I finally got around to reading Vanity Fair's article "Addicted to Cute". The article makes quite a few interesting points about our (Western) obsession with "cute", all of which revolve around human's evolutionary wiring towards protecting everything that has big eyes, round face, and button-like nose. It also makes an argument about our need to regress to the safety of childhood when faced wit difficult social/economic times. And there's also a bit about how we use cute photos when we want to present ourselves in a non-threatening and likable way. The article claims to be inspired by a recent wave of movies like Fantastic Mr. Fox, Up, Wall-E, Ratatouille, WTWTA, etc. which are aimed to adults as much as they are for kids (if not more). That is, it seems like grown-up, complex emotions, are communicated via heartbreakingly cute animated characters.
This is interesting.
All of this it's surely not that new, since anime and manga have been around Japanese culture for almost a 100 years now. But still, popularity of cuteness in the Western World seems way more recent:
"For generations, kids couldn't wait until they reached adulthood, so they can smoke, drink, eat four-course meals, make money, drive cars, have sex. Now we would rather log on and tune out, preferably in the womb-like comfort of a Snuggie, which is the perfect thing to wear as we gaze the photos of kittens while gnawling on delicious cupcakes."
My quick and dirty take on this trend is that it's somehow related to digital technology or, to the fact that everything we do today is to some extent digital. But rather than thinking that cuteness is a way for humans to avoid "coldness" of the digital, it's actually quite the opposite. Digital teaches us instant gratification, immediacy, constant novelty, a million possibilities, split attention, and playing with stuff. Which are all child-like habits and behaviors and values.
So, if cool was the culture of the 60s, and cheesy was the culture of the 80s, cute might as well be the culture of digital. If we all behave like kids online, we need, well, some cute toys to play with there.