Sonic Cute: An Overview
Anthony P. McIntyre / University College Dublin

chipmunks

Alvin and the Chipmunks’ “The Chipmunk Song”

In this my final column on the theme of cuteness for Flow, I’m going to give a brief overview and sketch out some possible avenues for further research in an area relatively neglected by scholars of the aesthetic: cuteness and popular music. Even a cursory consideration of pop music reveals how intrinsic cute aesthetics are in terms of both sound and image. Sonic cute, as I term it, has exerted a considerable influence on popular music and its associated visual texts for some time in ways that index complex questions of gender, power and representation.

A useful study by David Huron, in an analysis clearly influenced by the ethological roots of cuteness scholarship (notably the work of Konrad Lorenz), foregrounds how the high–pitched sonic emissions of young animals are liable to elicit “parenting behavior” and music or sounds that emulate this elicit a similar response from the listener.[ ((David Huron. “The Plural Pleasures of Music.” Proceedings of the 2004 Music and Music Science Conference. Ed. Johan Sundberg and William Brunson. Stockholm: Kungliga Musikhögskolan & KTH (Royal Institute of Technology), 2005. 1-13. Print.))] As the author notes: “auditory cuteness appears to be a particular combination of acoustical features involving high spectral resonances and low amplitude. But the distal cause of auditory cuteness is the promoting of parenting behaviors — presumed to be directed at human infants.” In our recent volume, The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness, my co-editors and I have sought to consolidate existing scholarship and push the understanding of cuteness beyond one that is predominantly centred on the notion of parental response (not to say that this is not sometimes the case) and open up critical analyses to elements such as the assymetrical power relations (Ngai), invocations to play (Sherman and Haidt), as well as the vast array of sexual and racial connotations that cohere in a wide variety of cute texts. It is this set of conceptual concerns that I briefly seek to position in regard to cute pop music and its associated set of visual texts in this article.

If we return to Huron’s description of cute sound, we see its value in tracing a history of sonic cute in popular music. Taking as a prime example Alvin and The Chipmunks, a pop cultural phenomenon that began in 1958 when Ross Bagdasarian Sr. recorded and released “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late),” we can see the “high spectral resonances” Huron identifies are in this case manifest in Bagdasarian’s pioneering usage of the “varispeed” recording technique that produced the distinctive high-pitched “Chipmunk sound”[ ((Carpenter, Susan. “‘Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel’ Soundtrack Scores.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 23 Dec. 2009. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.))]. The hit record spawned a franchise featuring the anthropomorphic cute rodents that thrives to this day with current animated television series Alvinnn!!! And the Chipmunks (2015–) and the recent feature Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip (2015) just the latest in a long line of Chipmunk media texts. I’ve previously written of cuteness’s connection to anthropomorphized animated animals, and the longevity and transmedia success of The Chipmunks are indicative of the commercial logics identified as key features of the aesthetic.

Bagdasarian’s creation also suggests that cuteness is a viable aesthetic strategy in the creation of fluid identity positions that reject standard markers of rock and pop authenticity. Bagdasarian, U.S. born and of Armenian heritage, voiced not only the three chipmunks (Alvin, Simon and Theodore), but also their companion, David Saville (the producer’s long-standing stage name). In this way, we can see how the Chipmunks with their cute-ified vocals were a precursor to many of the experimental and often critically lauded developments in pop music in recent years. Indeed, composer and musicologist Nick Collins accords the Chipmunks a seminal position in an article tracing a genealogy of “virtual musicians,” seeing the high-pitched children’s favorites as precursors of contemporary post-human pop entities such as Gorillaz (the fusion of animation and collaborative music perhaps best-known as a side-project of Blur frontman Damon Albarn) and the “virtual idols“ who top the music charts in Japan.[ ((Collins, Nick. “Trading Faures: Virtual Musicians and Machine Ethics.” Leonardo Music Journal 21.21 (2011): 35-39. Web.))]

