Panel, “Multiplatform Cuteness: Media and Cute Affect”

atlantaSCMS Atlanta, March 30-April 3

Panel: Sunday April 3, 1:00-2:45 (Session U)

While the work of writers such as Daniel Harris, Lori Merish, Christine Yano, and Sianne Ngai has helped to increase our understanding of the aesthetic impact of cuteness by highlighting the power imbalance between the spectator and the cute object, the forms and functions of cuteness still need further explication, particularly as cute regimes proliferate shared affective responses through an increasing variety of media platforms. Tracing how vectors of age, gender, sexuality, nationality, politics, and species shape (and are shaped through) cuteness, this panel addresses a range of vehicles for the contemporary expression and consumption of cuteness across old and new media, as a means of further understanding this ubiquitous aesthetic and the affects that inform it.

The papers gathered here examine different examples of how cuteness is deployed for particular purposes: as a way to soften particular forms of power or as an inducement to engage affectively with diminutive, feminized cute identities. In their service to consumption and power hierarchies, these diverse texts offer media scholars a rich terrain in which to theorize 21st-century cuteness and its uses. From its juxtapositions with militarism and even terrorism to its deployments of race, ethnicity, and gender, our panel’s presentations will limn a wide range of scholarly approaches to this timely topic in contemporary media cultures. The panel showcases some of the work to be included in the forthcoming anthology The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness (Eds. Joshua Paul Dale, Joyce Goggin, Julia Leyda, Anthony P. McIntyre, and Diane Negra, Routledge 2017).

Panel Chair: Joyce Goggin

The Cuteness Within Cruelty: A Close Reading of ISIS Cats / Matt Cornell

In this paper, I investigate the emergence of “ISIS Cats,” portraits of ISIS militants who are posed with cats, frequently appearing under captions in the cutesy vernacular of “LOLcat” speak. These images are produced at an ISIS base in Raqqah and then spread via social media, primarily through a Twitter account denominated “Islamic State of Cat.” ISIS Cats are a curious variant of the LOLcat, an Internet meme genre (Shifman), which uses pictures of cats to communicate human emotions and affects (Miltner). Journalists have rightly discussed ISIS Cats as a form of propaganda which seeks to normalize the image of ISIS and augment its fearsome reputation via animal cuteness. I argue, however, that these are not simply propaganda images but also a form of self-portraiture, where the cat is endowed with human properties, while the militant acquires some of the qualities of his feline companion. This dual process of anthropomorphism and zoomorphism conducts a trade between human and animal, queering the boundaries between them. Western media has long resorted to metaphors of animality to portray the Other; this is especially true in the modern War on Terror. What does it mean when a racialized “enemy” like ISIS deploys cute animals to represent themselves? How can we understand ISIS’ use of this apparently innocent and harmless aesthetic alongside its fearsome and cruel reputation? What kind of animal is the ISIS Cat?

I explore these questions, first by investigating contemporary research (Ngai; Merish), which argues that power and domination are intrinsic to cute aesthetics. Bringing this scholarship into dialogue with Yi-Fu Tuan’s concept of domestic pets as products of dominance and affection, I analyze the cruelty within cuteness. Here I argue that there is sadism in the process by which we render an animal as cute, and a latent potential for cruelty and violence within the cute animal itself, a quality which is constitutive of its cuteness. Through close analysis of two images, I explore how the ISIS Cat toys with this dialectic of domination and affection, weaponizing cuteness to enact a fantasy of revenge on the West.

Military Cuteness: Gaga, Beyoncé, YouTube, and the Deployment of Soft Power in the War on Terror / Maria Pramaggiore

This paper analyzes a masculine performance mode emerging from the theaters of the war on terror: choreography-heavy lip sync videos depicting US soldiers dancing to the music of Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Katy Perry and others. In these popular videos—the best known of which may be “Telephone: the Afghanistan Remake,” with 7 million views on YouTube—the male soldier’s body deploys the affects and aesthetics of cuteness. Another video with a wide circulation records US Marines singing along with the anthem “Let It Go” from Disney’s Frozen (2013). In this performance, the young men parodically and yet proficiently match the original version word for word and inflection for inflection, enthusiastically projecting and mocking the affect of an audience of young girls.

All of these videos subtly reassert masculine prerogatives in their appropriation of the position of the female celebrity or fan. Yet they also foreground anxieties regarding the vulnerability of male bodies in combat in light of social and technological changes in the culture of warfare that include the entry of women into combat roles, the privatization and outsourcing of military functions, and the development of drone and autonomous weapons that threaten to render human bodies obsolete.

