Cute, Very Cute

Feeling terrorized by cuteness? The last few years have witnessed Beanie Babies and ravers in pacifiers and pigtails and the box-office success of Antz. Now even hi-tech is morphing into cute-tech. Consider Volkswagen’s new Beetle, a shiny bubble of a thing whose tag line in print ads wonders: “Hug it? Drive it?” Or Apple’s iMac, with its cheery translucent green casing that seems to declare, “Unlike all those complicated computers that try to intimidate you, I have no secrets.” The latest foray into cuteness is Intel’s, the chip manufacturer having recently unveiled the design for a machine it wants hardware companies to make. The Intel “concept computer” struggles mightily to be cute despite its distinctly uncute name: “Legacy Removal Concept PC.” It’s a loud red or blue or green computer-in-a-box which is goofily reminiscent of an Aztec pyramid.Intel’s strained effort to please makes the whole cute-machine thing slightly painful, but Culturebox predicts that cute is more than a passing fad in industrial design. Cute might seem downmarket, given the associations companies usually want to attach to their top-flight computers and cars–you know, power, speed, precision engineering, the building blocks of American masculinity. And huggable machines do seem custom-tailored for technophobes, which in the electronics and automobile businesses is often a coded reference to women. The Beetle does have that plastic bud vase. But Ron Lawner, the advertising executive behind the car’s marketing campaign, denies that the company was targeting women: “I don’t think the car is not macho. It’s just more approachable than either the more boring Japanese cars or the more pretentious high-priced German cars.”In fact, another theory of cute machines holds that not only are they not downscale, they’re aimed at the high end of the market. Chee Perlman, the editor-in-chief of I.D. Magazine , says all her ultra-sophisticated designer friends were “early adopters”–that is, they rushed out to buy the new Beetles and iMacs. The little suckers were just so risky, so anti-corporate, so pro-individual; their manufacturers just seemed so hip. “The Beetle almost looks like it’s smiling at you,” she says.Maybe. Me, I still see a bug in the service of Hitler’s favorite company. But in a year in which Sharon Stone is willing to play an ant, you have to admit that even bugs sell as long as they’re cute. Why fight it? Cute cars and computers are personable, friendly, marginally less annoying than the clunky monsters of the 70s and much less annoying than the creepily sleek, black Powerbooks and Civics and Camrys of the early Nineties. Now we just have to get past the man-machine barrier and figure out how to chuck these cutie pies under the chin.–Judith Shulevitz