I have to admit that I’d never heard of cute-aggression until the other day. Or at least, perhaps with my ageing ears, I’d been hearing acute-aggression all this time and assumed it was just anger flaring out physically during an argument -well, something unexpected anyway. But now that it has been clarified, I feel embarrassed at my naïveté. I hate confrontations, but I fear aggression even more -be it acute or chronic. Belligerence in any form is abuse on the part of the instigator, no matter how well matched the opponent.
So I was somewhat relieved when I discovered that cute-aggression was more benign. More loving. It’s apparently the almost overwhelming urge to cuddle and caress ‘cute’ things like, say, puppies, or babies. At first glance this doesn’t seem even the least bit aggressive, but as with all reactions, there is a spectrum of responses – extremes where some of them fall on a Bell curve. The ‘aggression’ part is an attempt to describe the intensity of emotions some people feel when confronted by cuteness: wanting to squeeze, or even bite the object of their admiration.
As unlikely a subject for rigorous scientific enquiry as it sounds, there are few vacuums in research, and sure enough one of the first scientific studies would seem to have surfaced in 2013 at Yale University. The then graduate students Rebecca Dyer and Oriana Aragón actually coined the term ‘cute-aggression’. Subsequent studies have helped to define it further, including a neurological investigation by Katherine Stavropoulos at the University of California, Riverside in 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2018/12/cute-aggression-its-so-fluffy/577801/ She discovered activity in the neural reward system in the brains of people who say they feel almost overwhelmed by seeing a cute baby or animal.
But, because the expression was only relatively recently coined, doesn’t mean that the feeling wasn’t noticed before. Languages are not perfect; some have distinct words that describe conditions that require others to resort to circumlocution. For example, Sarah Sloat, writing in Inverse: https://www.inverse.com/article/10043-the-science-of-cute-and-why-you-want-to-bite-this-baby-red-panda ‘[I]n English there isn’t a word for an aggressive reaction to cuteness, there is, however, one in Tagalong [sic]: gigil. This Filipino phrase essentially translates to a feeling of trembling, or the gritting of teeth, in a situation of overwhelming cuteness.’
In fact, Sloat describes an even earlier study from Japan in 2012 -this time not on the aggression associated with cuteness, but rather on kawaii (a Japanese word meaning ‘cute’) which ‘had study participants complete a fine motor dexterity task before and after looking at pictures of puppies and kittens or dogs and cats. The subjects were more successful performing the task after viewing the baby animal pictures — their attention actually became more focused after viewing the cuter pictures.’
Am I missing something here? I mean I don’t want to seem obtuse or ungrateful, but if I apply even one of the filters of critical thinking, I feel compelled to ask why it is important that I approach the subject of cuteness in this fashion. Further, are its conclusions consequential, or merely data points that have silted around the name – idiosyncratic responses like one might expect on any value-laden emotion, interesting even though they may not be representative of the majority reaction, but otherwise merely Facebook fodder?
Okay, perhaps that is a little harsh. Science is still science when it is not goal-directed -indeed, curiosity often leads in interesting and ultimately significant directions. Discoveries are sometimes more serendipitous than intended.
A few days after my chance encounter with the still puzzling concept, I happened to find myself in what I’ve come to regard as the senior section of one of the larger malls. These are the breakwater seats planted as foils in the middle of the corridor to break up the current of people flowing in either direction. Old people accumulate on them like moss on the grates of drains, and I sometimes enjoy watching the flotsam.
I noticed a middle aged woman who seemed to bubble out of her seat every time somebody pushing a stroller passed by. Dressed in a fading long red coat, a blue baseball cap, and what looked like rubber boots, she would sidle up to each stroller and inspect the contents with obvious delight. Her soprano oohing and singsong greetings ensured the hasty departure of each carriage, coupled with suspicious expressions on virtually every young mother.
But the poor woman seemed either not to mind, or not to notice the rebuffs, and she would return from each foray with a satisfied smile.
After a few of these reconnaissance missions, I decided to talk to her.
“You really seem to enjoy little children,” I started, trying to project some admiration into my voice.
At first she seemed startled that anybody would speak to her, let alone notice her fascination. Then, when she decided that I wasn’t being critical, a little smile crept across her face. “Babies,” she answered. “Mainly babies…” Suddenly, a cloud drifted across her face, and she glared at me. “Why are you asking? You the police?”
I smiled disarmingly and raised my hands in a shrug. “Far from it, ma’am. I’m simply noticing that you are fascinated by the little creatures…”
Her expression softened immediately. “I’m sorry,” she said and then added, “Some people think I’m going to hurt their child… You know, that ‘cute-aggression’ thing you read about,” she added, as if everybody was conversant with the topic.
She scanned the crowd for strollers, and then, satisfied she could continue to talk to me, she explained: “I do it for safety.”
When she noticed my raised eyebrows the smile returned. “I almost lost my baby a few years ago.” She stared at the tiles under her boots for a minute, trying to decide how much to divulge. “Well, actually they did take her away from me when they put me in the hospital.” She chanced a look at my face to see if I was really interested, and then, reassured, she continued. “But Jesse almost died…” Her eyes fluttered over mine for a second, and then returned to her face.
“I was really sick in those days, and I didn’t know it… Well, yes, I did, but…” She sighed and checked the skin on the back of her hands for some reason. “Anyway, I was wheeling Jesse along East Hastings in an old pram that somebody had lent me. She was only 7 months old then, and it was cold so I had wrapped her up good. Only her face was showing, and I remember her eyes were closed and she was quiet… Too quiet, maybe -she usually cried a lot…
“The street was pretty empty, except for the occasional drunk, so I felt pretty safe. Then, I noticed a nicely dressed woman walking down the sidewalk towards the carriage, and she peeked in at Jesse as she passed. But the thing is, she hadn’t gone more than a few steps when she turned suddenly and ran toward the carriage. I could hear her feet pounding on the sidewalk. ‘What’s wrong with the baby?’ she screamed.
“I didn’t notice anything wrong, but the woman seemed to panic and called out for someone to help her. She started to do -what’s it called? CVR?- and the next thing I knew, the ambulance was there. And the police.
“Never did find out what was wrong with Jesse, but anyway, they wouldn’t let me have her after that.”
The woman sighed again, then suddenly noticed another woman in the distance, pushing a stroller towards her through the crowd. She touched me briefly on the arm and waded into the tide of people. “So I have to make sure it never happens again,” she shouted at me over her shoulder, and disappeared in the turbulence, her head just another log being swept away in the current.
I never saw the woman again, but as I sat there, watching the ebb and flow of faces bobbing past, it occurred to me that an over-attraction to babies may not be as anomalous as I had first thought. To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.