qt

QT of PC Music

This confluence of technological development and cute-ified pop cultural aesthetics is also evident in the self-consciously artificial audio-visual style of artists associated with British music label PC Music. “Hey QT” by QT, for instance, an underground hit from 2014, clearly has Bagdasarian’s varispeed vocals in its sonic DNA, and is representative of a whole host of artists on the label whose common denominator seems to be pushing cute aesthetics to their limits. Artists such as GFOTY (Girlfriend of the Year), Hannah Diamond, and the producer largely responsible for “Hey QT,” SOPHIE (who despite the female-gendered name is a London-based male) all use high-pitched vocals and channel a plethora of influences such as J-Pop, happy hardcore and UK garage into their music and for a while polarized opinion as to whether they constituted, in the title of one article, “the future of pop or [a] contemptuous prank?” This polarity of response, is perhaps to be expected, given the centrality of cute to PC Music’s sound. Sianne Ngai, for instance, categorized cuteness as an aesthetic that transparently manipulates our responses, leading as much to aggression on the part of the perceiving subject (squishing the cute frog face of a sponge in her example) as a positive care-giving response.[ ((Ngai, Sianne. Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard UP, 2012. Print.))] While this aesthetic judgement occurs within reason (as Joshua Paul Dale wittily puts it, “the world is not knee-deep in dead babies and puppies” [ ((Dale, Joshua Paul, Joyce Goggin, Julia Leyda, Anthony P. McIntyre, and Diane Negra, eds. The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness. New York: Routledge. 2017. Print.))]), it does go some way to explaining the extreme love-hate positioning much of the music press took toward PC Music’s roster of artists, or even why Alvin and the Chipmunks are commercially successful but, for the most part, critically held in contempt, an attitude that might account for the dearth of scholarship on the band/brand.

“Hey QT” was initially posited as a song about a fictional energy drink, evident in the website set up to promote the track, with an added twist being that its eventual underground success enabled the production of the canned drink (albeit in a limited and high-priced run). This development led some to suggest that the whole enterprise was a marketing stunt by Redbull, the energy drink brand who sponsored some subsequent PC music events, an interpretation denied by the label. [ ((Vozick-Levinson, Simon. “PC Music Are for Real: A. G. Cook & Sophie Talk Twisted Pop.” Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone, 22 May 2015. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.))] With QT, whose real name the website credits as “Quinn Thomas, Founder of QT,” discerning truth from fiction seems to be part of the attraction, with one journalist describing her as “an artist who seems halfway between a product and a prank.” [ ((Wolfson, Sam. “PC Music: The Future of Pop or ‘contemptuous Parody’?” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 02 May 2015. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.))] While it might be overstating the case to label the song subversive, it does seem to be particularly timely, suggesting through the construct of QT that, in accordance with Sarah Banet-Weiser’s assessment of contemporary postfeminist media cultures, cultural participation is “increasingly only legible in the language of business.” [ ((Banet-Weiser, Sarah. Authentic TM: The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture New York: NYU Press, 2012. Print.))] The song’s overtly manipulated vocal track, borrowing heavily from the kawaii conventions of J-pop (see Keith and Hughes [ ((Keith, Sarah, and Diane Hughes. “Embodied Kawaii: Girls’ Voices in J-pop.” Journal of Popular Music Studies 28.4 (2016): 474-87. Web.))], for a detailed analysis of vocal styles in this pop genre) combined with the strangely flattened affect of the central performance in the video, denoting artificiality through the virtual reality space within which QT seemingly exists, foreground the ambivalent positioning of the piece, a quality that further corroborated interpretations of the song and QT as a thinly veiled critique of contemporary consumer society.

The final artist I consider speaks to the ambivalence of cuteness and how this aspect of the aesthetic can resonate with the star text of a recording artist, becoming central to both image and sound and in the process recalibrating existing gender scripts. While the artists associated with the PC Music label have their own ambivalent positioning within the realm of gender politics, Shamir, the recording name of Las Vegas singer and performer Shamir Bailey was for a time around the release of his 2015 debut album, Ratchet, fêted both for the fresh pop sound on his record, but also the “post-gender” cultural trend the young singer supposedly seemed to encompass. The title of a prominent feature in The Advocate, for instance, asked, “Is Shamir the Post-Gender Pop Star for Our Time?” while many other features on the young musician quoted an emoji-ed tweet he posted reading, “To those who keep asking, I have no gender, no sexuality and no fucks to give.”[ ((Vivinetto, Gina. “Is Shamir the Post-Gender Pop Star for Our Time?” ADVOCATE. N.p., 14 May 2015. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.))]

