By: Eva Roszkowski /
For our animal images research project I investigated the cat. This non-human animal has historically been easily controlled and grossly mistreated. Per Margo DeMello (1), cats originally did not have a purpose other than aesthetics, and were bred for their attractive features. Hello Kitty (“HK”) specifically has interested me for a long time and this was the perfect opportunity to study both the character and the deeper meaning behind the popularity of a caricatured cat. HK became a cultural phenomenon, commoditized and globalized. The major questions I had in mind throughout the duration of my project were: 1) Why is HK modeled after a cartoon cat though she is supposed to be a girl and NOT a cat? 2) How do we think with and through her brand? 3) What kind of relationships are formed, and feelings enabled? My research methods consisted of the following: examining the qualities of cats versus the qualities of Hello Kitty, studying the intent behind Sanrio Co. Ltd. (the company responsible for the HK phenomenon), researching the lifecycle of a Hello Kitty fan, considering the consumption and saturation of Hello Kitty, examining criticisms and accolades of the brand, and – finally – recognizing the relationship between Hello Kitty and her fans.
Historical depiction of the human-cat relationship dates back thousands of years and contains many distinctive interpretations of these relations. In Ancient Egypt and Greece, for example, cats were worshipped and associated with goddesses. In Europe and America cats were utilized as vermin hunters. Depending on their dark shade they could easily be considered unlucky. In the Middle Ages cats were associated with the devil and witchcraft, and often killed. This spectrum allows for a wide-ranging view of cats including seeing them as wicked, useful, wild, divine, or cute. Large cats such as tigers and lions have been feared and often admired. Kittens have been seen as harmless and vulnerable, approachable, small, and adorable. They have often been used for companionship because of this adorability factor.
When we see an object or animal that we have stereotyped certain cognitive processes take place. We are taught from a young age that smaller animals are safer than larger animals (arguably because they are easier to control). For example, consider the instinctive act of running away from potential danger when seeing a panther or lion; the strength, power, and size would be identifiable traits, immediately activating our fear response. Human ability to control smaller beings has driven breeding and genetic manipulation of animals to have smaller legs, torsos, among other body parts. Cats are not only small but are commonly declawed via a process of knuckle amputation for human preference, a process that makes them defenseless. Smaller animals have traditionally been looked at as inferior and connected to women, who were also treated inferior to their male counterparts.
In the case of imitating and categorizing cats, as children it is crucial that we learn the distinction between animals that have the ability to harm us versus less threatening animals (such as kittens) with which we can more easily form a human‐animal bond. In exploring the images of the character Hello Kitty, I looked into both the underlying social repercussions and personal gains associated with her. The connection between Hello Kitty and cats can be examined by the shared complexity of both.
The Sanrio company’s description of Hello Kitty brings a human element to her. She has a family, a life, and a residence. Often when Sanrio debunks the idea that she is a cat, they say that it is because she does not act like a cat (she does not meow or walk on all fours). This particular story is on Sanrio’s website, and gives the reader an initial starting point to assessing who or what HK is. However, the characteristics describing her go beyond this. She can be respected as well as disliked. She can be harmless and vulnerable but also has her own power and autonomy. She is to many the ideal companion. Above everything else, she is the quintessential cute character.
The character debuted in 1974 on this coin purse. The purse simply read, “Hello!” and the character became known as “the white cat with no name”. The simplicity of the design remained the same. As discussed later, having this character on a tiny coin purse is perfectly aligned with Shintaro Tsuji’s vision of “small gift, big smile” where a small token of appreciation can give the recipient great joy.
The attitudes and the range of individual identities one is able to express via Hello Kitty and its brand are quite diverse and wide-ranging. To many, she is a vessel for the expression of individual identity, to some she is the epitome of gender and racial oppression and symbol of conformity, and to others she may be simply an adorable character. She is also strongly connected with the Kawaii culture (“cute”), being represented as such. The set in this picture is part of Hello Kitty’s theme park display.
Christine Yano, author of “Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek Across the Pacific” (2) and an anthropologist who has studied Hello Kitty for over 18 years, frequently interviewed Sanrio’s employees in several countries as well as her fans. Fans stated that Hello Kitty’s appearance and size brought out their nurturing side. However, it also brought out their companion side, and allowed them to bring out their younger and girly side. Hello Kitty designers at Sanrio, Inc. believe that she appeals to consumers for other reasons: she is quirky, authentic, and cute while representing innocence, hope, and even edgy. The accompanying pictures highlight the edginess and versatility associated with Hello Kitty. What remains true throughout these manifestations is the simple outward appearance, which includes basic round shapes that are comfortable and relatable to consumers.
