Fear of a Cute Planet

Filed in Cult of Pop 1.0

I became aware of this article on BusinessWeek.com, “Anime, from Cute to Scary”, written by an editor who moved to Tokyo and was afraid of how Japan’s intense interest (I don’t want to say obsession, though he surely would) in cuteness began to influence his daughters. At one point he describes Morning Musume as “about a dozen teens wearing short skirts, glossy lipstick, and butterfly hair bands doing dance numbers and belting out forgettable bubble-gum love songs” – the kind of dismissive generalizations that someone would expect in a cheap shot at Jpop.

However, the story takes a welcome unexpected turn. As the writer frets and frets about the way cuteness and sex and femininity all combined in unexpected – and for him, disturbing ways – his wife responds:

I ran my strange impressions, my amateur anthropology, and obsessive worries by my wife, Yuki. She listened knowingly but never said all that much. Then one day, when I probably made one biting remark too many at the dinner table about Japan’s infantile kawaii mania, Yuki finally blew her top. She accused me of cultural arrogance for obsessing on Japan’s quirky side but ignoring that kids in the U.S. are overwhelmed with far more graphic representations of sexual desire than kids here are.

Yuki reminded me, too, that Japan’s supposed exploitation of women never seemed to bother me before the girls were born and that many years ago she found a particularly racy manga stuffed in my briefcase (it was for sociological inquiry only, I protested). Finally, she slammed me for assuming that Marie and Elena were passive absorbers of cultural junk, incapable of developing the kind of character traits that would allow them to find their own way in the world.

Ah, the voice of reason. Of course, I finished this article believing the guy doesn’t deserve a wife this smart. But the wife provides both solid arguments about why the writer’s fears are biased and how he’s something of a hypocrite in his hysteria.

The interesting thing about this article is how the writer uses the fear of cultural osmosis – of people, especially children, being “passive absorbers” – to denounce something he doesn’t understand. Often, this can be quite selective: for example, certain stripes of conservatives are afraid of the rampaging effect of sex in the media won’t care about excessive gunplay and violence because kids know that isn’t real. That kind of selectivity isn’t an attempt to tease out the complexity of human understanding, but to find the easiest route to condemnation short of irrationally screaming, “Evil! Eeee-vil!”

It is true that context determines how a person absorbs the culture around himself, though it’s a matter of presentation and not content: that is, you can’t dismiss all depictions of sex as dangerous, or all depictions of violence. And it’d be interesting – well, to me, at least – to determine what makes a pop cult artifact more or less influential, what it needs to slip under the radar undetected instead of setting off critical alarms. Again, I find myself thinking of pop culture as a way to reinforce basic assumptions we hold about the world around us, which makes the whole issue much more personal.

For instance, I suspect that fans of horror believe the world is a dangerous place with no assurances of safety or justice. So if you have that as a starting point, a basic assumption, then pop culture that reinforces this belief will be comfortable and pleasurable. On the other hand, if you believe the world is full of delight and big, bright memes of happiness – as well-raised children often feel – then a taste for cuteness of the Sanrio variety would only be natural, it’s a pleasurable way to reinforce this idea. (And no, I don’t think a horror and cute perspective can’t exist in the same person; people are often multifaceted enough to hold contradictory ideas productively, though some beliefs are stronger than others.)

Think about it. Kids raised in problem households or with rough backgrounds seem less likely to enjoy what’s intensely cute and saccharine sweet because it doesn’t correspond to their experiences. They can turn to it for escapism and relief, but they can’t embrace it the way children raised in a secure, comfortable setting can. So the writer should be pleased his daughters like Hello Kitty and Morning Musume – it means his kids have a positive view of the world. Appreciate it while it lasts.

That said, I’d love to see what this writer thinks of SweetS and their early PVs. His head would probably explode.