In “Miami Dolphins Cheerleaders vs US Military ‘Call Me Maybe,’” precise editing and choreography and shot for shot reenactments enable the literal substitution of male military bodies for those of women cheerleaders. In so doing, the performances invoke and openly flout the hard-body conventions that Susan Jeffords identifies as part of Reagan-era remasculinization of American culture.

The videos invoke cuteness as they diminish, feminize, soften and domesticate the male soldier’s body; trained for combat, they perform synchronized dance moves. Incongruous uniforms and settings create a comic dissonance that aligns the spectacle with children playing dress up. The paper concludes by linking the softening of the soldier’s body through cute performances to the policy debate regarding the US deployment of soft versus hard power in the war on terror and to broader cultural discourses of male vulnerability.

Skewering Normative Cuteness with Latinidad / Rebecca M. Gordon

In “Cuteness and Commodity Aesthetics,” Lori Merish argues that appreciating the cute—loving the “adorable” as culturally defined—entails a structure of identification, of “wanting to be like the cute, or wanting the cute to be like the self” (185). In the United States, cuteness tends to be racially and culturally aligned with whiteness, thus those who identify with whiteness—or who concede to what Doris Sommer calls mass culture’s “presumption of identification”—are in the best position, as consumers and spectators, to recognize and value the cute. Latino/a identity bears an ambiguous relation to the racialized and classed aesthetics of cute, however. Physiologically, most Latino/a bodies do not fit the cute aesthetic, being either sexualized (the hot Latin/a lover) or considered machines for labor (the bracero, the maid). Culturally, the central racial reality of Latino/a life is that everyone is mestizo—that is, ethnically and racially mixed; the resulting ambiguity has historically led to racialization of and discrimination against Latina/os in the United States.

However, as the Latino/a demographic in the US becomes larger and increasingly powerful, culturally defined aesthetic norms shift, and majoritarian structures of identification crumble. Recently adapted to American broadcast television from Latin American telenovelas, the sitcoms Ugly Betty (2006-2010) and Jane the Virgin (2013- ) take up the relationship of Latino/a identity to normative culture in order to good-naturedly skewer the latter, largely by using the aesthetic of cute against itself. Both programs use familiar tropes from sentimental melodrama, but the actresses who play the protagonists are themselves unconventionally cute, i.e., “cute in a Latina way,” and the programs’ sly assumption that audiences understand the cultural specificity of Latino/a identity, including Catholicism and commitment to family over self, further confuses the formalized emotional response of normative cuteness. Finally, according to Merish and others, cuteness tends to rely on a commercial structure of “feminine” consumer empathy that blurs identification and commodity desire; but in Jane the Virgin and Ugly Betty, there is nothing “worth having” in the heroines’ experiences other than the opportunity to identify with good people facing a struggle–which may be the programs’ most progressive undercutting of cute.

Gendering Machine Cuteness: Androids, AIs, and Femininity / Julia Leyda

Ambivalence about human-machine relations is nothing new, yet we are reaching a turning point as people spend less time with one another in favor of interacting with and through devices. This phenomenon has led anthropologist Jennifer Robertson to name our era Robo Sapiens, while psychologist Sherry Turkle terms ours the “robotic moment.” A 2013 study suggested that 47% of US jobs will soon be replaced by automation, and celebrity scientists such as Stephen Hawking warn that artificial intelligence (AI) will drive robotic development exponentially faster than human biological evolution. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that people feel anxious about machines. At the same time, perhaps as a way to ease their acceptance, androids and AIs are frequently portrayed as cute and childlike in ways that resemble the young of humans and domesticated animals alike (naïve, wobbly). In this bid to make them appear non-threatening, the “cute robot” trope was born, both as a way to soften the perceived threat of “our future robot overlords” and as an appeal to consumers to interact with and purchase them.

However, a subset of cute machines is also constructed to be sexually attractive and female-gendered. These “females” are similarly inexperienced and uncertain about human emotions and relationships, although they are also usually designed as service machines that assist humans in some way. As Julie Wosk points out, “Men have long been fascinated by the idea of creating a simulated woman …, a beautiful facsimile female who is the answer to all their dreams and desires.” Whether created for sexual or domestic labor, female-gendered androids and AIs in contemporary culture raise important ethical questions for the humans who create, purchase, and/or interact with them.

This presentation examines recent examples of cute female machines in TV (Humans, AMC/Channel 4, 2015), film (Ex Machina 2015), and comics (Alex + Ada, Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn, Image, 2013- ) to theorize the cultural work of cute female machines. Whether constructed by a mad scientist figure (as in Ex Machina) or the product of a corporation embedded within a near-future military-industrial complex (as in Humans and Alex + Ada), these android “women” embody the gender stereotypes of their male “owners”; each of them also eventually rebels and escapes, figuring compelling dilemmas about 21st-century masculine expectations and the strategic deployments of cute and sexy affects.