The Cruelty In Cuteness

In her new book Our Aesthetic Categories, English professor Sianne Ngai finds that “the pleasure we take in cuteness contains more than a grain of sadism”:

“Cute” is a much more ambivalent description than social niceties will allow us to admit. When we snatch up something cute in an embrace, we pantomime the act of defending our protein-rich and defenseless little pal from an imaginary threat, but the rigid urgency of our embrace, and the concomitant ‘devouring-in-kisses’ suggests that what we’re protecting the cute thing from is ourselves. Consider how often the ejaculation of a phrase like “aren’t you cute!” is followed and intensified by “I could just eat you!”

Or, consider Ngai’s example of a bath sponge in the shape of a frog. Its cute big eyes, its cute blobby form, its winsomely wounded expression—everything about the bath-frog’s design culminates in a single purpose: for it to be held against the body and “squished in a way guaranteed to repeatedly crush and deform its already somewhat formless face.”

For the longest time, I was offended by being called “cute” in America. I was told that the word has a different connotation in the US than in England – where it is much more emasculating – and I should accept the compliment. It was hard nonetheless. Why am I called “cute” and not “hot,” I wondered? Because I was exactly that – cute as an object of affection and inspection rather than lust (which is obviously what I preferred). So if you’re wondering what deep psychological roots my beard obsession comes from … well, I worked through that a long time ago.

And doesn’t part of you want the above video not to end well? I confess that part of me does. Too cute.