Much has been made about the president publicly shedding tears in response to the latest spate of horrific gun violence, especially since many of the victims were such small children. Because my scholarship deals with the centrality of cuteness in the shaping of public and institutional policies concerning race, I make a critique about visual culture operating at the very nexus of American public race policy. As a critical race theory, the rhetorics of cute have the power to galvanize the public. I believe the persuasive effects of cuteness are deployed for the political contexts of commerce and energize Derrick Bell’s notion of “racial interest convergence.” Whether framing public debates about Civil Rights legislation through the outrage generated by the church bombing of four little girls, the heinous lynching of Emmett Till, and underlying the logos of Norman Rockwell’s portrayal of Ruby Bridges in “The Problem We All Live,” cute shapes public policy.
Cute is a longstanding strategy for winning over the dominant interests in public debates and motivates white economic investments to push for substantive political changes. Interestingly enough, the decades-apart public anger precipitated by the killings of Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin was not necessarily amplified by the visuality of cuteness, but was more about the gestures of cuteness as a performative act reflecting childish (and legal) innocence. Till and Martin, after all, were both going about the normal business of adolescence and visiting the candy store. The sheer cuteness of behaving as any child is expected to, at least in the cases of Till and Martin, provides a posthumous racial pass of sorts. Dominant perceptions of African American masculinity in the white public sphere are not so readily second-guessed, especially by the ordinary television media.
Or consider the groundswell of public sentiment in support of stricter gun control laws (as in the case of the Trayvon Martin killing). And, as alluded to at the beginning of this post, the heartbreak surrounding the tiny victims of the Sandy Hook elementary school is sobering. The media tributes honoring the mostly white classroom of innocent first-graders and educators in the small Connecticut town has been relentless. All this is to say, that I’m just as moved by this recent gun massacre as anyone else and wish that color were not a part of this discussion. Though unfortunately, the rhetorical power wielded by the ongoing tributes to this group of slain youngsters does speak to dominant sentiments and racial perceptions regarding cuteness.
I’ve even heard some people personally criticize Obama for supposedly not demonstrating enough grief over the epidemic of gun violence prematurely snatching the lives of hundreds of Chicago’s mostly brown and black children. But how would we even know this to be true? It could be that Obama has publicly demonstrated pain over the deaths of this particular group of kids, but it simply eludes coverage. And what about in his private moments with Michelle and his daughters? From all accounts, the loved ones of many of these children were personally known to the first family. Some of the more extreme online memes claim that Obama actually delights in the drone attacks by Afghan children have been killed as opposed to American kids tragically cut down by gunfire. This latter idea is utterly ridiculous as it commits the logical fallacy of moral equivalency in a most reprehensible fashion. On the other hand, the issue of Chicago gun violence is valid. Not because of Obama’s supposed lack of personal grief, but for how it calls attention to the lopsided racial narratives of commercial “news” coverage.
This racial rhetoric of cuteness continues to operate in surprising ways and draws focus to matters of racial discrimination and privilege. This is why I believe the materiality of cuteness is racially determinative of people’s life chances and helps us better understand the technological and ethical interplay of aesthetic judgements of human worth.
GOOD GRIEF! I will NEVER stop being absolutely flabbergasted by the power of EYE SHADOW in the New South. In case you haven’t noticed (in SC), a woman who goes out without her mascara is about as bad as a woman who leaves home without her bloomers!
Because of the exaggerated gender-norming etiquette down here people will assume you’re lazy, no-count, and simply write you off if you dare attend some public spaces bare-faced. True story. It’s jacked up, but I know how it is. I try to resist this conservative politics by playing with these ethics of “pretty-southern-lady” conformity.
In order to experiment with this concept and as a demonstration of my civic duty, today I chose to vote in the South Carolina Republican presidential primary. I did so wearing full make-up face and dressed to the nines (like any *decent* Southern lady would, of course). I made an effort to dress stylishly, yet conservatively.
When I got inside there was less than a dozen other people. All white men (save one woman) and not a single person under 60 years old! The woman standing beside the door immediately greeted me with a huge smile and, for some reason, introduced herself to me as the wife of one of the men and that she was only there because of him. Seriously!! Of course, I responded with equal warmth, a huge smile, and nodded how I “completely understand” (whatever that was supposed to mean).
Now! anybody who knows me knows I *like* to play with make-up, clothes, and cute hair-do’s (so sue me!) — I wore my favorite wellies, Karen Millen cape, and carried my Kate Spade handbag. I decided to accessorize with a pair of bronze/silver tone Akwaba doll earrings, plus an assortment of colorful, big bangle bracelets. It was raining hard when I pulled up to the polls, so when I got out of my car I decided to use my scarf to cover my head — as though it was an hijab. Once I walked in the door, for dramatic effect, I slowly unwrapped my scarf to reveal PURE AFRICAN CORNROW HAIR TWIST SPLENDOR! LOL! You would’ve thought a talking Panda had just entered the polling place.
