Last week, beloved and bizarre cultural icon Hello Kitty went through an identity crisis. First, news broke that the creature was not, in fact, a cat. As the Los Angeles Times reported: “Hello Kitty is not a cat. She’s a cartoon character. She is a little girl. She is a friend. But she is not a cat. She’s never depicted on all fours. She walks and sits like a two-legged creature. She does have a pet cat of her own, however, and it’s called Charmmy Kitty.”
The nation was shocked. Or, at least, confused. Either out of genuine anger or a mix of surprise and boredom (this was the week that POTUS made headlines just by wearing a tan suit), the scandalized responses filled the internet. Sanrio, the Tokyo-based toy company that created the character, started to walk back the story. When asked by the Wall Street Journal if Hello Kitty is or is not a cat, a Sanrio spokesperson replied, “It is difficult to answer that question, but our answer is that Hello Kitty is a personification of a cat –- a character.”
Scott McCloud has been making comics professionally since 1984. He’s the author of Understanding Comics, a comic book about comics: how they work, why visual iconography is so powerful, and how readers participate to make a story possible. He knows just about everything a person can know about cartoons, comics, and iconography. I called him up to ask him about this whole Hello Kitty situation. Why are humans so attached to these pictures and characters?
What was your initial reaction to all of this news? First that Hello Kitty was not a cat, then this walking-back announcement that Hello Kitty isn’t not a cat, she’s just an anthropomorphized girl-cat?
Something may be getting lost in translation there, because clearly Hello Kitty was modeled after a cat. But there’s a long history of characters whose iconography have evolved in strange ways. You look at Mickey Mouse and his friends and they carry traces of early racial charicatures that have just been stylized to the point of unrecognizability. And there are always cross-currents. Goofy and Pluto are both dogs of a sort, but one is a pet and one is a friend. It’s a little baffling. So Hello Kitty clearly has traces of a cat, but may be derived from longstanding icons used in Japanese marketing and storytelling. There are extremely popular characters in manga, Doraemon, he’s an oversized cat-like character, appearing in children’s comics, who is extremely popular. He is rarely thought of as just a cat. He’s possibly not even thought of as a cat at all.
Now, I was completely unaware of the Hello Kitty backstory. I thought it was hilarious that Hello Kitty even had a backstory. But it made sense in retrospect. Despite the backstory, which is clearly the creature of marketing departments and fanciful designers, the power of Hello Kitty certainly resides primarily with a complete lack of any resolution or detail in the character itself.
Do you think that Sanrio knew people cared so much about Hello Kitty being a cat? Or are they probably blindsided by the response? Is that why they’re coming back to say, “Oh, she’s an anthropomorphized cat”?
I don’t really think they were aware. The overriding statement that people derived from Hello Kitty here in the west is just, first and foremost, cute. And then simple, and then probably, vaguely alien. Just hard to read. In other words, delightfully inexplicable. These are the appeals, certainly. But you’ve also touched on the notion of anthropomorphizing, which is just a fancy name for the business of taking animals, or really anything, even inanimate objects, and bringing them to life as human beings. And it helps to raise the questions of how we perceive consciousness in these inanimate drawings. The fact that, whatever character there is, we’re bringing that character to life as viewers, means there’s more than the actual execution of the drawing that brings them to life. It’s a collaborative process of conjuring. And I think that in a way, there’s something vaguely wise and clever about questioning these classifications we have. Of actually asking ourselves, well, is she a cat? Is she anything, other than this weird, astral projection of our idea of other consciousness? We can look at the plug on our walls, the electrical sockets on our walls, and see faces. We’re so programmed to see consciousness, and I think that what’s really interesting is how a couple of dots and a few lines can trick our minds into seeing a person.
Why do we — and by “we” I really mean “internet culture” — feel so connected to cats in particular? I think it’s funny that anyone would be surprised for Hello Kitty to not be a cat because, if Hello Kitty had the personality of an actual cat, she’d be kind of mean and difficult and scratchy, right? Not an ideal companion.
It’s a beautiful accident of evolution, that cats resemble babies so much, that we have this paternal instinct toward them. It’s just cuteness. That’s it. It’s about as deep and meaningful as new car smell, those little sprays you put in cars to make them smell like new cars. It has as much substance of that, it has a superficial covering, that allows us to see that there’s an inner life where ordinarily we wouldn’t see it. Now the inner life is actually there in the case of a cat, but so do other animals that are less cute that we would never think of domesticating.
