*Snorgles!* Cuteness and Shifting American Identities

Can we talk for a minute about our current cultural obsession with cute animals?

Maybe it started with lolcats. You know, “I can has cheezburger?” Sometime around late 2006 or early 2007 this little image was created, and a crazy, viral internet meme was born.

I can has cheezburger? The original lolcat.

I can has cheezburger? The original lolcat.

Wikipedia dates the earliest lolcat to 2005, originating out of the primordial soup of an English language image-sharing website dedicated to Japanese anime. The specialized dialect used in the captions is a variant on gamer “leet speak”, a geeked out chatroom shorthand which has evolved into a real written English dialect online. The lolcat images are a peculiarly satisfying and quirky cultural pastiche, enjoyable outside of the culture(s) that spawned them.

Much has been written about the lolcat phenomenon, and some come up with a better analysis for the viral spread of this meme than others. Major publications have chortled and puzzled over the popularity of lolcats, among them Time, Salon, and Slate (who was on the lolcat bandwagon as early as May, 2007). One strong explanation (from Slate) argues that they are like cartoons, with an image and a punchline, and a certain amount of shared cultural knowledge in order for the joke to be funny. Cats are ubiquitous, they are cute, they are mysterious, they do ridiculous things. Place words over their heads and suddenly they have human attributes, acquiring character and motivation. The disconnect between our silent companions and what we might imagine them to be saying about us is often at the crux of each caption.

Lolcats are an(other) extension of Japanese “cuteness” culture spilling over into the American mainstream. For this meme, the time was right. As more than one article has pointed out, Americans have always had a fascination with their cats. Dorky Cat Fancy magazines and calanders are all the proof anyone needs on this point. The Japanese are miles ahead of us in cultivating an obsession for the adorable. Just think of Hello Kitty, Pikachu, even Harajuku girls dressed up as frilly Lolitas. Sharon Kinsella is an academic who writes about Japanese pop culture; she has a fascinating article on the cuteness obsession (originally published in a book of essays, Women, Media, and Consumption in Japan, Univ. of Hawaii, 1996). Kawaii is a recent addition to the Japanese dialect, she writes, and only began appearing in dictionaries in the 1970’s and later: “Kawaii is a derivation of a term whose principle meaning was ‘shy’ or ’embarrassed’ and secondary meanings were ‘pathetic’, ‘vulnerable’, ‘darling’, ‘loveable’ and ‘small’.” Kinsella continues on to explore the permeation of kawaii in nearly every aspect of Japanese culture: handwriting and speech, clothing and fashionable goods, food, pop idols, even ideas. Her ultimate argument is that the infantilization of Japanese culture was an attempt to reject rigid conservative societal expectations; it was a national Peter Pan syndrome at work.

Lolcats are certainly an Americanized expression of kawaii – they have cute kitties (or, kittehs), and a deliberately infantilized speech – though with the echoes of the masculine gamer geek subculture showing through, they feel less effeminate (and effeminizing) than some of their Japanese counterparts. And maybe it is the occasional inaccessibility of a lolcat image – the internal disruption when you realize that you are not in on either the joke or the subculture – that has led people to search elsewhere for cute, funny images.

Enter CuteOverload.com. Or, as the site calls itself, Cute Overload :) – don’t forget the emoticon! As a classic example of this site, I present the following. (Original image is attributable to markfftang, on flickr.)

Take your "Bunday", shove it, and give me a carrot. (CuteOverload.com)

Take your "Bunday", shove it, and give me a carrot. (CuteOverload.com)

CuteOverload’s site creator gives Flopsy Bunny (the animal shown here) both a voice and a character, and writes:

Take your “Bunday”, shove it, and give me a carrot.
Who do you think we bunnies are? Self-centered Cats that need their own day named after them? Puhlease. [Smooshed-face, disapproving, stubbular bunneh harummphing sounds]
Please note extremely stubbular front right paw action as it tries to slip past detection.

Some of the lolcat meme formula has remained — these animals still have distinct personalities, and still speak a form of English that has been hobbled by diminutive cuteness. One reader, entirely overcome, responds with the following comment that must be the sound she imagines herself making as she presses her face into the rabbit’s fur and makes kissy noises at the same time: “*snorgles*.” Snorgles? Really? Have we truly been reduced to such weeping gibberish over unfathomably cute critters? This image (and many others on CuteOverload) rise above the animal image+punchline formula of lolcats to sheer adorable pandering.

But why has the moment for cuteness in American culture come right now? Several years ago, This American Life did a show on an entrepeneur who put together The Puppy Channel, a cable channel that showed nothing but puppies. The idea was that it would provide something soothing to watch during a lull in television programming; The Puppy Channel aired on four small US cable networks between 1997 and 2001, never entirely catching on. It received a positive response in its markets, but certainly nothing that would be quantified as a “viral” success.

