[TW: This piece contains discussion of animal cruelty and abuse.]
Given the current state of the world, things look rather bleak. The bad news never seems to end as stories about Washington’s noxious political gridlock dividing the nation or the latest act of violence tearing families apart continue to saturate the media and pile on top of each other like a towering mountain of garbage inside a landfill of misery. Meanwhile, the fear of unemployment and student debt likely looms over every anxious college student’s head like a thick, suffocating fog, reminding them of the painful uncertainty that awaits them after graduation. When the world seems daunting and too frightening to confront, many people will turn to one sure-fire remedy that will ease their worries: cute animals doing cute things.
In today’s troubling times, cuteness has dominated our society as a universal panacea for human distrust and bitterness. Whether it’s cute animals, cute babies or cute inanimate objects, countless people have flocked towards these simple comforts to drown themselves in that warm, fuzzy feeling. One of the most-watched videos on Facebook is a compilation from 2016 that features clips of cute babies playing with even cuter puppies. That 52-second video has amassed over 360 million viewers to date—that’s more than the entire population of the United States (NBR, “Animal videos rule the internet, and are getting tons of views on Facebook,” 09.27.2017).
But despite how warm and cuddly we feel from this cuteness overload, a sinister darkness surrounds our obsession with “cute.” We love seeing cute things, because they make us feel happy and safe. Sometimes, cuteness distracts us from the suffering and torment we experience in our lives. However, it’s important that we don’t lose sight of reality as we plunge into our own self-gratification. This is because perceiving something as cute is inherently condescending. It doesn’t matter if it’s done unintentionally or without any malicious intent—the perception of cute immediately establishes an unequal power dynamic in which one party finds amusement in the simplicity, naiveté or helplessness of the other party. By its very definition, “cute” serves as a label that characterizes the target as non-threatening or defenseless.
Speaking from a biological perspective, there is likely an evolutionary reason why we even experience this love of cuteness. According to anthropologist Doug Jones, the common features that define cuteness—small snouts, high foreheads and large eyes—are associated with the facial features of juvenile animals caused by the natural arrangement of their soft and hard tissues. Jones found that simply adjusting the shape of the face to fit this criteria made pictures of humans, animals and even cars look younger and cuter (ResearchGate, “Sexual Selection, Physical Attractiveness, and Facial Neoteny: Cross-cultural Evidence and Implications,” 12.1995).
In fact, zoologist Konrad Lorenz had introduced the term “baby schema” all the way back in 1943 to describe the facial features associated with cuteness. In his research paper, Lorenz argued that these characteristics trigger an innate biological mechanism within animals and humans that promotes caregiving and affection toward infants, a claim that has been backed by neuroimaging technology in 2009 (NCBI, “Baby schema in human and animal faces induces cuteness perception and gaze allocation in children,” 05.07.2014).
“So what?” you may ask. What’s the problem with calling cute things cute? A multitude of issues, actually. Because cuteness is directly linked with the image of juvenile helplessness, we are more likely to treat cute things carelessly without the serious respect that they deserve. As a result, “cute” fosters an arrogant sense of comfort and familiarity that erases all other attributes such as respect, recognition and dignity. In other words, we end up treating cute things like toys. Consider all the cute videos of exotic animals that you have seen online. Chances are that most of these animals suffer from abuse at the hands of their owners. For example, popular videos of slow lorises getting tickled on YouTube have garnered more than a million views, but those slow lorises are actually terrified and raising their arms in self-defense to expose the poisonous glands under their armpit, which lorises lick to deliver a toxic bite. Unfortunately, their teeth have been clipped out, leaving them helpless. Furthermore, the demand for slow lorises as pets may drive them to extinction in five years (The Guardian, “There’s nothing cute about it. The animal stars of viral videos are being abused,” 10.30.2017).
There are countless other animals who suffer a similar fate: Bears who have likely been trained to walk like humans in inhumane “crush” farms, frogs and geckos photographed in funny poses but actually tied up in unnatural contortions using string, young dolphins dying from trauma due to being separated from their families in the wild, adorable tiger cubs locked up in freezers to sedate them…the list goes on (Independent, “Abused Tigers and Orphaned Elephants: The Cruel Truth Behind Animal Selfies,” 03.13.2017).
The popularity of these cute animals also fuels a huge network of illegal pet trades that kidnap exotic animals from the wild and place them into the hands of giddy owners, only to be tossed out a few months later. For instance, cute videos of mini teacup pigs have caused a tremendous rise of people buying them as pets, only for them to grow too big to handle. As a result, these wildly sought-after miniature pigs are dropped off at animal shelters that can’t reasonably take care of them (CBS 4, “Mini pigs seem cute at first, but they’re becoming a big problem for animal rescues,” 02.08.2019).
Right now, the Internet is going crazy over pet otters after one in Japan became a social media sensation. Their cuteness has sparked a mad rush for otter pets, with customers willing to pay thousands of dollars just to own one. According to a report on illegal pet trades by conservation organization TRAFFIC, smugglers sold at least 700 otters between January and May of 2018. One woman was detained at Thailand’s Don Mueang International Airport for attempting to smuggle 10 baby otters to Japan. Experts say that most of these pet otters will likely be poorly fed, forced to wear doll clothes and grow into aggressive adults that become destructive (National Geographic, “Wild otters are the latest exotic pet trend,” 01.10.2019).