Perhaps most notable in this coverage of the musician was the sustained emphasis on how well-adjusted this genderqueer artist was, a discourse discursively linked in most pieces with his generational status as a millennial. An article in the Guardian, for instance, described Shamir as “a post-gender, androgyne angel of a millennial” and commented on how he hadn’t been bullied in school, was voted “best dressed”, “most likely to appear on the cover of Vogue”, and even nominated for “Prom King” in his final year in high school[ ((Hoby, Hermione. “Shamir : ‘I Never Felt like a Boy or a Girl, That I Should Dress like This or That’.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 11 May 2015. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.))]: All seemingly indicators of the balanced and likable nature of the young performer. Likewise, a Pitchfork article on Shamir opines, “image work is easy for millennials, who can often seem omnivorous and guided less by the dividing lines of politics than the universal high of being really into stuff. Shamir knows who he needs to be for the camera and transforms without suffering” (final emphasis mine)[ ((Powell, Mike. “The Charmed (and Charming) Life of Shamir Bailey.” Pitchfork. N.p., 11 May 2015. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.))]. Perhaps implicit in this commentary seems to be an acknowledgement of the distance between Shamir’s poppy sound and upbeat attitude and that of genderqueer performers of an earlier generation such as Anohni, from Antony and the Johnsons, whose melancholic records such as 2005’s I am a Bird Now circled themes of transformation and duality.

shamir

Shamir, in the music video for “On the Regular”

This discursive construction of Shamir as well-adjusted and fluidly transformative, is closely imbricated, I would argue, with the qualities of sonic cute evident in his recorded music of this era and also in the surrounding texts that matched image to sound. Just as in the examples of Alvin and the Chipmunks and QT detailed earlier, vocal timbre is a key factor in this aural iteration of cute aesthetics. Shamir ‘s voice is often termed “androgynous falsetto” and while not as high pitched as the two earlier examples, it is often multi-tracked (layered) to give it a girlish quality, as in “On the Regular”. If we consider the screenshot from the music video for On The Regular (above) we see how in keeping with the rest of the video, bright colors are used to complement the song, an arrangement that makes ample usage of the “high spectral ranges” Huron previously noted as common to sonic cute. Similarly, the use of a Fisher-Price toy fits with a lyric in the song, but also connotes an invocation to play, a feature that psychologists Gary D. Sherman and Jonathan Haidt posit as a more accurate representation of cuteness’s power over a perceiving subject than the “parental instincts” suggested by early ethologists. [ ((Sherman, Gary D., and Jonathan Haidt. “Cuteness and Disgust: The Humanizing and Dehumanizing Effects of Emotion.” Emotion Review 3.3 (2011): 245–51.))]

This quality of cuteness is foregrounded even more in the video (above) for “Call It Off,” where the artist is literally cute-ified over the course of the video, transformed into a puppet, or more specifically a Muppet as it was Jim Henson’s workshop responsible for the manufacturing. Again, the video’s aesthetics rely on the use of day-glo and primary colors in its later sections, matching the high-range foregrounded in this recording and the cumulative effect of these initial songs and videos created a cute star image for the young singer.

Perhaps, however, the color-saturated extremes of cuteness as exemplified in much of the artist’s work of this time were too blunt to fully encapsulate the complexity of Shamir’s vision, or overwhelmed other aspects of the artist’s oeuvre. A feature-writer for music website Pitchfork certainly picked up on this, and the imposition of this image on a neophyte artist by older professionals in the industry, when on location for the filming of “Call It Off”.

“I see the puppet and suddenly the video shoot seems farcical and weird, an expensive ordeal orchestrated by a bunch of market-savvy people in their 30s and 40s trying to harness the natural charisma of a 20-year-old kid who is grateful for the fairytale his life has become and yet who at times seems supremely bored by it, or at least confused as to what the fuss is about.” [ ((Powell, 2015))]

Certainly, Powell’s analysis seems poignant and insightful given the fact that, as I was writing this article Shamir, dropped from British label XL, self-released a free album, Hope, along with a message suggesting a discomfort with how his image had previously been presented. The artist relates how he recorded the present album over the course of the week after a period where he almost quit making music as “the wear of staying polished with how im presented and how my music was presented took a huge toll on me mentally. I started to hate music, the thing i loved the most!” While as I suggest, cute aesthetics, may, in a pop setting, enable a certain conceptual latitude that stretches the acceptable bounds of pop authenticity, in Shamir’s case it arguably presented an overwhelming, playful public persona that failed to tally with a heterogenous output that was intrinsic to the artist’s sense of artistic integrity.

