An Ecological Case for Cuteness
I sense that cuteness isn’t overly popular among environmental activists or cultural critics. While doing research for this article I stumbled upon strong critiques of cuteness from many angles. One article laments the fact that cuteness motivates people to care about some endangered species more than others. Another labels those who indulge in Sanrio-themed theme park activities—like those at Sanrio Puroland near Tokyo—as “infantile.” Writers like Ian Jared Miller refer to cuteness as a phenomenon driven by base desires, giving descriptions of the phenomenon that are, if less judgmental than the psychoanalytic descriptions, still icy and standoffish. Even more impassioned responses include books with titles like Angela S. Choi’s excellent book Hello Kitty Must Die. Clearly, cuteness has a knack for arousing (often justified) cynicism and even anger from activists and scholars.
When you consider that environmental activists and writers are often harsh critics of mass consumerism and write in academic styles that don’t permit effusive emotion, cuteness hardly seems to put up a fight. To the critic, the cute object or feeling could be described as frivolous, reductive, selfish, or even disabled. For example, whole reams of text have been written just about classic cute mascot Hello Kitty’s lack of a mouth and supposed inability to express herself—we’ll get back to that in a bit. All in all, when you combine the anti-consumerist bent of most environmental critics with academia and activism’s practiced disdain for “kitsch” and popular media, you get a very chilly and hostile environment for fluffy pals.
My purpose for this essay isn’t so much to dispel this suspicion, since it has a real foundation and usefulness. Rather, I want to point out that, when we look past criticism, we can find that the qualities of cuteness may have a unique place within the diverse and supportive ecological communities we hope to live in.
My own lifetime has been marked by the widespread use of cute animal characters as mascots for environmental causes. I grew up during the height of rainforest chic, going to at least two Rainforest Café franchises on vacation. Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened in 1998. Ferngully came out the same year I was born and was a staple of rained-out recess periods in school, and it was followed by movies like Once Upon a Forest and Pocahontas. Big-eyed tree frogs and Lisa Frank jaguars were everywhere, especially on school supplies. Conservation campaigns have relied on similarly adorable characters. The World Wildlife Federation, for example, uses a panda mascot, and going back into the past we find various woodland critters doing yeoman work as mascots for the U.S. Forest Service, from Smokey the Bear to Woodsy Owl. Even Bambi has served as a galvanizing figure for moral objections to hunting.
So while the harder-edged activist world has, in general, treated cuteness with suspicion, there is no doubt that environmentalism’s more popular and corporate/national patrons have had no trouble using cute animal characters to represent green causes to the public in North America. I suspect that the close association between big liberal environmentalism and cute, appealing mascots does cute animal characters no favors for environmental activists and writers who are—in my view rightly—dismissive of green capitalism.
For me, however, the true value of cute animal characters for ecological living cannot be found in mascot pedagogy or theme restaurants—no matter how delicious I found them as a child. Instead, I want to advocate for the cute animal character as a figure who can show us how to care for and feel about beings of all kinds—real, human, animal, mineral, fictional, and actual. Their ability to retain identity across many media, many materials, communities, and media can teach us compassion for all creatures and communities. Cuteness and softness, to me, are ideal qualities for ecological living. Since not all of us are cut out for the sharp work of direct action or outdoor protest, people like me can live and think ecologically by supporting other beings, creating enduring communities of love starting in our own homes.
First, I want to look at the 1985 Sesame Street film Follow that Bird. Though there is no overt ecological message in this film (most of the great ecological movies do not have any explicit message about “The Environment”) it does show us a Sesame Street where imaginary friends, Muppets, stuffed animals, monsters, adults, child, and even birds of various sizes live and learn together without strict need for nuclear families. The film centers around Big Bird, a giant yellow bird portrayed with the personality of a six-year-old child. The late Carol Spinney portrayed the character from 1968 to 2018, and in a 1979 interview Spinney commented on the way in which Big Bird’s ageless cuteness and animal nature intersected and made the character so helpful and appealing to young children:
Bird’s immortality enchants and intrigues me. I wonder if Bird will still be young when I am sixty… One of the blessings I receive from this show is that my character doesn’t age. Somewhere [the Christian scripture of] Matthew says that a person has to be like a child in order to inherit the kingdom of heaven. In part, Sesame Street keeps me a child and keeps me in a heaven of wonder.
Big Bird’s enchantment outlives his original puppeteer, but what really fascinates me about the character is the ecological context of his eternal childlikeness. Sesame Street, the place, is one of the most beautiful and enduring fictional utopias. Here, Big Bird can live without any nuclear family. His friends include humans played by human actors, other Muppets who are acted out by hidden artists, and, most notably, his own cute, fictional animal friends.
First, there is Radar, his teddy bear. Big Bird dresses up the bear and puts him in his own airline seat, going to sleep with him at night. Next but not least is Mr. Snuffleupagus (Snuffy from here on, if I may), Big Bird’s elephant-like anteater (or is that anteater-like elephant?) imaginary friend. All of them play an important role in Follow that Bird, whose plot revolves around Big Bird’s decision to leave Sesame Street. Despite being mostly content in the city, Big Bird feels slightly lonely because he is the only bird there. So, he decides to go live with the Dodo family in Illinois. Throughout the film, the filmmakers treat Big Bird and Snuffy’s relationship with the utmost seriousness. Big Bird asks Snuffy to watch over his nest while he’s away with the Dodos, and the moment when the two of them reunite is among the most emotional in the film.
