Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Neoliberalism

Hello Kitty coin purse
The first Hello Kitty merchandise released in 1974.

Hello Kitty—that Japanese animated character whose species was called into question last August creating a news media furor—is unquestionably the embodiment of cute.  Whether you love her or hate her (and many do), Hello Kitty is cute.  Since her parent company, Sanrio, birthed her onto the consumer market in 1974, she has achieved a global marketplace presence to turn Barbie green with envy. 

According to the Sanrio website:

“Hello Kitty was created 40 years ago to inspire happiness, friendship, and sharing across the world. Since her first appearance on a coin purse in 1974, she has become a global phenomenon and friend to millions. Happy 40th Anniversary, Hello Kitty!

As Hello Kitty always says, ‘You can never have too many friends.’" 

Or too many ways to sell your image, it seems. 

That was the message I got when I visited the exhibition Hello!  Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty curated by Christine Yano, PhD, and Jamie Rivadeneira for the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.  Dr. Yano is the author of Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek Across the Pacific (2013) and professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa.  Ms. Rivadeneira is the founder and owner of the pop culture boutique, JapanLA in Los Angeles. 

The exhibition is awkwardly divided between two different floors of a museum dedicated to the Japanese American experience.  More disconcerting than the split galleries, however, is the limited expository text accompanying objects and exhibition cases.  The effect is as if strolling amongst the carefully arranged pieces in a rabid fan’s collection.  The fan can tell us the year a toaster first went into production and might even know who designed it, but we learn little else.  If you’ve ever listened to a Barbie collector talk about the dolls in his den—and I have—this is perfectly charming behavior . . . in a collector.  A museum exhibition, on the other hand, has a responsibility to explain the objects’ cultural significance.

Previously (http://www.lorihallaraujo.com/blog/the-big-top-exhibit), I’ve bemoaned the lack of rigor in many museum exhibitions.  Too often exhibitions arrange objects in glass cases with little orienting or contextualizing text for the visitor.  I am sorry to say that this was largely my experience at Hello! I went into Hello! expecting the Japanese American National Museum to deliver on its website promise that the exhibit “examines the colorful history of Hello Kitty and her influence on popular culture” and includes an “extensive product survey . . . alongside a selection of innovative contemporary artworks inspired by Hello Kitty and her world.”

As far as Hello Kitty’s influence on popular culture goes, a 40-year lineup of Hello Kitty products does not constitute an examination though it certainly does count as an “extensive product survey.”  Hello Kitty men’s suit?  Yes.  Hello Kitty bicycle?  Yes.  Hello Kitty vibrator?  Yes! Yes! YES! 

Hello Kitty vibrators
Some of the many Sanrio produced Hello Kitty goods on the market.

The Hello Kitty inspired artwork section, for which several artists have offered their thoughts on the free cell phone audio tour, is the strongest.  Artists’ works—which includes a Gary Baseman painting—run the gamut from cute to creepy.  As in the other galleries, however, the curators offer little exposition on the artworks’ broader cultural significance. 

Gary Baseman for Hello Kitty
Gary Baseman is among the artists who have made Hello Kitty-inspired work for the JANM exhibition.

Though the exhibition does not deliver a critical curatorial perspective, in a special public conversation between the curators on April 18th, I learned that both Yano and Rivadeneira are interested in the Japanese concept, kawaii.  Rivadeneira adores kawaii so much that she has built an entire boutique dedicated to kawaii products while Yano’s interest is academic.  The public session was enlightening and demonstrated that the curators have a good deal more to say about Hello Kitty than the exhibition suggests.  So what is kawaii and what does it have to do with Hello Kitty?

Hello Kitty Curators
Curators Christine Yano (left) and Jamie Rivadeneira (right) discuss Hello Kitty on April 18, 2015.

Kawaii is loosely translated as cute but, as Yano explained in her April public address, it is a relational term.  This means that kawaii is more than an adjective, since the act of calling something kawaii creates a relation between the namer and the thing being described as kawaii.  Kawaii, notes Yano, is often manifested in anthropomorphized animals or inanimate objects whose eyes and heads are oversized.  To recognize kawaii in something or someone is to reveal one’s humanity and compassion for helpless, big-eyed creatures.  Think of it as the animated answer to the soft fuzzy feelings you get cuddling a kitten or teacup Chihuahua.  What Hello Kitty lacks in the eye department she makes up for in head size and harmless mouthlessness.  Her inability to speak is yet another quality she shares in common with man’s best friend.  Hello Kitty belongs to larger Japanese kawaii culture and for Yano the little white creature with the big head represents Japanese “cool culture’s” successful global marketplace expansion, what she calls “pink globalization.”

Scholar Brian J. McVeigh takes a different perspective noting that kawaii in Japanese culture is “used to symbolize, reinforce and communicate norms which privileges males over females and is the ideal sentiment for strengthening lines of authority” (2000: 144).  Yet cuteness in Japanese culture is also used to “soften” authority and is used for police, public warning, and other municipal signs (2000: 150-152).  After all, how can you argue with an adorable, wide-eyed drop of water?


Kawaii water droplet

What the exhibition Hello! does not interrogate and what Yano only touched upon in her curatorial talk, is how the corporate goals of Sanrio use kawaii to drive consumerism.  In other words, Hello Kitty “softens” the message to spend money on what are otherwise non-essential luxury goods.  That is not to say that one should not enjoy things that bring one pleasure, for who am I to deny someone a Hello Kitty vibrator?  Yet Hello Kitty’s message of “happiness, friendship, and sharing” comes in an expensive neoliberal envelope for there are so many Hello Kitty things to buy!  Each Hello Kitty length of fabric and every Hello Kitty toaster provide opportunities to craft an identity; not an identity founded on religious beliefs, ethics, or even aesthetics alone but on consumer goods.  Hello Kitty is more than the “pink globalization” of Japanese culture.  She is the adorable means for directing us to buy and to define the self through manufactured goods.

Hello Kitty as Sphinx
Visit the Hello Kitty exhibition at the JANM and try to guess the riddle of her appeal.

Hello! opens with a brief biography of Sanrio’s gentle founder, Shintaro Tsuji, a man we learn who simply wanted to bring happiness to the world.  Giving, according to Sanrio, is good and what better way to make someone smile than with the gift of a small Hello Kitty coin purse for $8.95?  That is why, the exhibition explains, site-specific Hello Kitty key chains can be purchased at major tourist destinations: Hello Kitty and the Eiffel Tower!  Hello Kitty in a Union Jack hat!  Hello Kitty at the 2014 World Cup!  Truly she is a global phenomenon.  Maybe the curators got distracted by how doggone cute Hello Kitty is but they missed an opportunity to investigate what it means to craft identity from so much manufactured stuff.

Ultimately, the exhibition’s poetic highlight is near the entrance in a display case containing the first piece of Hello Kitty merchandise ever made: a coin purse.

 

Hello!  Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty is open through May 31, 2015 at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.  Tickets are $20 for adults, $10 for ages 6-17, free for ages 5 and under.  (janm.org/hellokitty)

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