It is no exaggeration to say that I am obsessed with Hello Kitty. My bedroom is saturated with stuffed animals and wall decals. The first thing I see every morning is an image of Hello Kitty on an airplane adventure, the words “It’s a wonderful day... Hello Kitty” flying alongside her.
But not all of Kitty’s days have been wonderful; like the rest of us, she has faced her fair share of criticism. The Japanese Kawaii aesthetic from which she is modeled is often seen as oppressive. In her 1995 essay, Sharon Kinsella noted the fact that Hello Kitty doesn’t have a mouth, suggesting that the character is representative of an ideal of weak womanhood: to her, Kitty is “without bodily orifices (e.g. mouths), non-sexual, mute, insecure, helpless or bewildered.” Scholar Karen Ma agrees, painting the cat as a “compliant, doll-like [focus for] fantasy.”
But whose fantasy is it, when we really think about it? The spareness of her design does lend Kitty to young imaginations; as fan Anna Hanks writes, “Kitty is a paradigm of the preadolescent female self, before young women are forced to internalize the images of what society promotes as necessary to become beautiful or appealing.” Essayist Mizuko Ito sees potential in Kitty to be “appropriated as a feminist, girl power image.”
And I do too. Kitty’s mouthlessness is more complicated than it might appear at first (After all, she is capable of telling me “it’s a wonderful day”). In his review of Christine Yano’s Pink Globalization, The New Inquiry's Ben Gabriel writes, “Against the Western tradition’s conflation of the voice’s expressive powers and individual agency, Japanese art in particular has privileged the expressive power of the eyes.” In other words, Hello Kitty’s huge eyes are her means of expression. To think otherwise might be reading Japanese iconography with an American eye.
Gabriel also suggests room for sexuality within the character; she is not necessarily an icon of chastity. Aside from the recent introduction of Hello Kitty condoms, “kawaii, despite being translated as cute almost universally, is particular in part because it is an aesthetic that makes space within itself for subversion, irony, and sexuality.”
In the end, I think Hello Kitty is what we make of her. To me, she’s a feminist friend onto which I may project my hopes and dreams. Let’s hope that’s how the younger generation sees her too. What do you think of the symbol and cultural phenomenon that is Hello Kitty? Sound off in the comments!