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‘Like a tiny kitten waiting to pounce:' Inside the cult of cute

·3 mins

A fluffy, doe-eyed kitten adorned with a rainbow and a unicorn horn may, at first glance, stir up images of childishness or innocence. However, this cute creature is more powerful than it may first appear.

From pets to children to wide-eyed toys, social media filters, emojis, and internet memes, ‘cuteness’ is one of the most prominent aesthetics of our digitally saturated age, and a veritable industry in itself. Made popular by its seemingly unthreatening nature, cute’s quest for world domination suggests there is more to the phenomenon than its charming exterior might imply.

How cuteness has taken over our world — and why — is a subject being explored in a new (and the first ever) exhibition devoted to the movement.

‘By creatively unpacking cute’s many guises, we can not only understand something about ourselves … but also about how we relate to each other and the world around us,’ said the show’s director of exhibitions at the exhibition’s opening.

It started with cats. When the inventor of the internet was asked to name one use of the internet he did not anticipate, he answered with a single word — ‘kittens.’

Cats, naturally, feature prominently in the exhibition, from the famed and colorful 19th-century drawings of an artist credited with changing the way the public felt about felines to a contemporary collection of eclectic feline figurines. Both capture the key tenets of cute: being unthreatening and adorable.

There’s a psychological reason we’re drawn to these qualities. Seeing something cute gets the brain ready for certain kinds of behaviors associated with caregiving, according to an author.

The roots of the widespread adoption of cuteness lie in the 19th century, when lowering child mortality and a decreased birth rate meant childhood came to be regarded as a cherished experience and something to be prolonged. The rise of mass production allowed cuteness to be unleashed on the world — toys, books, and illustrations could, increasingly, be made easily and cheaply.

Cute began being marketed to American adults in the 1950s. Products such as ‘soft toys or blankets with cute designs on them’ were designed to ’tap into women’s maternal instincts,’ according to a consultant for the exhibition.

Integral to the global phenomena of cute is ‘kawaii,’ a Japanese word which literally translates as ‘cuteness.’ Modern kawaii culture was born in 1914 when an artist and illustrator opened a shop in downtown Tokyo selling accessories and stationery with Western motifs designed to appeal to schoolgirls.

Of course, no exploration of kawaii would be complete without Hello Kitty. Born of turbulent times, Hello Kitty was created as a character to help sell new products. And sell she did, appearing on everything from sneakers and paper towels to chopsticks, airplanes, and panini makers.

The Japanese cute phenomenon has not always been as saccharine as it may at first appear. As the 20th century progressed, the movement also began to explore darker, more critical themes.

Cute is also touted as a response to life’s complexities. The exhibition installation explores how cuteness is sometimes deployed to soften the unpalatable.

Cute’s power to give the workaday some escapist glitz can also be seen on an individual level every day via phone filters that turn us into squishy avatars, glossing over our adult features, enlarging our eyes, pinking our cheeks, and changing our online identities at the touch of a button.

While cute might, in many ways, still be seen as trivial, what is fascinating about it is how it maintains such a hold on our modern world.

The exhibition will be showing until a specific date.