“Undoubtedly, Hello Kitty—as product, as logo, as design—is artistic expression.” Christine Yano makes that assertion in Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek Across the Pacific, her new anthropological study of all things Hello Kitty, but it seems open to question. It’s true that Hello Kitty—the mouthless Japanese icon of kawaii (“cute,” more or less)—is an image, an artistic creation. But she’s not a product of cartoons or comic books, like Mickey Mouse or Snoopy. She’s a brand of the Japanese company Sanrio, which created and distributes her. There’s no original art, only images on products—all of which Yano’s book giddily revels in. Hello Kitty lunchboxes, Hello Kitty key chains, Hello Kitty furniture, Hello Kitty dolls, Hello Kitty Barbie, the Hello Kitty Lady Gaga photo shoot, Hello Kitty bedsheets, Hello Kitty condoms, and the infamous Hello Kitty massage wand, aka the Hello Kitty vibrator—to call Kitty art is like calling the Nike swoosh or the Michelin Man art. It effectively erases the line between capitalism and . . . well, between capitalism and anything else.
The purpose of Hello Kitty is to be reproduced in infinite marketable forms. Yet Yano argues that what drives some consumers to buy is an emotional connection they feel to the character herself. That’s an aesthetic reaction, Yano says: people feel the product as art, and its affective status as art provides the impetus for the creation of the product. In one sense, the ubiquity is validating—how can 50 million Kitty fans be wrong? But it also seems cheap, even sinister. How can 50 million Kitty fans be right?
Hello Kitty, then, becomes a kind of limit case of popular art, or, perhaps, of any art under capitalism. On the one hand, art gets its value from being something that people are willing to pay for. On the other hand, art’s value is often seen as existing outside the market, so that paying for it degrades it. Capitalism at once confers value and undermines it.
Yano and the various Kitty fans she interviews try to get around this dilemma in various ways. In some cases, they argue that the Hello Kitty products have a design quality and sincerity of emotion that represent a kind of authenticity, which creates an emotional connection despite the commodification. Dan Peters, a American Sanrio marketing executive, explains that “part of the reason I love working here is I feel that there is real heart behind what we do and what we’re trying to get across to the consumer.” Other fans in the book seem to agree, talking about how they respond viscerally to Hello Kitty’s message of love and friendship.
Another way to think about Hello Kitty as both product and art is through subversion. Kitty may be a product, but she is a knowing product who can wink at herself; indeed, Yano notes, Sanrio has marketed a winking Kitty. Along the same lines, 90s Riot Grrrl appropriated Hello Kitty as a punk icon—then Sanrio began marketing Hello Kitty with piercings, appropriating the appropriators. Even anti-Kitty websites, Yano writes, can end up promoting the icon as icon. So can fine artists who appropriate Kitty for their work, with or without Sanrio sanction. Art and product can be reconciled in part because it’s possible for Hello Kitty as art to critique Hello Kitty as product.
Or vice versa—as in the work of the painter Leslie Holt, who creates postcard-size images of famous works of art (like The Persistence of Memory or Guernica) and then adds images of Hello Kitty.
Finally, the book suggests, Hello Kitty has value as a marker, or as validation, of identity. One punk woman interviewed talked about how Kitty gave her a link to the traditional femininity she’d rejected in many other ways. Yano also says Hello Kitty has become an icon of performative femininity for many gay men, and a symbol of sisterhood for lesbians. Asian women may see her as a symbol of their cultural identity; or, alternately, as a symbol of passive (mouthless) stereotypical Asian femininity, and subvert or criticize her as a way to distance themselves from that image.
Hello Kitty can be used in so many different ways—or can be viewed as art in so many different ways—in part because she’s such a pure product. If Kitty has an essence, it is simply a desire to make you happy with having purchased her—which is to say, a desire to be whatever you want. She’s so fungible that she can be exchanged for an absence of fungibility. She is the perfect commodity precisely because she can turn into a noncommodity—a concept such as authenticity, subversion, or identity.
Yano suggests many times that Hello Kitty embodies Marxist fetishism—where connection between people is replaced by connection to an object. It seems, too, that she may also represent Freudian fetishism, where charged objects point to an idealized infancy and the comfort of the womb. Through the eyes of the childlike Hello Kitty, maybe we can see the ideal capitalism as the ideal dream of maternal comfort, where there is no origin and no outside, just desire and love and juvenility. If Hello Kitty is art, then everything is art. It’s that totalizing fantasy of consumption that Kitty promises, or threatens, with her wide, adorable, occasionally winking eyes.