From the key elements that make a stuffed animal lovable, to the aggression behind our affection for babies and puppies, an article that deconstructs the idea of "cuteness."
The students were told they were participating in an ice cream taste test. Each entered a room with a tub of vanilla ice cream labeled “Test Flavor A” and was given an ice cream scoop. They were told to scoop as much as they wanted into a bowl, which was then placed on a scale and weighed. They rated the ice cream on seven criteria, including the flavor and texture. At the end, their bowls were weighed again.
Then, their carefully considered ratings were almost certainly thrown away, because this was not, in fact a taste test. It was a scoop test. The students had been given one of two ice cream scoops. The first was a standard red scoop with utilitarian grips on the side. The second was a scoop fashioned into a cute little female figure with a red dress, little arms, and a stylized smile. Her hairdo created the “curve” of the scoop. She was adorable.
The numbers were clear: students using the cuter scoop had scooped, on average, almost half an ounce more than students using the more utilitarian scoop, even though the utilitarian scoop held more ice cream. And they ate more of it, too. The cute nature of the scoop had somehow influenced the students to be more generous with their portions, and more likely to indulge.
Cuteness and Manipulation
During the darkest days of the McCarthy hearings, when suspected Communist Harry Brownstone invoked the 5th amendment as his defense against questioning, Congressman Edwin Willis accused him of making a “cute little speech.” He wasn’t arguing that the accused was adorable, he was being dismissive and condescending. Mr. Browstone’s defense, he implied, was childish and manipulative, and unworthy of a mature adult. History shows that things did not go well for Mr. Brownstone, who subsequently gave up his activities as a labor organizer.
The word “cute” in American English brings with it soft, friendly imagery. However, the term itself actually originates from “acute”–to be crafty, cunning, or shrewd. For years, the word was spelled with a preceding apostrophe to account for the missing “A”: ‘cute.
This was not the case with the Japanese equivalent term, Kawaii, lovable, which originally referred to pitiable or powerless qualities, and no longer has negative lingual connotations. In contrast, acute remains a decidedly offensive label. To be smart or intelligent is complimentary, but no one appreciates being called acute, with its implication of intellectual deviousness, manipulation, and slyness.
Cute has shed some of its overt negativity in the years since losing the “a,” but the original meaning still remains very much a part of phrases like “Don’t be cute,” as an admonition against obnoxious behavior. In America, the sly, noncommittal “cute” is a common descriptive for a preteen-usually male–crush, when the more straightforward “handsome” might be too earnest. It’s much less likely that his Japanese counterpart would ever be labeled with the simpler, sweeter “Kawaii.”
Our Brains on Cuteness
This double meaning isn’t just a linguistic oversight. Cuteness–when used with the Western connotation of the term–is complicated. Kittens are cute. Babies are cute. Volkswagen Beetle cars, arguably, are cute. Tiny spoons are cute. Seemingly anything can project the visual cues that trigger cute sensations, which feel like an emotional mix of excitement and protectiveness.
Those triggers are specifically tied to early childhood. No less an authority than Charles Darwin originally proposed that children might have a built-in evolutionary mechanism to force adults to pay attention to them.
In 1943, Konrad Lorenz officially codified these aesthetic elements in his Kindchenschema: small overall size, roundness, large forehead, bulgy eyes, a small nose and mouth, stubby appendages, and awkward, floppy movements. If we are to believe his findings, then cuteness is a careful, calculated display of helplessness, powerlessness, submissiveness, and deformity, all intended to manipulate us into a specific set of caretaking behaviors.
These elements work so successfully that we bestow our overenthusiastic nurturing on a wide variety of non-human entities. Pretty much any small animal can trigger this response. And so can almost anything with a face, or face-like pattern, such as the grill of a car. Or even without a face, if, for example, the object is round, floppy, and small enough. Even an adorable cheese grater can be cute (but rather resistant to cuddling).
Through cuteness, we grant an entity whose primary characteristic is physical weakness the ability to make significant demands over us. Imagine a picture of a pathetic little baby hedgehog with a tiny cast on its tiny little leg, its large limpid eyes full of misery that only we can comfort. We are hit in the chest with all the flattering connotations of the power differential between us. We don’t stand a chance.
A Modern Take on the Cuteness Response
Or do we? Lorenz himself created the Kinderscema for decidedly non-altruistic purposes. As a card-carrying Nazi scientist, his research was used to provide rationale for the Nazi treatment of ethnic minorities. It’s telling that subsequent interpretations of his schema have often included “rosy cheeks,” a characteristic particular to light-skinned babies. The odd implication that Aryan-looking children might therefore be the most evolutionarily adapted to survival, would fit well with Lorenz’s pseudo-scientific eugenics.
