Panel, “The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness” (MLA)

austinlogoModern Language Association Annual Conference, Austin
January 7-10, 2016

This panel will present new work by both emerging and established scholars on what is arguably one of the most prominent aesthetics in contemporary life: cuteness. The timeliness of our inquiry into this aesthetic, its global reach, its role in facilitating the exercise of various forms of power, and the major role that cuteness plays as an aesthetic code in the communication of national and ethnic identities, as well as its potentially enormous role in gender formation, make cuteness an ideal topic to engage with this year’s presidential theme. In addressing issues that congregate around the aesthetics and affective potentials of cuteness, we ask questions such as: How is gender reconfigured through the aesthetics of cuteness? How does this aesthetic contribute to complex renegotiations of inter-species relationalities in the 21st century? How does cuteness create a space of intersection between aesthetics, affect, politics, race, ethnicity, sex, gender, and economics? How do the aesthetics and affects of cuteness interrelate with notions of domesticity, social intimacy, and the realm of the public at large?

This panel address cuteness not only as a description, but also as an aesthetic and affective agent, an active mode of relationality, and a performance of social and national identities. As such our interrogation, of necessity, entails that we attend to the interdisciplinary nature of an aesthetic that intersects with disciplines such as economics, biology, and anthropology, as well as emerging critical trends such as affect theory and the interspecies cultural analysis of the posthumanities. Therefore, the detailed analysis of this aesthetic that this panel will provide is particularly suited to the presidential theme with its call for us to “discuss how [the objects of our attention] move among the arts and how our field engages other intellectual disciplines.”

The rapid rise of cute culture(s) in the 21st century has seen an explosion of cute commodities, images, foods, fashions, and fandoms, leading to an inevitable expansion and dispersal of its meanings and connotations. In exploring this phenomenon, we will be mindful of the historical roots of cuteness in terms of both its usage and early writing on the topic. The modern meaning of “cute” may be traced back to the 1850s (Sianne Ngai, “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde,” [2005]; Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting, [2012]), when it was aligned with children, women, the domestic sphere, and a particular form of “feminine spectacle,” with current usages of the word “cute” developing from this semantic cluster of referents (Lori Merish, “Cuteness and Commodity Aesthetics: Tom Thumb and Shirley Temple,” [1996]). In the twentieth century, scholarship on the topic was initiated by the ethnologist Konrad Lorenz notably in Studies in Animal and Human Behavior, [1950]), and the historian Johan Huizinga in Homo Ludens (1938), where he makes a brief reference to the emotive properties of cuteness for the human subject engaged in play. Throughout the second half of twentieth century, cuteness was taken up as the subject of sporadic attention from such diverse fields as behavioral psychology and literary studies, however the topic is currently attracting scholars in several disciplines. Anthropologist Christine Yano’s Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek across the Pacific (2013) has demonstrated how cuteness can be central to national identity and the flows of soft power through consumerism and globalization and constitutes a major text in the reevaluation of this aesthetic.

One particularly fruitful scholarly approach has been the analysis of cuteness’ role in literature. Notably, Merish (1996) provides an analysis of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970) that elucidates the centrality of cuteness not only in the emergence of highly gendered forms of consumerism and public spectacle, but also this aesthetic’s role in upholding racial hierarchies. Building upon this work, Ngai (2005, 2012) has more recently traced the centrality of cuteness in 20th century avant-garde poetry. This scholar perceptively notes how the protean nature of cuteness, which she describes as more akin to a dialectic than an aesthetic, revolves around an asymmetry of power, an attribute that imbues the aesthetic with the potential to register social conflict. This panel will build upon this work on literature to analyze screen depictions of cuteness. In particular, the three papers examine a combination of cinematic and televisual texts covering genres such as melodrama, reality television, and both Hollywood and cult cable television comedies.

Diane Negra’s paper, “Animality, Domesticity and Intimacy in My Cat From Hell” takes up questions of cuteness in regard to the changing social, emotional and economic status of pets in the West. In presenting an analysis of Animal Planet’s reality TV program My Cat From Hell, Negra argues that the series suggests some of the ways that the achievement of domesticity is increasingly linked to interspecies harmony. The unruly cat being brought back to cuteness suggests the fantasy that cuteness has the capacity to re-center us in the anthropecene through a formulation in which elaborate care for domestic animals compensates for species decline and elimination on a broad scale.

Also considering animal-human relationality, is Anthony P. McIntyre’s paper, “Ted, Wilfred, and the Guys: Cuteness, Raunch Culture and Animal-Human Hybridization.” Approaching the neglected topic of how cuteness intersects with the construction of contemporary masculinities, this paper examines the hit comedy movie Ted (2012) and the HBO comedy series Wilfred (2011-2014) which both feature maladjusted grown males who rely on the companionship of hybrid, cute, human-animal figures for emotional support. This paper seeks to disentangle the gendered complicities evident in these texts that conflate animal cuteness with overt (and often misogynistic) expressions of rampant sexuality.

Rebecca M. Gordon considers the role of cuteness and ethnicity in contemporary television melodrama in her paper “‘So Cute It’s Sick’: The Chicano/Latino Disruption of Cute in Ugly Betty and Juana la Virgen.” At its core this paper asks questions as to the implications of cuteness when it is harnessed to specific ethnic minorities given the previously noted power disparity that coheres in this aesthetic.

Finally, Joyce Goggin will bring her considerable knowledge of material cultures and financialization to bear on her role as respondent. We anticipate that the rich questions addressed in these papers will make for a lively and intellectually wide-ranging discussion.