This paper explores an issue that has become much discussed in Taiwan in the last two decades -- infantilization, in this case, with respect to females. The Power of Cuteness: Female Infantilization in Taiwan by Tzu-i Chuang, argues that
It appears that as a style and manner, cuteness in Taiwan is slowly shifting from unconsciously embodied “habitus” to a kind of performance. In other words, whereas in the past cute behaviors conformed closely to the social expectations of women and were second nature, in recent years similar behaviors are often displayed with a certain level of playfulness or even cynicism due to growing awareness among Taiwanese women of the social implications of acting cute.In other words, whereas before women were become unconsciously but fully acculturated to acting cute, now they act cute because of the power it gives them over men, and because they are aware of the social advantages.
"The Chinese word ke’ai, usually translated as cute or cuteness, literally means “lovable” or “adorable.” In general understanding, ke’ai is embodied in a person, animal or small object that arouses feelings of pity, tenderness, and a desire to take care of it. Linguistic anthropologist Catherine Farris describes the word ke’ai as one among many vocabularies that are covertly marked as feminine."She notes that ke'ai has a broader range than cute in English, covering anything small, diminutive size being a key concept in it. Thus both puppies and insects can be ke'ai.
Drawing on Farris, she observes that "cuteness is believed by many to be intrinsic to the female sex and so expected of all women, especially of those who are at an age for courtship and marriage." Both the models of cuteness and the high regard for it, are unconsciously inculcated in the social identity of local females, reflecting, but also naturalizing, their asymmetrical status in Taiwan society. Children learn the necessary behaviors early. Again following Farris, Chuang writes:
Native speakers understand such behavior as sajiao, which has two related meanings: (1) “to show pettiness, as a spoiled child,” and (2) “to pretend to be angry or displeased, as a coquettish young woman.” Elaborating further on the definition, sajiao can be referred to as “a communication style that spoiled children of both sexes, and young (particularly unmarried) women engage in when they want to get their way from an unwilling parent/boyfriend/husband.”Sajiao has its own voice quality:
the “standard woman’s voice” observed by social linguists often tends toward “the young and immature, warm and respectful, sometimes having bashful overtones or even a petulant air.”..and of course, sajiao speakers nasalize final vowel particles. Ugh. An additional feature is unnecessary duplication of syllables -- calling a dog gou gou or a car che che.
Chuang locates the cultural logic of modern female cuteness in the Confucian ideal that women must be "humble, yielding, and reverential" in relation to men. She notes:
Since the early 1900s, such an ideal is embodied in the nationally celebrated image of xianqi liangmu, meaning “good wife and virtuous mother.” The discourse of xianqi liangmu preached the importance of women’s education in the belief that educated women make better wives and mothers, better housekeepers and citizens. Thus the major purpose of educating women was to enable them to teach and rear children more effectively instead of helping them pursue self-fulfillment.As an aside, this discourse offers one-half of the Madonna/Whore pairing so common in honor/shame cultures like China's. In Taiwan the KMT continued to celebrate International Women's Day until 1996, when, during the transition from a six-day work week to a five-day work week, it was folded into Children's Day to make Women and Children's Day -- quite a comment on the status of women in Taiwan.
As we all know, modern women in Taiwan now work to find their own life goals, and frequently do not marry well into their thirties. Many career females no longer live with or remit money to their families. Chaung argues that this rising objective social equality with males poses a problem for a society where social relations are supposed to be patriarchal and hierarchical, and one solution for females is to act cute, to engage in "the symbolic gesture of acting like children." In other words, consciously or unconsciously, women have become aware of the uses of cuteness in social situations. Chuang adduces the case of Ms. Lu:
For example, Ms. Lu, a 26-year-old sales representative in a medical care products company, explained to me that it is necessary for a female employee like her to act a little cute at work. “It is like a lubricant” she said, “it helps us get along with people better and makes things easer.” In her opinion, a woman who does not know how to sajiao or act cute would be disadvantaged at work, because people would think that she has a personality problem.For Chuang, Ms. Lu articulates the new female consciousness of the power of cute, a tool for furthering her own goals in a complex, male-run society. To wit:
As more and more women self-consciously utilize a cute manner for their own benefit, it seems no longer appropriate to view cuteness as simply part of a habitus that reproduces hierarchical relations. What becomes excluded in this conceptually reproductive cycle is the shifting socio-historical circumstances which may create slippages between the habitus and reality, and as a result generate ambivalence, conflicting consciousness, and reflexivity in the subjects. I believe the trend of cuteness in Taiwan testifies precisely to this process; that is, it is slowly extricating itself from unaware conformism and entering into conscious maneuvering and self-redefinition.She also points out that the large number of powerful women, such as Sisy Chen, who act cute, or who appropriate the imagery of cute, are not trying to reassure their audience. Rather, they are consciously redefining the meanings and boundaries of cuteness....
Similarly, Chen’s self-appointed title xiaomeida, meaning literally “little sister big”, emphasizes the power she has as a non-threatening female. By fusing two opposite concepts in one word, it implies that there is indeed no contradiction between the little and the big. Rather than saying “I am smart and powerful, but don’t worry, I am also cute,” Chen imparts the confident message that “I am cute, and I am smart and powerful.”Another aspect of the way cuteness is losing its meaning as a marker of weakness and femininity is the way it is being taken over by male politicians. She uses the example of Chen Shui-bian, who liked appearing in costumes dressed as Santa Claus or Peter Pan, and had cute dolls of himself made and distributed during the election. One could adduce many other examples, such as the popular Mayor of Taichung, Jason Hu, who also likes appearing in cute costumes.
Summing up, she neatly stands the idea of cuteness as weakness on its head:
Statistical studies have shown that Taiwan exhibits significantly greater gender equality than Japan in all areas of comparison, including educational attainment, labor participation, and wages. The cuteness trend and avid consumption among Taiwanese women are thus not so much a compensation for the lack of power as an affirmation of power. With ongoing socioeconomic changes plus increasingly powerful and gender-neutral presentations of cuteness, some unintended transformations regarding gender relations will most likely follow.The rise of cute is everywhere. Anyone notice how cute characters appear on warning signs on construction sites, highways, trains, and other public infrastructure? And then there's the men becoming cute....
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