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Cat Power

Tom Sachs Crying Hello Kitty (2008)

The first book in the subfield of Hello Kitty studies, Pink Globalization explores Kitty’s kawaiipolitik

In her 2011 study Airborne Dreams: “Nisei” Stewardesses and Pan American World Airways, Christine Yano pieced together the story of one of the world’s most famous airlines by conducting interviews with former employees, with a focus on a specific program in the corporation’s history; so-called “Nisei” stewardesses, whose hiring to accommodate passengers from a variety of Asian nations, emerged as an untold story in the history of globalization. No matter how intelligently Yano unmasked the orientalism inherent in corporate globalism, though, Pan Am itself is irrevocably an object of history, and the material conditions of the mid-20th century USA seem laughably unrealistic now. Sanrio, and their flagship character Hello Kitty, are an entirely different story.TNI Vol. 20: Off-Brand is out now. Subscribe now for $2 and get it today. 

Yano’s newest book, Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek Across the Pacific builds on many of the topics of Airborne Dreams. Prior to its release, the only book-length study of Sanrio available in English was Belson and Bremner’s Hello Kitty: The Remarkable Story of Sanrio and the Billion Dollar Feline Phenomenon, which was basically business-journalism hagiography. Yano, by contrast, frames her concerns with: “How might we think with and through an object like Hello Kitty? What kinds of structures of feeling does Hello Kitty enable? What does Hello Kitty, in effect, do in the private worlds of her fans, as well as in the larger public world of global goods?”

Christine R. Yano Pink Globalization Duke University Press (336 pages)Pink Globalization, as the quote implies, is a book with one foot in affect-studies and the other in anthropology or sociology. And this is evident in what the book leaves out; Pink Globalization is a text about circulation, with an occasional focus on consumption and almost no interest whatsoever on production. The one exception, unless you would consider interviews with heads of marketing or retail employees production, is a brief aside in which Yano mentions a 2007 revelation of the use of child labor in factories producing Hello Kitty goods. Even this, however, is read through the idiom of circulation: “News of Sanrio’s use of child labor in its overseas factories came with an ironic twist: just as McDonald’s was holding its Hello Kitty promotion campaigns in outlets throughout China in the 2000s, news services revealed Sanrio’s labor abuses theoretically involving some of the same children who might have wanted a Hello Kitty–McDonald’s toy.”Not that this is necessarily a shortcoming. Yano’s sociological frame may be the one best suited to analyze Hello Kitty, especially given the relative paucity of earlier analysis. The approach addresses many of the questions which plague Kitty, ranging from her position as an exemplar of capitalism to the endless speculations about the meaning of her mouthlessness.

Yano’s handling of that most contentious aspect of Kitty’s design is exemplary of her commitment to investigating how Kitty works in the world. She runs through the ways in which Kitty’s mouthlessness can be tracked genealogically through a Japanese tradition known as “hikime-kagihana (abstracting a face though shorthand stylistic symbols).” Against the Western tradition’s conflation of the voice’s expressive powers and individual agency, Japanese art in particular has privileged the expressive power of the eyes. Rather than leave it at that, though, Yano notes that “in briefly mentioning this historic arc, I do not mean to reify Hello Kitty as the inevitable product of ‘a Japanese aesthetic tradition’ placed on a global stage. Rather, I find this historic link useful in providing a background for interpreting mouthlessness as less of a lack (as many Euro-American observers do) than of situating Sanrio’s design within a historically placed visual repertoire of meanings.”

The way that Pink Globalization operates consciously within discourses surrounding its object makes the occasional slip up all the more embarrassing, as when Yano adopts the specious academic practice of spotlighting YouTube comments in a way that gives them a cultural weight and relevancy that regular users of a site like YouTube might find suspect, Although the fact that Yano includes extended quotations of Geocities sites does much to endear me, at least and compounds this by quoting the Landover Baptist Church at face value, despite its being a well-known parody (as it states explicitly in its terms of service). Professors and their editors apparently still have a lot of trouble reading tone on the Internet. This sort of stilted, awkward engagement with the Internet is an institutional problem, in addition to being an authorial oversight, from which Yano is not exempt.

In the same chapter, Yano talks adeptly about the Hello Kitty Hell website, navigating the way it ostensibly functions as a denouncement of all things Kitty but actually, as one of the more comprehensive archives of her stuff available on the English-speaking Internet, has a much more complicated relationship to the fandom. She gestures to Sara Ahmed’s concept of the “affect alien” — “those estranged from the affective expectations of the larger society” — and discusses the way that American rejections of Hello Kitty often perform themselves as a discursive community, positing their opposition to the cat as a means of rejecting saccharinity or some other moral issue in order to foster an identification against her. Yano touches on the way that these rejections often implicitly rest on a dissatisfaction with late capitalism, with Kitty serving as its metonym: “These critics point to the inherent manipulation of branding within a capitalist system, focused not on response to needs, but in the expert creation of desire. The key here lies in who controls desire — individuals or corporations.” This is a very important point, of course, but it just hangs there.

