by Mizuko Ito
Here is another installment from my student essays from my Japanese popular culture class. This one is from Jennilee Tuazon.
Her blank eyes gaze at you from her white face, her button nose a sunshine yellow. A dainty bow rests askew on her left ear, the color matching the day’s adorable—not to mention perfectly coordinated—outfit. Cute, one almost overlooks an important feature: the mouth. Hello Kitty, the embodiment of cute, has no mouth. After more than 30 years, she remains a popular and recognizable character, with generation after generation of young girls falling in love—or at least consumer lust—with Hello Kitty, their zeal for collecting the fancy goods at times extending in adulthood. Why the interest (both love and loathing for the character) in Hello Kitty and all things kawaii? What factors have contributed to her rise and continued success on a global scale? Finally, what are the implications of a mouthless Hello Kitty in terms of gender stereotypes and agency?
Created in 1974 by Japan’s Sanrio Company, Hello Kitty remains one of the world’s most recognizable and lucrative brands despite limited advertising. A recent search on Google showed over five million results for the search terms “Hello Kitty.” Clearly, the graphically simple character created over 30 years ago continues to resonate with self-proclaimed fans and detractors alike. My fascination with Sanrio products began early. Though not a fan of Hello Kitty herself while I was growing up in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was nonetheless a huge Sanrio fan, my favorite characters being Pochacco (the sporty dog) and Keroppi (the clumsy frog). Sanrio products were my first introduction to Japanese popular culture though at the time I was unaware of its cultural origin. Moreover, my first Sanrio purchase marked my official entrée into consumer culture. Each fall right before the beginning of the new school year, I remember making the trip to the Sanrio Surprises store at the local mall to stock up on vital school supplies such as pencil cases, pencils, pens, erasers, and pencil sharpeners with the latest character design. The characters were just so cute and much more fun to use than the plain yellow number two pencils and pink erasers. My love of Sanrio fancy good products lasted until late elementary school, but, for some, the love appears to last much longer, stretching into adolescence and adulthood. Celebrities continue to sport Hello Kitty gear, from t-shirts and plastic jewelry at casual events to sequined purses and bejeweled compacts at black-tie affairs. Now, I am fascinated by the continued interest “grown” women show in Hello Kitty and the embracement of the cute, mouthless cat, especially in an American society that often pathologizes or criticizes adults for embracing child culture (with which the character has been associated). What exactly makes Hello Kitty so appealing? And what are the implications of her appeal?
What started as a Sanrio experiment in 1971 (during which the company printed cute designs on writing paper and stationary) at the time of the cute handwriting craze in Japan grew into what is now a billion dollar global corporation that has released hundreds of cute characters pictured on their wide range of fancy goods (Kinsella, 1995:225-226). Fancy goods, Kinsella explains, are:
small, pastel, round, soft, loveable, not traditional Japanese style but a foreign—in particular European or American—style, dreamy, frilly and fluffy. [. . . ] The essential anatomy of a cute cartoon character consists in its being small, soft, infantile, mammalian, round, without bodily appendages (e.g. arms), without bodily orifices (e.g. mouths), non-sexual, mute, insecure, helpless or bewildered (1995:226).
Hello Kitty—with her large, round head; blank eyes; and no mouth—is the perfect example of cute characters used in the fancy goods industry. She is small, harmless, non-sexual (and, in Sanrio form, not sexualized), and, above all, cute. According to her official biography, she lives in London along with her parents and twin sister, Mimmy. The biography concludes with the line, “As Hello Kitty always says, you can never have too many friends." In addition, Kitty now serves as the “UNICEF Special Friend of Children” and works to educate fans about gender disparity in the educational system globally. Hello Kitty is the embodiment of all that is good and wholesome in this world.
A discussion of Hello Kitty is nearly impossible without an explanation of kawaii and the culture that surrounds the term. Historically, the rise of cuteness is traced back to the 1970s, with the popularization of cute handwriting and manga and disillusionment with earlier student riots and subsequent capitalization of those trends by the fancy goods industry (Kinsella, 1995:225). Though the general meaning of the word is “cute,” the qualities and connotations associated with the term are many. As Kinsella writes, a survey among men and women in 1992 revealed a number of other terms associated with kawaii, including: childlike, innocent, naïve, unconscious, natural, emotional contact between individuals, fashionable, associated with animals, and weak (1995:237-240). Kawaii is a produced style and aesthetic as well as an inherent quality a person, place, or thing possesses.
The rise of Hello Kitty in the global consumer market, like other successful pop cultural imports, may be attributed to the process of removing traces of Japanese origin. Iwabuchi has coined the expression “culturally odorless products” to describe the ways in which Japanese products erase their “Japaneseness” in order to be more successfully marketed overseas (Allison, 2000:70). Moreover, “effacing the identity—the Japaneseness—of Japanese products appears to be even more prominent in the US Market” (Allison, 2000:70). Making a product “culturally odorless” somehow reduces resistance to a product through its reduction of difference. “Relating” or “understanding” a product becomes easier through this process. Like Allison’s example, in which the differences in The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers were domesticated and the origins erased, the Japanese origin of Sanrio products remains obscure or hidden. In fact, Hello Kitty’s surname is White, and she hails from London. When first introduced to Hello Kitty and all her Sanrio companions, I never equated the characters, or the company behind them, with a specific national identity or state. Although I had some sense that the product likely came from Asia given the heavy presence of Sanrio products in primarily Asian communities near my childhood home and the fact that only young Asian women were employed in the many Sanrio stores I frequented, I had no idea that Sanrio was a Japanese company until a few years ago. Sanrio achieved their goal to the extent that even Hello Kitty’s current designer (the third in the history of the character) was at first unsure whether or not Kitty was a licensed character or an original one created in Japan (Interview with Yamaguchi on now offline hellokittythebook.com).
