The XX Factor

The Perils of the Cute-R-Net

Several times a week I walk by the marketing section of my office and see a group of grown men and women in their business-casual attire standing over someone’s computer screen giggling and cooing. Almost daily, I get an e-mail entitled, “SO CUTE I WANTZ TO DIE” or “AHHHHHHZZ! CUTEGASM!” along with a link for, say, a YouTube video of a sweet-faced pug so fat it can’t roll over , or a 4-year-old performing the Single Ladies dance . Most of these videos live up to the adorability claims of their “z”-infested titles. (Apparently bad grammar signifies something is SO cute it’s made one functionally retarded.) Though, admittedly, in order to enjoy the slew of children-dancing-to-Beyonce-videos I’ve been sent, I have to actively forget the gross reality that there are parents behind the camera who have trained their kids to be delightfully adorable circus monkeys for the Internet masses.

In the December issue of Vanity Fair , Jim Windolf tackles not only the science behind our mass addiction to Internet cutedom, but also what it could possibly mean, you know, for society and stuff. According to biologist Melanie Glocker, our brains are hardwired to react to cute in the same way they react to food or porn:

“It’s in the midbrain,” Glocker says, with a slight Teutonic accent, “which is an evolutionarily older part of the brain involved in reward processing. This region has also been shown to be activated by a variety of rewarding stimuli, including sexual stimuli, food stimuli, and drug stimuli.”

This, of course, makes perfect sense-especially in addiction terms. After one cupcake, I want another cupcake. After one puppy video I want another sweet animal video, and over time my craving for an afternoon dose of cute grows to the extent where only explosively cute and rare clips like a Golden Retriever puppy spooning a handicapped cheetah will suffice. (P.S.: Will someone film that 4 me pleeeeeeeeeeeeeasez?)

But the most fascinating part of Windolf’s essay is the idea that maybe all this cute isn’t good for us. In essence, Windolf writes, cute is “soft and brain-deadening.” And to that extent, he argues the emergence of cute culture may have a political motive:

In a decade that has slapped us with a recession in the wake of 9/11 and an unending war waged in two theaters, Americans are producing a popular culture that seems to be saying, Please like us.

During the Bush years, the American image went from that of protector to invader, from defender of human rights to aggressor on the lookout for loopholes in the Geneva Conventions. It stands to reason that popular cuteness came about as some sort of correction, as a way for us to convince ourselves and our friends that we’re not as bad as our recent national actions have made us seem. Cuteness got its start as a cowardly form of resistance, a velvet rebellion led by smiley-face emoticons.

It’s an interesting theory, but I also wonder: Could the cute explosion be more a reaction to difficult times than a veiled plea for our national image? I agree that indulging in cute is, in a lot of ways, a brain-deadening exercise. So in the same way we crave a dopamine kick via at 4 p.m. when the workday stress seems unbearable, perhaps we just want to see our First Family playing with their puppy when the recession seems never-ending?