People have been comparing this Hello Kitty news to the whole “David Chase says Tony Soprano didn’t die” news, in that it raises this issue of authorial intent: who gets to decide what the story is, the storyteller or the audience? Is there a point at which the author concedes control to the audience?
I think it’s an option to attach this backstory to the character, and it’s an option to continue to see it however you like. One could go to the Louvre and stare at the Mona Lisa and walk away deciding her backstory is that she had a love affair with you. There’s nothing that will certify or decertify your fantasy. Society has inclined us to expect that there always is an “official version,” but all that’s official is what’s there in black and white. In the case of a novel, a TV show, a cartoon, or a simple drawing, all that’s official is what exists, and there are only two worlds: there’s what exists, and there’s how we interpret what exists. And in the realm of interpretation, there’s no way to compel us to accept one interpretation over another, except to commit it to what’s actually there.
It’s interesting because this spills over into the world of fan fiction and that sort of thing, where the idea of what’s canon and what’s not — not only what’s open to interpretation, but open to new creative works, that’s become more timely, as people are feeling increasingly empowered, especially in our remix culture, to be a secondary author of works that already have that initial manifestation. There’s something hilariously futile in the whole concept of them saying, you’re doing it wrong! Your imagination is wrong! I think that’s kind of awesome, because in a way, its futility makes Hello Kitty even stranger, and the strangeness was, after all, part the appeal.
Can you elaborate a bit on what you talk about in your book: why icons are so appealing and why people relate more to simpler images than complicated ones?
Just in the case of simple cartoon characters generally — and this is just armchair theorist stuff, I don’t have any science to back it up — but I do think that we do relate to very simple representations of the human face, which Hello Kitty is, regardless of whether you call her a cat or not. They do have a peculiar power. And I think it may be in part because our interface with other people is quite complex. The faces of other people have a great deal of specificity. Anyone we might have a conversation with is that one, singular human being. But our sense of our own identity, since we rarely see our own faces, except in the mirror, we have a much sketicher, much simpler understanding of our own face. And I think there may be a degree of identification that occurs when we face down something that’s simple, because it’s closer to our self-image. So it becomes a kind of vacuum that we rush like air to fill.
Do you think that’s going to change, as this generation grows up with constant access to images of their own faces? People who are used to instantly seeing photos and videos of themselves, who take a ton of selfies?
That will weaken the effect slightly. But I don’t think it reduces it more than by a small percentage. I think it’s still our primary understanding of ourselves that we have a few facial features, we know vaguely what they’re doing, but we don’t really picture ourselves going out into the world. We know we have this interface — we know we can smile at a person and it sends a signal — but we’re not forever aware of every detail or crease or blemish. All of these things, that’s what others see. And you’ll see this in Japanese comics, actually, the level of detail may increase when the character is seen as the other, or alien, and it may be decreased when the character is meant to be identified with by the reader.
Why do you think people are so outraged about this Hello Kitty business? Or is it just faux-outrage, fueled by a slow news week?
I might quibble with the emotional temperature of this story. I think we like to imagine that people are outraged, but I’m not entirely convinced that there’s genuine outrage so much as people shaking their heads and going “what?” and then laughing. Because the whole thing seems funny, that this simple drawing has a backstory at all. I think there’s an element of the ridiculopus. I think it adds a bit of Dadaist frosting to the whole thing that people actually find quite delightful, but it’s a kind of delight that’s best expressed through a mock-outrage.
It’s a reality check: Mickey is not a mouse. Hello Kitty is not a cat. But that level of literalness is something we’re rarely confronted with. We live in a dream world.
This idea of humans connecting more with simple faces than complex ones, do you think that’s part of why emoji are so appealing?
That notion of striving for a picture language has been around for a very long time, we just didn’t have the means in traditional printed communication. It just wasn’t’ an option. Early written language evolved from pictures. Over time, that stylization evolves toward abstraction: lines we recognize as having a fixed meaning. And that’s what happens to something like Hello Kitty. Hello Kitty may begin as a picture but begins to become more of a formal symbol, more like a few lines with a generalized meaning of cuteness. It almost becomes like a written word that simply SAYS cute, refers to cute, more than just pictorially portraying it.
And making it complicated kills the fun, in a way. No one wanted to hear that there was a Hello Kitty backstory at all.
If this taught us anything, it’s that people are not clamoring for backstories. People did not want help coming up with a backstory for Hello Kitty. And it’s hard to predict how this will play out in terms of marketing. It might add another dimension, or it might actually remove some of the appealing blankness that made that icon interesting from the beginning.