8/29/09

On the Meaning, Purpose and Nature of Cuteness

Define "cute." Go ahead. I'll wait.

It's kind of like... uh, pretty, but in a wholesome, innocent way. And boys can be it too. For a while. Old boys -- men, I guess -- can't really be cute, or at least can't be called it, but women can. Girls too. Girls especially. Beautiful? No, that's something different. "Tiny" isn't quite it either. Man, there was a tiny spider crawling on my sunglasses the other day when I went to put them on, and it wasn't cute at all. At all. The ebola virus is pretty compact as well, I'm told.

But yeah, we're on to something. Pretty *and* little. And non-threatening. Very important. "Exquisite..." hmm, maybe. Nah. It's like that idea, but on the opposite end of the fanciness spectrum. If "exquisite" is a gourmet truffle with coffee liqueur, "cute" is a strawberry cupcake.

I guess you just know it when you see it. "Things That Make You Go 'Aww'" was going to be my original title for this little rambling, but I was hoping to stay a little more scholarly-sounding than that.

How is it that we all have full use and mastery of this word, yet nobody really knows how to define it? A mystery for the ages, no doubt. "Cute." Kyoot. You know, that "things that make you..." definition might be the best we're going to get. Cuteness could be serviceably defined as the quality belonging to anything that elicits instantaneous and otherwise inexplicable affection.

"Cuter than a pail of kittens" was the phrase bandied about in the crime thriller we just watched the other night. And they weren't even talking about a baby, or a panda, or a virus or anything else that might fit our earlier attempt at a description -- the cute item in this case was actually a plan to rob a cargo jet of some Swiss gold bars. Not that small, this plan, nor particularly aesthetically appealing. Especially not with Gene Hackman at the helm. (Sorry, Gene. You're still probably the most effective living actor in modern cinema, if that's any consolation.)

So a scheme can be cute, but Gene Hackman cannot. Nor a truffle, nor a death spore.

The local newspaper is running a "Cutest Baby" contest, of course, and this being 2009 and all they've got online voting and everything. Log in, browse some babies, place your votes. Winner gets a savings bond, or a Babies Backward R Us shopping spree, or something like that. It's too late to enter Veda this year.

I saw the other contenders, though, and it's a formidable field indeed. There are some devastatingly cute kids in this region, by the looks of it. Our friends -- you know what? I was going to rattle off the names of some of the cute kids our friends have produced so far, but now I'm not going to. I'd surely leave one or two out, just by sheer forgettance, and the parents could feel rightly jilted.

Folks are funny like that.

Then again, I had somebody comment on Veda being cute just this morning, and I didn't really know what to say. She is, of course -- the most radiantly adorable human being who has ever been born to anyone, anywhere, ever -- but it's still kind of strange thing to hear. People say it to moms and dads almost as a pleasantry; it's like complimenting someone's wallpaper. "This floral pattern is just lovely, Bernice. I never would have thought to paper right over the brick like that. Gives each begonia just that little bit of texture. Hey, baby's cute too."

"Thank you very much, Glenda." That's what you say -- you thank people for saying your baby's cute. It's not intended this way, I know, but when you think about it it's almost like you're acknowledging their politeness, and by extension their insincerity, by thanking them. "Thanks for saying my kid's cute" could imply that the kid actually *isn't*, and you both know it, possibly because he looks like a little Gene Hackman, but that you sure do appreciate this bystander pretending otherwise.

"Yeah, I know" is no good either, though. (Despite that fact that every parent *does* know.) It's just a little too smug, a little too self-satisfied for common discourse. But why is that? Why is it rude to smile and nod at someone who called your kid cute and simply affirm that you agree?

I'll tell you why. It's because babies are seen as miniature people. Scale models of their parents. And saying someone's kid is aesthetically appealing, eliciting that good ol' instantaneous and otherwise inexplicable affection, is generally interpreted as a compliment to the parents as well.

