The Cult Of Cute

Alicia Silverstone is feeling just an eensy, weensy bit misunderstood. Everybody thinks she's so damn cute. It's driving her nuts. Maybe they've seen her hit movie "Clue-less," in which she plays Cher, a ditsy, scrambled Beverly Hills dream teen in imitation-Chanel junior-miss plaid suits, thigh socks and high-heeled Mary Janes. Maybe they've seen her in Aerosmith videos, romping in a Catholic-schoolgirl micro-mini kilt and trying on goofy plastic sunglasses while a dirty old gas-station attendant tries to look up her skirt. Or maybe they've seen her in a dazzling array of magazine and newspaper spreads, happily wiggling her bare toes, rummaging through racks of clothes and smiling like she's just been crowned Miss America. Well, if people think these characters are really her, they've got the wrong idea. Alicia-- that's A-LEE-cee-a--wants to set the record straight. "Believe me, I am nothing like Cher in the film," she says definitively. "I am not into clothes at all. I am a total klutz when it comes to choosing outfits. I am a serious actress." Toward that end, she's been studying Shakespeare. "I love him," she declares. "His language is so moving and in many instances the words he uses don't even exist anymore."

Oh, Alicia. We think you're protesting too much. When it comes to cute, Alicia knows not seems; nay, she is. 'Tis not alone her colorful cloaks, nor customary suits of wild plaid. These indeed seem, for they are actions that a girl might play; but she has that within which passes show. To quote a different source, the girl can't help it. And Hollywood knows it. Columbia Pictures just signed her to a two-picture deal worth more than $10 million. Executives at rival studios, still smarting over $20 million single-picture pacts for Sylvester Stallone and Jim Carrey, muttered a collective, unattributed groan when they heard about it, complaining that her high price tag would drive up competing stars' salaries. Plus she gets to produce her pictures--come on, she's only 18! But Hollywood's not as dumb and dumber as it seems. Alicia's cuteness is an endlessly marketable commodity. If Columbia could bottle it and sell it on mall shelves everywhere, they'd do it. Hey, wait a minute, that's not such a bad idea . . .

Alicia is the It Girl of '95, and not by accident. We trend watchers in the media aren't as dumb and dumber as we seem, either. We've been analyzing the data, and folks, we can safely tell you, cute is a trend. It's all over the movies: Sandra Bullock fumbled, giggled and gollied her way to the big time with this year's "While You Were Sleeping." Drew Barrymore has perfected her Lolita impersonations to such a degree that in "Mad Love" her acting amounted to raising her pencil-drawn eyebrows, pursing her beestung lips and tossing her ringlet curls. Cute is tricky. Not just anyone can do it. Meg Ryan de-cutified herself for mature, serious roles in "When a Man Loves a Woman" and "Flesh and Bone," and audiences thought the unbubbly Meg tasted flat. Then she tried to bounce back with pratfalls over giant plants in"French Kiss," and she pretty much fell flat. Marisa Tomei tried cute in "Only You"-- hated it. Debra Winger, cute in "Forget Paris"? As if.

But cute isn't just in movies. It's on MTV, in the fluffy pop songs of Veruca Salt and Letters to Cleo. It's in the clubs, where moody adolescents suck on pacifiers and dance all night. And it's for sale in malls everywhere. Macy's stocks Mary Janes, bright plastic barrettes, baby-doll dresses, knee socks and overalls-all in baby-pastel palettes. Bloomingdale's has made "Clueless" required viewing for juniors buyers. From New York to Chicago to Portland, Ore., adult toy stores and novelty boutiques sell accoutrements for the cute-conscious: patent-leather purses, potato-pellet guns, Magic 8 Balls, Etch-A-Sketches, Play-Doh and a full line of Hello products (address books, miniature makeup kits, lollipops, tote bags, toothbrush-and-cup sets, Band-Aids, lip gloss). Adults are accounting for increasing percentages of the toy market. Hello Kitty has generated sales of $150 million since her debut in 1976. "She's a significant portion of our business," says Randall Patterson of Sanrio, Kitty's parent company. "It's really kind of strange."

Come to think of it, this whole phenomenon's a little strange. Sure, it's fun every now and then to get a kidlike bang out of something. There's still something marvelous about the Etch-A-Sketch, a blackboard you erase by shaking it up and down. Play-Doh is like a little cardboard container of instant happiness. The Mary Jane is a warm, classic, Buster Brown kind of shoe, and it looks especially cool with a stacked heel or in a glittery silver shade. Sometimes the Magic 8 Ball really knows the answer. But like any snowballing trend, cute is starting to get out of control. Cher and her daffy friend Dionne from "Clueless" start to seem inadequate when you realize they've replaced Thelma and Louise as dominant female pop-culture icons. Sandra Bullock's nice and all, but do we really want her spastic hand flutters and scrunched-up faces symbolizing our hopes and dreams? Scarier yet, do we want her representing '90s beauty the way Elizabeth Taylor stood for glamour in the '50s? Sharon Stone, where are you when we need you?

