Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Vanity Fair is scared of Cuteness

Jim Windolf of Vanity Fair apparently thinks we're all becoming addicted to cuteness. At least one blogger saw the recent trailer for the movie Babies and wondered if he was right about that.

The Vanity Fair article is probably great press, but only because it's contentious, not because it's convincing. Making a sweeping claim... like the claim that the "cute" aesthetic is taking over all of Americana... may be provocative, but you can't back it up simply by citing a catalog of examples of the phenomenon. Windolf undermines his own argument by packing his article full of offhanded derision and snarky asides, and by including examples that only loosely support his point... the Geico Gecko, the shape of Smart Cars, and company names like "Google" and "Twitter" are barely relevant to any of this.

A stylistic trend doesn't automatically translate into a zeitgeist. "Cuteness" has a long history in culture and genetics, and there's not much chance that it'll suddenly take over modern culture and destroy it. There's also not much chance that it'll go away, since it's rooted so deeply in our reactions to our surroundings... really, what Windolf is ranting against is a certain segment of the culture industry that's gotten very good at tapping the maternal instinct. It's not so much a cultural takeover as a newly-minted aesthetic gimmick that's gained a lot of traction in post-postmodernism. I'd argue that the "sincerity purges" of the postmodern years, exemplified by irony and detachment and nihilism, have caused a blowback of childlike over-sincerity, an assertion of our basic right to have biologically-motivated chemical reactions to empty, escapist pleasures.

Of course, pomo hasn't been left completely in the dust. Cuteness is an extension of kitsch, the great stylistic advancement of the 90's... or, to be more precise, it's vindicated by kitsch, which allowed us to celebrate the cheapness and shallowness of throwaway culture. Cuteness is arguably an advancement, though... kitsch was supported largely by irony, and by taking up the token cause of things that were genuinely ugly. At the very least, cute culture makes the assertion that we should like it and feel authentically edified by it, even if it's childish.

In a certain way, it seems like an antidote to the worship of dominance that plagues American (and human) culture... in turning toward vulnerability and innocence, we're turning away from images of power, control, and competition. This may be refreshing. However, as Windolf points out (and I give him credit for this), it may indicate its opposite: the focus on the small and cute may actually be a way of belittling the object, and subconsciously reinforcing our own sense of superiority. Or, as he argues in a bit of a self-contradiction, the attention to cuteness may indicate that we're identifying with the object and developing a victim complex, attempting to repackage ourselves as a country that needs to be protected. He cites Japan as an example of this behavior. These points are valid, and should prompt some reflection.

However, I would say that the maternal instinct enacts the best of each of these tendencies, rather than the worst. It makes us protective, rather than asserting some sort of tyrannical dominance; it allows us to appreciate and identify with the innocence and immediacy of infancy, rather than indulging fantasies of belittlement.

Now, with regards to Babies... there is such a thing as a movie that relies too much on a style and excuses itself from having any of the other strengths of a good movie (concept, writing, narrative form, etc). When I saw the poster for Smokin' Aces, I was pretty sure I knew what it was offering – a heavy-duty stylistic commitment, draped over a lot of propulsive inanity. Babies looks like an analogous movie for the nurturing crowd, although without having seen it, I can't rule out the possibility that it will manage a complex and unexpected execution of its core stylistic concept.

So I'm not here to justify cuteness as substance. I'm just here to caution against what Windolf is tending to do: to equate a stylistic trend with a cultural groundswell, and to confuse his own taste with some kind of genuine standard of merit.

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