Isn't That Cute?

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On the Web, cuddly bunnies and kittens have gone way beyond Hallmark treacle. This is not your mom's cute.

Cultural rebels are supposed to be many things — defiant, foul-mouthed, self-dramatizing. But cute? Cute is Kryptonite to cool; irony may be dead, or mortally wounded, as sages proclaimed in the wake of 9/11. But how has its opposite number — the rapt adoration of fluffy little mammals — gained such a purchase among the net-savvy hipster set? Cute has always had a home on the Net. But putting up homepages for one's pets or devoting a suite of sites to The Little Mermaid doesn't seem as mockable next to sites like Cuteoverload.com.

Some of the images on Cuteoverload.com are exactly what you'd expect from a site with that name: a pile of kittens, a bunny nuzzling a blade of grass, a puppy sleeping on a quilt. A million Hallmark calendars have been sold on the enduring appeal of such images; that Cuteoverload.com could acquire 65,000 readers and hundreds of comments per day by designing a pleasant blog around them makes total sense.

But what to make of the other images on Cuteoverload.com? A tiny snail. A lizard curled up in the palm of someone's hand. Giant plush-toy versions of the e. coli and Gonnorhea viruses. And, genius though the concept may be, one suspects that Hallmark stores will not be featuring an aisle devoted to "cats'n' racks" — the site's term for the photo genre featuring felines nestled between breasts — any time soon.

This is not your mom's cute.

Call it hipster cute or avant-adorable. Cuteoverload.com saves itself from treacly Jean Teasdale territory by being self-conscious and even nerdy. Meg Frost, who started the site last fall, has a gift for writing captions that avoid the patois of faux innocence that turn those calendars into instant kitsch. While Frost anthropomorphizes wildly, these kittens do not encourage readers to "Hang in there!" or enthuse, "Thank God it's Friday!" Rather, sleepy stoner kittens complain, "Look. I cannot deal with you right now," and ponder the need to check their MySpace profiles. Angry pug puppies quote Goodfellas ("You think I'm funny? Funny like a clown?") before threatening to shoot you.

To a child, the seemingly oxymoronic impulse to do violence to tiny creatures is a rather scary aspect of the world of Mom-cute; I remember with chills when, at about eight, I thought about the threat implied by my grandmother's exclamation, "Oh, I just want to eat you up!" The commentators of Cuteoverload.com rescue themselves from such twee clichés with fine-tuned irony: "He looks so edible — I mean adorable" says one of a bunny. And they threaten to turn the violence on themselves. To judge by the comments alone, Cuteoverload.com is a factor in the demise of dozens of netizens. Heads explode at the mere exposure to lethal levels of cuddliness. Or, as one contributor wrote about his reaction to a school of ducklings following their mom: "I barfed a rainbow."

The still rather geeky culture of blogging also mitigates — or provides cover for — those of us who do not envision Hummel figurine collections in our future. The site's fans call themselves "cutologists," and they have composed a careful list of cute rules, including "small ear to head ratio" (rule #15) and "a thing, accompanied by a smaller version of that thing, is always cute" (rule #7). That slang has grown out of the commenting community of cutologists is not surprising; that someone compiled a list of definitions is slightly more so. (I admit I have incorporated "redonk" — the comic-book sound-effect version of "ridiculous" — into my own vocabulary.)

The pleasure of looking at images of a thing accompanied by a smaller version of that thing can feel almost pornographic. Indeed, baby animals and sexy babes can both produce unbidden murmurs of pleasure. This is not a coincidence. Both kinds of images stimulate the brain's pleasure centers, the area that is also aroused by good food and psychoactive drugs. When people talk about being addicted to Cuteoverload or to the National Zoo's "Panda Cam," they aren't exactly kidding.

In Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic: The Aesthetics of Consumerism, essayist Daniel Harris wrote about the tendency for "cute" to veer into a fetishization of helplessness or even the grotesque. Writing about a line of dolls from the toy company Galoob, Harris observed that most cute dolls, were they to exist in real life, would not be adorable at all, but in fact deformed and helpless, unable to walk on their stumpy, swollen legs, cursed with useless, fat fingers and with heads too large to be held up by a weak infant's neck. Science has borne out that such helplessness is exactly what beckons the observer of cute: We are hard-wired to respond to big eyes set low on a round face; low, small ears; and other signifiers of infancy. The drive to nurture what only remotely resembles a human baby is so strong that,according to The New York Times, researchers have recorded positive responses to "the young of virtually every mammalian species, fuzzy-headed birds like Japanese cranes, woolly bear caterpillars, a bobbing balloon, a big round rock stacked on a smaller rock, a colon, a hyphen and a close parenthesis typed in succession." : - ) There. Doesn't it just make you want to go "awwwwww"?

Perhaps the parallel to pornography is instructive. The ability to download and view dirty pictures in the privacy of your own home prompted the triple-X expansion of triple-X businesses. Cultural conservatives regularly bemoan the Internet's ability to "normalize" such previously hidden behaviors as polyamory — you may be the only bisexual group-love aficianado in Omaha, but thanks to AOL, you can find more of them in Kansas City.

Could it be the same with cute? Once too ashamed to embrace the adorable, we can do it online, in our own ironic way — an arm's-length distance from actually "snorgling" (per the C.O. Glossary: "Snort + Snuggle. Summarizes the situation when you moosh your face into a fuzzy wuzzy smoochie wiggle and make googoo noises.") . On the Internet, nobody knows you love dogs.