Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty's Trek Across the Pacific
Christine R. Yano
(Duke University Press)
She's an icon of the “performative feminine” like Barbra Streisand, and an outspoken ambassador for international goodwill despite having no mouth. She's 'from' England, entirely Japanese but made in China, and pushing forty even though she's still in third grade. No, it's not Honey Boo-Boo, it's that cat with the bow on her head, and she's got some heavy baggage to unpack.
Pink Globalization looks at Hello Kitty's export value as an icon of “aestheticized, feminized blankness,” what that blankness says about her roots in a culture dedicated to all things cute, and how it can be bent and shaped to form a rigorous self-critique. Author Christine R. Yano interviews Sanrio employees and designers as well as fans ranging from mere collectors to gay, lesbian, punk, and other fans who feel that Hello Kitty reinforces some measure of their cultural identity. There are odd revelations here: A gay man is highly particular about only wanting HK merch that features her with her original red bow, while a young lesbian is comforted by the freedom HK allows her to explore markers of feminine identity in a safe, playful manner.
After extensive discussion of her face, famously designed with no mouth so as to reflect a viewer's mood back to her, Yano's interview with author Angela Choi ('Hello Kitty Must Die') is thrilling. Choi's novel draws from her own experiences as a first generation Chinese American being sent on dates arranged by her parents with men who expected her to be as defanged, declawed and mouthless as the tiny icon, and who blanched at her use of the word “motherfucker”. (One, a thirty-six year old man, accused her of being the “first Asian” to use the word. Choi replied, “What have you been doing, living in an Afghan cave?” Let's all buy her flowers right now, ok?).
Pink is an academic text, and while the introduction was so densely written I thought I might not make it through, the rest is fascinating and freaky. Readers with any connection at all to Sanrio products will find juicy trivia (the name Sanrio is a compounding of the Spanish words for saint and river, chosen for it's hint of the American West) alongside serious analysis of the potential harm HK does in reinforcing stereotypes of docile complacency in Asian females. The “small gift, big smile” marketing strategy Sanrio employs ensures that product awareness and collectibility spread by making re-giftable trinkets widely available, and the beat goes on. All this fuss over a fake cat who hasn't sat down in over twenty years? You'd better believe it.
Coincidence? Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy is often seen with three rocks arranged nearby. Hello Kitty weighs the same as three apples. Both have plain dots for eyes, and both have been the subject of significant tributes in the modern art world, and specifically parodied by Bill Griffith's Zippy the Pinhead. You never see them in the same place at the same time, either...