Moreover, modern research into the Kindchenschema has found that the cuteness response is more than a simple case of cause and effect. For one thing, newborn babies aren’t actually cute. We may think they are, but they’re really not.
If Lorenz was right, the more desperately a baby needs us, the cuter they should appear. But that’s just not so. There is little in the world as monstrous-looking as a newborn baby mid-wail; the purple face, the horrific toothless maw, the scrunched-up wrinkled eyes. According to studies, baby cuteness actually peaks between the ages of 10 months and 3 years, a period of time when the most serious moment-by-moment need for care begins to wane, but the need for socialization is at its peak.
It is likely that cuteness is not a request for caretaking at all, but a request for any form of interaction. And it is very effective. Our reactions range from mild–smiles and baby talk (“He-LLO! Whossagoodboythen!”)–to the more extreme–screaming, growling, squeezing, biting, pinching cheeks and arms, poking stomachs.
“Oh my God, it’s so sweet I’m going to diiiie!” We squeal, as we jump straight to what is (hopefully) hyperbole.
When we spot a cute puppy on the street, we may want to protect it, and we may feel the responsibility and caretaking urges that Lorenz predicted. But the overwhelming desire, as it concerns the puppy, is usually, first and foremost, a compulsion to interact with it. We immediately crouch down and speak to it in a silly voice. We may have to stop ourselves from petting it and rubbing its belly until the owner gives us the go-ahead. But except in extreme cases, we don’t try to take it to the vet, give it a bath, or buy it dinner.
Violence and Power Struggle in Cute Design
Cuteness’s request for interactivity can be overwhelming in intensity. The extreme need for interaction, the desperate desire to act in some way upon the cute object, can be overpowering to the point of violence. Even the language surrounding it is violent:
“I’m going to smother you with affection!”
“I want to just eat you up!”
“I want to squeeze you until you burst!”
“Cute aggression” is the term for the overwhelming, almost angry emotional response we sometimes experience in the presence of the adorable. It’s theorized that many of the related sounds and gestures, such as high-pitched squealing and balling our hands into fists, are the body’s natural attempt to self-regulate a reaction that could potentially harm the very thing to which we’re reacting with such pleasure. Something that is, by definition, fragile.
Any species that actually squeezes babies until they burst certainly won’t survive long. But squealing about it loudly–or typing the words in capital letters on a social platform–might be the release valve for excess emotional outpouring.
“Nom nom nom” has become the Internet-approved onomatopoeia for munching on something adorable. It is the sound of trying to eat while covering our teeth with our lips to protect the object we’re nibbling. We attack a puppy, cupcake, or crush with a “nom,” rarely a “chomp.” Self-regulation saves the puppy from actually becoming dinner. Perhaps, less so, the cupcake.
The result of these machinations is a complex power struggle. Cute things–sentient or not–flaunt their vulnerability as a lure to flatter us and manipulate human behavior. We, in turn, must regulate our own enthusiasm, lest the cute object succeeds to the point of self-immolation. Who is in control? Very often, it’s the cute object. As the more fragile of the two players, the cute object can hold its own adorable self hostage to our “good behavior.”
In erotic attraction, there is always the perceived possibility, however remote, of consummation–a climactic release of tension. But when considering the cute equivalent, even the most willing participants in the cute relationship are doomed to long-term dissatisfaction. A baby is never going to say, “That was nice. I’d love to see you again next week after work if you’re free.” A baby takes whatever attention it can get, with no respite, until situation, growth, or caretaker resistance intervenes.
As we move away from baby-based cuteness, the lack of catharsis becomes even starker. There can be no winner in the battle for dominance with a cute object. How can someone win a fight with an adorably-shaped cheese grater (or spoon, succulent in a tiny pot, or latte art that looks like a kitty)? Either we feel tricked into buying what we suspect might be overpriced coffee, or else our latte is less enjoyable than it might have been. Either way, we lose.
Do we mind? Sometimes, we do. The emotional demands made by cuteness are intense, and it can be confusing for us to be both powerful and yet feel imposed upon. That suspicion of being manipulated, so inherent in the etymology of the word “cute,” can produce uglier feelings of resentfulness and anger. Our subservience in the cute relationship is an active decision. As the dominant player, the struggle for supremacy is only a struggle as long as we allow it to be.
