Against Cuteness

The cultural obsession with adorable social media child stars is bad news for our relationships with real children.

Photo illustration: a child stands in a cute pose. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

In the recent BuzzFeed piece about Instagram-famous preschooler Mila Stauffer, Mila’s mother, Katie, defends her full-time job positioning her kid as a social media star against critics who wonder whether Mila has to spend too much of her time making videos. But none of the reasonable critiques aired in that piece quite define my own uneasiness. Even if Mila herself is happy as a clam, the selling of cute kids online is bad news for our relationships with real children.

I’m not the first to feel queasy about our cultural obsession with childhood cuteness. “We should try to get out of the habit of seeing little children as cute,” John Holt wrote in 1974. Holt, a teacher, reformer, and advocate of homeschooling and what we now call “unschooling,” was part of a small group of thinkers active in the 1970s who believed that children should have the same rights as adults. For instance: the right to privacy, the right to manage their own educations, and the right to financial independence and responsibility. Holt’s writing on cuteness is not a call for a change in policy—rather for a paradigm shift in the way adults manage their responses to children.

Adults, Holt thought, needed to stop when they felt that potent reaction to cuteness bubbling up within them, and think about why they were feeling it. Often, he argued, that gush of “gah-so-cute” came out of a feeling of misplaced superiority over children. (Sianne Ngai, a more recent critic of cute, has called cuteness “a way of aestheticizing powerlessness.”) Mila Stauffer doesn’t understand the lines she’s being fed in her mother’s Instagram videos. In visiting the family, BuzzFeed found that Mila’s actual conversation was much more toddler-like—which is to say, disconnected, fanciful, sometimes incomprehensible. Which is perfectly cute, too! But the marketplace of cuteness has less interest in age-appropriate gibberish. Instead, it demands that kids fit into an adult’s idea of what’s funny, even as they obviously, being children, are not in on the joke.

A 3-year-old parroting adult-penned lines like “Charles says the gym makes beefcakes. Then I’m a vegetarian!” may rankle only the oversensitive. It would certainly bother Holt. Sentimentality about children’s cuteness, he wrote, “always leads to callousness and cruelty” because it comes from an impulse to see children’s interior lives as “abstract and unreal.” “We look at the lives and concerns and troubles of children as we might look at actors on a stage, a comedy so long as it does not become a nuisance,” he wrote. “Since their feelings and their pain are neither serious nor real, any pain we may cause them is not real either.”

OK, OK. Even if you can see some truth in Holt’s theory, or agree with Ngai’s opinion that “there’s a sadistic side to the tender emotion” of “gah-so-cute,” what real harm is being done? Mila seems fine, and maybe this kind of humor just isn’t for me. But the sale of cuteness doesn’t always leave children so unscathed. As Leigh Alexander observed in a piece for Slate about YouTube families, one set of parents, while running the channel DaddyofFive, “played tricks on their children and lied to them in order to film and monetize their distress as comedy.” Most people would rightfully agree that this was awful, but Jimmy Kimmel did it first with his “I ate your Halloween candy” stunt, and everybody loves that. (Well, everybody but me and child psychiatrist Meg van Achterberg, who wrote in the Washington Post last year that “many kids will feel this particular prank as a breach of their parents’ love.”)

The debate over what mass-market cuteness does to kids—both the kids who sell their cuteness directly and those who live with its diffuse effects in our culture—is actually an old one. Social media has accelerated and sharpened the monetization of childhood cuteness, but marketplace cute is something that’s been with us for a century or so. And all along, people have felt a strange sense of unease with kids acting out their childishness for pay.

The story of Shirley Temple is instructive. When Shirley first went on-screen (historian John Kasson writes), adults in the entertainment industry had already been arguing with reformers about the lives of child actors for a half-century. The practice of putting preschool-age theater actors onstage in the late 19th century prompted pushback from reformers who were trying to end child labor in other places like textile mills and coal mines. Stage parents and professional associations representing child actors defended the practice of children acting by describing acting as “a few moments of mental effort,” as opposed to the “degrading toil of the little slave of the mill.” The two kinds of work, they argued, were not the same.

Yet the toll on somebody like Shirley had little to do with the physical demands of acting (stressful though those demands actually sometimes were). Kasson calls what Shirley had to do “emotional labor,” which means something specific, and something more specific still when it comes to children doing it. Even before Shirley was born, people thought the idea of children doing emotional labor to please onlookers was abhorrent. Critics like writer I.A. Taylor feared that “the idea of a professional child—a child in whose case simple childhood is the sole stock in trade” was destructive to childhood’s “essence.” “One of the most inalienable and fatal attributes of the true show-child,” Taylor wrote in 1896, [is that] it has learnt to watch itself, and will go so far as to make a study of its own emotions.”

Children’s visible emotional labor was not only ethically distasteful. A child actor who knew what was going on was a less valuable performer. The adults around Shirley recognized well that her appeal lay in the asymmetry of knowledge between her and her adult audiences. (Adults enjoying cuteness, Holt wrote, savor children’s ignorance, while children “are no more sentimental about their ignorance than they are about their size. They want to escape their ignorance, to know what’s going on.”) If Shirley were to come to know the world too well, the sight of her acting flirtatious in a Baby Burlesk short would be grotesque, not “cute.” The fact that Shirley’s marketability depended on her innocence was not subtext; it was made quite clear. A studio executive told Gertrude Temple, her mother, that Shirley “can’t get spoiled.
She gets spoiled, it shows in the eyes.”

With real-life children, “cute” happens spontaneously—when your child unexpectedly hugs your vacuum cleaner (like mine has recently started doing) or tells you a funny story about a bird. But cuteness in movies, like the ones that made Shirley famous, or on Instagram, is a carefully managed product. It’s a commodity for your consumption. The way cuteness gets sold online, in on-demand bursts, enforces the idea that a child’s cuteness—and her very person—exists in service of adults. I know: It’s not very fun of me to want to kill the joy people get from kids acting adorable online, and there is no ethical consumption under late capitalism. But next time you see a toddler dancing to Bruno Mars on Instagram, it’s worth being a little skeptical of that “gah-so-cute” buzz. Do you detect an accompanying undercurrent of nausea? You might be with me.

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Rebecca Onion is a Slate staff writer and the author of Innocent Experiments.