Whatever you do, don’t do a google image search for cute. That sort of thing will eat your brain from the inside out.
Conclusions can be drawn from it, though. Big eyes and tiny but misproportioned heads. Squinting or peering. Generally being a small animal.
Cute is a weird word though. It does describe a specific thing, and it can be used as a compliment, but it has a certain patronising tone it can’t escape. It does essentially mean childlike, or perhaps even baby-like. Those big eyes are based on the proportions of babyness. This is why puppies and kittens win. Of course, a praying mantis has big eyes and a misproportioned head, but they are rarely called cute (although a google image search this time yields this, which is pretty cute).
It’s not something that can be reduced down though, but it has the are of reducing down. It’s weird that something associated with childishness is used as a common compliment (apart from that actually, it’s usually used in a patronising context, literally, a patriarchal one).
And it get’s even weirder when you drift out into general cultural aesthetics.
There’s this whole mess of signifiers that make sense culturally, without ever being defined. Cute, kitsch and the like. The cultural aesthetic of our times is so heavily inculcated that we can almost smell it. It’s these odd words that show how much our behaviour is dictated by cultural norms. Sure, we decide whether we like cute or kitsch stuff, but we can all (generally) spot one or the other. The intonation of the gasp is different, but the recognition is there.
It seems unlikely there’s something innate in finding objects cute. I’ll just about brook an argument about the big eyed baby thing being instinctive, but the same thing applied to a handbag, armchair or skirt?
We spot this stuff, because we’re trained to. Not by some arch machine, but just by the inevitable momentum of several billion human beings all talking to their neighbours.
Cultural norms drift into our lives and get pushed onto us. The weight of cultural inertia is impressive. Even though it is made up of us, as people, none of us really has a huge amount of control over it.
It’s weird how we expect fashion to lead the trends, create new aesthetics, but the people making the fashion are generally trying to spot what will be cool. Everyone is staring at everyone else, trying to figure out what to look like. We control ourselves through self monitoring and the imagined (or unimagined) gaze of others.
There is nothing to stop me from being cute, apart from having to pull the sleight of hand required to let other people know. As it happens, all I can actually do is flutter my eyelashes and angle my head a certain way.
Sometimes it works.
But why would I want it to?
Cute is weird, that’s what it is.
Its the childishness of the collective selfconscious.
Illustration by David