Conclusion
While it is tempting to see in the manifestations of sonic cute charted in the case studies above evidence of cuteness’s ability to push the boundaries of notions of identity and gender (and species) performativity, this highly ambivalent aesthetic also displays an ability to flatten out expression so that it perhaps lacks nuance and can in its own way be restrictive and reinforce prescriptive social scripts. So, while some commentators have found the artists associated with the PC Music label as turning “the macho culture of so much dance and house music on its head”[ ((Ellis-Petersen, Hannah. “PC Music at SXSW Review – Good Taste Goes out the Window in Pop Makeover.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 20 Mar. 2015. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.))] others see the label as yet another instance of Svengali male producers’ appropriation of female artists and aesthetics [ ((Kretowicz, Steph. “You’re Too Cute: Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, SOPHIE, PC Music and the Aesthetic of Excess.” The FADER. The FADER, 01 Aug. 2016. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.))], a phenomenon that has a sonic cute antecedent in Ron Bargdasian’s ability to technologically innovate and self-voice a set of anthropomorphized rodents and in the process instigate a family business and pop cultural phenomenon. Shamir’s initial records channeled a zetitgeist appetite for cute-inflected “post-gender” optimism that arguably restricted the artist’s own vision. It is perhaps this ambivalent power and the proximate aesthetic corollaries that are generated that mark sonic cute out as a topic worthy of further academic explication.

Image Credits
1: The Los Angeles Times
2: The Guardian
3: ADVOCATE

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Robots in Popular Culture: Labor Precarity and Machine Cute
Anthony P. McIntyre / University College Dublin

hitchbot

Hitchbot, the hitchhiking robot.

In August 2015, Hitchbot, a robot developed by academics at McMaster and Ryerson Universities in Canada, was vandalised beyond repair in Philadelphia just 4 days into its mission to travel across the US depending on the kindness of strangers. A video promoting the robot’s earlier successful hitchhiking adventure across Canada introduces Hitchbot’s developers by cheerfully announcing that “Usually it’s humans that are scared that robots will take over the world, well these guys flipped that idea on its head.” [ ((“https://www.facebook.com/greatbigstory/videos/1610167969285630/“))] However, later events would of course undermine the vision of benign human robot collaboration that informed the road trip experiment. While the true motive behind the vandalism that cut short Hitchbot’s journey is impossible to know for sure, the whole episode is evidence of the highly ambivalent positioning of robots in popular culture, and a suspicion of these technological marvels. This ambivalence, I argue, is compounded by the affective responses generated by cuteness, one of the main aesthetic paradigms for the representation of robots. Cuteness, in the view of some theorists, with its aestheticization of weakness or powerlessness, also generates feelings of suspicion and exploitation that can trigger violent responses. [ ((“Ngai, Sianne. Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard UP, 2012. Print.”))] In addition to the demise of Hitchbot, we may also consider the “Burning Elmo” videos posted on YouTube, [ ((“https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NKTlVIKd6hw“))] where the lovable cute talking toy is burnt, while often continuing to talk as exemplary of this phenomenon.

Cuteness was initially theorised by ethologist Konrad Lorenz, who in 1943 developed a kindchenschema, or ‘child schema’ that posited features such as large eyes, pudgy extremities and clumsy movements as common to infant humans and animals alike. Lorenz ‘s belief was that such features triggered nurturing behaviours in adults and were part of an evolutionary step to ensure caregiving for the young of a species. Many contemporary theorisations of cuteness contest some of Lorenz’s more rigid views on the links between cuteness and an instinctive nurturing response, with psychologists Gary D. Sherman and Jonathan Haidt, for instance, suggesting that the response elicited is more often one of play rather than protection. [ ((“Sherman, Gary D., and Jonathan Haidt. “Cuteness and Disgust: The Humanizing and Dehumanizing Effects of Emotion.” Emotion Review 3.3 (2011): 245–51.”))] Machine cute exists within a constellation of both visual and behavioural traits that overlap with but also go beyond Lorenz’s kindchenschema. The main features of machine cute are (a) overt indicators of vulnerability, such as clumsiness; (b) a lack of bodily integrity; (c) limited linguistic capacities; and (d) a naivety or cognitive neoteny. Examples of machine cute can display several of these features, but not necessarily all, as I shall demonstrate.

robots

BB8, Baymax, Chappie, and Hitchbot, all recent examples of robots in popular culture.

If we consider recent examples of robots that emerge in contemporary popular culture, BB8 in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, (2015) Baymax in Disney’s Big Hero 6, and Chappie the eponymous robot from Neil Blomkamp’s 2015 violent action adventure film, we can see differences in how machine cute manifests. All three of these robots, as well as, of course, Hitchbot, demonstrate key features of machine cute to a greater or lesser extent.

