Simon May, a self-styled British “philosopher,” is a clever chap and an extremely gifted writer. But, it must be said, he’s a mite lazy, intellectually and as a scholar. “The Power of Cute” is an engaging albeit frustrating read, better suited as a longish feature in a magazine like The Atlantic than an essay-length book (but with endnotes, mind you!) marketed by an elite academic imprint, in this instance, the Princeton University Press.
“The Power of Cute” offers a virtually formless ramble through a muddle of tenuously linked pop-culture topics, ranging from Mickey Mouse to Pikachu – though why the author fails to fold into the fix that exemplar par excellence of “Cute,” the Happy or Smiley Face, is beyond me.
The academic chops on display in “The Power of Cute” are slipshod. A key early chapter, “Mickey Mouse and the Cuteness Continuum,” is a case in point. Inspired by a fellow denizen of the Academy, Gary Genosko, Professor May makes a big deal out of an amusing romp by the late Harvard biologist, Stephen Jay Gould, in which, in mildly mock-scientific fashion, Gould traced the reverse graphic evolution of Mickey Mouse over time as a more infantile-looking cartoon character. Precisely how that fits into what May calls the “Cuteness Continuum” is never quite made clear.
Nor is a serious attempt made to discover what Walt Disney might have thought about the concept of “Cute,” even though Mickey’s maker often used the term (in lower case, of course). The only time May puts the word in Disney's mouth is via an undocumented, third- or fourth-hand attribution. According to Professor May, Walt “reportedly” ordered “his animators to change tack and ‘keep it cute’.” “Change tack” from what? May doesn’t say.
The earliest appearance in print of the “keep it cute” anecdote (in 1982, sixteen years after Walt’s death) is a quote credited to an obscure (possibly disgruntled) assistant animator, Don McPherson, who worked at the studio for less than a year and a half in the mid 1950s. McPherson supposedly “recalled that Disney had a reminder pinned over every animator’s desk, that bore the message, ‘Keep it cute.’” This seems highly unlikely. And even if such a note were affixed to an animator’s workspace, it’s by no means certain that Walt himself drafted such an injunction. Oh, and one more thing: by the mid '50s, the Mouse Factory was no longer making animated cartoons starring Walt's signature character.
Professor May winds up linking the infantilization of Mickey's cartoon persona to widespread revulsion amongst civilized folk in Europe, America, and (above all, May says) Japan, to the horrors of the Second World War.
This is almost as silly as dragging into the discussion of “Cute” (as May does) hyper-heavyweights like Heidegger, Thomas Hobbes, Immanuel Kant, Kierkegaard, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Susan Sontag, who wouldn’t know “cute” if it bit them on their humorless tush.