I concluded my last post with the cheery thought that the miniaturized and cheerful cuteness of most novelty salt and pepper sets allows them to deflect the dangerousness of the objects and people they represent. This set seems to represent that quality perfectly. Here we have two jolly lobsters, merrily celebrating their own imminent (and presumably, therefore, dangerous) death as they stand inside the pot that will be the site of their extinction. Not only that, but they also wear chef hats on, well, on what ought to be the top of their heads, but here apparently, since they are standing on their back ends in imitation of humans standing on their feet, it is actually the front of their faces–although in confirmation of their weird transitional state, half lobster, half-human, they also have a human-like smiling mouth a little lower down, where a mouth would be if the hat was actually on the tops of their heads and they were actually sort of human. Amazingly, though, these monstrously semi-human aberrations of nature seem anything but monstrous. What they seem is cute, their tendency toward humanness a way of making them more adorable. Somehow–and I’m not sure exactly how–their being more like humans makes it more acceptable for them to be on the verge of being eaten, not less. Furthermore, they are carrying all the accoutrements of the fine meal they will soon be providing, after they boil themselves to death–the cutlery, even the wine. Has iminent death ever seemed cuter, jollier, more completely harmless? Who could ever choose to be a vegetarian when lobsters are so gosh darned cute, and so happy about playing their expected part in a good meal?
These lobsters claim to be a souvenir of Hopewell Rocks, N.B. With lobsters as hopefully optimistic as these, it would have to rock indeed.
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.
At first glance, this set is merely a little mysterious:
Could it be the profiles of two pregnancies? Or a couple of faceless guys with bad toothaches? Or perhaps just a couple of chawed-off hunks of bubble gum?
Bringing the two shakers towards each other solves the mystery:
It is, in fact, the ultimate amputee: a torso with no legs and nothing above the waist–no arms, no head, no breasts–and if that weren’t enough, it’s cleaved right down the middle. Two haunches. The ideal salt and pepper shaker set for an ax murderer about to enjoy the products of his labours, along with some fava beans and a nice chianti, perhaps?
But the story gets a little more complicated when viewed from the rear:
Talk about LMAO, eh? Here are a pair of cutoff cheeks that only have eyes–very large eyes–for each other. They have come together out of love of each other, it appears, but it seems that they have a secret, a dirty little secret, and they are keeping it strictly between them.
There’s something more than a little creepy about all this; I mean, imagine that those luscious lips and great big eyes are there inside your pants, or that they’re what you’re sitting on at this very moment. It’s even worse than having eyes in the back of your head.
I believe that these cheeky buttocks are meant to be what people usual call “cute”–and that the theoretically harmless cuteness and adorability is somehow meant to suppress their eerier ax-murderish aspects The vast majority of my salts and peppers are trying hard to be cute. The cuteness of salt and pepper sets will have to be the subject of my next posting.
Here’s a set of shakers that happily acknowledges its status as a pair of amputated body parts. Not only are the feet off the body they surely ought to be attached to, but they also proudly announce, “Walked my feet off in Niagara Falls Canada.” It’s a visual pun, see? There’s no body, right? These here are the feet that have been, literally, walked off. Get it? Funny, eh? Be careful,though, about thinking about it too much, because it might make you laugh your ass off.
Why Niagara Falls, though, I wonder? Why would you be walking too much in Niagara Falls, of all places, where’s there’s actually only one thing you need to see and so not all that much walking between the many attractions. And for that matter, why feet for Niagara and hands for Banff? And if these are actual amputated feet, feet amputated through too much walking, then might we imagine a parallel slogan for the Banff set? “Prayed my hands off in Banff Canada,” perhaps?
At any rare, these are surprisingly happy-looking feet, charmingly chubby and cheerfully gussied up with the most lusciously scarlet of nail polishes and with their chubby big toes curled up in what must surely be delight. Maybe they’re just relieved to have got rid of their shoes after all that walking. And rid of the gross, surely chubby body that’s been weighing them down from above.
The breasts of my last entry are not the only detached body parts in my salt-and-pepper collection. Here are a pair of hands:
They are, as you can see, golden hands. Or at least gold-painted ones. As you can also see, also, the hands hail from Banff, Canada, the tourist haven in the Rocky Mountains. Or at least, the marking along the thumbs make the claim that they hail from there; the bottoms of the shakers acknowledge their actual origin in Taiwan.
