You know what's wrong with the world today? Cuteness. All those goddamned Internet videos of laughing babies, sneezing pandas, hiccuping dogs and fat cats stuck in boxes. All the grating "omigoshes," "awww's" and "cutegasms" over "kittehs" and "puppehs" and other "redonkulous," "snorgle-worthy" creatures. Then there's the craze over saccharine (in every sense) gourmet cupcakes, the ittle widdle Mini Cooper, the smiling Smart Car, the comfy cozy Snuggie and that blinking, doe-eyed Geico Gecko.
All this cuteness just begs for a good old-fashioned ass-whooping.
At least, so suggests Jim Windolf, aka Sir Grumpster, in the December issue of Vanity Fair. A "cute movement," he says, has "sprung to life against a backdrop of war, economic breakdown, and more Wi-Fi." It might satisfy on a mid-brain level, but it's ultimately "soft and brain-deadening," argues Windolf. So, why has "cute culture" come to reign supreme in America at this particular moment? He has a couple theories: 1) We desperately want to be liked (and to like ourselves), 2) We're depressed and 3) We're sick sadists.
Wowzers. Total cutekill, right? But let's hear the man out: "In a decade that has slapped us with a recession in the wake of 9/11 and an unending war waged in two theaters, Americans are producing a popular culture that seems to be saying, Please like us," he says. "It stands to reason that popular cuteness came about as some sort of correction, as a way for us to convince ourselves and our friends that we’re not as bad as our recent national actions have made us seem." Then came the ultimate correction: We elected Barack Obama as our president. But he, too, says Windolf, is part of this adorable uprising -- our commander-in-cuteness, if you will. (I mean, have you seen that I-jus'-wanna-pinch-yer-cheek smile?)
Of course, watching a YouTube video of a baby dancing to Beyoncé isn't just about making others like us -- it's also a way to make ourselves feel good on a very basic level. The past decade has left us feeling rather low and, as a result, candy sales have gone up and so too have suicide rates. "At decade’s end, the stats suggest, America is a nation in need of a hug, a Snickers, and the nucleus-accumbens squirt provoked by baby-animal photos, laughing-baby clips, and bathetic movies," he writes.
And now we come to the unflattering portion of his thesis -- that bit about cute culture being at times sadistic. What's so sick about watching a baby in a highchair laughing uncontrollably, you might ask? "The baby may be cute on his own, but the clip heightens his vulnerability by presenting him more or less trapped in a high chair and reduced to a hysterical powerlessness by his father’s sly utterances of 'Bing' and 'Dong.'" He quotes Daniel Harris, author of "Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic," as saying: "There is something dark about using children for the pleasure of our maternal needs. We enjoy being caretakers so much that we will create situations in which they need our care." There's an element of that too in Web sites that delight in playfully torturing pets -- whether it's by dressing them up or putting stuff on them.
All in all, these are compelling, well-argued points. But puppies have elicited squeals since long before Bush came into office and adults have cooed at baby animals since forever. Before there were viral videos on YouTube, there was "America's Funniest Home Videos," "Candid Camera," "Kids Say the Darndest Things" and inspirational posters featuring felines hanging from branches. We humans love this stuff; we can't get enough of it. What seems particularly contemporary is Windolf's attempt to rationalize our collective mid-brain obsession with all things cute, to reduce the 95 millions views netted by the video of the world's most famous laughing baby to the chemical reaction it causes in our brains. One could argue that this kind of thinking, which distances us from our baser emotions and impulses, is itself a way to protect ourselves against the gloom and doom of the world today. I say, why not have your Puppy Cam and your neuronal self-awareness, too.