Big Bird’s relationship with Snuffy illustrates the communal ethos of Sesame Street. Once in Illinois, Big Bird soon learns that the sitcom life the Dodos lead in their homogeneous suburb is narrow and mean. Fed up, he leaves to walk back to Sesame Street while his friends there try to rescue him before Miss Finch, a bird social worker, recaptures him. Follow that Bird cares deeply about loving friendships, emphasizing them over family or species bonds even when those friends are imaginary or with stuffed animals—or monsters or even humans for that matter.
The film might go even further than it realizes in affirming human relationships with cute animal characters of all levels of fiction or artifice. At one point, when Big Bird is fleeing the Dodos and Miss Finch, he ends up captured and put in a roadside carnival freak show. The two hucksters who put him in his cage paint him blue and market him to children as the Blue Bird of Happiness. One night, after hearing Big Bird’s mournful song, two children go up to his cage and look up at Bird, who is crying. They ask if he’s real and confirm that he is because of his tears. He’s crying, therefore he is! There are few better examples in media I’ve seen of cuteness’s invitation to care, its equation of vulnerability with worth, and its insistence on softness of heart and compassion.
We see this even more poignantly during the recent pandemic, where the Hello Kitty Youtube channel has been putting up vlogs where Hello Kitty speaks to children about the troubles of staying indoors. Defying the simplistic critique of Kitty-chan as voiceless or helpless, she—in this case a CGI model puppeted and voiced in each video but presented in the usually live-action vlog format—commiserates with her audience and offers advice or motivation to study. In one video, Kitty tells children it’s OK to process emotions, and that you don’t have to pretend that you’re happy all the time.
Bringing us even further back to the world we humans inhabit, I want to introduce you to my Big Bird plush doll. He’s much smaller than the one in the movie, about a foot and a half tall, maybe less. He actually shares his room with a Hello Kitty doll, along with a menagerie of other friends who populate my room. There’s the writer of this article, of course, me myself. My gorgeous black longhair cat also sleeps here during the day. She doesn’t talk much, but we’re pretty much the best of friends. My roommates visit, too, and let’s not forget all my stuffed animals. Their strange immortality, their cute way of remaining vibrant and cheerful, even at the darkest times when every person around me is depressed or unable to help, their consistent image and connection with their appearances in other media—all of these are part of their cuteness, and why cuteness is so vital to my own ecological living space.
Looking at Hello Kitty dressed in that adorable rainbow outfit and at Big Bird sitting next to her, I think about that vlog and about Follow that Bird, and I’ve begun to think that love and friendship are not just for people to share with other people. I love my cat, she loves me (when I’m not trying to put her in a silly hat!), and I think that all my stuffed animals love me back, too, in their own way. It’s Sesame Street in my bedroom, birds, cats, maybe a monster or two on any given night.
Getting to the core of the matter, I take Jennifer Price very seriously when she talks about the plastic flamingo in her article “The Pink Flamingo: A Natural History.” She says that the story of the plastic pink flamingo is indeed a story about nature. Over time, I’d like to think many of us have accepted that the environment is not something “out there” or foreign from human beings or our craft. Many have pleaded for the people who cherish cuteness to care about snails, axolotls, clams, insects, and other ugly animals. My return call is for us to take our wilderness-obsessed, outdoorsy environmental lens and look into bedrooms and see how all the weird, real, and fictional creatures thrive together. Cuteness binds those who love each other; it validates the sick and weak; and it offers, as Sharon Tran suggests, a politics of being-with and persisting together that offers respite from constant doing or, worse, the guilt about not being able to do anything when you are disabled in some ways. Like me.
So let’s carve out a space in our homes and hearts (and ecologies) for the frivolous, soft creatures and characters in all media. I would argue that cute animal characters do not, or do not have to, block or frustrate our attempts to extend compassion and freedom to creatures we have a harder time cute-ifying. Instead, they exist as a comforting and affirming presence. My dearest hope is this: if we take the radical step of taking the “useless” and “frivolous” parts of life more seriously, then we extend our obligation to love even to creatures we have made of ink or polyester. If we can do that, we can practice creating cross-species, cross-fiction havens in our own homes, and more easily remember the precious things that we can all fight to defend and nurture in our own ways. The world is troubled, and our hearts are a vital part of the world, so there is nothing un-green about fortifying and preserving our hearts as well as the biosphere we dearly love.
Featured image: Big Bird holds his teddy bear Radar on an airplane as they fly to Illinois. Screenshot from Follow That Bird (1985) .
Evelyn Ramiel (xey/xeir) is a content editor for Environmental History Now. After completing an M.A. at York University about human-microbe relations on Japanese warships, xey are writing a dissertation on the ecological and animal history of Japanese character merchandise, also at York University. Website. Twitter. Contact.