Happy Birthday, Hello Kitty! (Heart of a Heartless World)

hello kitty

Happy Birthday, Hello Kitty. We’ve been reading in reading group Sianne Ngai’s Our Aesthtetic Categories: zany, cute, interesting and I just saw the big Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney. So this article from Gawker is apropos. A graduate student here in the Religion Department at Syracuse University shared it on FB, “The Empire of Harmlessness” by Maria Bustillos. You can it read here.

Bustillos takes Hello Kitty seriously. And so should you. This is our world, and maybe it better to be than not to be. The values brought to light by Hello Kitty are aimless play, friendship, and elegance in relation to commodity capitalism. Andy Warhol said that Pop Art is about liking things. The same goes with Jeff Koons whose genius lies in the creation of a smooth and simple surface –out of metals.

Somewhere in the Babylonian Talmud, God tells someone (I think it’s Saul) not to be too just. Sometimes it better not to be too critical either. Like autonomous art as theorized by Adorno, Hello Kitty takes a certain distance from the social world in which she is immersed, and in which, perhaps, maybe, she is critically situated.  Only cuter, Hello Kitty shares much in common with how Marx understood religion: “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” An icon, a fetish, adorable. I love you Hello Kitty, really I do.

Here are my favorite bits from the Bustillos article. What I like are three things: [1] her attention to craft and to elegance, [2] the way she pushes back highbrow academic criticism of popular culture, [3] the almost religious dimension.

[1] The craftsmanship in all of these things was superb. Transcendental, even, with their limitless perfectionism, their eye to the most delicate minutiae. Many young American designers and artists felt, as I did then, that Tokyo was the epicenter of all elegance. Those of us who lived in downtown Los Angeles shopped at Yaohan in Little Tokyo, goggled at the ruinously expensive books and magazines at the Kinokuniya in the New Otani Hotel, bought vintage paper goods at Little Tokyo Art and Gift, and dined at the (relatively affordable) Suehiro Cafe, where we tried to learn how not to make a mess of eating sushi. We learned something of Japanese visual history and cinema, about woodblock prints and “the floating world”, and maybe even read Sei Shōnagon (who, I believe, wrote the world’s first listicles, in the eleventh century).


[2] Yano’s book, Pink Globalization, is terrible, unfortunately. She attempts to maintain a decorous intellectual distance from her “lowbrow” subject matter, an approach that proves fatal to the book’s intelligibility; sympathy and identification have been traded away for a boatload of jargon. There is talk of “unabashed commodity fetishism in its classic Marxist formulation” and people raise “skeptical Adorno-arched eyebrows of disbelief” in there. The root of the problem is that Yano shows real contempt for the people and things she’s trying to describe and explain.


[3] For me, a cute person or a dress, a character or object, or toy or a puppy or kitten, has an immediate appeal that asks nothing in return. It is happy, sweet, it somehow exists in this dark world, unsullied, disinterestedly lovely, and fun, and it will be that way with or without you. Just something lovely, that is it, doesn’t know it, isn’t smirking with self-satisfaction, doesn’t want to sleep with you or extract your credit card number.

It’s literally harmless. When in fact harmless is the very best thing we can be. Very hard to be it! That should go without saying, but it does not. That quality is serious and rare and legitimately precious. It also makes certain people go a little crazy, like the ultra-fanatical Hello Kitty collectors Yano interviewed in her book who spend hundreds or thousands every month on Hello Kitty things.

Maybe that’s not so surprising, because you can sense at some deep, disquieting level that it would be possible for the world to be beautiful and simple, for there to be peace. But it’s not; there’s not. So maybe it’s simply a matter of pushing the button over and over, to feel that peaceful sensation again.




About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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