And before you think that this gross mistreatment only happens to exotic animals, consider the frightening number of animal cruelty investigations performed after footage of dog and cat abuse is revealed on social media. In one viral video, a dog dressed as a schoolgirl walking on its hind legs made tens of thousands of people coo as they retweeted the video with captions like “[T]his is the best thing I’ve seen today wow” (Buzzfeed News, “A Video Of A Dog Walking Like A Little Person Went Viral And Now Everyone’s Freaking Out,” 05.19.2017). Little did they know that the owner was secretly training the dog to stand on its hind legs by repeatedly beating it with a shoe (The Guardian).
But our obsession with cuteness doesn’t only affect animals; it influences how we view children, especially when we raise them. While many of us can’t help but say “aww” or “that’s so cute” when we see a young child stumble, hold hands, cry or ask a question, this mindset conveys to the child that we don’t view them with respect or as someone worthy of our serious attention.
Despite their carefreeness and innocence, children are humans who desire the same amount of dignity that we give to other adults. “Cute” sends them a disheartening message: Your passion, curiosity, kindness, intelligence, trust, anger and sadness will always be overshadowed by how ignorant and helpless you look. As educator John Holt states, “Much of what we respond to in children as cute is not strength or virtue, real or imagined, but weakness, a quality which gives us power over them or helps us to feel superior…Children understand this very well. They are not at all sentimental about their own littleness. They would rather be big than little, and they want to get big as soon as they can” (The Natural Child Project, “On Seeing Children as ‘Cute,” 1974).
Unfortunately, our infatuation with cuteness can blind us to all the virtuous qualities of a child, focusing only on their physical appearance. According to a 1990 study by psychologists Katherine Karraker and Marilyn Stern, adults viewed cute infants much more positively than less-cute infants, making them vulnerable to biases in treatment and care (ResearchGate, “Infant Physical Attractiveness and Facial Expression: Effects on Adult Perceptions,” 12.1990).
Other researchers have pointed out that “cuteness discrimination” is a serious issue. Studies have shown that cute babies are more likely to be adopted, receive preferential treatment and obtain maternal love than those born with a physical anomaly like a cleft chin. As a result, the infants deemed less cute are more likely to experience adverse outcomes in child development, including cognitive problems (Vox, “Babies’ cuteness is key to their survival. What happens when they’re not that cute?” 06.08.2016). This problem negatively impacts children with Down syndrome in particular, who receive less favorable treatment as they grow up and lose the cuteness that had shielded them from ridicule (The Washington Post, “What happens when my child with Down syndrome isn’t cute anymore?” 10.25.2016). Cuteness defines the children who are cute and brutalizes the children who are not.
But this begs the question: Where will our obsession with cuteness take us if we don’t stop it? Surprisingly, an answer may already exist in plain sight. Japan, the island country responsible for the aforementioned otter pet craze, has a complicated relationship with the concept of cuteness. In Japan, much of what you see is dominated in “kawaii” culture—everything from pink stationary to maid cafes is drenched in the country’s reverence for everything adorable. For some, this element of their culture represents a celebration of positivity and youth. As one female Japanese bar owner attests, “It’s never bad…Kawaii is kind of the best compliment around Japanese people, especially girls and women. They really like kawaii stuff and things” (Digg, “What’s Behind Japan’s Obsession With Cuteness?” 07.19.2016). However, many others have criticized a major flaw with the country’s infatuation with cuteness: its extremely lopsided treatment of women.
According to the 2017 World Economic Forum, Japan ranked 114 out of 144 countries in terms of gender equality, largely due to the low proportion of women in the workforce (World Economic Forum, “The Global Gender Gap Report,” 2017). But despite the economic problems caused by this unequal power dynamic, Japan’s “kawaii” culture actively hinders progress in this front because “kawaii” has come to define femininity: vulnerable, weak and powerless…but cute. Above all, it forbids a woman from challenging the authority of a man. As a result, many Japanese women have ultimately embraced this unfortunate worldview by playing dumb, clumsy and clueless to gain approval. A third of Japanese women aspire to be housewives, and over 70 percent quit their jobs once they have children (Medium, “Japan Has a Cute Problem,” 12.11.2014).
During one interview, Akie Abe, the 54-year-old wife of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, stressed how pressure from men to prioritize cuteness over capability is currently holding back Japanese women. She stated, “Men’s thinking has not changed. Japanese men tend to prefer cute women over capable and hardworking women. So women try to appear to be the type that men like. Even very talented women put on cutesy ways” (Bloomberg, “Cute ‘Kawaii’ Culture May Be Holding Back Japan’s Women,” 12.07.2016).
Abe’s words may strike a chord with many working Japanese women. Across all fields, including the social sciences, a measly 15.3 percent of Japanese researchers are women. Parents actively discourage their daughters from pursuing science because it would lead to reduced job and relationship opportunities. In 2011, it was revealed that Tokyo Medical University had purposefully deducted exam marks from female applicants to keep them out (Nature Index, “Lost in Japan, a generation of brilliant women,” 08.24.2018). While widely celebrated, the country’s obsession with cuteness has done its fair share of harm to its inhabitants as well. The same may happen in the United States if we similarly choose to overindulge in cuteness.
Ultimately, the perception of cuteness is too nebulous and intertwined with personal circumstances for one to judge objectively. Depending on each person’s interpretation, “cute” can be a harmless term of endearment or a condescending, patronizing label that perpetuates a mindset of severe inequality. However, whether we like it or not, we cannot ignore the lasting damages that its extensive use may cause.