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‘Pretty, Innocent Asian Girls’: The Cult of Cuteness in East Asian Societies

Different countries have different aesthetics: the shape of houses, streets and squares, the way people talk and dress, the landscape, orderliness or chaos etc. – these are all elements that create a unique atmosphere in the places we go. 

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’s possible to find some features that are peculiar to certain places. In this post I would like to talk about one of the characteristics that I find most remarkable about East Asia: the cult of ‘cuteness’.

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


First of all, I would like to talk about the country that has generated the original wave of ‘cute pop culture’: Japan. I think that 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 can’t 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).
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6 replies »

  1. Hello Aris,

    Thanks for your thoughts on this! As a (non-cutesy) woman of Chinese ethnicity, I would endorse your comments on the reasons and purposes of the “cute” image adopted by many East Asian girls. A related issue (as you mentioned) is the importance of stereotyping and role-playing in Asian society, for example in the Arts. From my experience, it is a struggle (although not entrirely impossible) to maintain one's authenticity in an Asian society.

    To be fair, gender role-playing is also present in Western societies, where girls are expected to overtly display their sexual availability through dress, manner, etc.

    Keep up your good posts!

    skydogblue (Singapore)

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  2. Thanks for your comment and sorry for my late reply!

    I agree, role-play is certainly part of Western society, as well. I am just arguing that the role-play is quite different. In my opinion, the Confucian tradition of family hierarchy and gender division has had a great impact on the way Asian individuals define their social roles.

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  3. > Many parents still teach their daughters that they will not be able to find a husband if they have a too high education or concentrate too much on their careers.

    This is actually true. Why else does the 'leftover woman' phenomenon exist? Women marry up, men marry down. A high-status, highly educated woman finds it exceedingly difficult to find a man better than herself. She has incredibly high standards that no mortal man can reach. Moreover, the few men who do meet her standards, want nothing to do with an unpleasant, overachieving woman who will always put her career ahead of family. In Asia, family comes first.

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  4. I completely agree with almost everything said in this post. Even though some old confucious idealologies are not updated with the new generation of women like me…but we surprisingly keep most of the traditional traits in our lives. As a Chinese woman who married an American man and live in the States, I have personally experienced all these identity conflicts and frustrations while adopting to western life style and marriage. Thanks for this post to have helped me to identify the fundemental causes so that I will stop feeling that I was doing something wrong, and so that I know what to do knowing where I am coming from and where I am going to.

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  5. Thanks for your comment and welcome. I absolutely agree with you, As a foreigner, I observe these phenomena from a distance, as an outsider. But I can't help feeling somehow sad about so many marriages based on financial and familial considerations. I tend to value more romance and love. But that's just my personal point of view.

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  6. Thank you very much for your comment! I am happy that my post could help you. This is the best reward for people like me who write articles : )

    I'd like to encourage you. Indeed, it is not your fault. It is just that our cultures and traditions are different, and so we think and judge by different standards and principles. I have a similar feeling in Asia: I am not like the locals, and sometimes I have to adapt, but I cannot always adapt. If I tried to be like a local, I would not be myself anymore. It's hard to find the right balance, but I think the most important thing is to understand the reasons of the cultural difference.

    I wish you good luck : )

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