When faced with a cute doll, our very urges towards extreme interaction might also lead to us to pulling the doll apart, cutting off its hair, or covering it with a magic marker. There is a gleeful, sadistic, enjoyment in destroying things we find cute, a pleasure mixed with feelings of revenge. And whichever side of that tipping point we fall on–socializing or mutilating–might happen in the moment. Both actions are just as valid forms of intense interaction.
As English professor Sianne Ngai says in her excellent essay “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde,” when dealing with commercialized cuteness, “the cute object is often intended to excite a consumer’s sadistic desires for mastery and control as much as his or her desire to cuddle.”
Cuteness and Commerce
Cute interactions don’t have to go as far as outright violence for them still to be deeply one-sided. Marketing for cute children’s toys, in particular, often emphasizes the role of dominance in the cute relationship, highlighting their malleability and poseability, the ease with which a product can be fitted to the will of the protector-caretaker-owner. And with a phenomenon that triggers indiscriminate intensity, that “will” isn’t always a nice one.
When Ty Warner introduced the Beanie Baby plush toy design in 1993, he joined a 20th century trend that increasingly invited children to personalize and interact with their toys. The industry had spent decades creating toys that could be collected, manipulated, styled, clothed, and otherwise branded with the child’s personal stamp.
Nowhere was this trend more profound than in the manufacture of plush, colloquially known as stuffed animals. Early teddy bears were packed with sawdust. They were rigid and heavy–some models had ball joints that allowed arms and legs to move in the same way as a Barbie Doll. Being hit in the face with one could seriously mess up your day. Over the next century, as plush transitioned to more lightweight materials such as polyfill and modern polyester fur, some manufacturers began to put beans or plastic pellets in stuffed toys to retain the feeling of heft and value.
Warner took it a step further. If he under-stuffed the entire plush with beans, the additional weight would make the arms and legs both floppy and controllable. A user could pose them however they wanted, and they would stay fixed in one position. In the words of Warner biographer Zac Bissonette:
“He was onto something with his under-stuffing. Rigid animals couldn’t do much except sit, but softer ones with less stuffing were moveable–more realistic, he thought, than hard stuffed animals that lacked flexibility and had all the long-term play value of paper mache. Beans made it possible for you to pose his stuffed animal, and posing it anthropomorphized it: a stuffed cat that was under-stuffed and had beans could, in the hands of a child, wave, dance, and cuddle…At toy shows Warner sometimes spent as much as ten minutes showing anyone who agreed to watch all the ways the head on a single animal could be cocked.”
Warner used tweezers to pluck the fur around the eyes to make them appear bigger. He used bright colors. He introduced multiple styles, which encouraged collecting behavior. The malleability of the limbs made Beanie Babies perfect for ownership rituals such as posing whole collections to their best advantage on a shelf or desk.
Ty Warner’s net worth is currently reported at $2.4 billion. He is one of the wealthiest humans on the planet. Hijacking the human cuteness response is an extremely powerful commercial tactic. Cuteness is inherently participatory, and that’s true even when the only option for participation is a purchase. The Princess Bear Beanie Baby (eBay value, $10,000) sits on the store shelf, looking up at us, small and floppy and helpless, barely able to support its own head on its shoulder. “Look at how much I need your help,” it seems to say. “You’re so very very powerful and strong, oh won’t you take care of little me?”
We make impulse purchases in the name of those under our care that we would never make for ourselves. And with a touch of cute design, our brain can be tricked into believing that almost any product in the store is “under our care.”
The phrase “You’re so cute, I’m going to eat you up” is a telling one–cuteness literally encourages us to consume in all senses of the word. Pulitzer Prize winning science writer Natalie Angier argues: “Whatever needs pitching, cute can help.”
Why is the ability to control and manipulate a cute object so compelling? Or to put it another way, what was it about the Beanie Babies’s pliancy that made them so desirable to a generation of toy collectors?
One theory to support this claim is that by shaping the object ourselves we are claiming ownership and power over it. We squeeze animal-shaped stress balls and enjoy the grotesque deformation of their little faces. We watch the Pillsbury Doughboy poked over and over in his round little stomach. We laugh at kittens tripping over their own oversized paws. Like our little hedgehog with his leg in a cast, the more vulnerable the cute object, the more desperately it needs our help. Our pleasure at their humiliation and distress is our own enjoyment in feeling superior and needed.