This is horseshit. Just because someone thinks my baby is cute doesn't mean they think I am. Not by a longshot. (Even though people do sometimes say in their next breath, "she looks just like you," which I'd say is a come-on by any standard, yeah?)

Yet still it's treated -- responded to, anyway -- as flattery for the folks. Like making a fuss over a fancy hat or something. "Hey, cute baby." "Oh, goodness, this old thing? It's kind of you to say so, but I don't believe it for a second. Poor soul's probably still covered in dust from the attic. Thanks all the same."

So is that why all those parents entered their babies in the Cute Contest? To make themselves feel more attractive? As if a victory there will confirm their pulchritude in print -- a solid bullet point they can then rush to add to their resumés?

"Let's see here, Mr. Robertson. Looks like you've got ten years' experience, two advanced degrees and -- hold on a minute -- a cute baby too? My goodness, why don't you just hop around here and take my desk until we can find you something nicer. I should have hired you the moment you walked in, flashing those wallet portraits so prominently. Quite a find you are."

Probably not. No, it's probably more the case that you thank people on your child's behalf. It's not like Veda can say "thank you" yet -- the little ruffian's manners are deplorable -- so it's up to Lope or me to respond for her. That makes more sense.

I'll tell you what I want to say, though, particularly now that I've given it some thought. "Glad you think so." And here's why:

I think I've figured out the purpose of cuteness. The whole point. Yep. Defining it may still be tricky, and the "how" remains a little sketchy, but I'm pretty sure I've got the "why" nailed down.

It's not to impress the neighbors. And it's not to prove that you, too, the parent, were one day fun to look at, despite your current state of decay and disrepair. It's not even to guarantee the baby's survival, a theory I've heard propounded on more than one occasion. (Think about it -- it kind of makes sense that Veda's big eyes, chubby cheeks and infectious smile would keep us from abandoning her to the wolves, until you realize she's way too cute for that. To avoid getting jettisoned, she'd only need to be about a sixtieth as cute as she actually is, and I just don't buy into this kind of evolutionary overkill. Cute can't be a defense mechanism; it's more like a charm that fills every cell of your baby and mesmerizes anyone who comes too close.)

Cuteness isn't to win you a Babies Backwards R Us loothaul, either.

No, I think it's the simplest, oldest motivation in the world that explains babies' cuteness. It's to make other people happy. Some people were put here on Earth to bring joy and contentment to the humans around them, and I think babies do it better than just about anyone.

It reminds me of that quote I loved so much a few years ago and talked about in an earlier post. "Live in an endeavor to fence against ill health and other evils of life by mirth; being firmly persuaded that every time a man smiles, but much more when he laughs, it adds something to this fragment of life." (- Laurence Sterne)

Yep. That's Veda's job right now, and she's extreeeemely good at it. So I'll probably keep thanking people when they say she's cute, but really I'll be thinking, "Way to go Veda! Another satisfied customer!"

And she'll look up at me and smile, and I'll melt all over again. I still can't really define it, but I know that's just how these things work out.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

My niece is *not* a ruffian with deplorable manners, for cryin' out loud, Col! She's a baby with an aunt who's more than a satisfied customer. Babies are cute so that people will dote on them and parents will find it easier to love them when they haven't slept through a full night in months! Thanks for the pics. I can't wait to see you guys next weekend!

YS

Hello, I'm Ryan Noel. said...

Man, I've spent the last 30 minutes trying to prove you wrong on Gene Hackman. I'm just sure he was cute once...

Cuteness irony for you -- the next time you and I are described as cute will be in our 70s or 80s when we're our crotchedy best and our email chains center mostly around urinary incontinence.

Colin said...

Ah, perhaps you're right, Ryan. I guess old men *can* be cute. Under certain, charmingly harmless circumstances.

But not Gene. Sorry, Gene.

Anonymous said...

AMEN - my baby makes me so happy every day. She is so good at her job.

I am always responding with the arrogant "I know" when told she is cute. She really is... plus she looks like her daddy anyway.

Meg

James said...

That is one ridiculously adorable little girl you've got there Colin. Can't wait to meet her again.