The question of who controls desire is a useful frame for thinking about the limits of most engagement with Kitty. Yano interviews Bill Hensley, onetime Sanrio marketing director in its South San Francisco headquarters. He points out that Sanrio does not have an advertising budget and that the corporation relies almost exclusively on word-of-mouth buzz to push its product into the public eye. “To us success is not really a world where everybody is a Hello Kitty fan. ‘Cause that implies that there’s gonna be a huge drop off at some point. So we want to create things of functional value, functional lifestyle value, that are fun, that are cute.” Yano claims that “this kind of decision making places the onus of responsibility in the consumer, rather than on the company. It allows Sanrio to occupy a place untainted by consumer manipulation (e.g., creation of desire) and sanctified by individuated choice. Consumers thus are reconstituted as a self-selected group (‘smaller, more committed’), rather than as a mass of marketing dupes.”

The corporate propaganda in Hensley’s statement is bald, but what is particularly interesting about it is the way that its rhetoric stands so close to that of the self-styled haters. Both are, as Yano notes, deeply invested in controlling the terms on which circulation of Kitty is understood by way of making arguments implicitly centered on the locus of desire.

The discursive environment that surrounds Hello Kitty, with its constant preoccupation with the narrative of who controls the creation of desire, is as much the work of Hello Kitty — what Hello Kitty, in effect, does, in the private world of her fans as well as in the public world of global goods — as are her more easily quantifiable economic impacts. Yano’s interview with a “heterosexual male fan” circles around this; the interview revolves around how surprising people find it that he can be both invested in Kitty and not gay. Beyond general cultural associations of “feminized” masculinity as indicating forms of sexual desire, Kitty’s particularly strange relationship with the production of desire is often projected onto fanbases who don’t seem to “fit.”

Because Yano’s analysis of Kitty is her evidence for “pink globalization,” which she defines as “the transnational spread of goods and images labeled kawaii … from Japan to other parts of the industrial world, with a focus on the United States,” the creation of desire is actually at the center of the work she does, as she traces the cross-cultural flow of goods.

Unlike most neoliberal texts about globalization, Yano is more than willing to discuss how capital and the state intersect in the commodity form. Rather than simplifying it à la Joseph Nye’s “soft power,” in which a nation becomes globally relevant through cultural exports as opposed to military dominance, Yano details particular ways in which Kitty is framed, by Sanrio itself, as a means of reproducing state power.

Following company logic, inasmuch as Japan needs a strong interpersonal network of citizens sustained through practices of gift exchange, and inasmuch as that network comes under threat of modernity and stresses of daily life, Sanrio plays its part in addressing a national need. According to its position of social communication, Sanrio handles that need not through rigid, formal ties that bind, but through informal, flexible bonds of kawaii.

This is not business so much as it is old-fashioned social and emotional healing. That healing falls upon the shoulders of girls and women.

This goes beyond “soft power.” Here we see the way reproductive labor is culturally coded, gendered, and reconstituted as nationalist rhetoric filtered through the corporate form, as well as the way that cultural code is modernized. With Hello Kitty as example, Yano details one of the most important ways that capital and the state collude to reproduce one another in tandem.

Which isn’t to say that Yano doesn’t also discuss this more enjoyably, as in her discussion of how Hello Kitty condoms are defended by Sanrio according to the same values. As Yano notes, paraphrasing a company spokesperson

Producing a cute condom is nothing less than Sanrio shouldering the mantle of social responsibility. The production and marketing of cute condoms by Sanrio become part of corporate policy of responsible citizenship.

Pink Globalization keeps a broad audience in mind; even when Yano brings to bear thinkers like Baudrillard or her conclusions are premised in very distinct, often rarefied academic analyses, For example: “The cute thing in particular may be the most ‘thinglike of things,’ an ‘object par excellence’ through its very passivity” she does so within a frame which encourages the reader to understand both how and why she’s reaching these conclusions, without simply pointing them down a rabbit hole of theory and suggesting they are incompetent for not having read it.