Cute defenders see the style as a liberating influence. Robin Eisgrau, 26, a former editor at Seventeen who's now self-employed, lives in a Manhattan studio stuffed with plush animal toys, Hello Kitty gear and old tin lunchboxes. "I'm a case of arrested development," she explains. "I'd like to think I'm a very responsible 13-year-old." Eisgrau wrote a manifesto for an archly hip downtown New York monthly, Paper, on why she likes to dress like she's 13. "I'm getting psychically younger as I get older," she wrote. "I wasn't more innocent 10 years ago, I was more cynical . . . I used to wear all black all the time. [Now] I'm seeing the world through slightly wider, less know-it-all eyes." Betsey Johnson, designer of Baby-doll and empire-waist dresses, sees cute as a reaction against a previous teen trend, grunge. "The baby-doll, sweet young thing came logically after the floppy, oversized 'I can wear my brother's clothes' phase," she says. "After grange, girls wanted to wear things that were very feminine. Something deep down said, 'Is there a girl inside me?'"

But cute has some subtexts that aren't so reassuring. In fact, there are plenty of people who see it as a plain old backlash against strong women. "Cute has to do with not wanting to grow up," says Alison Lurie, author of "The Language of Clothes." "A lot of young women today are anxious about making their way in the real world. If you're feeling threatened and you don't want to grow up and take responsibility, you want to look like a little girl and stay a little girl as long as possible." "If you live in a consumer society, you're used to looking at shiny, new objects," says Kim Gordon, bassist for the avant-punk band Sonic Youth. "People don't want to think about death and dying, so they like things that are new. Cuteness falls under that."

It turns out the roots of cute aren't quite so innocent after all. Cute actually has an etymology. It started out a year or two ago as cute core in dance clubs and the underground punk scene. Somewhere, somehow, kids going to all-night raves decided to regress. They tied their hair in pigtails and braids. They carried Legos and stuffed animals around with them, and they wore furry backpacks to hold water and snacks for the long hours of dancing. They donned tight, '70s-style T shirts, low-rider jeans and Puma sneakers. They sucked on pacifiers and lollipops. Pretty soon it was just the way to look. "The lollipop look started with the cyberpunk kids who go out raving," says actress Parker Posey of the art-housecute movie "Party Girl." "They all have to eat candy because they're high out of their minds."

In the alternative rock world, cutecore was a rebellion against the dogmatic noise and macho posturing of hardcore punk. As early as 1990, influential postfeminist punkers were analyzing female adolescence. Kim Gordon filled Sonic Youth's 1990 album "Goo" with songs that explored female psychology. Leading riot grrrl band Bikini Kill used images of debased innocence to emphasize the injustice of rape and abuse. Meanwhile, Courtney Love of Hole and Kat Bjelland of Babes in Toyland combined tattered baby-doll dresses with "Valley of the Dolls" tawdriness and visceral, screechy punk, and dubbed the look kinder-whore.

On a more mainstream level, hipster teen magazine Sassy had a monthly item called "Cute Band Alert"--it was supposed to mean the guys were cute-looking, but the slot took on incredible cachet. Eventually, bands with names taken from childhood buzzwords began to proliferate: Veruea Salt (the snotty girl in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"), the Pooh Sticks (a game Pooh and Piglet play in A. A. Milne books), Tummy Ache, Raggedy Ann, Huggie Bear. "It used to be like, 'How rockin' can we be?'" Sean Toilerson, bassist for the Seattle band Crayon, told Option magazine. "Now it's like, how cute can we be?'"

But as with fashion, what started out as an ironic take on childhood values--and, at best, a commentary on female sexuality--has become a gimmick. These days, cute has gone MTV. In the video for "All Hail Me," Veruca Salt cast themselves as badass rock heroes at a children's birthday party, inciting cherubic 5- and 6-year-olds to nasty acts with blistering two-chord punk. The exercise seems designed to point out the ruthlessly violent implications of smashing a pinata. In Letters to Cleo's video "Here & Now," lead singer Kay Hanley seems to take great pride in her ability to dance like a 3-year-old, shifting her weight awkwardly from side to side. Welcome to the creepy world of too cute.

In its most extreme manifestations, cute imagery plays off "Lolita"-style pedophilia in ways that are meant to be discomforting. Calvin Klein has specialized in provocative ads ever since he put first Brooke Shields in tight blue jeans, and his latest campaign features a series of sultry kids lounging around a rec room with cheap wood panelling and garish purple shag carpet. One girl is lying with her back arched, finger in her mouth, legs spread and denim mini-skirt hiked up to expose the crotch of her underwear.

A wildly successful campaign seems more innocent: it encourages adults to drink more milk. A wide range of female models, actresses and athletes wear frothy milk mustaches. Cute, right? Kate Moss is naked from the waist up. Miss America, Heather Whitestone, wears her little crown. Olympic champion Kristi Yamaguchi is bending over on her ice skates. Pop feminologist Camille Paglia deconstructs: "This milk mustache thing is really juvenile and very regressive. It's saying that our culture is emotionally starved for nurturing in some primal way."

Radical feminist and anti-porn crusader Andrea Dworkin takes the cute analysis a step further. "Infantilizing women is society's way of keeping women inferior, weaker, smaller and dumber," she says. "It would be a lie to think that this is about adult women. It's about children, about having a sexual interest and obsession with children. Women are choosing to do something that's very detrimental by letting this preoccupation continue."

But cute culture has a built-in method of deflecting criticism, simply by nature of its silliness. How angry can you be at plastic barrettes and ankle socks? How seriously can you take a subculture that is, by definition, profoundly inane? Like a little pink rubber ball, cute keeps bouncing along. It's by no means waning--"Fatal Attraction" director Adrian Lyne is moving into production on a new version of "Lolita," and he promises it will outsex and outshock the 1962 Stanley Kubrick original. The 14-year-old siren Dominique Swain will star. Maybe she'll even elbow Alicia out of her way to get to the front of the It Girl pack.

The Cult Of Cute | News