Different countries have different aesthetic standards: the shape of houses, streets and squares, the way people talk and dress, the landscape, orderliness, chaos etc. – these are all elements that make up each place’s unique atmosphere.
Aesthetic traits such as fashion and manners belong to the visible characteristics that distinguish peoples in different parts of the world. Of course, every individual is different. But at times it is possible to find features that are peculiar to certain areas. One of them is undoubtedly the ideal of beauty. As far as East Asia is concerned, the cult of ‘cuteness’ surrounding the concept of female beauty is certainly one of the most fascinating phenomena which sets this cultural area apart from others.
Cuteness is ubiquitous in East Asian countries: from ‘Hello Kitty’ to high-pitch voices, from fashion to manners, one can easily detect numerous aspects of this phenomenon which indeed is one of the most conspicuous differences between Western and East Asian countries. Where does this phenomenon come from? What are its causes?
Japan and Kawaii Culture
As an introduction, let us begin with the country that has generated the original wave of ‘cute pop culture’: Japan. The Japanese example can be very useful to understand why cuteness is such an important social phenomenon in Taiwan and in mainland China.
The Japanese word for cute is kawaii. Although it is often simply translated as cute, kawaii has actually different meanings that cannot always be rendered in English: 1) pitiable or poor, 2) something one should feel love for, 3) something small or petty. Usually the term kawaii includes notions such as childish, benign, pleasant, but also desire, attraction and beauty (Osenton 2006, p.1). Nowadays, kawaii is associated with ideas such as childlike, sweet, adorable, innocent, pure, simple, genuine etc. (see Locher 2003, Chapter 2).
In classical Japanese – for example in the 11th century novel The Tale of Genji (源氏物語 Genji Monogatari) – the word kawaii was used to refer to feelings of pity and empathy. kawaiso thus meant pitiful and pitiable. In subsequent centuries, the term kawaii received new connotations. It began to mean compassion for children and the charm of being helpless. During the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603 – 1868), neo-Confucianism propagated a notion of “docile, dependent and demure” female ideals. Women had to be fragile, delicate, sensitive and pretty (Lent 1999, p. 95).
It was in the 1960s that the meaning of the word kawaii began to broaden and be used in other contexts. It became synonymous with sweet, adorable, innocent, pure and vulnerable. It defined a behaviour and an appearance which were infantile and at the same time pretty (see Skov / Moeran 1995, p. 220).
The image of ‘cute women’ is ambiguous. It is a very feminine image, which combines innocence, softness and sexuality. It is a mix of different elements, some of which are traditional while others are new.
Cuteness in Asian Societies: Gender-roles, Confucian Ethics and the Importance of Acting
We shall argue that the success of the aesthetic of cuteness is deeply rooted in the social and gender-specific context of East Asian societies. It is in fact conspicuous that the ‘cute style’ could not be successfully exported to other societies, such as Western or Muslim societies. Indeed, one hardly sees any Western women wearing Hello Kitty dresses or accessories, or trying to project a cute, innocent, fragile image. Many Western women would rather give an independent, strong image of themselves. It seems that the cult of cuteness can barely develop outside of a specifically East Asian environment.
Cuteness is a way to serve male fantasies in societies in which gender-roles are extremely differentiated. Men have a certain conception of what a woman should be, and they hope to find in women the characteristics they are looking for.
In traditional Asian societies the role of men and women has always been clearly separated, and until today many of the old conceptions of gender-roles and expectations still exist. For instance, Asian men traditionally do not like women who are better educated than them, who express strong views (for example regarding politics) or who earn more than them. Many parents still teach their daughters that they will not be able to find a husband if they have too high education or focus too much on their careers. The traditional notion of the social inferiority of women is thus perpetuated.
Examples of parents telling their daughters that the choice of their husbands should have priority over their education and that a husband who earns less than them is not a good match, are not uncommon (two such examples can be found in: Tokuhiro 2012, and Burger 2012).
In the Confucian tradition, the family was based on hierarchy, and hierarchy depended on generation, age, and gender. Parents were superior to children, men to women, husbands to wives etc. (Lang 1946, p. 24). According to this hierarchy, children were taught from an early age that different social and family roles implied different obligations and expectations.
Although the old-style Confucian culture has changed in the past decades, the hierarchical structure of East Asian societies persists, albeit in a much softer form compared with the pre-WWII period.
Individuals will adapt themselves to the assumption that inequality exists and is inevitable. For example, it is not uncommon in East Asia for women to be asked during job interviews if they have a boyfriend, if they plan to get married and to have a child etc. In this way, companies openly manifest their unwillingness to hire women who are planning to start a family. By contemporary Western standards, this would be seen as a violation of the employee’s personal sphere. But in Asia, women may in private complain, but very few of them will take action against such practices. They accept that women are treated this way.
