Monday, November 30, 2009

Is Cuteness Trendy? Sour Grapes from Vanity Fair

There I was on an airplane to California, stuck with the December 2009 print issue of Vanity Fair because I couldn't get my credit card to work for a video on-demand feature. (Julie & Julia, if you must know.)

OK, I can deal, I thought. VF is a guilty pleasure, anyway, and I might even read the cover profile about Robert Pattinson of Twilight fame. I noted the blurb at the bottom of the cover—"How Grandmas and 12-Year-Old Girls Are Corrupting American Culture"—thinking, huh, that sounds sexist, probably about Twilight, whatever, not what I'm in it for.

Turns out this piece by Jim Windolf was not about Twilight or that particular void of an interview; instead, Windolf's article about girl oldsters and youngsters is called "Addicted to Cute"—with a tag line of "America has been flooded by a tsunami of cute."

To which I put it to you right now: Really?

"Addicted to Cute" stoked my ire about trend stories. This one falls into the frothing-at-the mouth category. It's a mere reaction to something that may or may not be a trend, showcasing the writer's slick use of words and pandering to the audience by running all sorts of pictures of puppies and pandas. Read me! Read me! I hate this crap but READ ME.

I happened upon cuteness not by searching through VF's table of contents, which is always buried in a swath of ads, but by random page-flipping. When I started seeing Pikachu, puppy piles, and dogs in human clothing, I realized I'd found the grandma/12-year-old piece, although within the article itself there are only the slyest of references to this being a female phenomenon—a sexist warning flag.

I object to the idea that cuteness has now become a "broader cultural movement" for two reasons: (1) While we may indeed be awash in cute critters on the Internet, Smart Cars, and cupcake boutique bakeries, the love of cuteness doesn't seem like a new trend at all.

(2) Even if it is a trend, who cares? Why is it so bad that a sushi chef has crafted a creation out of colored seaweed showing President Obama's "cute" face? Or that the media gush about the Obama dog?

Windolf opens with the "Hahaha" baby video, which shows a baby laughing helplessly as his off-screen dad says "Bing!" and "Dong." He notes that at the time of writing, this was one of the most-watched YouTube clips at about 100 million views. Here's the video:

Here's the VF takeaway:
"Cootchie-coo behavior used to be reserved for private moments in the home. But now, with the Internet's help, people feel free to wallow in cuteness en masse, in the company of strangers."
Just who these "wallowing" people are remains an open question.

A page or so later, Windolf has trotted out the not-stunning news from experts that human beings are hardwired to go "awwww" when they see infant-like characteristics: big eyes, round head, chubby cheeks, cuddly puppy fat. He notes (via Stephen Jay Gould) that Walt Disney got the point decades ago, as Mickey Mouse morphed from a skinnier rodent to the rounder head and ears. (On VF's website, we even get Windolf discussing "the roots of cute.")

So what's the trend, if the tendency goes back to the dawn of human consciousness—or at least to savvy animators like Walt Disney?

Think of It's a Wonderful Life, which would surely qualify as a cuteness fest in Windolf's terms, with guardian angel Clarence and Christmas tree ornaments jingling when angels get their wings. Frank Capra knew the power of cute, just as surely as the website founder of Cute Overload and Hayao Miyazaki and other purveyors of Japanese cuteness (or kawaii) do.

Sure, sure, sure, Windolf grumps, long before Hello Kitty, there were the Monkees and the Osmonds and Bambi. But "the cute acts of today," he writes, "aren't controlled by a corporation or impresario looking to cash in; they're cute by choice."

This is a problem? Excuse the sarcasm, but I am not convinced that cuteness in the hands of corporations has less impact or that the appearance of "more than 150 other cute-animal sites catalogued by the recommendation engine StumbleUpon" proves there is a new and soul-killing trend on the loose.

There's more of everything on the Internet—foodie sites,  political ravings of every persuasion, fan clubs for every bit actor in Hollywood history. I could just as easily claim there's a trend in belief in the paranormal or wizards.

The "moreness" numbers of the Internet don't reveal anything except the very large trend of what it means to contend with so much cultural input in a virtual social setting. I'd like to see an analysis of that, or many cuts at this very big subject, but it isn't here.

