Childism and Cute
In this second blog on Childism I explore the concept of the cute child and argue that it is damaging to all children and their relationships to adults. It is an example of childism in our society that needs naming in order to challenge and change it. Please let me know that you think of these ideas.
When my son was four he and all the other children in his class took the part of woodland animals in the school pantomime. As part of the show the ‘woodland animals’ performed a dance to the tune of a popular song known as ‘The Birdie Song’, which involved them dancing around in a circle and when the music required they wriggled their bottoms from side to side at the audience. The audience, including me, responded with laughter – they were so cute – it made us laugh with delight. Afterwards my son was so angry, “people were laughing – it wasn’t meant to be funny!” I tried to reassure him, “people were laughing with you – not at you sweetheart.” “I didn’t think it was funny” he replied.
I know I did feel some level of discomfort at the time, but it is only now 26 years later that I am seeing this tendency to respond to what we see as ‘cute’ in children as dangerous and an example of childism. The teachers who designed the dance knew the response the audience would provide. “Oh, come on”, you might say, “it was cute – no one meant any harm, no harm was done – it’s OK.” But now that I can name such an act as childism, I say that to deliberately use small children in this way to provoke laughter was exploitative and even cruel. My son’s feelings were real and in my response to him, I was trying to deny them. When adults, for their own pleasure, laugh at children performing ‘cute’ acts they are guilty of disrespect. My son wasn’t trying to be cute, he didn’t see himself as cute and he didn’t want to be seen as cute. He took his role in the school play seriously and he wanted to be taken seriously and he was upset when his efforts produced laughter. My son felt diminished and I now think he was right.
When we see and label children as ‘cute’ we are not seeing the real child in front of us, but instead we see some idea of Childhood that we have in our minds and respond to that. And unfortunately many parents, recognizing this tendency of other adults to want children to be ‘cute’ often encourage behavior that fits in with society’s idea of cute. Many parents dress their child in ‘cute’ clothes in order to inspire the attention of other adults. What is worse some parents train their children to be cute on demand. The cuter they are, the more they attain the accolade ‘cute’ the better the parent feels. Why? When we think that children are cute we tend to use their cuteness to arouse feelings which give us pleasure and which make us feel proud for having them. This is exploitation of the child’s need to please the adults in her/his life.
One popular artist who encapsulates the baby as cute, adorable, innocent is Anne Geddes. Her photographs portray an idea of childhood which has nothing to do with real children. The extraordinary popularity of her work and my inability to find any criticism of what I regard as objectifying babies and seeking to label them in particular ways says something about our society. In a society that worships physical beauty as ours does, these pictures of babies dressed and arranged to look like fluffy animals, flowers or fruit create a fantasy, magical, emotional reaction in the viewer. It encourages sentimentality and a view of babies and small children as pure and innocent. I think this is damaging. The deliberate juxtaposing babies with all manner of things from the natural world contrive to produce a sense of innocence. Babies are portrayed as soft, cuddly and dependent in these pictures: the epitome of cute.
When society buys into such images then children are judged by how they fit into the ideals they create.
I don’t deny that cute children arouse feelings which give us pleasure, but the fetishizing of cute is dangerous for the children and for our society. Parents who cultivate ‘cute’ in their children feel proud of them and themselves for producing them. What soon happens is that the child picks up on this and learns to act out the part of the ideal ‘Cute Child’. The adult is delighted and provides positive feedback. The child learns what pleases the adults and uses it to attract attention and win praise. This creates a mutual exploitative situation – as adults exploit their cuteness (in the home, in public, in the media) the children exploit our need to have them be cute. They start to play the game the adult want them play. As they become more aware and work out what the adult wants, the child will produce the smiles, the winning ways, the hugs, the kisses and so on. Children who learn how to perform ‘cute’ soon find out that their behavior produces positive effects in adults and wanting to be on the receiving end of praise and delight, they can easily become artful, calculating and manipulative as their exploit their cute ways to get what they want.
Taken to an extreme cute children are entered into beauty pageants, singing or dancing contests. Organisers of such events know how to exploit this cuteness to get warm feelings and lumps in throats from the viewing adults. And in turn the ‘little stars’ will adopt seductive behavior to get their own way.
Thinking of children as cute is dangerous. When we categorise and judge children on the ‘cute’ factor we are guilty of abstracting and idealizing them and we teach them to exploit us; to sell themselves for smiles and rewards. This is bad for the children and bad for the adults.
Children have the right to respect and dignity for who they are. To judge them by how cute they are is condescending, it objectifies them and ultimately damages them – all ‘cute’ babies and small children grow up and what happens then?
I believe the cult of cuteness that is encouraged by the media and by such artists as Anne Geddes is an expression of deeply embedded childist attitudes – there is no long-term gain from being a cute child and a lot of potential damage to a child’s personality. Children who don’t fit with society’s ideal of ‘cute’ can become the victims of prejudicial attitudes that both demean and devalue them. So ‘cute’ and ‘not cute’ alike suffer from comparison and are found wanting.