Hello Kitty resembles a Japanese Bobtail cat. Bobtail cats do not have long tails and instead have cropped tails. Bobtail cats have traditionally been considered propitious whereas long‐tailed cats could be seen as wicked spirits. The Fortune Cat, for example, is a Bobtail cat statue. These statue cats have a raised paw that oscillates back and forth, beckoning for money and good fortune to enter businesses (hence the popularity of this cat in many Asian‐owned establishments). Though Hello Kitty resembles a Japanese Bobtail cat she is, according to Sanrio, not a cat. She is a human representation of a cat, therefore possibly being an indication of elevated status. In Japanese culture, cats are often referred to as a boy or girl (“osu” or “mesu” respectively) in order to raise their importance in the household. (4)
The character at first glance may seem to many to be female, immature, devoid of individuality and personality, and without a mouth and voice. She can be interpreted as powerless. To quote Kari Weil (3),
“Not unlike the term woman or slave, animal is a term that men have given others so as to name themselves the agents of history, freedom, thought.”
Women were alienated and oppressed in society and the struggle for equality is still rampant. The decision for Kitty to have no visible mouth can seemingly also perpetuate an idea of animal as machine. Per Margo DeMello (1),
“Because animals are incapable of using language, Descartes considered them to be essentially machines—mindless automata which operate without higher thought or consciousness.”
In addition, there is the idea of racial inferiority that is perpetuated as representation through the Hello Kitty brand.
The brand has exploded overseas but is ubiquitous in the US as well. Consumerism, mass appeal, and passionate adoption of the brand have all perpetuated the stereotype and misrepresentation of the Asian culture to the American public, and around the world. According to DeMello (1), “Racial minorities… have been othered historically… by using animal terms to refer to them.” With Kitty White’s fame, image, and stance as a popular piece of Asian culture, the door for limitless typecasting and cultural inequality is wide open.
The backlash against HK has been highlighted via the platform of many Asian female artists including comedienne Margaret Cho and performance artists Denise Uyehara and Yumi Umiumare. They have vehemently critiqued HK as having lack of agency and expressed that turning a kitten into a cartoon schoolgirl translates to a classification of Japanese women as submissive, childlike, quiet, and devoid of personality. (These stereotypes that have also been perpetuated by other images in the media such as pop culture’s “Harajuku Girls” – Gwen Stefani’s four-girl Japanese entourage that is robotic, mute, identical, and without character.) The Japanese culture has a long history of unbalanced gender roles and the Hello Kitty brand can very easily be tied to male dominance as well as to racial politics. We see this in Japanese anime, for example, where a sexualized personification of the feline is pervasive.
For as much intense backlash against HK as exists, there is no denying that the brand has equally seen just as much success. Sanrio employees play a pivotal role in maintaining the brand and propelling it forward. Two major players of the brand are Shintaro Tsuji, the founder of Sanrio, and Yuko Yamaguchi – the head designer of HK. Yamaguchi asserts that the character is an extension of her – a sentiment echoed by the majority of the workers that Yano interviewed. Others agree that, in some way, Hello Kitty does represent Sanrio employees and the values of the company, and that the company itself is a bit cult-like. So what exactly is the value?
The brand message for Hello Kitty, unsurprisingly, is happiness. Shintaro Tsuji, the founder of Sanrio and therefore the father of HK, was the first key player to the HK phenomena. His story of growing up with a yearning for communication, participation in a Christian school, and witnessing small acts of kindness led him to the mantra “small gift, big smile”. (2)
Imitating animals is, in a way, anthropomorphism – through imitations the animal becomes truly part human. This is the very essence of what Hello Kitty is – she is a cat that is really a schoolgirl, hence even stronger the opportunity for a bond with consumers. She is given a name and certain personality traits (albeit limited) but she is not a pet. Perceiving an animal as human heavily influences our relatability and therefore encourages behavior that leads to closeness. This is a big selling point for the HK brand.
The massive consumerism associated with Hello Kitty has led some spectators to certain conclusions about the brand and the Japanese culture from which it originates. To name a few, the idea that HK has taken over the country means that she is an unfortunate representation of the culture. She also has been considered an unoriginal icon perpetuating a follow-the-masses mentality within Asian communities. Brian McVeigh examined these ideas through thorough social research and concluded that they are unwarranted. (5)
Major takeaway points from my research are that individuals love to brand themselves with the products they use and wear. Consumerism and ubiquity associated with Hello Kitty makes her a symbol of success and empowerment. At first glance, there seems to be an empire based on her cuteness but there are clearly many psychological and emotional elements to her adorability. The mega-consumerism associated with HK does point to the obsession with objects.
Specific to why Hello Kitty is a cartoon cat, Shintaro Tsuji originally wanted to make a dog-like character but since acquisition of Japanese market of Snoopy he did not want to compromise its popularity. Hello Kitty is not meant as an anthropomorphic version of a human but the opposite, a girl representing a cat. Sanrio has not stated any specific reasons as to why this character is in the form of a cat. However, the approachability factor of cats, their size, and their complexity can offer us some justifications and underlying reasons why she was chosen. As mentioned earlier, the Japanese culture reveres pet Bobtail cats and elevates their status in the household by referring to them with gender pronouns. Domesticated animals are closest to us, therefore allowing for the title of friend, a key characteristic of Hello Kitty who is a girl or a friend – never a cat.