Let me come clean and say that I share Windolf's loathing for Disney's Winnie the Pooh and pictures of cats in little arm casts. I've never been a girly girl, and I cringe at terms like "puppehs" (lingo from Cute Overload) and "cutegasm." When Windolf writes, "What is the antonym for 'cutegasm'? Because that's what I'm having right now," it gave me a vicarious thrill.

Yet that's about all this trend story amounts to—a vicarious thrill for hipsters and the cultural elite—and it's not enough to support its larger claims about this "tsunami" we're all suddenly being assaulted with.

Windolf does raise some interesting questions about the uneven power dynamic in a cute response—the baby being "dinged"  has no control over what the adult is doing, and we love to watch people doing pratfalls or otherwise losing control. But the inherent sadism in everything from stand-up comedy to parading bears in top hats is about more than cuteness.

The sour grapes of this article, with its longing for more "edge" in the cultural zeitgeist rather than everyone buying more candy bars (another dubious  contention) is really about girl stuff.

Windolf doesn't talk to any feminists about this issue, and I have to ask why a male writer is so "depressed" about the supposed triumph of the emotional and sentimental. The female sensibility that cuteness evokes is anything but monolithic.

Exhibit A: an actual twelve-year-old girl. A few mornings ago while in the Bay Area, my "niece" (her term; awwwww) gave me a tour of her bedroom. This included photos of lion cubs and seals and puppies taped to the wall beside her bed. She had sparkle pillows and stuffed butterflies amid the bookshelves and family photos. She loves cute—as we joked—but she's also very funny and very opinionated. She has a calendar of cute dogs, but on this month's selection, she had taped a piece of "CAUTION" yellow tape across the dogs' snouts.

Why? "It seemed like a warning against cuteness," she said.

This reality of strong girls who like emoticons but also LOL obviously worries the guys at VF. Windolf concludes: "I would not doubt the power of cuteness. It will bat its lashes and crinkle its nose, and it will smother its critics with its softness."

Funny thing about the smothering of opinion, though. Besides Windolf's anti-cuteness manifesto, this VF issue includes only one female feature writer. The editorial content is surrounded by high-fashion ads of poreless young faces. James Wolcott's diatribe about reality TV is called "I'm a Culture Critic...Get Me Out of Here!"

I'm with him in his disgust, but dissing reality TV isn't exactly cutting-edge commentary. When Wolcott says of the annoying Gosselins of Jon & Kate plus Eight that "We are now stuck with them for the foreseeable future," my response is that maybe Wolcott thinks he is but the rest of us can easily decide to flip channels or just turn off the TV.

The snarky bitterness emanates a whiff of something else: anxiety. All these male cultural critics are railing at the readers who have run away to the Internet, whether we're reading the Daily Kos or a wonderful blog about the literary scene called Ward Six  or Cute Overload.

That's a problem for VF, a glossy that surely counts on female readers. Based on the Audit Bureau of Circulations, VF's circulation numbers for the past five years can most charitably be described as flat—and that would be when viewed through a pair of Dolce & Gabbana rose-colored glasses. Without the grandmas and twelve-year-olds, magazines like Vanity Fair have to remake themselves or go under.

I submit that requires a major shift in conventional thinking and audience and culture. I can see why Wolcott and Windolf are worried. But their fears are masked by high-gloss condescension, because as we women know, anxiety is not cute at all.

This post originally appeared on Open Salon. The bunnies are from "This teacup is too big..." on Cute Overload.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Map of My World—or Why I've Fallen off the Edge

I've just completed an assignment that has starkly revealed how little I know about "bedrock" reality.

Before going into detail, I'll put it to you: What would you write if you were asked to describe the geography of the United States? What kind of map would you draw?

I've been challenged by this in the past few weeks, and so, coincidentally, has my seven-year-old son.

In my Vietnamese class, my fellow students and I first translated a narrative titled "Địa lý Việt Nam" ("The Geography of Vietnam"). This essay included sections on "Núi và cao nguyên" (mountains and highlands), "Sông" (rivers), and "Biển và bờ biển" (oceans and coastline). Each section contained several densely packed paragraphs of Vietnamese, detailing facts like the highest point in Vietnam (Mount Fansipan) and the length in kilometers of various rivers, including sông Cửu Long (the Mekong).

