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Should We Say Goodbye to Hello Kitty
The Japan Times article “Time for Goodbye, Kitty?” (2004) called Hello Kitty, a product of the Japanese company Sanrio, an attribute of consumerism, kitsch, and anti-feminism. Overall, the article is written with a purpose not only to criticize Hello Kitty as the most widely known icon on a worldwide scale but also to shed light on the perception of the Japanese culture as a whole.
Hello, Kitty has become an international success on the economic level, being appointed an ambassador of raising funds for promoting educational programs, predominantly targeted at girls. Kitty has been widely criticized for the ambiguity of her success: on the one hand, she was a “spokesperson” for girls’ education and signed contracts with large corporations like MasterCard on the other (Tsutsui & Ito, 2006, p. 163).
Furthermore, Hello Kitty has been compared with Barbie that perpetuates unrealistic expectations of female body features; but in this sense, the negative effect Hello Kitty is said to have on girls is her inability to voice her opinions (Yano, 2013, p. 4).
Hello Kitty as a Kitsch
Kitsch is defined as “something of tawdry design, appearance, or content created to appeal to popular or undiscriminating taste” (Yano, 2013, p. 24). It usually implies criticism that is grounded in the characteristic of the social class. According to Bordieu, cited in Yano, the dynamic power of the social class influence the aesthetic choices, thus, the choices of the working classes lie in the shadow of the aesthetic choices made by the upper classes.
This means that the concept of kitsch is an important part of such a shadow. The characteristic of Hello Kitty as Kitsch is two-fold: some do view it as kitsch, while others embrace it as the most recognizable attribute of the Japanese kawaii culture.
The kitsch characteristic of Hello Kitty is also based on the behavior of adult consumers that buy the products. Adults act below their age-appropriate behavior, buying relics that are usually considered children’s attributes. In this scenario, Hello Kitty is linked to the notion of kitsch because it connects adult men and women that are attached to the cute image to constant consumerism. Cuteness is an attribute of modern Japanese culture that receives the most critique from radical feminists like Denise Uyehara: “Pink and cute – that should only be for babies” (as cited in Goldstein, Buckingham & Brougere, 2004, p. 69).
However, it is important to note that the opinion laid out in the Japan Times article is the opinion shared by the minority of the Japanese population that meets consumerism and the kawaii culture with relatively low levels of criticism. The Japanese government, in its part, understands the popularity of the Hello Kitty product and shows support for Kitty as an ambassador for various cultural campaigns. The image of Hello Kitty does, indeed, perpetuate the global consumerism, flooding the stores and shopping malls with various products, even in the United States. Apart from this, Hello Kitty is often called the reenactment of kitsch and emotionalism (Tsutsui & Ito, 2006, p. 164).
Is Hello Kitty Anti-Feminist
According to Stange, Oyster, and Sloan (2011), throughout the years of its existence, Hello Kitty has been accused of being a symbol of consumerism, lending the image to various products ranging from purses to toasters (p. 682). A prevalent opinion is that Hello Kitty rarely worries about protecting the rights of girls and women, on the contrary, she was promoting the stereotype of an Asian female that is helpless and passive.
Furthermore, celebrities who support Kitty’s image often get criticized for being racist and anti-feminist. For instance, Canadian singer and songwriter Avril Lavigne had received criticism for her Hello Kitty song and the music video that accompanied it. In her video, Lavigne was said to “parading around with four identical, creepily expressionless Asian women behind her” (as cited in Vincent, 2014, para. 6). In my opinion, this type of criticism is pointless as it looks for ant-feministic and racist themes where there are none. Since Hello Kitty is a commercialized object targeted at encouraging and spreading consumerist behavior, there is nothing wrong with using it in a song or a music video. Portraying Asian women as identical and expressionless was merely done for artistic purposes.
While I can agree with the accusation of consumerism perpetuation, I see no ground in Hello Kitty’s image being an embodiment of “female submissiveness” (Time for Goodbye Kitty?, 2004, para. 3). Despite the fact that Kitty has no actual mouth she can speak with, I think she is empowering for young girls because she can take a lot of appearances and roles, thus encouraging girls to become whoever they wanted to become.
In addition, some girls who are shy and silent at school can relate to Kitty because she does not have to speak (Waxman, 2014, para. 5). The fact that Kitty is silent is a reflection of the Japanese culture in general, where women are just raised to be silent and modest, a feature that was passed from generation to generation for centuries. Stating that Hello Kitty is an embodiment of female submissiveness is equal to criticizing the Japanese culture and traditions that influenced the development of many other cultures in the course of global history. My opinion coincides with Christine Yano in the sense that Hello Kitty is not only an object of commercialism but also a phenomenon that has a major influence on the development of popular culture (as cited in Li, 2014, para. 5).
A great example of Hello Kitty having a positive impact on women empowerment is the 1990s Riot Grrrl Movement that stated that being “girly” is not a diminishing thing in the slightest. Since feminists believe that women should have the right for self-expression, criticizing Hello Kitty is the same as criticizing the freedom of girls and women to like whatever they like and choose role models they want to choose. As long as Hello Kitty does not force girls to be “cute” because the society requires them to, the accusation of Kitty being an anti-feminist role model holds no ground.
As mentioned above, Hello Kitty is a phenomenon that has achieved massive commercial success worldwide. Christine Yano characterized Kitty as an object of kitsch that perpetuated the idea of consumerism, an opinion supported by the Japan Times article “Time for Goodbye Kitty?” that represents the Japanese culture as the kingdom of kitsch. However, the primary critique of Hello Kitty is that it embodies the idea of anti-feminism, representing Asian women as silent and powerless. This critique does not take Japanese culture and its ancient traditions into account.
Goldstein, J., Buckingham, D., & Brougere, G. (2004). Toys, Games and Media. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.
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Li, S. (2014). Sanrio Looks to Give Hello Kitty, at 40, a New Life. Web.
Stange, M., Oyster, C., & Sloan, J. (2011). Encyclopedia of Women in Today’s World. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publication.
Time for Goodbye Kitty? (2004). Web.
Tsutsui, W., & Ito, M. (2006). In Godzilla’s Footsteps: Japanese Pop Culture Icons on the Global Stage. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Vincent, P. (2014). Avril Lavigne Defends Hello Kitty Song after ‘Racist’ Criticism. Web.
Waxman, O. (2014). Hello Kitty at 40: Sexist Throwback or Empowering Icon? Web.
Yano, C. (2013). Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek Across the Pacific. London, UK: Duke University Press.