The Cute Quotient by Zenaida Serrano

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Button nose. Floppy ears. Chubby face. There’s something about Pochacco that Toni Nishida-Chock can’t resist.

For more than 10 years, Nishida-Chock has been drawn to the Sanrio pup’s signature purple and green products, including notepads and CD cases, even nail art.

“Cuteness plays a huge role,” said Nishida-Chock, 36.

Dawn Suzuki, 28, prefers the ultra girly-girl icon and queen of all things adorable, Hello Kitty.

Aside from the feline’s stylish assortment of pastel goodies — the purses, notepads, toasters and toilet-seat covers — Suzuki calls herself a fan simply because of the feline’s irresistible face.

“Cute is the big factor,” said the Sanrio sales clerk, of Pearl City.

For Henry DeButts, 53, cute comes in the form of a Mini Cooper. He and his wife each have one, and he also has nearly a dozen remote-controlled models of the compact car.

What won over DeButts is the Mini Cooper’s sportiness, maneuverability, “and it’s also cute,” the Hawai’i Kai resident said.

Cuteness comes in all shapes and sizes — everything from pudgy puppies and charming beachfront cottages to Morning Glory’s bumbly critters, crude Ugly Dolls and stocky Volkswagen Beetles. And cuteness especially rules today, with cuddly Easter bunnies and bonnet-clad toddlers everywhere you turn.

But what exactly defines “cute” — the image that melts our hearts and makes us coo?

Cute characteristics include both physical and personality traits, said Bob Santee, dean of behavioral sciences at Chaminade University.

Physical characteristics include rounded face or head, large eyes, tiny nose and a small size in general, while personality traits include fragility, helplessness or playfulness.

“So essentially what you’re looking at are sets of characteristics of an infant,” Santee said.

This explains what draws people to cuteness, said Santee, who teaches evolutionary psychology.

“From an evolutionary perspective, the infant has those characteristics, and we have the ability to tune into them because an infant is helpless,” he said. “So we will be drawn to the infant to take care of the infant so the infant can survive.”

It’s a part of our genetic makeup, which is why even small children are wired to be attracted to the adorable, Santee said.

Objects that share such “cute” characteristics can trigger an affectionate response. That’s key to the attraction exerted by the rounded head and button nose of Hello Kitty, or the compact size of a Mini Cooper, Santee said.

“From my perspective, it’s just the evolutionary mechanism that draws us to certain (infantile) physical and personality characteristics,” he said.

‘CUTE CULTURE’

The innate nurturing response to cuteness may also explain why the concept transcends cultures, Santee said. So what’s considered cute in Japan is likely considered cute in Russia, too.

“You’re going to find, whether you’re an Indian, a Swede, Chinese, Japanese, Hawaiian or whatever, you’re still drawn to the infant” or the infant-like qualities, Santee said.

Once the attraction of a cute object is established, cultural values affect how we act on it, of course. That’s the focus of study for Christine Yano, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai’i-Manoa.

Yano explores what people of various cultures do with a concept like “cuteness.” She’s working on a book about the “cute culture” in Japan and Sanrio’s wildly popular Hello Kitty as a global product.

“At this point, I think that cute is becoming part of an accepted global language,” she said.

Through her research, Yano found that Hello Kitty represents different things to different groups of people. In Japan, the Sanrio goods reflect cultural values and morals, while in the Mainland Mid-West, a group of cat fanciers with no Japanese ties simply treasure Hello Kitty as an icon, Yano said.

Among many Hispanics — Sanrio’s second-largest consumer group in the Americas — Hello Kitty stands for family values. Throughout the West Coast, where Japantown and Chinatown shops are teeming with Hello Kitty products, many older Asian-Americans revere the feline for offering a sense of connection and pride, Yano said.

Like Hello Kitty, other creatures of cuteness can carry special symbolism.

For Audrey Hutton, 41, her treasured collection of hundreds of stuffed animals embodies childhood innocence.

“Stuffed animals bring you back to when you were a little kid,” said Hutton, a real-estate agent from Kane’ohe. “I think it’s just the love, cuddliness and affection.”

Cuteness can also be a form of self-expression.

Pochacco fan Nishida-Chock, a physics and physical education teacher, said many of her students who are Sanrio fans are drawn to the constantly evolving characters, color schemes and designs of the products.

The variety offers a way “they can express themselves,” said Nishida-Chock, of Pearl City.

FOR MEN, TOO

There’s no doubt that cute has infiltrated consumer culture.

“Advertising is very much aware of what characteristics draw people’s attentions, and I certainly think that construction of a lot of those (products) do” incorporate these characteristics, Santee said.

While men may not want to admit it, the draw to cute products isn’t exclusive to women. Popular male-oriented items such as the misfit cast of Kidrobot figures and Ugly Dolls offer an undeniable mix of cute, edgy and twisted.