In class and at home, I pored over a map of Vietnam in Vietnamese, split between two modes: learning the facts of the landscape and a different way of expressing those facts. I found it fascinating and mind-twisting.

I've always been good at reading maps, but here even places in Vietnam that I had visited needed to be rediscovered. The reframing of place names, provinces, and borders in another language seemed an apt metaphor for viewing the land through a different cultural lens.

Yet I didn't expect such mental twists in viewing my own country. Our next assignment was to write an essay about U.S. geography. I thought this would be a snap at first, until I slammed up against my ignorance of information like the length of the Mississippi River.

Wikipedia (there's a joke in this link) and a variety of websites became my friend. But the real twist came in expressing direction and geographical formation in Vietnamese. My ignorance of the facts I thought I knew—what are the tributaries of the Mississippi, for example? Where does the Columbia originate?—made me feel I'd suddenly just landed on American shores, scratching my head.

One small example: directions such as northwest or southeast in English are reversed in Vietnamese—that is, tây bắc (or "westnorth"). This is easy enough to get used to, but it does also involve a perceptual shift in how one moves in physical space. The Southwest, for instance, is referred to as "miền Tây Nam" ("area West South").

Meanwhile, unknown to me until I attended a potluck breakfast in my son's second-grade class, he had drawn his own map of Vietnam, complete with illustrations of a compass and a ship. There's a thumbnail of it at the top of the post, but you might not be able to make out Nick's personal labels for places. Under "Hannoi," he inserted "us + me"; under "Da nang" he put "didn't go to"; and with "ho chi men city," he wrote "I was born here" and "next time."

Nick's map is accompanied by a story. "Chapter 1 Hotel!!" begins this way: "In Hanoi when I first looked at my hotel it was great with Ho Chi Minh's sayings as famous as MLK to Vietnam." In the second chapter ("Me!"), he writes, "Mom said that we would go to the market place. Vendors were selling everything from fish to...well sea food."

My husband and I were delighted to see his map and to read the story, of course. But it also brought home to me how personal one's sense of location in the physical world is. In Nick's case, after one visit to Vietnam a year ago, he can recreate that geography and label the places that matter to him far more vividly than he can the landscape of where he lives in Massachusetts.

I don't mean that he cares more for his birth country, although I think he'd say that he does. He is also quite rooted in our corner of Cambridge, the streets of our neighborhood that we often walk to school, the collection of shops a few blocks from our house. It's possible to live many places in your mind and heart, and I see his map of Vietnam as so much more than a geographically correct drawing.

As for my geographical correctness, I muffed the verbal description of oceans around the U.S. that I gave in class. When asked why the oceans are important, I basically said the equivalent of "they have everything from fish to...well, uh, seafood."

On the written essay, I scraped through with a B-minus, which is starting to look like a good grade to me. My inability to get top marks, even if I study for hours, is another mind-twist: my old assumption that if I just work hard enough, I'll succeed just doesn't cut it in this class. My new map of the world has dragons and demons on the borders, and includes the possibility of falling right off the edge into the unknown.

The funny thing is, I've felt an odd burden lift from me, a weight I hadn't even realized I carried. All the shifts in perspective have made me see that my internal topography is changing all the time. I think even a year ago, I might have found this a scary thought, one that required maximum mental fortifications. But just as a map of a country like Vietnam isn't static, it doesn't make sense to take the bedrock of me for granted, either.

I've discovered that my knowledge of geography is thoroughly embedded in personal experience: my old wood-block map puzzle of the United States from childhood; the many times on family car trips that we crisscrossed the flat agricultural lands of the Central Valley to the Sierra Nevada mountains; the bike trails I've traversed repeatedly in Acadia National Park in Maine. I used to run along the trail from Inspiration Point in Tilden Park, so my memory of the spine of hills that separates Berkeley and the East Bay from the Delta isn't just visual; it's in my feet.

The borders of my map might jump from a floating turkey vulture above Tilden to the buzz of a hummingbird off the trail, from the traffic jams of Saigon to late fall in New England. If I drew a map of all these places—as Nick drew his of Vietnam—I'd label everywhere I've been and where I want to go, including the mysterious edges I can't know.