Thursday, August 27, 2009

Paper on Parade: The Power of Cuteness

You know the experience -- you ask that lovely young lady at the counter for a tapioca pearl milk tea and she replies in a voice two octaves too high, through the nose. I just want to throttle her. Yes, I hate cute. I'd like to see the expression hao ke ai! nuked out of the universe. So naturally, this episode of my irregular feature Paper on Parade looks at a paper that repeatedly uses that odious term....

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.

Chuang begins:
"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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Anonymous said...

I think a lot of it depends on who is deploying the image of cuteness.

Anonymous said...

very interesting study!, thxs

Anonymous said...

You are much too intellectual for your own good, mister blogger! This hardly applies only to Taiwan. Cuteness began in Japan in the 1990s, called KAWAII there, and it spread out from Tokyo and Osaka to HK and ROC and NYC. Your wish to throttle that cute girl i the shop on that island where you live belies a very dark side of your personality. You should have your head examined. I mean that as a compliment. Cuteness is a Japanese cultural export that Taiwan has obviously imported from all the JET and NHK shows that play on ROC airwaves, so it's only natural If you really hate cuteness, then attack Japan, not the ROC. You are too intellectual for your headtrips. Relax, sensei. Go take a hot bath.


Mlle. Rene Claire, French girl in Taoyuan

PS - I hope u are not married and do not have any children.... otherwise, omigod!

Anonymous said...

"Taiwan death toll even higher than we thought."

And CNN does NOT have it right either. The final death toll will be 3,000. Do the maths! -- (I'm British!)

Dixteel said...

very interesting observation.

I wonder if this is universal though because one expression to describe some sort of sexual attractiveness in the North America is actually "he/she is cute"...although a lot of the times it is used on guys with big muscle etc so I don't see where the cuteness come from.

Personally though I don't particularly like cuteness from women, especially when it is excessive. When the women use expressions like 'che che' as mentioned in the article, I usually feel kind of weird.

It could be a fashion trend though, and as what usually happens, when a trend becomes extreme (when every women, or even men, try too hard to be cute), it might reverse itself.

Anonymous said...

I told my daughter that one feature of the Taiwanese Culture is "pretending to be cute". It seems that I should have written an essay so that my words can be quoted by you ;)

I think it is somehow influenced by Japanese. Japanese are much much worse in this.

Michael Turton said...

LOL. Thanks for the compliment, I think, Rene.

Anonymous said...

"This hardly applies only to Taiwan. Cuteness began in Japan in the 1990s, called KAWAII there, and it spread out from Tokyo and Osaka to HK and ROC and NYC. "

Ahhh! It doesn't matter where it comes from, it is what the locals do with it that makes it Taiwanese.

Readin said...

Before I even read the article I have to question if they know anything. The URL is If they name an pdf document about Taiwan "china2", what other ignorance can we expect?

Unknown said...

I agree with "Renée Claire" here. Although I love it and hate it (hau keu eye - I'm making up my own Pinyin, just for the hell of it, and because I love to drive other Anglophones crazy!). I love the cuteness when it is genuine, but I don't enjoy it when it comes from 3-8 girls trying to manipulate people. It is so obvious. But when it is from tea places - it is genuine, usually. Unless it is from Taipei people. Then it is suspicious. Taipei women who do this are usually haughty as well. I'm being tongue-in-cheek. I don't want people to know the whole story! Hahaha.

BIT said...

Very interesting. I enjoyed reading it as much as your normally political analysis. Is this something related to your Ph.D dissertation?

Michael Turton said...

BIT, it is just a topic I enjoy. Not related to my PHD. Hopefully I will be blogging on my dissertation in a couple of months!

Dalbanese said...

Hi Mr. Turton,

Thanks for the article review. I wanted to pass on a recent article about Japan which touches on something similar. Here they attribute cuteness not just to women looking for mates/succeeding in a male-dominated world but to society as a whole reflecting an insecurity - an inability to grow up. One Japanese artist's perspective is that it's a national daddy issue. It's a short read, so hope you enjoy.

Tommy said...

I have a very stern face, and I am often told that I look angry when I am not. Sending out a playful turn of phrase can make a huge difference in the reaction you get in certain situations.

I have also seen many other local men use it. Granted, it never develops into the whole cutesy sounding voice and gougou duplification. I also admit that I am one of the only Western men I know who uses it. I am not sure what that says about me, or about certain inflexibility in what is expected of the male gender in the West (much too general of a term for this discussion).

Michael Turton said...

David Huang: due to quality guarantees, the two words you put in your comment, He___ Ki___, are not permitted on this blog. I thank you for your patience in this matter.


