Sunday, January 10, 2010

Kitty College

Uber-cute Hello Kitty gets an academic look

Anthropology professor discussed the symbolism behind this culture icon

By Anais Keenon | Freelance reporter

| A small group of approximately 30 people gathered Thursday afternoon in the Knight Library Browsing Room to discuss the cultural significance of a familiar cartoon figure — Hello Kitty.
The talk, called “Kitty On the Go: Japanese Cute as Transborder Fetish,” was the keynote lecture for the University Center for the Study of Women in Society’s conference, “Modern Girls on the Go: Gender, Mobility, and Labor in Japan,” which began Thursday and continues through Saturday.

Alisa Freedman, an assistant professor of Japanese literature and film, invited University of Hawaii anthropology professor Christine Yano to speak about “Japanese pop culture, Japan as a superpower and the connection to gender that Hello Kitty reflects.”

“Hello Kitty was always supposed to be the ‘Japanese cat who would overtake the American mouse,’” Yano said in her lecture Thursday afternoon.

Yano first started studying Hello Kitty and the fanatical fandom that surrounds the pink-and-white pop phenomenon in 1998. Through interviews with members of the Hello Kitty fan community, Yano found that admirers saw “Hello Kitty (as having) a potential for a twist, for more edginess” over other well-known cultural icons, such as Mickey Mouse.

A classic icon of the Japanese cute trend, Yano argued that Hello Kitty is an “evocative object, a companion to emotional lives” that has morphed into a “transborder fetish” by defying traditional categories and boundaries.

Initially created in 1974 by Sanrio to appeal to the growing portion of Japanese female consumers, the cultural message behind Hello Kitty has transformed through the decades.

Although first created as an adorable cartoon, 35 years later, Hello Kitty can be found in California and Hawaii’s punk scenes as a symbol that “punk can be cute.”

Today it’s even a rallying point for the YellowKitties, an organization comprising and supporting Asian lesbians, as a way to “validate a feminine side.” For some men and women, their flesh dons Hello Kitty as a tattoo.

The character’s versatility is so wide that there are even Darth Vader and vampire versions of the cartoon.

“Hello Kitty epitomizes cheap and luxurious, innocent and sexy, child and adult, Japan and mukokuseki (no nationality),” Yano said. “It’s everywhere.”

However, Yano also questioned whether Hello Kitty is really such a culturally neutral symbol.

Although the icon can be found worldwide, Yano argues that Hello Kitty still retains a distinct Japanese identity, providing a cultural connection for some Asian-American citizens. In a way, Yano said, Japan is declaring its independence from the American media mainstream through its super cute trend, with Hello Kitty at the forefront.

“It wasn’t what I was expecting. I never thought of Hello Kitty in an academic, critical way,” said University French major Carolyn Moffenbier.


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