Ngai writes that “the epitome of cute would be an undifferentiated blob of soft doughy matter.” It’s no coincidence that this is a perfect descriptor for Kellytoy’s Squishmallow designs, a popular plush currently working its way through the fad-cycle in the US. These ultra-malleable, brightly-colored blobs are designed with spandex-style fur and thinner, longer filament polyfill to give them extra springiness. They’re able to recover from every poke, twist, stretch, squeeze, punch, or yes, squish. No matter how we torture and maim the Squishmallow, it’s happy to take more.
Co-opting the Cute Response
I run a toy company called Squishable. Squish has become a surprisingly common term in the plush industry, something for which we are quite willing to take all the credit. I oversee the design of toys that evoke the cute response. I hear the phrase “It’s so cute, I’m gonna die” at least once a day (that means something is less cute than “It’s so cute I want to stab it in the face” but more cute than “It’s so cute I’m going to be sick”).
One of our earliest designs was a small white egg with an embroidered crack running down the side of its shell. The crack was covered with an appliqued pink bandage with a heart and face on it. It was a shockingly emotionally manipulative design. The pathos of the injured egg, the pathetic bandage so obviously unequal to the task of healing its massive injury. The cute little heart, still brave and bright despite impending doom.
That the aesthetics of the egg design lined up so perfectly within the taxonomies of cuteness was an accident. The product was largely a bust. Such a blatant appeal to the cute response sets off the innate BS detector within us all, without which humans would fall prey to every cute manipulation in the toy aisle.
In the decade that has followed, we have discovered which elements of the Kinderscema do successfully trigger the cute response in plush consumption, and which ones don’t. For example, egg-like roundness may be key, but a large forehead is actually more important. Eyes that sit too high on the face take away from the illusion of a large forehead. We’ve found the perfect positioning is to have the eyes almost directly to the left and right of the mouth. Bright colors are less important than high contrasting colors, which, in turn, are less important than just making a design recognizable. But designs that are too realistic don’t work at all, except when found in zoo and museum gift shops.
Large megafauna becomes even more adorable when shrunk down, as expected. A tiny elephant or llama is amazing. But animals we expect to be diminutive, such as rodents or bugs, become monstrous when enlarged too far beyond their natural, familiar size. Similar to Jeff Koons’s massive metal “Balloon Dog” statues, a giant, fragile creature is unsettlingly incongruous. Our brains aren’t quite sure how to process something that is both cute and powerful, and those kinds of innovations don’t sell well. Except in the case of bees and snails, and we don’t know why.
The aesthetics of plush food designs–plush made to look like snacks and other foodstuffs–are even more perceptively complicated. Quite a few of the Squishables in our “Comfort Food” category, like the Burrito, Chocolate Bar, and Toaster Tart, are designed to look as though they have a bite taken out of them. Was the bite somehow part of them since birth? If not, did it hurt? Do they want to be eaten, or are they suffering for our pleasure?
Presenting these designs in their mutilated form should be horrific, but it isn’t. Their suffering somehow makes them cuter and more appealing. If an intact burrito deserves our interaction and caretaking behavior, surely a wounded one needs it even more.
Cultural Dupes and the Cute Experience
Cuteness as a cultural phenomenon is perfectly suited to commercial exploitation, but that doesn’t mean that its participants are necessarily commercial victims.
Marxism would be quick to identify those of us who enjoy a good baby goat video from time to time as “cultural dupes”–the dull masses who aren’t sophisticated enough to understand that they are being controlled. Cuteness outside of the child-rearing setting, they claim, is meant to manipulate the behavior patterns of the proletariat for the benefit of the elite few.
In this version of the cute response, consumption patterns of, say, cute cosmetics or clothing, help to confirm that we are in control of our identities during a period of extreme social and economic uncertainty. Cute videos of puppies greeting their returning owners can be seen as a coping strategy to deal with the cruelties of neoliberal capitalism. Cute workplaces, with their emphasis on playfulness, their scooters and bright colors, their free kiddie foods of cereal and candy bars, all serve to distract from unfairly long hours and morally dubious business plans. Cute government mascots and signage make us more willing to accept authoritarian direction. And cute hamsters eating tiny food comfort and distract us from a harsher narrative of eroding civil liberties. Cute technologies keep us docile and focused on the tools of work, long after traditional office hours are over, and help blur the line between work done for pay and work done for self-improvement and fun–all at the expense of what used to be time spent on leisure.
Studies have found that viewing cute content at work actually increases productivity. Watching cute animal videos, when we’re supposed to be editing TPS reports, might feel gleefully naughty. But in actuality, say sociologists, we’re just playing into our boss’s hands. And while we coo over how that tiny goat totally just jumped on top of that golden retriever, we forget to do something useful like overthrowing the Kaiser.
