I’ve often had people look at one or another of my salt-and-pepper sets and say, “Oh, that’s really cute.” And indeed, it strikes me that almost all of the sets I have in my collection do fit easily in the category of “cute.” The exude cuteness. Which raises the question: what do we mean when we say that something is cute?
Well, let’s see, babies are cute. Puppies are cute, and kittens. Indeed, the young of most animals are cute. Teddy bears and dolls are usually cute. Sometimes, certain young women or young men are considered to be cute well beyond their baby and childhood years. Girls with upturned noses and giggles and simpers, for instance, or skinny teenage boys with soft baby faces. So usually, then, the things we call cute are the ones we perceive as being, usually, smaller, softer in appearance or character, less complicated, less knowing and less uncertain than we are ourselves. Cute things don’t threaten us or awe us. We seem to like them because of their apparent defencelessness, and because they make us feel protective toward them, anything but in awe of them and inadequate in relation to them, as say, beautiful things and muscular people might do.
Cuteness, then, seems to be a way of viewing things as much as it is a way for things to be. In a way, a thing isn’t cute until someone sees it as such and says that it is. And saying that it is clearly implies an attitude toward it, a specific way of making sense of it and coming to terms with it. Saying that Justin Bieber, e.g., is cute implies an entirely different attitude toward him than saying he is handsome–an attitude that admires his vulnerability, his fragile bone structure, his soft, innocent face–his unmasculone masculinity. In his book Cute, Quaint, Hungry, and Romantic: The Aesthetics of Consumerism (New York: Basic Books, 2000), Daniel Harris suggests that objects and people we call cute arouse “maternal feelings for a mythical naiveté. . . . Their cuteness suggests guilelessness, simplicity, a refreshing lack of affectation” (2-3)–and also, therefore, elicits maternal or perhaps just parental protectiveness, a sense that what’s so innocently vulnerable inviters or even requires our desire to keep it safe from harm. Cuteness is, then both a way of admiring someone or something and a way of being at least a little dismissive of it or superior towards it.
According to the theorist Sianne Ngai in an article called “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde.” (Critical Inquiry 31 [Summer 200]): 811-847), “the formal properties associated with cuteness—smallness, compactness, softness, simplicity, and pliancy—call forth specific affects: helplessness, pitifulness, and even despondency” (816). As a result, Nigail claims that viewing something or someone as cute might be an act of sadism or even violence: “in its exaggerated passivity and vulnerability, the cute object is as often intended to excite a consumer’s sadistic desires for mastery and control as much as his or her desire to cuddle” (816). Perhaps that why teenage girls like Bieber so much–he appears to be so vulnerable, so totally controllable, Harris agrees: “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. . . . 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” (6). Even more negatively, he adds:
Far from being content with the helplessness of our young as we find them in their natural state, we take all kinds of artificial measures to dramatize this vulnerability even further by defacing them, embarrassing them, devitalizing them, depriving them of their selfhood, and converting them, with the help of the visual and sartorial tricks at our disposal, into disempowered objects, furry love balls quivering in soft fabrics as they lapse into withdrawal for the daily fix of TLC” (9)
So much for babies and Biebers–so what does all this have to do with salt-and-pepper shakers? Well, take this set, for instance:
It’s undeniably cute. It’s very small–the scale of most of my shakers is tiny in relation to the size of the objects they depict. They are like miniature toys in that way, delicate and exuding adorability. And while this set,like most of mine, is made out of some kind of earthenware with a hard, shiny surface, its representation of the bears it depicts makes them seem soft and vulnerable–not merely wide-eyed and apparently smiling, but apparently innocent enough so that one of them is modestly (and perhaps ever so knowingly, in a cute quasi-innocent way) hiding his/her private parts with his/her hands, the other hiding his/hers with his/her feet. They also have googly eyes–i.e., plastic ones whose irises actually move around if you shake them, glued onto the china.
Is there anything cuter than that?
What’s interesting to me about all this is how it seems to work to minimize the threat of the bears being depicted (I’m assuming they’re bears, but so rounded and gentlified as to seem almost puppylike–or maybe just generic cute animals, whose cuteness matters more than their specific species. And i’m beginning to think that the cuteness of most of my sals and peppers most significantly has that effect–it makes the objects and people they depict seem harmless, so little, so cuddly, so not likely to be dangerous.
And yet, in fact, many of the things they depict are dangerous: wild animals, crude depictions of racist stereotypes, sexist portrayals of women as cute, tiny, but still objectified objects, cruel sexual jokes. There’s a way in which all these tiny, soft-edged versions of these potentially contentious and dangerous things make them seem acceptably harmless–safe additions to home decor even for people who might find less cute versions of the same things troubling. And comforting ones, too: you can have your wild bears and sexy wenches and savage indians safely in your home, safely to be looked down on and cooed over and seem perfectly harmless. You can turn everything and anything into cute roundish miniatures t brighten up your dinner table or your knickknack shelf. You can be master or mistress of a world you have safely diminished and detoxified by your acceptance of the idea that everything in it can be cute.