Cuteness: A Philosophical Investigation

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Chase No-Face (Facebook): Cute because he’s loved, or loved because he’s cute?

Cuteness is an underrated and misunderstood virtue; its essence obscured by cat memes and intellectualization as a mere evolutionary advantage. Here I want to try to dissect cuteness as the independent quality in a person that transcends age and appearance.

There’s no denying that children and cats can be cute, but it’s not by virtue of who they are (as you’ll know if you’ve ever taught children or been allergic to cats). They have the quality of cuteness. Anyone can be cute if they have cuteness; but they and cute are not one in the same. So what IS cute, then? What is the form of cute?

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Baby wombat: not my thang

To take some stabs at finding what all cute things have in common, or at least eliminate some possibilities, we can ask a form of Moore’s open question:  That which is youthful is cute (let’s say). Baby animals are youthful. Are baby animals cute? Well let’s say they are. A baby wombat is a baby animal. Is a baby wombat cute? No. So only cute baby animals are cute. Maybe it’s big eyes that are cute. I can think of many people with big eyes who aren’t cute once I get to know them. So, big eyes themselves can’t make someone cute. It’s something else.

Teaching such a range of students here in Japan, I have experienced an almost inverse correlation with age and cuteness. It seems the older they are, the more warmth and affection I feel. Also, the older they are the more reserved/nervous they are, maybe in part because they have had (especially in the countryside) less exposure to English/Western culture, and choosing to take an English conversation class with a foreigner is more of a leap for them. My feeling is that the older people who choose to speak English with me, despite their nerves, do so because of a certain purity, vulnerability, and eagerness in their intentions that makes them, well, cute. The cuteness that the little ones exude is something else altogether – indeed probably to do with the evolutionary advantage that makes me (and their guardians) tolerate their decidedly non-cute behaviour so that I can still perform my duties with patience and affection. That’s different.

This way, cute might be defined as the opposite of threatening. It’s impossible to feel defensive around someone you find cute. Instead you have the impulse to open up, to bring closer, to care. It seems like love – but the safest form because a cute person seems unlikely to reject or hurt you. Once they do, they cease to be cute. I consider cuteness as the clearest indicator in my own relationships of whether I want to stay or go. When it fades, so does my affection. The disappearance of the cute betrays an undercurrent of mistrust or insincerity. Fear seeps in – of being hurt. And loving is not worth the risk anymore.

If someone allows themselves be cute around you, it means – either because of their nature or the way you make them feel – they are they are showing you themselves with no defenses at all. They are showing you that they trust you. To consider them cute is to accept their invitation to trust – and to do with that what you will is your power and responsibility. If people find “cute” condescending, that just goes to show how they feel about defenseless people.

I’m not exactly sure how or why cuteness is such a prominent feature of Japanese culture, but mostly it seems to be a certain commodification that gives cute a bad name (in the form of big-eyed tooth or cow mascots for decidedly non-cute things like dentists or beef restaurants.) In fact, cuteness, or Kawaii, is dually defined as adorable and lovable. That which is easy to love. So, that which is easy to love is cute. Could that be the answer?

8 thoughts on “Cuteness: A Philosophical Investigation

  1. I am giving you my response! “Gross” – Subjective; can’t argue for it – just my response.

    Interesting article.

    And though it may be surprising to associate cuteness with sadism, Ngai points out that the word “cute” is not necessarily a positive judgement. “Unlike the beautiful, which is a judgement, it’s not really clear that calling something cute is praise or criticism,” she told the Philosopher’s Zone.
    Cuteness is undeniably more trivial than beauty, and so it’s unlikely to become a mainstream philosophical focus. But Ngai’s work shows that it’s worth considering the judgements and feelings evoked by all those adorable cat videos.

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  2. I’m not arguing, I’m giving you context! If I saw this cat on the street I’d be horrified. But something about her becoming an internet phenomenon, her owners posting photos of her loving and being loved even more than any non disfigured cat….there is something endearing about that.

    Cuteness as a “way of aestheticizing powerlessness”…hmm, I’d say that’s a pretty negative interpretation. While some things which are powerless are definitely cute, not all cute things are powerless. I’d say cuteness is a power it itself – it has a way of lowering others’ defenses.

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  3. “Cute” belongs to the language game of personal taste, doesn’t it? No judgment involved – more like “I love mashed potatoes” than “Shakespeare is a great playwright”.

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  4. I guess I’m arguing that it’s not as subjective as that then! That there is a common thread underlining all things cute – in the way I wish it were defined, anyway…maybe I’m moving the goalposts 😮

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    • be that as it may, can’t one still ask about the common quality of all the different things that different people find cute? The question isn’t what is cute, but what is cuteNESS?

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