That all sounds pretty dark, but consumers are generally a lot smarter than theorists give them credit for. If someone likes cute things, it is most certainly because they feel like they are getting something valuable from the relationship. The moment they aren’t, the cute commercial object will probably be abandoned like the disposable commodity it is.
Aside from the dopamine boost that cute objects provide, what exactly is in it for us? One very obvious benefit is based on the socialization inherent in any cute interaction. Loneliness is a killer, any number of studies have found. From a health standpoint, researchers argue, it is the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The breakdown of traditional community groups, a mobile population, a later childbearing age, and the rise of the gig economy–all have combined to leave us with severely isolated lifestyles. One study has found that fully 47% of the American population experiences subclinical levels of loneliness on a regular basis.
Cuteness helps lower that level. And whether it’s from adopting a kitten, watching a live cam of kittens, or buying a mug with a kitten on it, we are reminding our brain that something helpless needs us. Those feelings of ownership and responsibility are just as real, even if the recipient of our attention is an adorable pencil or a cheese grater. As long as kittens (or adorable cheese graters) exist, we have the opportunity to feel important, effective, and dominant, even if only by proxy.
One reason for the remarkable success of the Sanrio character Hello Kitty, or so it has been theorized, actually lies in an omission–her lack of a mouth. Is she sad? Happy? Thoughtful? Coy? Without a mouth, she could be any emotion we choose to project upon her. A second societal benefit of cuteness may lie in is its value as a form of self-identity. Cute objects provide us with a safe space to explore aspects of our personality that might otherwise be difficult to access.
Sharing cute content and objects, and promoting a cute aesthetic, presents opportunities for us to act with empathy and playfulness, to demonstrate kindness, quirkiness, creativity, and other aspects of our personality. That cute cheese grater (it looks like a hedgehog, I swear it’s the best thing ever), reminds me what kind of person I want to be, every time I use it.
Japan’s Gudetama, also of Sanrio character fame, offers an alternate benefit. His backstory as a “lazy egg” who just wants to hide under the bacon and take a nap is contrary to the daily grind of neoliberal capitalism, uncaring of political evils, and uninterested in technology. He doesn’t want to go to work. He doesn’t want to fulfill his predestined role of being eaten. He wants to play in the fettuccine and chill in his eggshell.
Cuteness doesn’t have to only be a story of control and manipulation. We will never outgrow the negative implications of cute’s “acute” origin, but we might decide to put those definitions to our own use. In a grownup world that demands serious grownup behavior, cuteness can be delightfully subversive. I may look like a responsible adult in a blazer and clean socks, but this Gudetama pin in my lapel says otherwise. Cuteness can be rebellious. Cuteness can be cool.
The manipulative, potentially violent elements inherent in cuteness are an evolutionary necessity. Those elements will remain in effect as long as humans reproduce using babies. But that doesn’t mean that we are victims. If we feel like cuteness is benefitting us, then those are the only feelings that matter in the long run. And that’s true whether the object of our affection is Gudatama, kittens, chicks, babies, cars that look like babies, or tiny succulents in tiny pots. Or the cutest cheese grater ever.
Angier, Natalie. “The Cute Factor.” The New York Times, January 3, 2006.
Bissonnette, Zac. The Great Beanie Baby Bubble: The Amazing Story of How America Lost Its Mind Over a Plush Toy – And The Eccentric Genius Behind It, New York: Portfolio, 2016.
“Cigna Takes Action To Combat The Rise Of Loneliness And Improve Mental Wellness In America.” Cigna, a Global Health Insurance and Health Service Company, accessed March 9, 2020.
Dale, Joshua Paul., Joyce Goggin, Julia Leyda, Anthony P. McIntyre, and Diane Negra, The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness, New York: Routledge, 2017.
Groover, Heidi. “I Still Can’t Believe There’s a Jewish Democratic Socialist from Brooklyn Who’s Already Won a Presidential Primary,” The Stranger, accessed March 9, 2020.
Nenkov, Gergana Y., and Maura L. Scott, “So Cute I Could Eat It Up: Priming Effects of Cute Products on Indulgent Consumption.” Journal of Consumer Research 41, no. 2 (January 2014): 326–41.
Ngai, Sianne, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.
Yano, Christine Reiko. Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek Across the Pacific, Durham: Duke University Press, 2013.
Zoe Fraade-Blanar (ITP 2010) is a faculty member at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program and the Studio 20 program at the NYU Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. She is co-founder and Chief Design Officer of the crowdsourced toy company Squishable.