by Kevin Lux
I think Corgis are unbelievably cute. Granted, this is a rather unusual opening sentence for a philosophy article. Nonetheless, I thought it essential to begin this way, the reason being that Corgis are indeed what inspired me to reflect on the word cute from a philosophical point of view.
Why should cuteness be of interest to philosophers? My answer to that question will be that the concept of cuteness bears very interesting implications in the domains of ethics and aesthetics—though I won’t devote too many words to the latter, as my principal aim is to talk about ethics.
Cuteness, like beauty, is something that is created, for the most part intentionally. We find cuteness in cartoons, comic books, video games, advertising, and many other outlets of contemporary art and media. So, if aesthetics is concerned with art, the beautiful, and the relation between the two, then surely aestheticians should have something to say about the cute. I believe that an aesthetic consideration of cuteness can even help us determine its ethical implications.
Alongside the beautiful, Arthur Schopenhauer was very interested in the sublime and he came up with a very interesting theory of it. Without going into great detail, he thought that something is sublime if it poses a great threat to our existence while at the same time the perception of it gives us pleasure. While his account of the sublime is not limited to examples of nature, most of his examples describe scenarios in which it is the unfathomable vastness and force of nature that make us feel powerless in the face of it. Picture, for instance, finding yourself alone in a violent storm at sea.
How does this relate to cuteness? Well, I believe the cute is something like the polar opposite of the sublime. The essential elements of the sublime are its incredible size and our powerlessness in the face of it, and two highly common characteristics of cuteness are smallness and harmlessness. Of course, not all the different uses of ‘cute’ necessarily imply both those attributes but, as we shall see now, a lot of them do.
What are the different ways and contexts in which we use the word cute? More specifically, who and what do we call cute? I believe there are three main uses of the word. They amount to:
- describing a thing or person as pretty and/or endearing (“That is the cutest dog I’ve ever seen!”, or “I like your room! It’s cute!”)
- describing a person as sexually attractive (“What do you think of Jane? – I think she’s really cute.”)
- asserting one’s superiority/someone else’s inferiority (“You think you can beat me!? That’s cute.”)
In cases 1 and 3—perhaps also 2, but I won’t go into that one—‘cute’ has similar roots. When we say that a dog is cute, we believe, based on our impression of its appearance, mood, and behaviour, that it does not pose a threat to us. As for smallness, I don’t mean to say that everything and everyone we call cute is always small or smaller than we are. After all, we call elephants and giraffes cute. However, I do think we are much more inclined to call someone or something cute if it is small or smaller than us. And this can be explained through the other, more central characteristic of cuteness, harmlessness. We are more likely to perceive something as threatening if it outsizes our own body. Inversely, we are more likely to perceive something as harmless if it’s smaller than us. Other, less central characteristics of cuteness include friendliness (think of the social nature of dogs), playfulness/clumsiness (I’ll use dogs as an example again) as well as certain bodily features (think of the big, round Disney eyes).
Now to the example of the cute room. This use of ‘cute’ has gender-specific connotations, in the sense that we tend to say a room is cute if its style is reminiscent of qualities traditionally associated with femininity and women, these qualities again including smallness and harmlessness. Naturally, if we associate a concept primarily with one gender in particular, we face some ethical questions. Before we spell out those questions, let us look at the assertive use of ‘cute’.
If someone who clearly poses no threat to us challenges us—either intellectually or physically—then we tend to be pretty confident that we will be victorious. Taken to an extreme, such feelings of confidence often end up taking the shape of trash talk. Now, calling your challenger or their attitude cute is undoubtedly a very mild way of trash-talking, but the word nonetheless implies a rather strong judgment: ‘I am superior to you’, respectively ‘You are inferior to me’. In the context of an athletic competition or a game of chess, such assertions are mostly restricted to the particular skillset needed to win the competition. But if we return to the example of the cute room, we’ll find that such assertions can be legitimately seen as problematic from an ethical point of view.
No one really calls a masculine or male space cute unless they mean to be condescending. This tells us something about society. Since cuteness bears such a strong relation to smallness and harmlessness, which in turn are often linked to femininity and women (but never to masculinity or men), it could be argued that some ways of using ‘cute’ entail problematic value judgments about femininity and women. Depending on the context, using ‘cute’ in the assertive sense could be considered a subordination of women to men and of femininity to masculinity, regardless of whether such a judgment was conscious or subconscious.
Can you blame someone for using ‘cute’ in a way that implicitly condescends women? The answer, I think, very much depends on who is talking to whom and whether or not the speaker is aware of the words’ gender-related connotations. When Dave calls Barry’s pink scarf ‘cute’, with the sole intention of conveying to Barry that he thinks pink is a colour for girls and that therefore Barry is a girl, which in turn makes Barry ‘not a real man’, then I find it pretty easy to say that Dave’s behaviour is objectionable. He is consciously making the arbitrary and harmful judgment that it is unmanly (i.e. morally objectionable for a man) to like things traditionally associated with femininity.
But what if Dave was not aware of the implications of his language? The problem would still stand that by continuing to use the word cute in such a way, Dave propagated and thus helped keep alive certain prejudices and gender-related expectations that, through societal pressure, contribute to inhibiting certain people’s freedoms. Whether or not Dave could be blamed for this, however, is a more complicated question, since he did not mean to make a judgment about women or men. Rather than committing myself to a position in a debate that I’m not very familiar with, I will leave this question unanswered. My aim with this article was not to answer ethical questions. I merely wanted to show that such questions can be asked; that a silly, little word like cute can inspire legitimate ethical discussions.
In conclusion, I think cuteness deserves more attention from philosophers—whether that be aestheticians or moral philosophers. Cuteness is just as deeply engrained in our everyday lives as beauty and it is no less impactful. Its significance, from a philosophical point of view, lies in the fact that it reveals a lot about how we see ourselves in contrast to other beings. It also gives us some insight into gender biases and stereotypes that are prevalent in our society.
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