Just Too Cute

cute [kyoot]
1. attractive, especially in a dainty way; pleasingly pretty:
2. appealing and delightful; charming:
3. affectedly or mincingly pretty or clever; precious:
4. mentally keen; clever; shrewd.

In third grade, this word became an irrational trigger for me. How this happened beyond over-saturation, I cannot say, but I hated, hated, hated being called cute. And in third grade, when I decided I didn’t like something, I really dug my heels in and properly didn’t like it. I screwed up my face into my most ferocious or ridiculous frown. I would squeal (probably cutely, in retrospect) in indignation. I would make a huffy fuss and refuse to accept what was innocently intended as a kind of default praise for a small eight-year-old girl with big eyes and a friendly nature.

I remember posing for my third grade school pictures. I didn’t default to smiling with my teeth (and still generally don’t). The photographer cajoled me to smile bigger. No, bigger. No, really. Eventually, sass won out, and I gave him a saccharine, corny, great big cutesy smile, just so he’d see he was wrong and stop making stupid requests. Flash, went the flash. That was my turn, over. No re-dos. I hated those pictures all year.

No, I will not be posting my shameful third grade photos. Here, have a photo of me in fifth grade instead – baggy jeans, hiking, bunny ears with my awesome sister. This is much more my thing.

We all have triggers. We all have these weird little itches that never quite go away.

I wonder what it was that eight-year-old me objected to so vehemently. I can think of plenty of justifications in retrospect, as thirty-year-old me. Perhaps they’re not rational reactions, but I still have minor twinges off being called cute – it’s simplistic, it seems superficial, and it always feels just a wee bit patronizing.

The wise scholars at dictionary.com tell me that in the word origin department, this is a derivative form of acute and carries a quaternary definition relating to cleverness. I cannot ever remember having heard cute used in a context of mental prowess – if anything, I’ve heard it played opposite that, in an old school sort of tone. “Don’t get cute with me, buster.” Cute is smartass. Cute is affected. Cute is pretending to cleverness you don’t really own.

There’s also the evolutionary science behind cuteness – the reaction to big eyes, small statures, and developmentally juvenile facial features. It’s why some people are particularly knee-jerk susceptible to the charms of babies (as my mother is) or kitties (as I am). Nature has hardwired us to react positively and affectionately to those who look like they need protection. Cuteness is the first defense mechanism of extreme youth that carries you over until you’re big enough to fend for yourself.

If these little guys aren’t cute enough to make you want to spring to their rescue, there is probably something medically wrong with you, and you should seek help immediately.

Third grade me wouldn’t have been able to parse through that, but some sense of cute as connoting just cute must have seeped through, somehow. The word poked and tickled and did not sit well with me. The notion was physically repulsive; I cringed when I heard that word. I most certainly did not want to be just cute. I wanted to wield lightsabers and tame dinosaurs and climb trees. How dare they misclassify me as something so small and ordinary as “cute”?

But I am petite and female, and I have a pleasant smile, and when I wear a friendly, positive demeanor, even now, I involuntarily come across as “cute.”

It’s vexing. I still want to wield lightsabers and tame dinosaurs and climb trees.

This seems like it’s actually become a trope in some genre fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, anime) – the cute one… who is also a badass. The cute one… who also knows kung fu or carries a big gun. The cute one… who is actually a slightly unstable super-genius. It’s a difficult balance to do well, though. It feels so very easy for it to just become an amusing juxtaposition. It becomes a compensating-for-it joke. “Isn’t it cute that this nice girl runs around killing bad guys? Isn’t it funny how she swings that great big sword? Isn’t that just adorable?” It takes a lot of work to create a fully dimensional character past that point. See exhibit A below – Ruby Rose, a sweet, bumbling optimist, youngest in her class at monster hunting school, kills bad guys with a giant scythe which is also a gun, while wearing a red and black combat skirt.

Although to be fair, anime is often a little bit skewed in its cuteness-to-badass ratios

Look, I realize that cute is a fairly innocuous word and a fairly lightweight idea. Cuteness isn’t actively oppressive. Cuteness is an easy compliment to bestow (especially on a dress, or a bag, or a kitten), and I can even accept that I may be classed as “cute” on and off for the foreseeable future. But I do have these moments of worry about little girls, particularly the ones just old enough that they’ve started to think and speak for themselves, hearing others praise them as cute – as if physically charming, juvenile appearance should be counted as an inherently laudable trait. And I can’t shake the impression from third-grade me that there are so very many more interesting adjectives I would rather be.

Although I wouldn’t mind trying out that combat skirt…


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