Contemplating Cuteness

I’ve long known the cuteness factor accounts for much in this life. Of our three cats, the cutest one (heck, his name is T.C., which actually stands for “Totally Cute”) is also the one most likely to claw up the furniture—and you still want to hug and hold him. My husband Chad has told me about various psychological studies of what determines attractiveness in humans (such as symmetry) and how a person can identify one face as handsome and another as dangerous depending on the sharpness of the features. I also remember an article in a college composition reader that talked about the evolution of Mickey Mouse to maximum cuteness by enlarging his ears and eyes, flattening his face, and other forms of infantilization.

Then, recently, an internet pal (a guy I usually talk to about politics but who has a definite pet fetish) recommended I go visit Cute Overload, the blog that “scour[s] the Web for only the finest in Cute Imagery™. Imagery that is Worth Your Internet Browsing Time. We offer an overwhelming amount of cuteness to fill your daily visual allowance. Drink it in!” The internet pal asked me if I’d visited, excited to know if I’d seen “the Chihuahua hugging the kitten” and other works of art. (He is also excited about kittenwar.com, a site where you can vote on your favorite kittens.)

I swallowed about 3 pictures worth (a kitten in a cup, a german shepherd in a donut salesman costume, and a snail slowly stretching across the slats in a picnic table) and I felt positively bloated with cuteness. I guess that about meets my “daily visual allowance,” which I didn’t even know I had. (Actually, the snail pics were pretty cool; they’re very stretchy little creatures).

My son, by contrast, wanted to go through all recent posts, then spend a while at the kitten and dog pages. Most pictures (wet cat in rain, close-up of puppy nose, wee mousie in hand, baby seal in snow) were met by gushed “Awwwwwwwwwwwww’s” and sweet “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh’s” from my son. Meanwhile, I found myself distinguishing between the “truly cute” and the “supposed to be cute but isn’t making it.”

A few days after our little cuteness binge, Chad told me about a New York Times article on The Cute Factor. It seems “Scientists who study the evolution of visual signaling have identified a wide and still expanding assortment of features and behaviors that make something look cute: bright forward-facing eyes set low on a big round face, a pair of big round ears, floppy limbs and a side-to-side, teeter-totter gait, among many others.” These “cute cues” “indicate extreme youth, vulnerability, harmlessness and need, scientists say, and attending to them closely makes good Darwinian sense. As a species whose youngest members are so pathetically helpless they can't lift their heads to suckle without adult supervision, human beings must be wired to respond quickly and gamely to any and all signs of infantile desire.”

This is not news to me. Having had a baby and enjoyed the bliss that is 19 hours of labor, a parineal tear, bruised nipples, post-partum depression, insomnia, and many other joys of early motherhood, I know damn well we’re wired to nurture “cuteness.” If we weren’t, the human race would be extinct.

Furthermore, though we consider ourselves a sophisticated species, we ain't all that. Says the NYT article, “The human cuteness detector is set at such a low bar, researchers said, that it sweeps in and deems cute practically anything remotely resembling a human baby or a part thereof.”

The article goes on to discuss the distinction between cuteness and beauty and to remark upon Floridians’ obsession with manatees (though it does not assert that cuteness may explain the popularity of Jeb Bush).
What really interested me (enhancing my contemplation of my son’s goggling over “teeny froggie on fingertip”), however, is this: “New studies suggest that cute images stimulate the same pleasure centers of the brain aroused by sex, a good meal or psychoactive drugs like cocaine.” Now we’re getting somewhere.

Cute Overload, Animal Planet, pet stores, Look Who’s Talking: all plots to get us so hopped up on cuteness we won’t notice what’s really going on in the world.

Or wait, no: cuteness research is part of the Just Say No to Drugs crap my son is getting in elementary school. “Cuteness Not Crack” will make a great commercial. And the anti-sex crusaders can join in too: “Cuteness Ever, Coitus Never.”

But wait (again). Best idea yet: the Democrats can take back the Whitehouse by running someone who looks like a puppy.

That won’t work, argues Denis Dutton, a philosopher of art at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Apparently, “The rapidity and promiscuity of the cute response makes the impulse suspect, readily overridden by the angry sense that one is being exploited or deceived.” Says Dr. Dutton in the same NYT article, “Cute cuts through all layers of meaning and says, Let's not worry about complexities, just love me. That's where the sense of cheapness can come from, and the feeling of being manipulated or taken for a sucker that leads many to reject cuteness as low or shallow.”

Well, I’d argue you can be entirely not-cute and still want people to ignore meaning and complexity and swallow the evil b.s. whole…
“Awww, Mommy, look at the manatee—Hey, how come he isn’t cute like the others?”


Grace said...

That's where the sense of cheapness can come from, and the feeling of being manipulated or taken for a sucker that leads many to reject cuteness as low or shallow.”

Ashton Kutcher's "workin it". His enterprising mind has taken cute, low & shallow straight to the bank.

Kate said...

The cute factor explains my obessession with my dog. My pup is very cute, and the fact that he listens only when he wants to is overlooked.
But on the other hand, the novel I am currently working on has at its base the amount of slack that "prettiness" gives to its owner.
Having a disease that is disfiguring gives me a good perspective on what constitutes cuteness. Many of the day to day interactions with people I will never meet again proves over and over again how one is judged on how one looks. The most annoying of which is that I must less than intelligent, and so have to be talked to in a slow, condescending tone so that I will be able to understand the concept of "paper or plastic".
On the other hand, I sometimes find myself judging people because they are cute. Go figure.

Elyce Rae Helford said...

Thanks so much for your powerful response. Whether we're talking Ashton Kutcher or expectations of certain standards of attractiveness for us non-movie stars, your focus on disease/disability adds a really important factor. Love you, pal.

larry said...

Even though I am a dedicated curmudgeon, I found "cute-overload" pleasing. I surprised myself. Speaking of cuteness, I actually saw Paul's son's name as the writer of "Wild Things II" on the box in the video store. Seeing his name was probably a lot cuter than seeing the video.

femme feral said...

I think that NYT article, despite it's many insights, seemed a bit too eager to draw conclusions about cuteness.

“The human cuteness detector is set at such a low bar, researchers said, that it sweeps in and deems cute practically anything remotely resembling a human baby or a part thereof.”

I think this topic is actually really complicated. They say the bar is set really low for cute, but I'm not sure. People are very specific about what they think is cute. I'm turned off by precious moments statues, and little kids in juice commercials, and -- most recently -- I was totally disturbed by a trailer for the new chicken little movie. The thing is -- cute is usually complicated by all these other signifiers. And I don't think cute can cancel those other things out.

Elyce Rae Helford said...

Great point - even when we define cuteness by certain factors, what can cancel that out is also worthy of analysis. But I do think the article addresses that in its focus on our detector of artificiality. The grape juice commercial kids are so self-conscious, so obviously controlled by adults telling them what cuteness is and how to be it, for example. So our b.s. detector is set low, too, sometimes lower than our cuteness meter.

femme feral said...

right, the b.s. detector. great point.

btw, I love what you did with the human faces. Jeb Bush is NOT CUTE.