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Providing Cute Escapism in Troubled Times?

December 3, 2009

Long after finishing reading Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland, I read an article in the December 2009 issue of Vanity Fair by Jim Windolf titled “Addicted to Cute,” which can be found here. Initially, I was just a traveller in the airport on my way to my Thanksgiving destination, looking for something to keep my attention for more than thirty seconds. When I got to this article, it definitely kept–and held–my attention.

My first thoughts were how could anyone criticize cuteness? But as Windolf fleshed the topic out in superb detail, noting how prevalent cute images have become in advertising, entertainment, and even our cars (SmartCar, anyone?), I began to agree with his arguments. “To some degree, we can’t help ourselves,” he allows, adding that “we instinctively want to nurture any creature that has a cute appearance.” (p. 1) Do you not find yourself crying ‘awww!’ with glee at the sight of a puppy or at the sound of a baby’s laugh? Chances are, most people react in a loving manner at the appearance of something ‘cute’.

These initial points forced me to speculate if Lewis Carroll (though a figure of the past, uninfluenced by today’s society) had in fact felt the effects of cuteness while consorting with Alice Liddell. I imagine Alice Liddell was not ugly in the least; her own childish charm could have caused Carroll to quickly become wrapped up in her adorable sweetness. Is it possible that he was not in love with Alice Liddell? Is it possible he simply loved her like we love puppies? Was he merely a victim of the debatable harmful effects of cuteness?

As Windolf progresses, he reports scientific findings that “more or less prove that cuteness is physically addicting.” (p. 2) He then concludes that it is logical that, due to cuteness’ addicting nature, YouTube videos like an infant giggling have millions and millions of viewings. “This is not just a case of kids watching kid stuff, either: more than 80 percent of the people who go to YouTube are at least 18 years old, according to the site’s own demographics study.” (p. 2)

This could lead one to believe that Lewis Carroll was not some sick, pedophile-like man who preyed on youthful beauties. On the contrary, it is possible that Carroll was simply another adult “Addicted to Cute.” The only difference between him and modern adult society is that he publicized his infatuation with cute; we as analysts have, perhaps, blown a simple, human reaction way out of proportion.

As for why Carroll would send such a girl he adored down a rabbit hole full of trouble, Daniel Harris (an essayist cited in the article and author of Cute, Quaint, Hungry, and Romantic) writes that “adorable things are often most adorable in the middle of a pratfall or a blunder.” (p. 2) If this is true, could Carroll have created Wonderland to make Alice Liddell all the more intriguing? After all, Alice certainly faces ‘pratfalls’ and ‘blunders’ in the midst of her adventures.

A particularly humorous paragraph on page 3 also caught my attention:
For generations, kids couldn’t wait until they reached adulthood so they could smoke, drink, eat four-course meals, make money, drive cars, have sex, and, if they were the type to join the military, legally kill other human beings. 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 at photos of kittens while gnawing on delicious cupcakes.

Could Carroll have been well ahead of the times and realized that, every now and then, adults need a dose of cute escapism to survive?

As for the cause of a surplus of cuteness, Windolf blames difficult times. He notes how Shirley Temple, a cute curly-headed singer and dancer, gained popularity in the 1930’s in the Depression Era. He believes that cuteness has returned in excess due to the tragedies of 9/11 and the stress of the recession. Additionally, around the same time as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published, the Crimean War was coming to an end. Carroll’s Britain was faced with the hardships of war. Did he realize then that his country could benefit from a little nonsensical cuteness? Did he realize that “social misery and cuteness seem to be linked,” and his nation’s misery may be rectified with Alice’s cuteness? (p.4)

Overall, the article was an interesting perspective on how cute escapism may be inherent to human needs. It allowed me to view Carroll’s work in a more positive, gentle light–whether it makes sense or not, is purely your own opinion.
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