Tuesday, November 3, 2009

guest blog: we like kitties around here

captain molasses coady returns!

that's right, our first guest blogger to blog a second time is back:

This is, properly speaking, 2 days late, but better late than never.

First off, I’ll be up front about where this is going. I love Hello Kitty.

Yes, I know all the critiques about how commodity fetishism and neoliberal consumerism is destroying our culture and our planet and I’m fully committed to the fightback against global capitalism. But that doesn’t change the fact that I’ve got a purple Hello Kitty with a bear mask dangling from my cellphone and I’m darn proud of it.

Hello Kitty, for those who are not aware, turned 35 on Sunday. Yes, she was born in 1974. And not in Japan, but in London. England. If you were surprised by that, then you probably also don’t know that Hello Kitty is just a nickname, and her real name is Kitty White. She lives in the forest and is 5 apples high (which means of course that she weighs as much as 3 apples). You probably knew she liked to collect different coloured ribbons, but did you also know she loves to collect goldfish? And that her favourite toothpaste flavour is strawberry?

See there’s a lot to know about the enigmatic Kitty. And yes, I know the critiques. There’s the efforts to locate her in a heteronormative relationship with the introduction of her quasi-boyfriend, Dear Daniel. There’s the odd embrace of British neocolonialism: Kitty *White’s* boyfriend Dear Daniel spends most of his time in Africa where his father is a safari photographer. Thankfully things have been troubled a bit by the introduction of a love triangle – the friendly bear Tippy has apparently developed amorous designs on Kitty while Dear Daniel is off exploiting the global south. But anyway. All this – much like the latest three Star Wars movies, or the Catholic church – are merely humanity’s flawed efforts to warp a primordial myth to a narrow-minded politico-social agenda. I couldn’t care less about Dear Daniel or Tippy or even the diesel-guzzling bus that Kitty rides for the 4 kilometre trip to school every morning.

My respect is for the Kitty, and the Kitty alone.

And researchers suggest that’s the way it should be. Rob Walker, in his book “Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are” argues that the unassailable strength of Hello Kitty – in the face of most of the rest of global capitalism, which required elaborate efforts to craft histories and partisan ‘buy-in’ motivations onto the products they were trying to sell – lies in the fact that it is the very nature of her enigmatic expressionless face, and the fact we know virtually nothing about who she is or what she does, that we come to love her so much. We can project whatever values or ideas we want onto her. This is a valuable and all too rare commodity in today’s world, and explains in part why so many people of so many different ages, ethnicities, and social locations embrace her. She means, quite literally, only and already always what they want her to mean. Nothing more, nothing less. (Unless of course you happen to know her family’s secret apple pie recipe or the fact that the only way to tell her from her twin sister Mimi is the fact they each wear their ribbon over a different ear. )

(for an interesting blog about this, and the secret connection between Hello Kitty and Sarah Palin, check out: http://dangerousintersection.org/2008/10/09/hello-sarah-hello-kitty/ )

But Hello Kitty has even more subversive potential than most would give her credit for. Anne McKnight, in her excellent article “Good-bye Kitty, Hello War” (positions: east asia cultures critique - Volume 13, Number 1, Spring 2005) uses the Kitty image as a metaphor for the creative potential of the spontaneous rave-style street protests that were launched by a range of Japanese youth groups in response to the American war against Iraq. It was not post-hippie organizing that drove their struggle, but their embrace of a philosophy of cute that shaped their explosive expression of global rage.

And it’s here that I find Kitty not only comforting, reassuring, and a friend in need (as well as a crack tennis player – for real!) – but also inspiring. I once remarked to a friend that I embraced what I referred to as Kitty praxis. He found this a bit hard to believe, but I don’t. You see, my hero used to be Judith Butler. For those who haven’t yet encountered this scholar and queer theorist, she more or less invented the notion of gender performativity and argued for parody and drag as strategic tools for cultural subversion. The problem is, with her pedantic and theory-heavy writing style, she became a hit for ivory towers the world over, and most of her ideas have either remained inaccessible to the general public or have been possessively hoarded by pompous-headed intellectuals. So much for that.

Kitty, on the other hand, successfully dodged the ivory tower blockade and launched a barrage of kawaii (a Japanese term which lies somewhere between ‘cool’ and ‘cute’) on an unsuspecting popular culture, 35 years ago. And her revolution of cute is still going strong. She may not have toppled global capitalism, but she hasn’t been co-opted by the global neoliberal machine (even if Taiwanese Eva Air *has* painted an entire airplane in her image). Subversion, queer theory, even punk rock – it’s all been absorbed by the powers that be. When I was doing my Masters degree, I could sign a paper with an anarchy symbol, hoist a hammer-and-sickle flag at my thesis proposal presentation, or stage a theatrical play in place of submitting a term paper – and my profs loved it. But the day I submitted a Hello Kitty image on the cover page of a term paper, and included a brief dedicatory verse to Kitty? I got a 5% grade penalization for trivializing the assignment, and the look in my prof’s eye was not disapproving – it was sheer fear and terror.

This morning on the subway, as I loitered in the doorway and the subway hurtled toward Ossington Station, one of the passengers got up in preparation to disembark. I couldn’t help but stare, because the young man had on a pink Mountain Equipment Co-Op vest, and a pink pair of pants, and a Hello Kitty baseball cap. I don’t know who he was, and probably never will, but for one brief moment our eyes met, and it was the age-old salute of cultural subversion in progress. While the rest of the subway car stared at him, he flicked his Hello Kitty baseball cap at a 45 degree sideways angle, flipped the collar of his Hello Kitty mountain climbing vest, and proudly hopped off the subway car. The gaping mouths of the other passengers made my day.

So feel free to hoist the red star or tattoo Che on your forehead, for all I care. My hero is 5 apples high, loves strawberry toothpaste, and neoliberal hegemony can’t touch her.

Happy Birthday Kitty!

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