With Hitchbot, for instance, we see in his ultimate demise evidence of his lack of bodily integrity. The robot had limited linguistic capacities and was a less than robust entity, commonly requiring reassembly on his travels, even before he met a violent end. In Chappie, although the robot was originally built as part of a generic squad of humanoid police robots, from the beginning of the film this particular robot is portrayed as vulnerable to attack, signified visually by a prominent replacement bright orange ear. This aspect of machine cute marks the seeming opposite of the impenetrable robot impervious to human attack common to dystopian sci-fi narratives, a type perhaps best represented by Gort from the classic 1951 sci-fi The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Chappie’s cuteness really emerges with his “birth” scene, briefly shown in the trailer below, with the robot displaying the cognitive neoteny of a human infant in its early years, although considerably accelerated. Chappie’s linguistic development improves quickly also but for most of the film his grammar is imperfect, with the robot referring to himself in the third person, using tenses clumsily, saying lines such as: “Chappie got stories” and “Chappie got fears.” This demonstrates how the depiction of robots as cute on the basis of linguistic incompetency works similarly to the aesthetic process that cute-ifies animals as demonstrated in the iconic “I can haz cheezburger” meme.

Prior to the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a toy version of BB8, the cute round robot that assists the central characters just as R2D2 did in the early movies, hit the shops. BB8 both as character in the film and as a toy, demonstrates key features of machine cute. The video below of the BB8 toy designer providing a demonstration also suggests the pedagogic role such material objects perform [ ((“Gibbs, Samuel, and Richard Sprenger. “Meet BB-8, the Star Wars Droid You Can Take Home as a Toy – Video.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 03 Sept. 2015. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.”))] .

bb8

The BB8 toy, on sale in anticipation of the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

If we apply the criterion of limited linguistic capacities, it seems congruent with the case of BB8 with its complete lack of intelligible words and reliance on affective-digital sounds that indicate mood. In addition, we see vulnerability inherent to the little robot, both on account of its diminutive size and its tendency to dismantle easily with the head popping free of the body in instances of minor collision. Finally, we might consider the concept of labour as articulated by the robot engineer. His various statements bear analysis. While acknowledging the existing fears about robots (he’s careful to distance the robot from notions of surveillance), he makes the contradictory remarks that it’s not there to do anything and later suggests the toy constitutes “the first step to people being used to having robotic companions,” for which we should also read, perhaps, robotic labour.

In effect, this robot, and the many similar toys and devices that flooded the market in its wake are there as pedagogical instruments. So, much in the same way that Joyce Goggin, building on the material cultures work of Daniel Miller, describes the Liddle Iddle Kiddle dolls she played with as a child and collects as an adult as providing a means of teaching “how to perform gender in a very essentialized … way,” [ ((” Goggin, Joyce. “Affective Marketing and the Kuteness of Kiddles” in The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness, ed. Joshua Paul Dale, Joyce Goggin, Julia Leyda, Anthony P. McIntyre and Diane Negra. New York: Routledge, 216-34.”))] the BB8 robot seems to be facilitating interaction with a robot companion while simultaneously alleviating the fears that would surround such technologies.

If Hitchbot, Chappie and BB8 are a far cry from the haptic sensuality of what many associate with cuteness, such as the furry softness of puppies and kittens, there are also examples of machine cute that align with these features. Writing on plush toys in his analysis of cuteness as a commodity aesthetic, essayist Daniel Harris (2000) describes “… a world of soothing tactile immediacy in which there are no sharp corners or abrasive materials and in which everything has been conveniently soft-sculptured to yield to our importunate squeezes and hugs.” It is such a world that Baymax, the robot star of Big Hero 6 clearly belongs to. Of all the robots I consider, the medical robot from this movie is perhaps the most “classically” cute. His softened and rounded body constitutes an extreme end point in animated figurations of cuteness. His soft features also contribute to the robots clumsiness (see gif) (another key element feature on the machine cute schema). I ’m not sure how much further you could go in terms of soft lines and rounded features without losing discernibility. This over-determined cuteness, I argue, functions in one way to obfuscate the very real threat presented by robotic labour to large swathes of the working population.

Baymax

Baymax of Big Hero 6.

