grotesque. Think of the clown in Stephen King’s novel It for example. Imitation, when recognized as such, seems out of place. Wrong. Cute is a beginning -an early stage of something that will eventually change as it grows up. Its transience is perhaps what makes it loveable. At that stage it is genderless, asexual, and powerless. It poses no threat -in fact, it solicits our indulgence. Think what would happen if it were a trick, however: our guard would be down and we would be vulnerable.
But there’s a spectrum of cuteness; there must be, because it –or its homologues- seem to be appearing in situations that don’t remotely suggest innocence, youth, or vulnerability. Think of the proliferation of cutesy Emojis. As Simon May, a visiting professor of philosophy at King’s College London points out in an essay (also in Aeon https://aeon.co/ideas/why-the-power-of-cute-is-colonising-our-world ) ‘This 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… Cute is above all a teasing expression of the unclarity, uncertainty, uncanniness and the continuous flux or ‘becoming’ that our era detects at the heart of all existence, living and nonliving. In the ever-changing styles and objects that exemplify it, it is nothing if not transient, and it lacks any claim to lasting significance. Plus it exploits the way that indeterminacy, when pressed beyond a certain point, becomes menacing – which is a reality that cute is able to render beguiling precisely because it does so trivially, charmingly, unmenacingly. Cute expresses an intuition that life has no firm foundations, no enduring, stable ‘being’.’
Perhaps that’s what makes non-contextual cute so inappropriate, so menacing. ‘This ‘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… Moreover, as a sensibility, cute is incompatible with the modern cult of sincerity and authenticity, which dates from the 18th century and assumes that each of us has an ‘inner’ authentic self – or at least a set of beliefs, feelings, drives and tastes that uniquely identifies us, and that we can clearly grasp and know to be truthfully expressed. Cute has nothing to do with showing inwardness. In its more uncanny forms, at least, it steps entirely aside from our prevailing faith that we can know – and control – when we are being sincere and authentic.’
Whoa -that takes cute down a road I don’t care to travel: it’s an unnecessary detour away from the destination I had intended. Away from attraction, and into the Maelstrom of distraction. Contrived cute is uncute, actually. It is a tiger in a kitten’s mask.
I think there is a depth to beauty which -as ephemeral and idiosyncratic as it may seem- is missing from cute. Both hint at admirability, and yet in different ways: one describes a surface, the other a content -much as if the value of a wallet could be captured by its outward appearance alone.
For some reason cute reminds of a Latin phrase of Virgil in his Aeneid -although in a different context, to be sure: Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes –‘I fear the Greeks even bearing gifts’- a reference to the prolonged Greek war against Troy and their attempt to gain entrance to the city with their gift of the infamous Trojan Horse. Cute is a first impression, not a conclusion. I suppose it’s as good a place to start as any, but I wonder if, in the end, it’s much ado about nothing…