So what, you ask, do a pair of golden hands have to do with the Rockies? Maybe they celebrate that historical moment when some old prospector, so fond of his hometown that he had its name tattooed along the side of his hands, finally found the mother lode of gold just outside of downtown Banff, only to accidentally light his dynamite and blow himself apart as he reached out and touched it. Maybe the politician who drove the golden spike that joined together the last link of the trans-Canadian railway left his hands on the tracks just a few seconds too long after driving that golden spike in. Maybe the Man with the Golden Arm OD’ed and imagined that his own hands at the end of those arms belonged to an attacking Golden Retriever in need of discipline and punishment. I truly do not know. I suspect no one ever did know. No one ever said that tourist souvenirs had to actually represent the places they are souvenirs of, right?
The hands might seem a useful gift on the occasion of someone’s retirement–a cheaper substitute for a golden handshake. In fact, though, if you align them properly in relation to each other, it becomes clear that they are better suited to praying:
May God bless Banff Canada, despite it being ever so gilty.
You might, ask, though where the salt and pepper emerge from. The answer becomes clear if we look at the shakers from another angle:
In order to accommodate the seasonings, the palms are weirdly protruded and box-like–as if the hands were palming a miniature deck of cards.
When I began this blog, Skip Shand, an old friend from my days as an undergraduate at United College (now the University of Winnipeg) many decades ago, asked, “Have you found a left-handed S&P? Or a right-handed, for that matter?” I responded by showing him pictures of this set, both left-handed and right-handed. Skip was asking because back in the day, one of the many eccentricities of one of our professors, Victor Leathers, was a collection of moustache cups–cups with a bar close to the rim on one side so that men drinking from them could keep their moustaches dry.
Once, as Dr. Leathers proudly showed me his collection, I noticed that he didn’t have a single cup that would be of any use to me as a left-handed person; all the moustache-protecting bars were oriented in such a way that they would be on the top of the cup if you held the handles in your left hand. He suddenly became very flustered and clearly annoyed with me. Apparently it had never before occurred to him that his collection might be incomplete in this way, and it really distressed him. A few weeks later, he called me aside and proudly pointed to his collection again. “Notice anything?” he asked. It took me a while to realize that there was, indeed, a new addition: a left-handed moustache cup.
I guess Skip is right. This salt-and-pepper collection officially places me firmly in the ranks of Victor-Leathers-like eccentrics. I already even have the left-handed one.
I’ve just noticed that the angles from which I took the pictures in my last post didn’t show the words apparently tattooed along the amputated woman’s side:
So this shaker set is not just a dehumanizing objectification of female body parts, it seems: it’s also a celebration of that objectification as a credo to live by: detachable breasts and an armless and legless torso are the spice of life–what makes it worth living, what makes it tasty. Heads and arms are so humdrum, right? Not to mention undetachable breasts. I suppose it means that sexy bodies, or maybe just sex in general, are the space of life–but it sure has an alarming way of representing that.
Usually, people say that variety is the spice of life. This is certainly an unusual variety of womankind being depicted here. And an unusual way of adding spice on one’s life: just grab a breast and shake it.
And is it just me, or are those detachable breasts just a teensy bit out of proportion with the rest of the headless woman?
