Cute Is as Cute Does

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of “the cute.” Partly, this comes from my own soft spot for cute things and my decades-long attempt, as a painter, to bring a tiny dash of cuteness into my otherwise serious paintings. But it also comes from friends and family continually barraging me with cute animal videos, which I then pass on by posting on my Facebook and Google+ pages. (I’m including here the link to the cute animal video Jazz for Cows, which I received only yesterday.)

There are millions of videos of cute cats, dogs and guinea pigs, cute pigs, goats and ponies, cute bears, lions and tigers, cute elephants, and even cute snakes and spiders, romping about, tumbling, dining on pumpkins and whatnot, splashing about in the water, and generally just falling all over themselves. There are also lots of videos of cute cross-species encounters where, say, a dog nurses a litter of raccoons, or a crow or monkey mothers an orphaned kitten.

The vocal reaction to a cute animal video is summed up by the utterance, “Awwwww…,” almost exclusively the verbal province of women. But though cute animal videos probably appeal more to women than men, if you google the words, “cute animal videos,” you’ll find a heck of a lot of men sure do like carting around a video camera and aiming it at cute animals. Cute animals, it turns out, are equal opportunity charmers.

Although there are no examples that come immediately to mind of major aestheticians pondering cuteness (if there’s a treatise out there, I haven’t found it), cuteness is a sub-category of aesthetics. We consider diminutive, rounded living forms, especially if young, and especially if young, furry, or fuzzy, to be cute. But cuteness also resides in the realm of action, where funny, ungainly movement, or general endearing behavior, particularly in the young of a species, we think of as “cute.” For example, without necessarily intending to be condescending or insulting, young people sometimes will call old people “cute.” (Among the many burdens the old must bear is having to put up with this sort of claptrap.) Numbers and location profoundly affect our perception of cuteness as well. A lone lady bug clinging to a blade of grass is adorable—a darling little part of nature that’s wondrous to ponder. A hundred lady bugs crawling around the inside of your bedroom window, on the other hand, indicates a pack of pests has invaded, and immediate death is required.

The sight of cute animals brings out a tender side in most of us that, coupled with the ease and fun of making videos (and then instantaneously replaying them), accounts for what is, if you survey the sources of cute animal videos posted on YouTube, a worldwide infatuation with cute-animal videos. I’ve got a hunch the movie March of the Penguins (2005) fueled a fair amount of this love. Penguins—like giant pandas, monkeys, and koala bears (especially koala bears!)—are among the few animals that remain cute, in the eyes of many of us, their entire lives.

Admittedly, what’s a cute animal and what’s not a cute animal is ultimately a subjective judgment. More interesting are the many people who grow attached to animals that aren’t particularly cute—or at least not considered cute to most other people.  Fellow Brainstormer David Barash, for example, loves the little desman, a creature that looks a little too slimy for me to count among the cute. I suspect he sees it at least partly as cute.

But even when there’s broad consensus, the numbers game is at work: If giant pandas weren’t rare, but instead were moving in hordes and devouring all the bamboo in China, people probably wouldn’t find them so cute. There are many parts of the world where monkeys aren’t considered cute, but instead are seen either as pests or bush meat, pure and simple.

It’s easy to imagine someone loving animal cuteness on videos but not being interested in seeing it in real life—the kind of person who might have a sentimental notion about how adorable animals are, when seen on a screen, but has no interest in having, say, a pet that might actually turn the living room furniture into a demolition project.

I’d like to suggest that infatuation with animal cuteness may be at odds with the ability to appreciate the beauty of adult animals and the rich complexities of their adult behavior. Certainly those who love cute animal videos aren’t necessarily the same ones who pay attention to, say, nature shows, or are curious about animal species as a whole.  And those who love only the cute phase of an animal’s life are often to blame for the abandonment of so many dogs that were once puppies and so many cats that were once kittens.

Just because you love cute animal videos doesn’t mean you love animals.

More on cuteness later.


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