It has been widely predicted that as robot costs decline and technological capabilities expand, robots are expected to replace human labour in a wide range of low-wage service occupations. In an Atlantic article, “The Fastest-Growing Jobs of This Decade(and the Robots That Will Steal Them),” for instance, the author notes that the low-wage sector is the area where most US job growth has occurred over the preceding decades and in fact many people had been shifted down to such jobs as higher paid employment shrunk as a result of automation. [ ((“Thompson, Derek. “The Fastest-Growing Jobs of This Decade (and the Robots That Will Steal Them).” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 28 Jan. 2014. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.”))] This means that many low-wage manual jobs that have been previously protected from technological developments such as automation could diminish over time, leading to large-scale expulsions from the labor force and increased numbers living in poverty. In addition, many studies predict that highly skilled jobs such as those related to healthcare face a similar threat from automation and robotic labour. [ ((“Susskind, Richard, and Daniel Susskind. “Technology Will Replace Many Doctors, Lawyers, and Other Professionals.” Harvard Business Review. N.p., 31 Oct. 2016. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.”))] In Baymax, we have a fictional medical care robot who can perform the functions of a physician and a personal care aid — two of the professions indicated as being under threat. The suggestion that Baymax was inspired by developments in “soft robotics” [ ((“Ulanoff, Lance. “‘Big Hero 6’ Star Baymax Was Inspired by a Real Robot.” Mashable. Mashable, 07 Nov. 2014. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.”))] attests to the bi-directional influence that fictional and real life robots exert on one another, and while such robots are demonstrably a long way off, technologies providing similar services are not too far away.

As Annalee Newitz notes in her book Pretend We’re Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture (in which she argues that robots are one such example of capitalist monsters) considerations of labour relations are rarely the main focus in popular film, yet often “lurk in the background, shaping the narrative.” [ ((“Newitz, Annalee. Pretend We’re Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture. Durham: Duke UP, 2006. Print.”))] In Big Hero 6, this is certainly the case, but with Neill Blomkamp’s short film Tempbot (2006) we have a not entirely successful attempt to examine the potential impact of robotic supplantment of human labor. [ ((“Swedish TV series Äkta människor (trans. “Real Humans,” 2012-14) and its UK/US remake Humans (2015–) have recently taken a more sustained look at the issue. For an analysis of cute robots that examines specifically female-gendered and sexualized robots and analyzes these series, see Julia Leyda, “Cute Twenty-First-Century Post-Fembots” in The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness, ed. Joshua Paul Dale, Joyce Goggin, Julia Leyda, Anthony P. McIntyre and Diane Negra. New York: Routledge, 151-74.”))]

Tempbot, as the title suggests, concerns the eponymous machine (an earlier version of the robot that would appear in Chappie) which is, brought into a cubicle office environment as a temp worker, where it is largely ignored by the rest of the mostly disaffected workforce. The short film is somewhat uneven and the cringe humor it attempts is heavily indebted to Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s comedy The Office (2001-03). The vulnerability of the robot in this film is primarily figured through his romantic infatuation with a recently hired female manager and consequent inability to navigate the complex rules of (human) inter-personal intimacy.

If we examine the screenshot below we see an example of how cuteness, as I argued in my previous Flow column, functions in proximity to subordinated groups. Tempbot suggests that there is complacency among those at a more senior positions in the workplace hierarchy, while the ethnic-minority depicted cleaners — here warily watching as Tempbot continues working long after his colleagues have departed for drinks — are those most aware of the threat posed by the new workplace paradigm the robot constitutes.

tempbot

Tempbot, at the office.

At the end of the film, the office is shown completely staffed by Tempbots and, given the evident unhappiness of most of the human workforce depicted in the film, it is unclear whether this is to be interpreted as a happy ending or not. One strange aspect of the film is the dual function of Tempbot who both functions as metaphor for alienated labour and the increased pressures of post-Fordist working conditions, what Melissa Gregg has termed “workplace affects in the age of the cubicle” as well as the threat roboticized labour presents to employees in such disaffected workplaces [ ((“Gregg, Melissa. “On Friday Night Drinks: Workplace Affects in the age of the aubicle.” In The Affect Theory Reader (2010) ed. 250-267″))] . The lack of clear interpretation is quite fitting given the ambivalence of cute robots in general, which both move us emotionally through their vulnerability but also are indicative of very real threat to many livelihoods.

Image Credits:
1. Facebook
2. Courtesy of the author.
3. Youtube
4. The Guardian
5. ibid.
6. Giphy
7. Screenshot from Tempbot (2006) courtesy of the author.

Please feel free to comment.