In October, internet and streaming video delivered the modern version of The Puppy Channel: the Shiba Inu Puppy Cam debuted, to an overwhelming response. The puppy cam showed a live stream of six Shiba Inu puppies in their crate over the course of six weeks. The puppy cam received coverage from major news outlets and blogs alike; I heard about it on NPR. Jason Linkins from the Huffington Post gushed over them, “It’s been about a month now since Ana Marie Cox sent me the link to the Shiba Inu Puppy Cam — a site she calls ‘internet Klonopin’ — but I think we can all agree that it is basically the best thing going on in the world right now.” The Puppy Channel failed seven years ago, and now people can’t get enough. Finally, this morning as I was browsing the Slog, someone was kind enough to post something equally incapacitating, Cute Things Falling Asleep, a site which hosts nothing but clips of animals drifting (sometimes stumbling) into slumber. I find it intriguing that the demand for these images — and the proliferation of sites and various media dedicated to different varieties — is eerily like pornography; they exist to provide viewers with a specific, pleasurable visual stimulus. Maybe we should start calling this genre “snorgle porn”?

Scientists have argued that humans possess a finely tuned “cuteness detector” for very specific evolutionary reasons. We are trained to identify specific visual cues, which, as they increase in number, will set off squeals of delight and an intense, pleasurable response. Such signals include large eyes set lower on the face; round, chubby limbs; floppy ears; smallness; sleepiness. These signals also indicate youth, vulnerability, and fragility. An article in the NYT points out that our sensitivity to cute identifiers is directly derived from an evolutionary need to identify and protect human babies:

The human cuteness detector is set at such a low bar, researchers said, that it sweeps in and deems cute practically anything remotely resembling a human baby or a part thereof, and so ends up including the young of virtually every mammalian species, fuzzy-headed birds like Japanese cranes, woolly bear caterpillars, a bobbing balloon, a big round rock stacked on a smaller rock, a colon, a hyphen and a close parenthesis typed in succession.

We can’t help it. Cuteness is a human infant’s – or a tiny bunny rabbit’s – only line of defense in a large and harsh world. The emotional response of caring so immediately for such a vulnerable creature is evolutionary altruism which has been hardwired into our basest responses. But, as I think CuteOverload has proven, deliberately stimulating the cuteness response (cue squealing) produces a gentle, calming flood of pleasurable feelings. We’re self-medicating not with drugs or alcohol, but rather photos of little piglets, tottering giraffes, and playful puppies.

My hunch is that the contagious virulence of these cute memes is, much like a blankie or other transitional object, because they provoke feelings of safety, protectiveness, and comfort. They encourage us to burrow down, to snuggle together. And these little animals are the ultimate minamalists – they need only food, water, and a warm, dry bed. A small puppy might as well be the emblem of our deepening recession; with pared down needs and the power to evoke a strong nesting instinct, its wet nose and floppy ears underscore the idea that providing basic quality of life is not necessarily about material wealth. Glamour and beauty can be bought and sold, but cuteness exists apart from any socioeconomic class structure – its very humble ubiquitousness is what makes it such a comforting visual refuge in times of stress.

That said, unlike Japanese expressions of kawaii, Americans aren’t interested in becoming cute themselves; rather, by infantilizing and anthropomorphizing animals, Americans are re-casting themselves as lovable, gentle, kind and generous. It is a stark switch from the American identity that we have expressed in recent years through our international foreign policy –  an America which is pugilistic, unfeeling, cold, narcissistic, and interested exclusively in its own interests. Perhaps the purpose (and effect) of stimulating our collective altruistic response will be to reshape how each of us, internally, regards our national identity. CuteOverload.com will soften us from a war-mongering people inciting fear and hatred abroad to one who would rather spend the afternoon rolling around on the kitchen floor with half a dozen puppies. Change begins at home, afterall.

ADDENDUM (1/8/09): It seems that change does begin at home. See this ridiculous-slash-adorable clip from The Daily Show on Anderson Cooper’s coverage of the selection of the Obama puppy: The Puppedential Debate. Dear god.

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~ by ecp on December 18, 2008.

3 Responses to “*Snorgles!* Cuteness and Shifting American Identities”

  1. “Cat Fancy” is dorky?! There goes my entire value system out the window…

    I like the idea that Americans are recasting ourselves as generous and compassionate through our obsession with cute animals. Speaking of which, have you seen CAT PRIN? OMG TOO CUTE!!!

    But I digress. My point is, maybe if Hamas, et al. want our sympathy they should spend less time recruiting suicide bombers and more time putting tiny wigs on cats.

  2. I actually squealed when I just opened that website. Those poor cats look humiliated.

    When I was in college and the war in Iraq was just getting underway, someone on my floor once made a joke about how they should make a kitten gun. Kittens have razor-sharp claws, and the logic went that if a small kitten clinging to your face didn’t stop you in your tracks (they always land on their feet, right?), their unbelievable cuteness would.

  3. […] and try out new ideas in a low-risk way. (Seriously, I wrote an awesome crazy essay about the cultural impact of lolcats. Yes.) Even better, giving my brain the chance to just flow increased my creativity and […]

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