Novelty salt and pepper shakers tend to be cute–that is, they represent the objects and animals and people they depict as harmless and adorable, as innocently jolly residents or cheerful artefacts of a blissfully utopian world where the sun always seems to be shining and there is no pain and no angst and no taxes. I’ll say more about the implications of this cuteness in a later post. Meanwhile, there’s this shaker:
It seems, on first glance, to be the essence of cuteness, a jolly little fellow or gal who could compete with the Happy Face face for the Miss Congeniality title, if he or she only had a mouth to smile with. But things get a little confusing when you view this shaker alongside the other in its set:
With the two holes that imply cute little round eyes replaced by its partner’s three holes, the effect of eyeness disappears–it’s not exactly cute anymore, but more like a surrealistic Picasso version of cuteness, a cute face with a gunshot wound, perhaps, or a face on the way into plastic surgery. Just what’s going on here anyway? The answer appears as the shakers are placed properly on the tray that accompanies them:
Not faces at all, it seems. Breasts. Detachable breasts that detach from a body with no head and no arms. The ultimate realization of mid-Victorian or early adolescent male fantasies about the ideal woman with breasts like weather balloons, the always available bolster cushion that doesn’t ever talk or complain or say “No” and who just lies there and does it for the Empire? It’s the ultimate no-fuss collection of usefully and conveniently separable body parts. It’s the ultimate expression of breast fetishism. It is, I think, the most disturbing slat-and-pepper set I have in my collection. Looking at it too much could give you nightmares. Thinking about it too much could turn even the Hugh-Hefner-approved version of a playboy into a feminist. Or maybe a serial rapist. I mean more of a serial rapist.
And what are we to make of people who might actually enjoy providing themselves with salt and pepper by means of detachable breasts? It puts a whole new light on the idea of seasoning.
I am sorry to report that my collection includes other amputated body parts and more armless and headless female torsos. More, inevitably, about those later.
When I began putting updates about this blog on my Facebook page, a friend there asked an excellent question: do I ever actually use any of my salts and peppers–i.e., do I ever actually put salt and/or pepper in them and then use them to shake the salt and/or the pepper over the food I’m planning to eat? The answer is, No. I have in fact never actually done that. But in not doing it, I believe, I have been using my salts and peppers correctly, or at least in the manner for which they were intended. I am pretty strongly convinced that they never were intended for table use. Of my almost two hundred sets, only one pair has any evidence of contact with salt or pepper–a few grains of very tired-looking pepper that alarmed me a little as they fell out after I received them when I removed the cork on the bottom. I’m still not convinced they weren’t mouse droppings. It’s possible, of course, that enterprising second-hand store owners have carefully scrubbed away the evidence of actual table use from all my other sets; but I’m fairly sure that most of them have never had anything but air inside of them.
So why, then, if people didn’t intend to put them on the dinner table, did they buy them in the first place? the answer, of course, is to use them as I use them–as something to collect.
Or, perhaps, as something for other people than their purchasers to collect–for I suspect that a lot of them were bought to be given as gifts to make the people back home jealous of the adventures the vacationing purchasers were having: like, “my family visited beautiful Niagara Falls, and all I got was this lousy salt-and-pepper set that says ‘Niagara Falls’ on it.” Or perhaps your great Aunt Effie displayed on her mantelpiece a couple of sets that her nieces and nephews had brought her back from Baltimore or Kapuskasing, and then other nieces and nephews saw them there and later, in a gift shop in Wasaga Beach or maybe Wichtia, said, “Hey, old Effie collects these silly things. Let’s buy her a set. These kittens in bowler hats are cute.”
At any rate, the shakers were always, as they are now, intended to be collectible. Most of my sets are what are usually called “Novelty” shakers–of interest for their appearance more than their practicality. In my childhood, sets like the ones I own now were on sale in gift shops and tourist traps along every highway, often emblazoned with the name of the town they were being sold in. Some of them depicted cute animals, and some of them represented various forms of sexual innuendo and bathroom humour. And a lot of them just depicted something connected with the place they purported to come from. Like Niagara Falls, say.
But they didn’t always do that accurately. Here,
for instance, is a set I own that proudly announces its relationship to the city I live in: Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. It depicts some wildlife that then seem to claim to be representative or symbolic of the city, like New York’s Empire State or Boston’s baked beans: a mother duck and her duckling among some reeds, the essence of Winnipeg. Now you can sometimes see the occasional duck on the Red or Assiniboine Rivers that flow through this city. But it is, in fact, a city, a fairly large one, with a population of 750,000 or so and its fair share of concrete and urban blight. Ducks on shining blue waters amid rustic reeds are hardly a common sight here. They’re here on the shakers, I suspect, because the people who made the shakers in a factory far, far away had only a vague idea that Winnipeg is in Canada, and that Canada is a northern place where there are lakes with ducks on them, so let’s put the stupid ducks on and call it a day. Seventy or so miles east of Winnipeg, the Canadian shield begins, and there are many lakes and many ducks like the ones on these shakers. But in the city, well, not so much.