Kailua resident Deborah Lowry’s young sons have been fans of Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh, the Japanese animated action critters whose cute names and faces are deceiving. Card and video games involve the stubby creatures battling it out.

“The last thing (my sons) want to be perceived as is cute,” said Lowry, 43, a designer. ” … For boys, even if it’s a Pokemon stuffed animal they want, they don’t consider it cute because they associate it with the action game.”

Sanrio also found a following among boys — including some of Nishida-Chock’s high school students — with the company’s Bad Badtz-Maru character, a stubby penguin with attitude.

“There were some boys who didn’t want to admit it, but they had the wallets,” Nishida-Chock said.

DeButts, the owner of a Mini Cooper, understands the reluctance of many men to identify something as “cute.”

“It’s probably because of basic insecurities and the association to femininity,” he said.

But DeButts doesn’t fall into that category.

“I think ‘cute’ is something that is attractive, small, streamlined, innovative … like some cell phones,” said DeButts, a computer technician.

IT’S EVERYWHERE

Cute is everywhere, experts say.

“You might call it a kind of neo-feminism, in which it’s a wider range of concepts of femininity that is being accepted these days, including the use of cuteness,” Yano said.

It’s OK for women in powerful positions, including business executives and socialites, to also display a more traditionally-coated femininity. Even cute, she said.

“And I’m always surprised at the places in which, currently, cuteness is popping up,” Yano said.

Yano’s research has unveiled cuteness in publications such as the new magazine “Pink,” “a women’s magazine geared toward pretty high-powered, high-profile career women,” Yano said.

She’s also discovered it among pockets of high-art circles. Last year, the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Mass., featured an exhibit titled, “Pretty Sweet: The Sentimental Image in Contemporary Art.”

“It was all about cute,” Yano said.

Locally, The Contemporary Museum last year presented an exhibit featuring the work of Japanese pop artist Yoshitomo Nara, who incorporates cute characteristics in many of his pieces.

“There’s a lot of anger in the work, and there’s a lot of anxiety in it,” said museum curator Michael Rooks, “and so the cuteness … softens that in a way to get to the psychological space that is more intense.”

Rooks credits Nara’s cutesy style for the exhibit’s popularity.

“It was really great to see a lot of young people coming up, college students and even some younger,” Rooks said. … “I think for people who are not accustomed or don’t regularly go to contemporary art exhibitions, it played a big role, because it made the work accessible for them.”

Whether it’s Nara’s intense sculptures, ever-shrinking cellular phones or Paris Hilton’s tiny Chihuahua, Tinkerbell, interpretations of cute vary.

But Hutton, the stuffed animal collector, said it boils down to this: “It’s something that as soon as you see it, it goes to your heart and it tugs on those little heart strings.”

THE MANY FORMS AND FACES OF CUTENESS

Cuteness comes in all forms, but it isn’t always of the soft and cuddly persuasion. Here’s a sampling of the wide world of cute:

Just plain cute

• iPod shuffle — At .78 ounce and just 0.33 inch thin, this MP3 player is the baby of iPods.

• Nintendog — All the fun of an adorable puppy, minus the cleanup.

• Mini Cooper — An adorably teeny car, especially next to a monstrous Hummer.

• Winnie-the-Pooh — Even the lyrics to his theme song are cute: “Tubby little cubby, all stuffed with fluff … willy, nilly, silly ol’ bear.”Cute, but subversive

• Happy Bunny — Don’t let the image of innocence fool you. Sassy messages include, “You suck, and that’s sad,” and “You smell like butt.”

• Yoshitomo Nara — Many of this Japanese pop artist’s pieces feature cute little girls who seem to have intense psychological issues.

• Parasite Pals — Here’s a combination of cute and twisted. Little Holly Hostess’ friends include Dig Dig Head Louse, Tickles Tapeworm, Zzeezz Bed Bug and Blinky Eyelash Mite.

• Kidrobot — A misfit cast of action figures and toys include Gloomy Bear, a bloodied cub with claws, and Smorkin Labbit, a squinty-eyed and stubbled bunny with a ciggy. So ugly it’s cute

• Pug — It’s a face only a mother could love.

• Stitch — Among this scruffy-haired, razor-toothed alien’s redeeming qualities: his love for Elvis and a cute local girl named Lilo.

• Monchichi — This little monkey was popular in the 1980s. Why? We’re not quite sure.

HELLO WHERE?

Where have you seen Hello Kitty?

Whether you’ve spotted the fashionable feline at a posh boutique in New York City or in a market in Madrid, Christine Yano wants to hear from you.

Yano, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai’i, has been doing research and is working on a book about the Japanese “cute culture,” with a focus on Hello Kitty as a global product. Share your sightings at cryano@hawaii.edu.

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Reach Zenaida Serrano at zserrano@honoluluadvertiser.com.

http://the.honoluluadvertiser.com/article/2006/Apr/16/il/FP604160318.html

Sunday, April 16, 2006

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