Dating behaviour and marriage planning also show women’s and men’s acceptance of traditional social roles. Many women will project a cute image, even if this image does not reflect their true personality. Indeed, many women during the first phases of dating or of a relationship might pretend to be soft and gentle in order to convey a good impression. Cuteness may certainly reflect a person’s real personality, but in many cases it is simply the result of a conscious learning process. Women behave this way because they have come to believe that that is what society expects of them. This aspect is often overlooked or not understood by Westerners, who tend to think that cuteness is a natural reflection of an individual’s character. Yet it should not be surprising that in Asia people might not show their real self, but just a polite or cute version of themselves at the beginning of a friendship or relationship. Playing a role is considered common sense.
On the other hand, for numerous Asian women the ideal of a good husband is that of a person who has the financial means and the sense of responsibility to take care of them and their children. Parents, too, teach their daughters that the job and reliability of their future husband are the key components for a happy marriage, while emotional considerations are secondary if not unimportant. Therefore, women tend to see themselves as passive recipients of male protection. This might sound harsh. For many Asian women, however, being dependent on men is not seen as a humiliation or as a condition that damages their self-respect, but rather as a practical and rational consideration based on local social realities and standards.
In fact, a great number of women talk of the ideal husband not in terms of love or feelings, but in terms of the service that husbands can render them, of whether they are good at taking care of them. For example, men from Shanghai are considered good husbands because they both know how to earn money and how to be patient with their wives, tolerating even their fits of anger or bad mood. At the same time, many wives tolerate their husbands – most especially rich husbands – to have mistresses. This is, again, an evolution of the ancient tradition of concubinage in East Asian societies, where marriage and duty were often separated from love and pleasure.
The image that some women project is that of a ‘Lolita’; an ambiguously innocent, cute, inferior woman, a girl-child who “deserves to be cuddled and cared for” (Locher 2003, p. 10). By Western standards, this might seem a deplorable situation. But it is not. The way women show strength and in which they protect themselves is embedded in the old traditions, and they can indeed measure success and social status on the basis of their being part of a successful, respectable family.
It should be remarked that in a society where hierarchy, social roles and ritual behaviour are extremely important, external standards such as manners, social status or compliance with actions that enjoy social recognition, are fundamental criteria for judging if a person is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. In old Chinese society, moral values were not expressed verbally, but through acts. For instance, a good daughter-in-law, who after marriage belonged to the husband’s family, had to help her husband fulfill his filial duties, regardless of whether she was happy about it or not; no one would ask her if she was, anyway, and she was not expected to complain in front of her family members. The following Chinese folk song illustrates what was expected of women after getting married:
When you get married and become a daughter-in-law / Be submissive and well behaved / Be able to weave and sew clothes / Do not forget the three rules of obedience and the four virtues / Being filial to your parents-in-law is of utmost importance / When you cook, ask your parents-in-law what dishes and soup they want / When the meal is ready, you set the table / Set up two pairs of sandalwood chopsticks for your parents-in-law / When you serve the rice, serve it elegantly with the bowl eight-tenths full / When you serve a dish, make sure you drain the extra sauce / When your parents-in-law are dining, wait beside the table but do not join in their conversation / When your parents-in-law finish their meal, hand over the mouth-wash soup right away/ Clear the dining table and serve cigarettes to your parents-in-law / If your parents-in-law praise you, it is to the honor of us, your natal family, as well (Ikels 2004, p. 20).
This song shows that filial piety had to be expressed through etiquette and rituals, by serving parents and making them happy. Given the great value that etiquette and socially recognized actions have in East Asian societies, it is not surprising that ‘cuteness’, too, is used as an indicator of femininity, as a method to show in a non-verbal way a woman’s suitability as a partner or her adherence to a certain social role.
At the same time, it also serves as a compensatory moment. It is interesting to note that while love and affection do not play a central role in marriage and are actually discouraged by parents, the ritualistic display of love and affection are omnipresent. Similarly, while Asian societies stress work ethics and hierarchical order more than individual happiness and enjoyment, the display of happiness is constant. For example, it is customary in Asia to use group photographs to show happiness, harmony and love. Even among people who don’t know each other very well, or are not very close, or even have conflicts, pictures are used to display group happiness. Hence the highly choreographed group poses that convey cuteness, happiness and sweetness.
Sharon Kinsella remarked that cute style conveys a “warm, cheer-me-up atmosphere“. But while Kinsella sees cuteness mostly in the context of capitalism, arguing that cute style re-personalizes goods that the industrial production process de-personalizes (see Skov / Moeran 1995, p. 228), we shall here extend the function of this style to the society at large. Cute style “with powerful emotion-inducing properties” (ibid.), which convey the feeling of warmth, happiness and softness, can be employed as an aesthetic compensation for the lack of such emotions in a society that is, in many respects, tough and stressful, and in which personal happiness and even social life has to be sacrificed to the requirements of work ethics and onerous family obligations.