Since the turn of the new century, cuteness has become an increasingly dominant force in global culture. This panel considers how cute or kawaii mascots (kyara) are used as an affective mode of communication, critique and even revolution. Western scholars tend to conceive cuteness as manipulating and oppressive: a force that appeals to our sadistic urge to possess and control cute objects. However, the subversive potential of cuteness remains under researched. This panel, chaired by Joshua Paul Dale, presents three papers that explore the use of cute kyara as a means of communication operating through an affective ‘structure of feeling’ that may support or subvert the operation of power.
Debra J. Occhi’s paper “Kyaraben (Character Bento): The Cutesification of Japanese Food in and beyond the Lunchbox” explores how the recent boom in cute characters (kyara) has permeated Japanese popular aesthetics. Kyara-shaped foods have become an arena for communication beyond the bento’s original symbolic value. The award-winning Belgian film Bento Monogatari [Lunchbox Story] (Dirkx 2010) even employed these qualities attributed to the Japanese lunchbox in the context of global flow in Belgium. Kyaraben enjoy global attention, whether appreciated as an art form or contested as excessive.
Joshua Paul Dale’s paper “‘Edgy Cute’ in the Works of Sputniko! and Rokudenashiko” explores cuteness in the works of two artists. Sputniko!’s multimedia works comprise include the artist herself as a kyara in a calculated attempt at a feminist intervention into Japan’s popular kawaii culture. Rokudenashiko, the so-called “vagina artist,” was arrested in Japan on obscenity charges for artworks based on molds or scans of her own vagina. Rokudenashiko’s most recent creation is a kyara called “Manko-chan,” designed after her arrest. This cute kyara subverts authority by challenging the lapses and gaps in authoritarian institutions and their expressions of power.
Finally, in her paper “Creating a Kinder World: The Revolutionary Potential of Cuteness,” Ingeborg Hasselgren explores how left-wing and queer-feminist activist groups based in Sweden re-appropriate globally recognized kyara like Pusheen the cat in order to create safe spaces away from heterosexist, capitalist culture. By couching their critique in a soft, appealing “cute package,” they employ cuteness to mock representatives of patriarchal society such as the police and establishment politicians. In addition, these groups use cuteness as a way of overcoming internal controversies and factionalism within their communities. These activists thus re-conceptualize cuteness as an open-minded, kind attitude that may help them to create a more tolerant and accepting world.