It was hilarious. Every single one of those old white folk went out of their way to show EXTREME cordiality. I promise you, each and every one of them individually welcomed and greeted me! The whole room became chatty and smiley. And I was glad to oblige their hospitality! So I entered the booth, voted for the “Making a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow” super PAC candidate, Herman Cain.
AND HERE’S THE KICKER: When I exited the booth, one of the greyest, biggest of all the white men actually stopped me, SHOOK MY HAND, HUGGED ME, leaned in, and stage whispered, “So, who’d you vote for?” Then he slyly added, “Only joking.” The place broke into raucous laughter and everyone applauded as I left the polls!
Where else in America does this happen? South Carolina: too small to be a country, too big to be an insane asylum! Now here’s the question, folks. Has the South changed? You tell me.
Mike Huckabee says Republican presidential candidate, Herman Cain, is “winsome” and George Will considers Cain’s run for office “cute and fun” but nothing to be taken at all seriously. Maybe so — maybe not, who really knows? To be sure, Cain is definitely a long-shot.
I would be interested to see if Herman Cain was included among the cohorts of Fortune 500 black CEOs whose physiognomy was determined as having a “baby face.” If he was not included in the study, I’d be surprised.
Though, of course, everyone may not agree that Cain is cute per se — regardless of partisan persuasion — you’d be hard pressed to find someone who will dispute whether or not Cain has shown himself to have been competent as a food service industry executive. And I think, regardless of one’s political views, most everyone would have to agree that Cain seems to have developed an unusually high skill set in terms of attenuating dominant perceptions of black male threat and really does possess an extraordinary ability to disarm others — even potential rivals. According to the study:
disarming mechanisms are beneficial to powerful Blacks because they reduce the perception of ‘threat’—whether threat is experienced as fear or intimidation due to an out-group individual possessing high levels of power (i.e., realistic threat), or as anger, resentment, or discomfort due to the perceived illegitimacy of a low-diffuse-status individual holding a hegemonic position (i.e., symbolic or ‘worldview’ threat)… [and that] there are numerous traits and behaviors that might function as disarming mechanisms, such as modifying style of speech or dress, adopting assimilationist ideologies, having a goofy appearance (e.g., big ears), smiling, or even ‘whistling Vivaldi’ (Livingston 1234).
Well, I think Barack’s got the whole “big ears” thing covered and the reference to Brent Staples‘s “Black Men and Public Space” essay about negotiating public space in Chicago as a large black man. Staples Staples admits at the very end of his essay how “warbling bright, sunny selections from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is [his] equivalent of the cowbell that hikers wear when they know they are in bear country.”
Teddy bears in bear country.
Cuteness as a quirky racial construction in American politics and civic life as related to Cain’s Republican presidential candidacy is a fascinating little political story to follow. Oh yeah, and as for the political catch-phrase fail of the moment:
A certain 15 year old girl I know very well inspired me to make this chibi drawing. Some of you may know her too. I drew it as she explained to me the *correct* way of pronouncing kawaii. I think I successfully captured the mood and gesture perceived. ;-)
I snapped this jpg at the antique store in Pendleton, SC — not more than 3 miles from campus. These cast iron coin banks cost $35.00 each. I’m not sure when or where they were made.
Check out the gestures. The nourishing Negress (as Barthes would call her) looks like she’s ready to pitch an epic niggerbitchfit based on the way she’s got her hands on her hips. And the male one — well, I guess he had better have his hat in his hands.
For some reason, this arrangement of these three objects reminds me of “Trueblood and his women” in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Throwbacks of the most grotesque design, they are. (I’m talking about the Truebloods AND the figurines, by the way.) The genius of the Trueblood scene is the way Ellison writes Truebloods’ intricate testimonial as a thing that functions for commodified exchange. It’s brilliant where Trueblood says, “But what I don’t understand is how I done the worse thing a man can do in his own family and ‘stead of things gittin’ bad, they got better” (68). In uniting a critique of Freudian oedipal desire and Marxian material analysis, Ellison depicts the notion of a/cute monopoly. These incestuous circumstances of “keeping it in the family” is taken to extremes and allows Trueblood to capitalize on the sentiments held by Norton, the wealthy white donor to the invisible man‘s college.
These themes connect very closely to the daddy-mommy-me trinity as described in Anti-Oedipus.