by Daniel Lindsay
In the merchandising field of popular culture, ideas are sold rather than specific objects. Merchandise is, by nature, an item that is at its core useful, but that is not its purpose. One of the most common types of merchandising is related to pre-existing TV shows, movies, and music groups. A producer simply writes the name of the thing they want to sell on a shirt, cup, or pillow, and sells it. It usually works quite well; the fans of said thing see it as a statement about themselves to buy something that shows their interests. Some manufacturers will actually go so far as to create their own characters. This is the case with Hello Kitty, an explosively popular character created in Japan. Hello Kitty’s first commercial appearance was on a vinyl coin purse in Japan in 1974, sold by the Sanrio company, originally a company that sold rubber sandals. Two years later, the character was being sold in the US as well. Her original name is Kitty White, but she became known as Hello Kitty, a translation of “maneki neko,” the “beckoning cat” that gained popularity as early as the Edo period (1600-1800s) in Japan. Her popularity is a topic of debate for those interested in merchandising and culture. She is part of the so-called kawaii movement in Japan, the sale and fascination with things that are “kawaii” or “cute,” as a direct translation. Her lack of a mouth is also a subject of debate, said to imply that young girls should not speak their minds. Sanrio’s official response to this was that it was easier for anyone to project their own emotions onto Hello Kitty if she was not making her own facial expressions. Another topic of debate is Hello Kitty products for adult women. Hello Kitty has been used even to sell things like wine, causing some to attack the brand, saying that it confuses the boundary between children and adult women. This extends to its popularity among adult women being said to infantilize women and sexualize children, like many other stereotypes in popular media.
The kawaii movement, as it is called, in Japan and abroad, is the extreme popularity of characters that are “kawaii.” “Kawaii” is directly translated as “cute” but actually literally means “lovable.” It refers to a childlike image such as hello kitty, with prominent eyes and ears and a small or absent mouth. These traits are often considered linked to childhood stages of mammalian development. Hello Kitty is considered one of the main icons of this movement, as her marketing is directed toward preteen girls.
There have been many concerns about Hello Kitty’s childish qualities. Some say that these encourage women to remain children into adulthood, to preserve a sort of “innocence.” These beliefs would not be completely unfounded, considering that many cultures have believed young women to be superior to older women. Indeed, Hello Kitty being present on items that are reserved for older women (cigarette cases, wine) seems to imply that no matter a woman’s age, she should emulate the characteristics of a child, which, while legal, is something that several groups and individuals take issue with. This idea stems from Western (and Eastern) idea that a woman’s value is equivalent to her age, which in a modern society causes some discomfort among those who consider themselves to not have gender bias.
Hello Kitty is an excellent example of modern international culture’s odd relationship with the ideas of femininity and youth, and can be seen as either an innocent character for young girls to play with, or a sad and firm reminder of women’s past and present roles in our society.