Ownership Anxiety, Race and Ambivalent Cuteness in The Secret Life of Pets
Anthony P. McIntyre / University College Dublin

guardian kittens

The Guardian helps readers cope with the results of the 2016 election (with kittens)

In their coverage of Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the recent US Presidential elections, the Guardian news website set up a liveblog in order to help people cope with the political bombshell. Entitled, “Cheer Corner: How to Cope with the New World Order (with Kittens)” the blog featured multiple posts featuring fluffy cute (mostly pet) animals purportedly in order to help readers emotionally adjust to the (for typical Guardianistas, at least) unsettling political reconfiguration. As co-editor of the forthcoming volume The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness [ ((Dale, Joshua Paul, Joyce Goggin, Julia Leyda, Anthony P. McIntyre, and Diane Negra, eds. The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness. New York: Routledge, 2016. Print.))], the presence of cute fluffy creatures being posited as a salve to a contemporary source of anxiety came as no surprise. Indeed, recent traumatic news stories such as the urban lockdown of Brussels in 2015 due to information of a potential terrorist attack and a botched death penalty in the state of Oklahoma in 2014 are notable examples of how cuteness emerges as a prism through which such events are mediated. In the case of the Brussels curfew readers’ pictures of their cats posed as jihadis were celebrated across a number of news media websites as a commendable strategy of affective resistance, while John Oliver notably bookended an in-depth consideration of the death penalty in the wake of the Oklahoma killing, with the promise of showing his viewers a recent viral YouTube video of “tiny hamsters eating tiny burritos” if they stick with him to the end of the segment, a promise he kept.

In all these cases cuteness emerges as an affective resource, a consolatory modality that gains particular traction in conditions of uncertainty. Indeed, given the societal divisions along lines of race, class and political stripe, not to mention the impact of economic precarity on widening swathes of society that the recent election has thrown into such stark relief, it is no surprise that in our present era cuteness is thriving. However, as scholars of the cute have noted, this is not an innocent aesthetic, but one that at its heart relies on highly uneven power differentials to deliver those comforting affective hits that buffer us from the latest disturbing news stories. It is our consumption of vulnerability in others that provides us with such affective succor. In the analysis that follows, I am going to trace such uneven power differentials as they manifest in a recent animation on the topic of pet ownership.

The Secret Life of Pets is a 2016 animated feature from Universal Studios. The studio was responsible for the surprise hit Minions (2015) and is therefore no stranger to the lucrative potential of cute-driven animation. Indeed, cuteness has long been characterized as first and foremost a commercial aesthetic, and with the studio already drafting plans for a theme park based on the movie prior to the release of Pets (plans since put into effect along with a sequel scheduled for 2018) such confidence paid out as the July-release film generated the highest box office opening so far for that year. The early profitability of the nascent franchise should come as no surprise given that Pets exists at the conjuncture of the continued proliferation through a wide variety of media of this highly commercial aesthetic and the hyper-commodification of pet ownership, two contemporary phenomena that in our book we argue are symptomatic of alienated conditions of emotional and financial precarity that are the attendant in the current phase of neoliberal capitalism.

This conjuncture of pet cuteness and media representation has produced an abundance of texts from the ubiquitous cute cat videos that populate YouTube, as well as an array of reality-based pet ownership advice shows such as The Dog Whisperer with Cesar Milan (2004-13, National Geographic), My Cat from Hell (2011–, Animal Planet) and even a UK show sharing the title The Secret Life of Pets (2014, Channel 5). This expansion of pet media reflects the increasingly central role of the pet in contemporary society, a phenomenon indicated by the huge amount of money spent on pets, as well as the changing relationalities implied in the facts such as, as David Grimm notes, the amount of people who refer to themselves as their pets’ “mom” or “dad” rather than “owner” has increased from fifty-five to eighty-three per cent in the last 20 years. [ ((Grimm, David. Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs. New York: Public Affairs, 2014. Print.))]

