From Kewpies to Minions: A Brief History of Pop Culture Cuteness

Seven examples of aggressive adorability that took over the mainstream

Credit: Everett

It's seldom an accident. It's not a lightning strike or a shooting star — more like a mad science. It's specifically designed to make viewers weak in the knees and unable to suppress an "Awwwww" while held in its thrall. (Resistance is futile.) It's the art of manufacturing mass-produced, all-consuming Pop Culture Cuteness — and it's huge business.

For the most part, the cuteness-industrial-complex runs parallel to the zeitgeist, but sometimes — when the stars align to shine a certain twinkle down upon us — it violently butts into the mainstream. The recent arrival of Minions, the Despicable Me spinoff that focuses on the instantly iconic and possibly inbred creatures that exist to serve history's greatest villains, typifies how such incursions refuse to be ignored. The $593 million promotional blitz leading up to the release of the film made the little yellow agents of death more ubiquitous than any celebrity in the world: There were Minions Tic Tacs, Minions Chiquita bananas, Minions Twinkies, Minions McDonald's fries… for a brief period of time, the average American diet was basically just eating various shapes of Minions. And the marketing didn't stop at food products — Amazon got in on the action as well, shipping their items in boxes that looked like coffins for the balding Doctor Moreau rejects on their sides.

But there's a good reason why Comcast and its partners felt comfortable spending such an ungodly amount of money to publicize a movie that features Jon Hamm voicing a character named Herb Overkill: It's undeniably cute. And cuteness, as the $625 the film has earned at the international box office so far might suggest, is the universal language (we used to think it was math, but we've since evolved from such an ignorant and naïve understanding of the world). It's also immediate. Cuteness instills brand recognition without requiring any, relying on particular shapes in order to trigger the biological impulse for affection that Nobel Prize–winning physiologist Konrad Lorenz referred to as an "innate releasing mechanism." As if it wasn't already clear before Minions opened to more than $115 million, the culture of pop cuteness is real — call it "Pop Cute-ture" — and there may be nothing we can do to stop it.

The most surprising thing about such aggressive adorableness is that these phenomena don't happen more often. Perhaps that's because America has erected barriers to protect us from such things, making cuteness one of the few areas where high and low art are encouraged to stay in their respective pens and every niche knows its place. But when the pop world is so rigidly segregated, the rare instances of spillover can have a profound effect. By looking at several landmarks of both foreign and domestic Pop Cute-ture, perhaps we can learn something about how they occurred, what they became, and why some forces might remain beyond our control.

Kewpie Dolls (1909)
The aforementioned Mr. Lorenz believed that the Kewpie, a hyper-cherubic character first conceived by illustrator Rose O'Niell for a comic strip that was printed in Ladies' Home Journal, was "the maximum possible exaggeration [of cuteness]...which our perception can tolerate without switching our response from the sweet baby to that elicited by the eerie monster." In other words, the Kewpie — which looks like what might happen if God got drunk and combined the body of a toddler with the ditzy sex appeal of Marilyn Monroe — is the boiling point of cuteness. As anyone who's seen The Strangers can attest, push any of the Kewpie's features even a little bit and you'll be staring into the face of pure evil.

Of course, it wasn't long before the dolls were put to work — by 1914, they were already slathered on boxes of products ranging from Jell-O to Kellogg's Corn Flakes, and even became an icon for the suffrage movement. The era of modern cuteness-as-cash-cow had begun.

Mickey Mouse (1928)
Essentially just three black circles (the red pants and white gloves are just for sex appeal), Mickey Mouse has grown from a lovelorn dollop of cuteness to a rodent as intrinsic to our culture as Coca-Cola — a universal symbol of an empire worth nearly $100 billion (for reference, that's almost Jurassic World money).

Beyond the money, however, Mickey is also valuable for what he revealed about the relationship between cuteness, capitalism and corporate branding. The correlation may seem obvious, particularly to modern consumers, but it's fascinating to look back at the character's physical reverse evolution as he Benjamin Button-ed from his recognizably adult appearance in Steamboat Willie to his more childlike look in Fantasia and beyond. Eventually, the rodent's cuteness became so pure that his innate releasing mechanism was too strong to sustain a narrative work. As a result, he transcended space and time to become a mascot in the material world, and today he can be found roaming the grounds of Disneyland, waiting for strangers to hug him.

The Banana Splits (1968)
The missing link between between the Monkees and the Teletubbies, The Banana Splits was an hour-long variety show that represented Hanna-Barbera's first attempt at combining animation with live-action. There was Drooper (essentially a permanently stoned version of the Cowardly Lion), Fleegle (a giant beagle in a bow-tie), Snorky (a shaggy elephant), and Bingo (a primate Shriner, right down to his love for tiny cars).