The consumer success of Hello Kitty gives Sanrio considerable “soft power” globally. As Nye explains, “soft power” remains one way in which one country can influence another’s desires or values (McGray, 2002). While I agree that all things Japanese are presently considered to be very “cool” or “hip” or “in” and I would argue that there is much greater awareness of Sanrio products as Japanese in origin (if not by young consumers, then at least older ones), I do not think the company has really tapped into that “soft power” on any level other than the consumer one. Consumer desire for all things Hello Kitty—from pencils to hair brushes and, for true (and older) Kitty aficionados, even vibrators—continue to drive sales for Hello Kitty more than 30 years after her introduction into the consumer market. Still, the very image of Hello Kitty provokes mixed reactions. The “Japaneseness” now associated with Hello Kitty may give the owner of the products a certain cache and even coolness (especially given her celebrity following) to some audiences while others may view the image as overly cute and unprofessional, especially when used by older women.
Sales of a billion dollars a year suggest that Hello Kitty has quite a fan base. While some sites are devoted exclusively to images and the biography of Hello Kitty, others wax philosophical about the character or write poems. As one fan writes:
Kitty is a paradigm of the preadolescent female self, before young women are forced to internalize the images of what society promotes as necessary to become beautiful or appealing: uncomfortable shoes, control-top pantyhose, a cow-like Nancy Reagan gaze, and those two twin demons—silicone and StairMasters. Kitty is eternally uncorruptible. She doesn’t want to please anyone except herself. [. . .] A fellow Kittyphile suggests that Kitty, with her immaculate whiteness, is the embodiment of pure innocence” (Hanks, 1999).
(While I would argue that Kitty’s gaze may be interpreted as just as cow-like as Nancy Reagan’s, I digress.) Hanks’s words show the ways in which Kitty has been appropriated as a feminist, girl power image. Fans of Hello Kitty project their own feelings onto the character, allowing consumers to give them identities (Gomez, 2004).
However, not all opinions of Hello Kitty are quite that positive. Many websites comment on Hello Kitty’s lack of mouth, often treating the subject with biting sarcasm. The official word from Sanrio is that Hello Kitty speaks from the heart; as Sanrio’s global ambassador, she is not bound by language. Nevertheless, her mouthless countenance has inspired even academics to comment. Kitty, like other cute characters, has “stubbly arms, no fingers, no [mouth], huge [head], massive eyes—which can hide no private thoughts from the viewer—nothing between their legs, pot bellies, swollen legs or pigeon feet. [. . .] Cute things can’t walk, can’t talk, can’t in fact do anything at all for themselves because they are physically handicapped” (Kinsella, 1995:236). All these remain qualities of the weak which are praised or even glorified by kawaii culture and images. Through cute images, the signifiers of infantilism—weakness, helplessness, childishness, and dependence—become things to aspire to or things to mimic. In an American society that lauds autonomy and independence, the underlying qualities represented by kawaii images, which are primarily associated with young girls, remain problematic. Without a mouth, Hello Kitty has neither voice nor agency. The image of Hello Kitty further perpetuates the stereotype of the docile Asian female. Hello Kitty, like Madame Butterfly before her, may be viewed as little more then a “compliant, doll-like [object] of fantasy,” albeit a typically non-sexualized one (Ma, 1996:17). The Asian woman is “not as verbal and tend[s] not to assert [herself] in a public setting” (Ma, 1996:18). In this sense then, Hello Kitty is the prototypical Asian female, unable to verbalize for she has no mouth.
Various artists and satirists have paid particular attention to Hello Kitty’s lack of mouth. The Tims have written a poem entitled “Hello Kitty Has No Mouth” . Irreverent, sample lines read “Hello Kitty has no mouth, yet she speaks the truth/ [. . .] Hello Kitty has no mouth, yet she’s the spokesperson for Sanrio.” They also include a hilarious, albeit somewhat nonsensical, FAQs page in which they enlighten readers about reasons for Hello Kitty having no mouth as well field angry responses from fervent Kitty lovers. Meanwhile, performing artist Jaime Scholnick has created a film entitled “Hello Kitty Gets a Mouth”. Inspired by her shock at the popularity of the mouthless Kitty, Scholnick decided it was time for the silent female to get a voice. Her introduction reads:
After years of silence, Hello Kitty now joins the historic list of others of the same gender in acquiring a voice. The short film depicts the frustration Hello Kitty encounters upon realizing her inability to utter a sound. Appropriately frustrated by her discovery, Hello Kitty promptly takes action and finds herself in the perfect place for reconstructive surgery, Los Angeles.
Scholnick gives Hello Kitty both agency and voice, sending the message that females can be empowered and more than able to solve their problems.
Hello Kitty remains one of the most recognizable and profitable brands in the world today. Her popularity and Sanrio’s financial success has brought both popular and academic attention to the image of the cartoon character and the meanings conveyed by her countenance and design. The culturally odorless nature of the character at the beginning of Sanrio’s global expansion, her cute appearance, and the certain “coolness” or cache that Japaneseness now lends to the product have contributed to the success of the brand. Finally, the very image of Hello Kitty appears to promote traditional gender stereotypes, glorifying the weakness and infantilism of young girls. Such views have led to satirical works that criticize the image while still approaching the topic in a humorous fashion.
Posted by Mizuko Ito at 2005年12月01日 05:28