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August 2, 2012 / Bradley

The Problem with “Cute”

I hinted at this post when I wrote about the K-On! movie yesterday with a riddle that was probably too open-ended to be guessed correctly. Actually, there were “correct” answers (“overrated” and “pandering”), but no one guessed the correct answer I was looking for: “cute.” I like cute, I like cute cartoons, but “cute” the adjective is beginning to gall me, and I think it should be avoided altogether when writing reviews about anime.

When you’re trying to “sell” your readers on an anime, it behooves you to try and be as descriptive as possible about why you like it so much. Moe fans seem to have the hardest time with this, and I think part of the reason why is that they lean too heavily on the instinctive appeal of “cute” to explain why something works. The time when “cute” was novelty appeal passed us years ago, since we live in an age where cats rule the Internet, and cute is so common its virtues as a descriptor are voided. It’s like if you described a stand-up comedian as “edgy” because that describes nearly every comedian. That does nothing to explain why you find Tig Notaro funny. And cute is everywhere in anime, even in anime where cute probably isn’t wisest design choice for the story you’re trying to tell.

And on top of that, trying to describe why you find something cute is also a loser’s game because that reaction is personal and psychological. Tsundere, for instance, is a cute trope I generally like, but some people are understandably repelled by it. There may be another angle that explains why some trope-filled character interests you, but if there isn’t, you’re probably better off not mentioning it, because the only people who will understand, are those who also get the dog whistle, and chances are, they’ve already heard of or seen what you’re talking about.

So when I wrote my K-On review, I didn’t talk about how cute everyone was, and instead, I wrote about how relatable they were and the attention to detail KyoAni put into the movie. It was really easy for me to do this because K-On! has plenty of virtues beyond being “cute.” But if you ever find yourself trying to persuade someone to watch something because of how cute it is, stop. Figure out why this anime stands out from every other cute thing out there, and if you can’t find an answer to that, then it’s wise to not recommend it at all.



Leave a Comment
  1. Scamp / Aug 2 2012 5:09 pm

    Eh, don’t agree with this. Why not call a duck a duck? Particularly when a show is selling itself on its own cuteness, why not simply say that is the case? Seems to me like you’re doing the reader a disservice by not mentioning a key aspect of the anime in question, especially if they’re drawn or repelled by cute.

    I guess from now on I’ll just use the word kawaii~ instead

    • Bradley / Aug 2 2012 6:39 pm

      My issue has more to do with “cute” as a reason to watch something than “cute” as simply a descriptor. I have no problem with the latter.

      As a self-rebuttal, though, I’m having a hard time figuring how I would recommend Poyopoyo to people without just saying, “it’s just soooo cute.”

  2. wavedash / Aug 2 2012 6:01 pm

    I think the number of shows out there that do “cute” and only “cute” legitimately well is small enough that describing the appeal of these shows with simply “cute” is apt.

  3. Michael is Low on Hit Points / Aug 3 2012 12:03 am

    (Disclaimer: I have not read your K-ON! review; I have not seen the K-ON! film.)

    Cute is (part of) the very core of K-ON! The key is just how exceptionally cute it can be: the execution of that cuteness. While moe anime may be a dime-a-dozen, for many of the pack their cuteness is poorly executed and expressed. If you want the epitome of cuteness, cuteness expressed and animated to its fullest, then K-ON! is quite possibly choice number one. To avoid judging K-ON! on cuteness is to go into that judgement with a bias. Perhaps that bias is this silly concept of “the message” that nearly every pseudointellectual tries to read into every single piece of art. The “meaning” behind K-ON! is the (cute) joy that it expresses (and there may be no more meaningful meaning in all of mankind’s existence!)

  4. r042 / Aug 3 2012 8:50 am

    Even Poyopoyo has virtue above cuteness – it’s not simply a lolcat or kitten video, it fills the niche of “jokes for and about pet owners.” This isn’t new, but it’s done well anyway.

    • Bradley / Aug 3 2012 3:49 pm

      This is true. Also: gay cat sex. Which is HIGH-larious.

  5. Vampt Vo / Aug 3 2012 1:43 pm

    Something about this doesn’t sit right with me. You like K-ON! because it’s cute, right? So, if you’re writing a review for me (the reader) to figure out why I should or shouldn’t check out K-ON!, why wouldn’t you tell me that you like it because it’s cute? It seems kind of disingenuous for you to avoid talking about an entire facet of your enjoyment just because you think the word is problematic. If you do that, you end up having to jump through tons of hoops to intellectually justify something that you like for a really simple reason. And, in my opinion, faux-intellectual justifications for simple stories make for some of the worst reviews.

    • Bradley / Aug 3 2012 4:19 pm

      Since you’re the second or third person to bring up a point I thought I addressed in the post, I think I must have a done a bad job communicating what I wanted to say. Let me try again.

      I like K-On for a bunch of reasons, and when trying to communicate those reasons, “cute” is the least helpful one. There are two reasons for this: first, nearly everything in anime is cute. Even the egregiously bad shit looks cute, or at least tries to be, which brings me to my second point: what you find cute is a personal thing, and you can’t assume what you find cute will work as well for your readers as it did for you.

      I don’t think it’s disingenuous to talk about all the other reasons you liked something, as long as those are honestly reasons you liked it. There has never been an anime I liked just because it’s cute- cute was always a bonus, and I could easily talk about how I like, say, its sense of humor or art style or something else. I think this is also true for everyone else, even if we don’t realize it at first. After all, there has to be something that makes quality cute cartoons stand apart from shit cute cartoons.

      What I’m trying to do here is encourage more precise writing aimed at a broader audience besides fans with similar tastes, because I feel that, too often, anime writers assume their readers are into the same things they are. Anime fandom is too broad a category to do that, and that’s not to mention folks who are new to anime!

      • Vampt Vo / Aug 3 2012 6:13 pm

        Yes, but it’s your job as a reviewer to make sense of subjective terms like “cute” and make them relevant to your audience. Not to simply throw your hands up and say “since it’s subjective I’m just not going to talk about it!” (All reviews are subjective after all.) I totally get that the idea of “cute” can’t be used on its own, but I don’t think it’s right to throw it out altogether.

        To be clear, I appreciate your overall sentiment about more precise writing, but I think your approach is a bit extreme.

  6. Yumeka / Aug 4 2012 2:37 am

    I’m guilty of using the word “cute” to describe why I like certain anime, but I always try and say more than that. For something like K-ON, I would also say it’s “fun,” “humorous,” “relaxing,” “nicely animated,” or any number of terms. But there are some cases, mostly for kid/family anime, like Poyo which you have pictured in the post, where really it’s main appeal is…cuteness. But I supposed you could always think of better reasons if you really try (I could also say Poyo is funny and enjoyable if you like cats). But since “cuteness as entertainment” is sort of a niche taste, people rarely feel the need to give reasons for it because in most cases you either “like this kind of thing” or you don’t.

  7. cristal catalina / Nov 26 2014 3:46 pm

    I do consider all the ideas you’ve offered to your post.
    They are very convincing and can definitely work. Nonetheless, the posts are
    too brief for starters. May just you please lengthen them a bit from next time?

    Thank you for the post.

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