The show solidified a new live-action stronghold for the Saturday-morning TV kids — a primo advertising demographic — and helped launch Sid and Marty Kroft's empire (the duo designed the costumes for the anthropomorphic quartet, as well as the set production). The good folks at Hanna-Barbera also jumped giant-overstuffed-head first into marketing the hell out of the show, which — in addition to the usual lunchboxes, dolls, comic books et al. — included releasing the insanely catchy theme song "The Tra La La Song (One Banana, Two Banana)" as a single, as well as an entire power-pop album of Splits tunes. And when a wave of late Sixties/early Seventies nostalgia started to crest during the Clinton era, the show's oddball combination of lysergic zaniness and furry-cosplay shenanigans fueled a mini-industry of ironic t-shirts and Nineties alt-rock "Tra La" cover versions. It was cuteness that somehow managed to bilk a generation out of its bucks twice. [Cue slow clap]

Hello Kitty (1974)
''It's easy to accept [Hello] Kitty because it's so dumb and expressionless. It doesn't demand that you make any reference." That's how critic Midori Matsui, interviewed for a 2005 New York Times piece about artist Takashi Murakami and his theory of a Superflat culture, explained the unfathomable popularity of the ubiquitous cartoon cat in her native country. "Humanism is dead! Because people are weak and scared," she said, presumably moments before pledging allegiance to Lord Humungus, painting her face with the blood of her enemies, and wandering into the wasteland in anticipation of the new world order. 

Even amongst less dramatic critics, scholars, and fans, there's some debate as to what the creature really is: not a cat, but not not a cat. (Perhaps she's best thought of as Schrodinger's Kitty, dead in our world but alive in our hearts.) Designed by Yuko Shimizu in 1974, the adorably round feline — who established the overalls-to-exposed-cartoon-flesh ratio that Minions would exploit four decades later — is as ubiquitous in Japan as guns are in the United States. Once just on coin purses, she's now a seven-billion-dollar-a-year business that includes stationary, debit cards, Ferris Wheels, etc. She has her own wine, she has her own plane, she has her maternity hospital — she even has her own murder!

But her coup de grâce, and perhaps the most stunning achievement in the history of organized cuteness, is that in 2008, Hello Kitty became the ambassador of Japanese tourism in China — it took a set of adorable bow and whiskers were dispatched to smooth over one of the most fractious international relationships in recorded history. And yet, to this day no adult can rock her gear in the US without being placed on a government watch list.

Tickle Me Elmo (1996)
It all seemed so innocent at first. Quietly released in July of 1996, Tyco's talking plush doll of America's favorite falsetto monster was meant to please children. It was not, however, meant to tear their communities apart in an orgy of Christmas-fueled violence, one which saw the streets of suburbia awash in blood as red as the beloved Sesame Street character in whose name it had been spilled. It wasn't like the popular kids' TV show didn't have its fair share of endearing residents (big up our man Cookie Monster!), or the helium-voiced muppet wasn't adorable from the get-go. But this was different. This wasn't just capitalistic cuteness. This was chaos.

The trouble began with Rosie O'Donnell. "Tickle Me Elmo" dolls had been selling well through the start of the school year, but it wasn't until that fateful October afternoon, when O'Donnell so blithely mentioned her love for the toy on her talk show, that the frenzy set in. There weren't enough. There just… weren't…enough. Barely a million had been produced. The Wal-Mart doors opened and daddy… he just disappeared into the mob of humanity. They call it "New Jersey Quicksand." It was priced at $29.99, but that furry bug-eyed jester of death cost so much more. Black Friday? No, the blackest. We haven't tickled anything since.

Pokémon (1996)
Turning little kids into unrepentant addicts since 1996, Satoshi Tajiri's Game Boy RPG — in which the player assumed the role of an unsupervised child traveling around Japan and forcing wild animals to fight each other for his personal gain and amusement — has since evolved into a $38-billion-dollar entertainment brand. Toys, TV series, feature films, trading cards, comics: "Gotta catch 'em all!"

Pokémon (or "Pocket Monsters," for those of you who have never tasted the glory of completing the Pokédex and defeating the Elite Four in surrogate bloodsport), has always relied less on cuteness than it has the compulsion it inspires from its fans. In 1999, two nine-year-old boys sued Nintendo by claiming that the Pokémon Trading Card Game had turned them into chronic gamblers. Nintendo, the suit argued, was engaging in "a pattern of racketeering activity." The suit failed, but only because it turns out that companies don't have to pay you money when you accuse them of capitalism.

Still, the game's training mechanics have certainly encouraged a nurturing dynamic between player and digital killing machine. It's tell that the cuddly Pikachu, a Pichu who evolves when leveled up with high friendship, quickly became the face of the franchise despite not being a "starter" Pokémon or one of the game's more powerful monsters.

Puppy Bowl (2005)
The Cutest Lie Ever Told, Animal Planet's annual Puppy Bowl is not — despite appearances — a live televised sporting match between the most poorly coached football teams on the planet. It is, rather, a meshwork of incidental canine tomfoolery that's cut together from three separate days of shooting. The Puppy Bowl truthers were right.

Conceived about two weeks before most of its original participants and debuted during the halftime ceremony of the 2005 Super Bowl, Puppy Bowl was designed to provide a viewing alternative for people who needed a reprieve from the sight of grown men concussing each other. Ratings have gone up as the main event's halftime acts have gotten worse (it's been reported that literally every American tuned in to the PB when the Black Eyed Peas performed in 2011), with an alleged aggregated audience of 12 million viewers and an off-the-charts social media presence; Michelle Obama even taped a kickoff intro in 2014. And lest you think it's not diabetically sweet enough, recent editions have added penguin cheerleaders [awww] and a kitten interlude in between quarters [AWWWWWWW!]

Big-name sponsors are all over it — Geico has bought the naming rights to the miniature stadium — and according to an Ad Age article, the 2014 edition increased its advertising revenue by 30%. The Puppy Bowl is a nearly perfect model of how cuteness functions in American culture: isolated, simultaneous, undeniable, and able to produce a profit bigger than the gross national product of some countries.