Jenny Morber is a science writer whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Slate and elsewhere.
Recently, I met a friend for a drink and as we sat together in our café chairs across a tiny round table she asked me casually how I was doing. I paused, uncomfortably, before speaking, because it takes some time to find a truthful response when the answer is that I am healthy and happy and thriving and thankful but also being eaten away by the incredible suffering and dysfunction and waste I see all around me, that I feel powerless and loathsome for not doing more, while acknowledging that doing more means perhaps risking my safety and my family’s stability, and doesn’t that, too, seem reckless? And she, don’t you know it, looked into my eyes and said, yes. Yes. This is also how I feel.
There is in my country, the United States, a national despair. I watch and listen while we struggle to balance personal well-being with the dismantling of all that has worked to encourage it. This despair, I know, is borderless; it’s the same around much of the world. And I see people trying to help each other when they cannot buy a drink or lend a hand or give a hug by offering a happy diversion from it all – a picture of something cute.
And to that I say, please stop. Stop it with the cute things. Cute things do not make any of this better. Cute things make me sad.
As I write this, I am afraid you will send me things: pink poodles, dolphins giving kisses and cats terrified of cucumbers. I am afraid you will send me zoo otters and fluffy corgi butts. You will insist that #notallcutethings are sad, and I will regret not doing what I feel most compelled to do at this moment, which is sliding under a blanket to read a story about trees and snails and mostly untrampled wilderness. But what is writing if not exposing the thing that scares you? I am sorry to murder your darlings.
The word “cute” has lost much of its original meaning, so that today it has become synonymous with words such as adorable, dainty, vulnerable and precious. Cute is defenceless, needy, non-threatening and therefore ripe for abuse.
Where others see cute, I see suffering. Five years ago, the internet fell in love with a frog holding a leaf umbrella. Weather.com described the photo as a “tender moment when a chivalrous frog held up a leaf as an umbrella to shield him and his froggy friend from the rain.” A search today yields over 5.5 million Google hits for “frog with a leaf umbrella” because, of course, it’s just so damned adorable. But why would a frog do something like that? Don’t frogs enjoy moisture? Can a frog even hold a leaf above its head? No, as it turns out, later reporting revealed that the photo and others like it were likely accomplished by piercing the animals’ limbs with thread and forcing them into position. Oops.
And then we moved on. The internet bubbles with viral cuteness. The dog that walks on two legs (because a painful posture is better than being beaten), the bear that begs for food (because it is starving), the tiny chick dyed pink (and soon to die), the child crying (because a trusted adult has given her something painful) – cute masks cruelty with a bow.
And okay, sure, the /r/Aww/ subreddit with its fluffy cats and happy endings makes me feel a bit gleeful. Not all cute things are sad. Sometimes it is a rescued dog or a dad telling his little girl that SHE IS STRONG.
But then again. Then again. If you pause long enough, you realize that lurking just below those adorable pictures and GIFs and videos are the stories of how overbreeding leads to thousands of animal deaths and why our society compels a father of colour toward the necessity of reminding his daughter of her strength. I do not want to hide from these stories. I want to talk about why people buy puppies but drop senior dogs into shelters. I want to discuss how that cute little girl may grow into a woman whose strength will be viewed as anything but adorable, dainty and precious.
Former Google engineer and AI-based religion founder Anthony Levandowski has posited that when the superior artificial intelligences one day come to dominate us, we would do well to adopt the strategy of the dog. Less capable but harmless, perhaps our overlords will let us live. But in a world where we have to decide between being cute and being eliminated, would you prefer the life of the dog? To be trained and played with and even adored but powerless, defenceless, fungible? Even in the absence of cruelty, cuteness feels hollow.
So why do we worship cute? The Austrian scientist Konrad Lorenz (both a Nobel Prize winner and a Nazi) posited that cute things evoke our nurturing and protective instincts, but little research has been done on how or why we respond so strongly to images clearly not evocative of babies and why we miss the often sinister undercurrents. In his paper Cute studies: An emerging field, Joshua Paul Dale notes, “Now cuteness is a rising trend in global popular culture.… Yet little critical attention has been paid to this trend as a broad cultural phenomenon.” A void, he writes, that he is working to address.
It may be because we look for cute as an escape and so aren’t seeking the darker story. We don’t see what we aren’t looking for. Or it may be that cuteness itself invites abuse. Cute things, defenceless and baby-like in need of our care are necessarily devoid of power, strength and agency. Perhaps we cause suffering … just because we can.
In a 2007 research article published in Humanity and Society, social-science professor Liz Grauerholz argues that “’cutification’ (making objects appear cuter than they usually appear) of animals … promote[s] the consumption of their animal flesh,” a finding a bit disturbing in the context of the supposed psychological ties between cute things and the nurturing of our babies.
It is not that I want to rob you of uplifting stories in this time of darkness. Please, enjoy the sunset and the ocean and the stars for as long as you can before climate change and untreated sewage and smog rob us of those, too. But I implore you to look beyond the cute, to see the disturbing or important or multilayered story hiding underneath. You can smile at the adorable frog, but ask yourself why he needs the umbrella.