Sanrio has a very clever design and marketing plan around Hello Kitty, which focuses on four phases of a consumer cycle that is the key to the brand’s success. The four cycles are Introduction, Change, Rediscovery, and Nostalgia. (2)
The Introduction phase generally takes place in elementary school and is characterized by loud pink HK figures, bright colors, and pictures.
The Change phase begins in middle school when the HK theme is subtle, usually featuring on the face of HK as an emblem on other products. Rediscovery is targeted at the teen years where the tactic is to minimize the merchandise and not go overboard.
Finally, in Nostalgia, HK resurfaces again for the young adult as a reminder of the friendship with HK.
Hello Kitty may be one of the most complex and layered characters that I have ever come across because she can represent many things, and evoke a range of emotions. Hello Kitty can represent a friend or family member to consumers. This is very much associated with combination and joining, just as anthropomorphism – the attribution of human traits onto animals – is a joining as well. HK is almost the reversal of an anthropomorphic figure, as instead of being a cat with human characteristics she is on the contrary, a human appearing as a cat. I see this as a higher level of respect and human co-habitation with cats because through HK the cat and the person are one and the same instead of separate and dissimilar.
There is an undeniable human/cat hybrid wrapped in this simple graphic, and the very denotation of “Kitty” maps to the image of a kitten. We develop this mental image in our brains before even seeing this character. The question of autonomy kept coming up for me, as the inability to speak one’s mind is hindering, and again places animals at the very bottom of the social ladder. This becomes an easy segue to criticism. In considering how we think with and through the Hello Kitty brand and what kind of relationships are formed and feelings enabled, Paul Wells (8) statement about animation formed the parallel for me to HK:
“The idea that objects have some sort of emotional inner life that is somehow conserve and liberated by touch – ‘tactile memory’ is arguably at the core of the ways in which we view the potential of the object or puppet, using animation as a method to reveal this emotive narrative.”
Hello Kitty’s touch and closeness of her fans make her a versatile representation. When considering co-shaping, the consumerism around HK circles around giving the consumer an opportunity to project their feelings and emotions onto the character. At the same time, the character is considered a vessel for others to learn about themselves. By examining the consumer cycles of HK fans, we see that she is the symbol of charm, expression of nurturing, nostalgia, and/or youth depending on what appeals to the consumer, and more importantly what the consumer is seeking.
There is confusion in what Hello Kitty represents: aside from a small gift that brings happiness to me, she can just as seamlessly be a derogatory declaration towards women or even be interpreted as a negative representation of the culture from which she originates. She is not easily understood, and what she conveys is very easily both negative and positive If we consider agency in the form of power, then HK – despite being mouthless – has much influence and power in our capitalist economy. However, this does not mean that her relationship with her devout fans is not an equal, reciprocal power dynamic. HK can represent something to you, but you can also project your feelings on to her.
The importance of the Hello Kitty/cat connection to me lies in the various, complex characteristics that are true to cats and now are true to Hello Kitty. She is unpredictable but not threatening. The dichotomy of mouthless-ness with variety of expressions and attitudes projected through her. Anybody can tailor their desired perception of her and of themselves – anyone can like her. To me, this is the center of what we have been studying about human-animal relations. The HK/fan relationship teaches us that a cat can very easily provide warmth and comfort to humans. Humans are at the top of the food chain, and our dominance is exerted across all things we seek to control. Our human-animal relations, therefore, are purely human-centric.
- DeMello, Margo. Animals and Society: An Introduction to Human‐animal Studies. New York: Columbia UP, 2012. PDF.
- Yano, Christine Reiko. Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek across the Pacific. N.p.: n.p., 2013. Duke University Press. Web.
- Weil, Kari. Thinking Animals: Why Animal Studies Now? New York: Columbia UP, 2012. PDF.
ARTICLES AND SCHOLARLY JOURNALS:
- Ashcraft, Brian. “Don’t Be Silly, Hello Kitty is a Cat.” Kotaku.com, 28 August 2014. PDF
- McVeigh, Brian J. “How Hello Kitty Commodifies the Cute, Cool and Camp: ‘Consumutopia’ versus ‘Control’ in Japan.” Journal of Material Culture 5.2 (2000): 225-‐245. Web. 20 February 2016.
- Palmer, Kimberly. “Explaining Hello Kitty’s Success.” U.S News & World Report. U.S. News & World Report LP, 8 July 2008. Web. 20 February 2016.
- Rubin, Julia. “Forty Years Young: Hello Kitty and the Power of Cute.” Racked.com, 18 November 2014. Web. 31 March 2016.
- Wells, Paul. “Chairy Tales: Object and Materiality in Animation.” Alphaville Journal of Film and Screen Media 8 (2014): 1‐18.