Kaminoge said...

Does the paper's author mention the Japanese angle anywhere? As Rene points out, the whole cuteness thing in Taiwan is basically yet another Japanese import (the land where "kawaii" has reigned supreme since long before the 1990's), with only minimal local input. The attempt to link the world of "H.K." with a Chinese historical/cultural tradition is a bit of a stretch. But academics would never ignore obvious factors, and overemphasize the marginal and/or trivial just to get a paper published, would they?

Anonymous said...

This is the type of academic research my university would call "research in a vacuum" or research for the sake of research. It doesn't serve to improve our lot, nor contributes in any meaningful way toward society.

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

Interesting. I get annoyed, too, when girls act 'cute' to get what they want - as though just asking for it is not OK, that they have to ask for things by pretending to be childlike and therefore seem submissive. Not. Cool.

But I maintain that tiny dogs in bags are freakin' adorable. I will never waver from my love of tiny dogs in bags.

Anonymous said...

"This is the type of academic research my university would call "research in a vacuum" or research for the sake of research. It doesn't serve to improve our lot, nor contributes in any meaningful way toward society." - Anonymous (10.56pm)

How true, (Mr) Anonymous, understanding gender relations does nothing to 'improve our lot'... if we are all men.

Working out how mostly-unconscious gender (or racial, ethnic, class, you name it) stereotypes give some in our societies power while denying it to others is at the heart of what certain people call 'politics'. You might have heard of that term? You might have also heard that it is of great importance to many people (your university excepted, I suppose - academics are well known for not engaging in petty personal politics, especially in Taiwan, as Michael could attest!). Indeed, a many people (for example, those who vote) see 'politics' as the central means with which to 'improve our lot'.

So in conclusion, I suggest you grow up.

(Michael, I'm sorry for the snarkiness and sarcasm, but that is just beyond the pale!) said...

the problem is infantization.

there are things that are 好可愛 and there is the 裝可愛

when a 3 y.o. (boy or girl) says 車車 or 狗狗 it is right and proper and can be cute. Just like we say doggy and fishy and piggy. But when a 20, 30 or even 40 y.o does that... 裝什麼可愛啊?

As for the discussion on power, i think there is a correlation in the Raunch culture. What was once a symbol of oppression and enslavement has now evolved to be a symbol for power. See

I think this shows the perverseness of men in their male sexuality and also the reaction from women whose desire is to rule over their counter part in creation, hence the power struggle.

Anonymous said...

If you want to see cute in it's flowery fullness go to Japan. Taiwan may be catching on, but it's not even close to the land that invented Hello Kitty. Miss Claire is right. Cuteness is most likely an export of kawaii (which wiki dates from the 1970s). Like so many other elements of pop culture, Japan leads the way and the world takes notice. Are we so jaded that we have to look down on these elements of innocence, beauty and simplicity?

Anonymous said...

Shouldn't 可愛 really just be translated as "loveable"?

John McNeil Scott said...

"It appears that as a style and manner, cuteness in Taiwan is slowly shifting from unconsciously embodied “habitus” to a kind of performance."

I absolutely agree with Tzu-i Chuang (and with you, Michael). Nothing that has been said about the Japanese influence negates this.

There is a slow shift from the unconscious "habitus" of cuteness to its playful and often ironic performance among both men and women.

This shift is not unnoticed: I have often heard Taiwanese friends say "bu yao zhuang keai", don't play cute; always in a gently observant way.

When "keai" and "sajiao" are seen to be intrinsic qualities they are not always well receievd, but when all know they are performed they are part of the socially lubricating fun of interaction in Taiwan, a Taiwanese aspect of what the Thais call "sanuk"

Anonymous said...

There is nothing covert about any of this; it is one of the most obvious things a foreign person encounters in Taipei. It does lead to all kinds of levels of frustration. Simultaneously, some western men are drawn into this; really hoping that the cuteness says something about good character and that the girl will let you get really close to her. Since it is only a social gesture in many cases, the guy can feel really fooled, strung along, because she is shocked to find that he expects her cuteness to extend to a sweet and genuine interior. Some other times, she may also be very nice and honest, but the gesture still has a certain distance from her ongoing expectations. So, be prepared, for the difference from outside and inside. Of course, these features are all necessary for actual persons to be able to make it. The gesture of cuteness is really just a gesture, not a mark of character.

Anonymous said...

Kaminoge, there is no such thing as a purely imported cultural thing. It always mixes with something local. In this case, it mixes with female practicalness, using a gesture to get some advantage, splitting between inside and outside.