Sunday, October 28, 2007

On Cuteness

Between Halloween--a major undertaking requiring many hours of preparation with three little children--staying up late watching the baseball playoffs, and consequently having to catch up on my sleep at any opportunity, as I was falling asleep at work and while driving, it has been a lost week as far as writing goes.

I was writing an interminable essay here but on the eighth day of composition, with the end nowhere in sight I decided to bag it.

What happened was that after I put up my little bit on Uta of Naumberg I remembered that I had been struck some years ago that one rarely encountered German girls who were cute in the perky American sense. Very beautiful women who were almost devastatingly (to the likes of me) sophisticated and polished, or more steely, unapologetic, but still formidably handsome pragmatists, yes. Others whose inclinations to plainness or homeliness were carried out in a rigid linear fashion to almost extremes by a serious cast of mind unsoftened by any humor or willful frivolity, certainly. Vivacious, playful sorts however who have the capacity even to torture or detest or be indifferent to you in a pleasing manner without bludgeoning you with a direct and precise assessment of your worth are not so easily found.

I determined that in German society the barriers to perkiness were a combination of cosmopolitanism, a more thorough and exacting educational program, especially for pupils of good intelligence, and the greater awareness and emphasis on humans' essential darkness that remains pervasive in the worldview of people in that part of the world. Now doubtless any German-bred person reading this they would say this is wrong. I find I am always wrong when taking up any matter with Germans, particularly anything that directly relates to themselves, as though the nature of all the world, or at least everything in it requiring some degree of intelligent perceptiveness, were completely inscrutable to me. Nonetheless I determined to plug away and decided that cuteness as I was thinking of it was an utterly bourgeois phenomenon, albeit one requiring a fairly high level of intelligence and material comfort to develop its full glory, as well however as a general innocence of evil and most of the hardest truths about existence which logic and science have come to, and, perhaps most importantly, a surplus of mild (though not unredeemably woeful) men for whom this kind of beauty and personality are ideal. Women of this type after all do not flourish in all times and places. The men of the Taliban, for example, seem to have little use for them. Indeed, the most impressive thing I have read about this group is that they seem to be utterly unaffected by the prospect of being in the presence of, or even getting personal attention from, the sort of highly desirable babes that cause most American men to wilt on sight. One article I read claimed that the University of Miami cheerleading squad could be sent in their skimpiest costumes into the Taliban camp and the men would express no more arousal than to throw burqas over them and order them into the kitchen. I am cutting out the disclaimer I had originally written distancing myself from this attitude. I don't think it is really necessary.

I then argued that the main strongholds of cuteness in the contemporary world were still the United States and Canada, the middle and upper middle classes of Latin America, increasing the further south one went, and East Asia, particularly Japan and Korea. I posited that like the red squirrels of Britain losing ground to the gray, the classic cutie-pie type in the U.S. was under increasing assault on the lower end from its related but more feral and less intelligent nemesis, the more attractive type of skank, and on the upper end from the increasing reliance the serious professions and academic fields have on clever young women to fill their ranks, which tends to dampen cuteness because, unlike staggering beauty, cuteness is dependent on there being a fairly substantial pool of men who can reasonably expect to compete for the cutie, which is difficult to have when one is also competing with her for worldy honors and positions, and frequently losing. I also argued that, like so much of the modern world, the origins of cuteness could be traced to England.

I then said that in most ancient history, literature, mythology, art, etc, the women that the male characters were interested in were uniformly supposed to be beautiful, with no caveat that anyone's height or breasts or hair or whatever were only 7.5s while otherwise she was a solid 9.6. If a hero likes her, or she is of good birth, you can be sure she is always going to be portrayed as a 10. I noted that to obtain these beautiful women required real exertion too, and that one had to visibly crush, usually violently, one's competitors, all the while demonstrating one's superior nobility and mental refinement. A lot was at stake, and there could be no doubts allowed that the women fought over so brutally were not worth every drop of blood spilled.

I then wanted to point out that human life continually grew more comfortable and soft, and that in time, as trade and the professions developed it became possible for men to live in some style and attract pretty women without having first to put large numbers of potential rivals to the sword. I said that while many of the choicest women continued to demand demonstrations of the aristocratic and martial virtues, even in artificial form, another group, generally satisfied to live in a prosperous manner if a heroic one was to be out of reach, developed the type of attractions that would be irresistable to the pragmatic bourgeois man; unthreatening prettiness, general enthusiasm for the sorts of comforts and mode of life such a man could provide, enough spirit to enjoy and have no mean success in social competition. I had thought that in England this personality evolved as an imitation of the upper class French coquettes of the ages of the King Louises, which however took a much milder form across the channel, the reputation of the French ladies of this period having come down to us as being by comparison thoroughly chilling, heartless and amoral, eager not merely to tease their victims but to humiliate and skin them alive. I suppose this is a form of cuteness, but it is not one that really applies to democratic society.
I then attempted to relate something of the literary history of cuteness, starting with the coquettes of the Spectator papers and Pope, and the appearance of the type in Jane Austen's novels (not approved however), especially the wild and frivolous Lydia in Pride and Prejudice, (the 15-year old sister who ran off with a soldier). As he did with Christmas, Charles Dickens may have largely invented our modern conceptions of cuteness, as his novels are choc-a-bloc with cute girls, whether pampered bourgeois (Dora Spenlow, David Copperfield's child-wife and cutie-pie par excellence), debtor's prison inmate (Little Dorrit), would-be femme fatale (Estella from Great Expectations--she is unattainable the way the cheerleaders in eighth grade suburban schools are to nerds--not so much if you can pull yourself together a little and succeed in something) or even royalty (Queen Victoria). I noted that Tolstoy had several prominent characters who could only be described as bourgeois-style cute (Natasha from W & P, Levin's wife in Anna Karenina) which I thought unusual among the Russians. The closest thing to a cute girl in Dostoevsky is Sonya in Crime & Punishment, who is a prostitute who becomes the girlfriend of a murderer. Then I went on to talk about Coca-Cola advertising, and the Oz books, magazines, co-ed schools and colleges, movies, etc, in America. There wasn't time to find and tie together the grand point.

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