So where was that place far, far away where they were putting ducks on the Winnipeg shakers? Back in my childhood when every truck stop had its selection of novelty shakers, on display, most of them seemed to come from Japan. In those postwar years, before the advent of well-engineered Sonys and Toyotas and all, Japan had a reputation for producing cheap junk that didn’t ever work very well or last very long. The shakers, made of rough earthenware and often badly formed and luridly painted, are a good example of that. They were never very expensive, they were always shiny and gaudy and cheery and inelegant, and they often misrepresented (or even sometimes misspelled) the places named on them. In one of my sets,
a blissfully ignorant racial stereotype of an Indian maiden comes to stand for the province of Manitoba, the crest of which appears on her chest–but she still quietly announces her actual origin in Japan on her base.
When I mentioned this blog on Facebook, one of my cousins reminded me that an aunt of ours had collected salt-and-pepper shakers, too. That would have been back in the day when you could easily find them new in inexpensive gift shops and touristy places along the highway. They were like commemorative stamps, then, or china figures of cute kittens and milkmaids: produced exactly and primarily in order to be collected.
Having a few salt-and-pepper sets is one thing; having close to two hundred is quite another. There seems to be something harmlessly but nevertheless so, so sadly eccentric about having all that many. Why would any rational being want to surround himself with so many different versions of more or less the same sort of objects, objects whose only obvious purpose, unless you are determined to ingest enough salt to die of a massive coronary and enough pepper to create a sneeze large enough to blow the CN Tower down, seems to be to fill up too much space and offer an endless nagging reminder about how much you hate dusting. Which I do. I hate dusting a lot. So how did I end up with so many, many things that need dusting?
I feel safe in saying that it wasn’t really my fault. I admit that I did buy that mouse and cheese–and that, in the months following that first fatal purchase, I did buy a few more pairs that interested me, for reasons I plan to talk about later.
But then, ah, then–
Then my children noticed them. And realized that I had been buying them. For me. And said Eureka!–or something to that effect.
The thing is, they’d been complaining for years that when gift-giving occasions came around, on Father’s Day and my birthday and at Christmas, they could never figure out what kind of gift to give me. It wasn’t that I didn’t have needs and desires–anything but. it was that, as they saw it, when I had those needs and desire, I immediately went out and did something about it. I bought whatever it was that would satisfy my craving. I was, in other words, way too self-indulgent to ever need anything the might think of giving me, for by the time they gave it, I already had it. Or maybe even two of them, if two is what i felt like it. It was impossible to get me a gift.
But, now, finally, there was an apparently endless supply of gift possibilities for an ongoing parade of gift-giving occasions. When all else failed, they could always get me some salt-and-peppers.
And so it has been. For years now, I’ve received two or three or four or more salt-and-pepper sets every birthday, every Father’s day, every Christmas. The collection has become a family activity, not just mine. Everyone seems to be always out there, on the hunt, wresting various weird sets of unusual binary opposites from secondhand shops and flea markets everywhere. And everyone has to watch and join the commentary as I open the packages and unveil the eccentric treasures inside and taslk aobut how quirky or vulgar or interesting they are.
And here is the result:
About forty feet of shelves. An army of salts and peppers. Not a large army, I realize, as I look around the internet at collectors with thousands and thousands of shakers and an apparent lust for ever, ever more.
As I look at my collection as a group, I’m reminded of trips I took as a child to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, where they were what seemed to acres of rooms full of low tables of marching Chinese armies made of terracotta or porcelain–figures buried in the tombs of great warriors, I believe. Those miniature armies were interesting in theory, but boring in fact: each warrior looked so much like all the other warriors, and each army looked so much like all the other armies. They were no competition for the dinosaur skeletons and halls full of medieval armour in other parts of the museum. But salt-and-peppers, had there been any in the ROM in those good old days, would have been competition, I think. They may have, en masse, the teeming anthill effect of the funeral troops–but they are intriguingly unlike each other, in a rainbow of colours and a cornucopia of shapes and offering a deep pool of implications to think about. That’s why I’m writing about them here.
So I’m not the least bit sorry I have them. They give me much pleasure. I just wish I also had someone willing to dust them.