Pet ownership, as the term denotes, of course, is marked by the very same power differential that is key to cuteness, even as owners increasingly seek to rhetorically jettison the term. As Yi Fu Tuan wrote in his influential study of the topic: “Dominance may be confined with affection, and what it produces is the pet.”[ ((Tuan, Yi-fu. Dominance & Affection: The Making of Pets. New Haven: Yale UP, 1984. Print.))] The unease we may feel at this combination of affection and dominance arguably provides the main emotional anchor for Pets‘ audience. The premise of the film is that it gives us a window onto what our pets do in our absence, and predictably the narrative, after briefly showing a disconsolate Ben (Louis C.K.) staring unwaveringly at the door waiting for his owner to return, provides a depiction of animal bonding and suppresses the separation anxiety that is a common affliction of the house-bound pets that populate the film. Although, the idea that these animals may have “secret lives” goes some way to assuage the more troubling aspects of this relationship between unequals, the film is never able to entirely banish some of the more uneasy aspects of pet ownership, and in part, I argue this is intricately linked with cuteness, its ability to aestheticize powerlessness [ ((Ngai, Sianne. Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2012. Print.))] [ ((Harris, Daniel. Cute, Quaint, Hungry, and Romantic: The Aesthetics of Consumerism. New York: Basic, 2000. Print.))] and its historical roots. [ ((Merish, Lori. “Cuteness and Commodity Aesthetics: Tom Thumb and Shirley Temple.” In Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. Ed. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson. New York: New York UP, 1996. 185-203. Print.))] Lori Merish, in a key essay on the topic, argues that cuteness is a “racialized style” with forms of power and coercion at its core. Describing the staircase tap-dance scene from the movie The Little Colonel (1932) which placed the cute Shirley Temple alongside Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, she argues: “The alignment of the cute Shirley Temple and the body of an African American male evokes the history of slavery and its coercive appropriation of the body—a body forced to work, to reproduce and at times, to sing and dance, at the white master’s will.” [ ((ibid.))]

Bill Bojangles Robinson

From The Little Colonel

It is through the character of Snowball in Pets that cuteness’s proximity to both historical and contemporary instances of racial domination manifest– a parallel drawn with pet ownership that threatens to disturb the affective equilibrium of the film. Voiced memorably by black comedian Kevin Hart, Snowball is a white fluffy bunny, the epitome of cuteness, yet depicted in the film as the ruthless gang leader of the Flushed Pets (motto: “Liberated Forever, Domesticated Never!”).


Hart’s Snowball from The Secret Life of Pets

The film’s overt references to slavery—evident in the usage of terms such as “owners” and “liberation” as well as the parallels it draws with the gang violence that has decimated many black communities in the US, mean that Pets struggles to adequately marshal the discourses of domination and subservience that its analogies inevitably evoke. At the end of the movie Snowball is picked up by a little girl and (despite his initial protests) seduced by some petting on the head and the girl’s promise to love him “forever and ever and ever.” Thus, arguably the film’s most morally questionable move is in its evocation of a radical energy that is so neatly contained by the end of the narrative. The ending suggests that the best place for a pet is in the home.

nick wild talking to judy hopps

Zootopia‘s Nick Wild (Jason Bateman) and Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin)

The tensions evident in Pets may be due to the fact that often such animations try to secure a coalition audience of parents and children through casting and edgier content aimed at the older viewers. However, a number of recent cute-inflected texts make a similar move with varying degrees of success, suggesting that in treating overtly cute topics or characters there is a latent potential to invoke relations of domination and subjection. In Ted 2 (2015), for instance, the eponymous cute-ified, pot-smoking, lascivious bear (Seth MacFarlane) tries to gain legal status as a person in order to adopt a child with his partner Tammy-Lynn (Jessica Barth). The film stresses the commonalities between Ted’s situation and that of Black Americans before the abolition of slavery and its failure to impress at the box office, was attributed by a number of critics to this somewhat insensitive premise. [ ((McIntyre, Anthony P. “Ted, Wilfred, and the Guys: Twenty-First-Century Masculinities, Raunch Culture, and the Affective Ambivalences of Cuteness.” The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness. Ed. Joshua Paul Dale, Joyce Goggin, Julia Leyda, Anthony P. McIntyre, and Diane Negra. New York: Routledge, 2016. 274-94. Print.))] A more subtle parallel is made in a snatch of conversation in the animal animation Zootopia (2016). When cynical con artist fox Nick (Jason Bateman) refers to his crime-solving rabbit partner, Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) as “cute” she takes offence. Her reply, “A bunny can call another bunny cute, but when other animals do it…” trails off, indicating Judy’s hurt feelings. The parallel this draws with one particular inflammatory term will be quite clear to adults in the audience, but in the small piece of dialogue the vulnerabilities such instances of language can provoke is also raised in a manner suitable for a children’s movie.

Image Credits
1: The Guardian
2: Merish, Lori. “Cuteness and Commodity Aesthetics: Tom Thumb and Shirley Temple.” In Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. Ed. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson. New York: New York UP, 1996. 185-203. Print.
3: Walt Disney Animation Studios

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