Cuteness: An Internet and Cultural Remora

The appeal of cuteness is ubiquitous.  Derek Willis calls cat pictures “the essential building block of the internet.”  Cuteness is that inescapable quality that makes adults turn into silly, blubbering rubberneckers of babies with villainous eyebrows drawn on, tiny elephants, memes with baby hippopotami, and the infamous Lil Bub.

In “The Powerful Authority of Cute Animals”, Beatrice Marovich, argues that talismanic objects, both living and inanimate, “confer a kind of expedient magic that humans can use for their individual or collective benefit.”  Marovich elucidates many cultural phenomena that stem from our penchant for cute things; I want to focus on the concept that cuteness is an inherent quality in nature and the physiological response that we innately encounter when presented with cuteness.

That benefit Marovich describes ties in well with the research from Kringelbach and Stein of Oxford University, which suggests an evolutionary reason for our being drawn toward cuteness: preservation of our own species.

A 2008 study of human brain waves when confronted with “cute” images of human babies provoked an identical response with parents, and non-parents; study of frontal-lobe brain activity suggests that there is a response to this “cuteness” that is unique to the images of babies– images of adults provoked no such response. They suggest that this is a Darwinian evolutionary mechanism wherein adults feel responsible for the care of young.

Not only do adults seem to be hardwired towards a psychic response to cuteness, but also, according to research published in Psychology Frontier Journal in July, 2014, children as young as 3 have the ability to perceive cuteness.  So adults and children both have an innate mechanism that senses inherent cuteness.

So where does cuteness and our study of objects intersect?  The ability of toddlers to perceive cuteness leads to the concept that cuteness is not something culturally manufactured, but a quality inherent in nature.  The dilemma comes with the human invention of synthetic cuteness.

Made-made versions of cuteness transform an abstract quality into anobject, the subject of our ongoing discussion as it pertains to material culture.

Once cuteness crosses the objectified threshold from abstract quality to manufactured experience, we face a new dilemma, in that we may have trouble ever returning to the concept of abstraction.  In the face of technology, the line between inherent and manufactured cuteness all but disappears: the natural cuteness of a kitten or a baby becomes objectified as a video taken on a smartphone and uploaded to America’s Funniest Videos, and no longer merely “exists” in a passive sense, but exists now dually as an object and a quality.

So whether it’s in our DNA to appreciate cuteness or that we’re living in an environment where cuteness is a marketing ploy, the undeniable reality of the situation is that we’re inundated with this object and this abstraction.


Works Cited

Borgi, M., Cogliati-Dezza, I., Brelsford, V., Meints, K., Cirulli, F.: Baby schema in human and animal faces induces cuteness perception and gaze allocation in children: Frontiers in Psychology 5:411. DOI 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00411

“Identifying The Cuteness Response?.” Psychologist 21.5 (2008): 372-373. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection. Web. 5 Sept. 2014.

Marovich, Beatrice. The Powerful Authority of Cute Animals.  The Atlantic. 14 May 2014. 05 September 2014. Web.

University of Lincoln. “Children as young as three recognize ‘cuteness’ in faces of people, animals.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 21 July 2014.<>.

Willis, Derek.  What the Internet Can See From Your Cat Pictures. The Upshot, The New York Times.  22 July 2014. 05 September 2014. Web.

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One thought on “Cuteness: An Internet and Cultural Remora”

  1. I find your position on cuteness quite intriguing, yet I would invite you to analysis the subject of cuteness in another manner. While I too believe that cuteness is an inherent quality in nature, I propose that cuteness is nothing more than a lack of ugliness. Everything that exists in the world that’s perceived as ugly, as Nietzsche put it, is the degeneration of man. In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche proposes, “everything ugly weakens and afflicts man,” and what man perceives as ugly is “the decline of his type.” In other words, anything that reflects the decomposition of a person leads to the perception of ugly. Therefore, the absence of the perceived decomposition of man, leads one to believe that an object is cute. Cuteness, as we perceive it on our society today, is nothing more than not being ugly. Using your example of a young child, I would argue that children are perceived as cute, because they are the personification of health. Children haven’t gone through the rigors of life, so they are the exact opposite of the degeneration of man. To further illustrate my point, envision The Gerber Baby and Benjamin Button (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). No one would argue that the Gerber Baby isn’t cute, while you would be hard fought to find someone to make the same case for Benjamin. Why? Benjamin has experienced the hard labors of life and represents the degeneration of man, thus, leading him to be perceived as ugly. I know it may seem a bit counterintuitive to think of cuteness as “not-ugly,” but if you think about it that’s exactly what it is.

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