While Yano is primarily dealing with straight female fans throughout the text, she dedicates space as well to the gay and lesbian fandom whose adoption of Hello Kitty was instrumental in expanding her hold in American markets, as well as noting how particular Asian Americans functioned as the initial market through which Hello Kitty gained a foothold in the United States by way of goods primarily sold in Chinatown stores. While Yano touches on Kitty’s other large markets like Brazil, Taiwan and China, the text is primarily focused on the USA, as it explicitly notes that it is, with particular focus on California and Hawaii. This is clearly a symptom of the book being something of a passion project for Yano, and there are parts of the book that cry out for expansion on their ideas and research.

“Japanese Cute-Cool,” or the “Wink on Pink,” as she also refers to it, is another central term of her analysis of pink globalization, and is meant to describe the way in which kawaii, despite being translated as cute almost universally, is particular in part because it is an aesthetic that makes space within itself for subversion, irony, and sexuality. This has a lot to do with the history of the aesthetic; Sharon Kinsella’s 1995 essay “Cuties in Japan” remains the authoritative text on this. She writes,

Cute culture started as youth culture amongst teenagers, especially young women. Cute culture was not founded by business. But in the disillusioned calm known as the shirake after the last of the student riots in 1971, the consumer boom was just beginning, and it did not take companies and market research agencies very long to discover and capitalise on cute style, which had manifested itself in manga and young people’s handwriting.

That is: kawaii culture begins not with a mediatized figure or marketing initiative, nor even (consciously) one of the state-sanctioned markets of subversive aesthetics (i.e. the art world), but in schools that had just passed through a period of material struggle against the state. That this struggle was quelled and recuperated makes it no less significant; and the timeline, which Kinsella does not remark upon explicitly, tells its own story. She continues:

In 1971 Sanrio, the Japanese equivalent of Hallmark Cards, experimented by printing cute designs on previously plain writing paper and stationery … The success of this early prototype of fanshi guzzu (fancy goods), inspired by cute style in manga animation and young people’s handwriting, encouraged Sanrio to expand production, and its range of fancy goods proliferated.” (225-6)

To paint this shared year as a deterministic consequence or cause, or to write it off as mere coincidence, would be nothing but an attempt to deny the complexities of the circulation of capital. Kinsella also points out the ways in which the cute style of handwriting depended on the increasing Westernization of Japanese culture of the time, as the written characters were predicated on a switch to the left-to-right orthographical style of English and other European languages, rather than the top-to-bottom orthography of Kanji. If the fact that kawaii started as a DIY aesthetic is surprising, then the fact that it has always been the product of globalization is perhaps less so.

Sanrio’s wildly successful appropriation of this particular form of depoliticized, gendered resistance Kinsella also points out that the “cute style of handwriting” was often so abstracted from the original characters that its use was widely banned on assignments, as many teachers could (or would) not read it. did not occur absent economic context any more than the style itself did, and so when Yano points to the fact that,

“[O]ne must situate Hello Kitty first and foremost in the complex jumble of goods and practices of the 1970s and 1980s, a period of unprecedented growth, technological prowess, and cultural nationalism, otherwise known as the bubble period of Japan’s burgeoning economy. The bubble allowed middle-class practices to become more than the norm; they came to represent an assumption and hallmark of national achievement as ‘homogenous Japan.’ The unofficial public doctrine was that Japan had built a ‘classless’ society by virtue of its widespread prosperity.”

the space of “Japanese Cute-Cool” becomes even more obviously politicized. It would not be too much of a stretch, given Yano’s conscious use of the term “classless society,” and Kinsella’s periodization of material struggle, to say that kawaii is an aesthetic that is born of, and develops as, a society-wide expression of desire for utopian socialism.TNI Vol. 20: Off-Brand is out now. Subscribe now for $2 and get it today. 

Again, the question of who controls desire is at the center of things, and the endless deferral of responsibility, whether on the part of critics who blame Sanrio, or Sanrio which cites fans, or fans whose refrain is almost universally some form of “I don’t know, it just is,” makes of it a neat little aporetic hole. From the state’s collusion with capital to those nasty little irrational vectors of desire that spiral off of that aggregate intelligence called the market, all the way down to that corporate logo as pithy mask of affective labor that goes “Small Gift, Big Smile,” the implications of Sanrio’s cat multiply and disperse across the many centers of the distributed economic mechanism which shapes the globe. This is why, although Pink Globalization most explicitly addresses the question of what Kitty does in relation to the private world of her fans, it is also framed as an examination of the public world of global goods. Yano’s most impressive accomplishment with Pink Globalization is the way that she arranges the little details in such a way as to suggest the big picture without ever slipping into didacticism or the rhetorical register of narcissism. Tackling Sanrio, even in part, is no small task, but Pink Globalization manages it with honesty, empathy, and intelligence.

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