The Retrofuturism of Cuteness

Is it possible to conceive of a Hello Kitty Middle Ages or a Tickle Me Elmo Renaissance? The Oxford English Dictionary dates the first reference to “cute” in the sense of “attractive, pretty, charming” to 1834. More recently, Sianne Ngai has offered a critical overview of the cuteness of the twentieth-century avant-garde within the context of consumer culture. But if cuteness can get under the skin, what kinds of surfaces does it best infiltrate, particularly in the framework of historical forms, events, and objects that traditionally have been read as emergences around “big” aesthetics of formal symmetries, high affects, and resemblances?

The Retrofuturism of Cuteness seeks to undo the temporal strictures surrounding aesthetic and affective categories, to displace a strict focus on commodification and cuteness, and to interrogate how cuteness as a minor aesthetics can refocus our perceptions and readings of both premodern and modern media, literature, and culture. Taking seriously the retro and the futuristic temporalities of cuteness, this volume puts in conversation projects that have unearthed remnants of a “cult of cute”—positioned historically and critically in between transitions into secularization, capitalist frameworks of commodification, and the enchantment of objects—and those that have investigated the uncanny haunting of earlier aesthetics in future-oriented modes of cuteness.

The Latin acutus, the etymological root of cute, embraces the sharpened, the pointed, the nimble, the discriminating, and the piercing. But as Michael O’Rourke notes, cuteness evokes a proximity that is at once potentially invasive and contaminating and yet softening and transfiguring. Deploying cuteness as a mode of inquiry across time, this volume opens up unexpected lines of inquiry and unusual critical and creative aporias, from Christian asceticism, medieval cycle drama, and Shakespeare to manga, Bollywood, and Second Life. The projects collected here point to a spectrum of aesthetic-affective assemblages related to racial, ethnic, gender, sexual, and class dimensions that exceed or trouble our contemporary perceptions of such registers within object-subject and subject-object entanglements.

A companion interactive multimodal site developed within the web-authoring platform, Scalar (Alliance for Networking Visual Culture), will be linked to the punctum books volume.


  • Introduction (Kao and Boyle)
  • Elizabeth Howie, “Indulgence and Refusal: Cuteness, Asceticism, and the Aestheticization of Desire”
  • James Cochran, “What’s Cute Got to Do with It?: Early Modern Proto-Cuteness in King Lear”
  • Kara Watts, “Cute Hamlet?”
  • Andrea Denny-Brown, “Cute Torturers”
  • Tripthi Pillai, “‘Itemizing’ Cuteness as Violence and Gesture”
  • Mariah Junglan Min, “Cute as Hell: Judas Iscariot, Medieval and Present”
  • Claire Chambers, “Blessed Are the Poor in Taste: Cuteness and Christian Devotional Imagery”
  • Justin Mullis, “All The Pretty Little Ponies: An Intertextual Examination of the Erogenous Dimensions of Cuteness as Found in My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic Erotic Fan-Art”
  • Marlis Schweitzer, “Ingesting Celebrity: Commodities and Cuteness in the Circulation of Master William Henry West Betty”
  • Kelly Lloyd, “Katie Sokoler- Your Construction Paper Tears Can’t Hide Your Yayoi Kusama Grade Neurotic Underbelly”
  • Alicia Corts, “Cute, Charming, Dangerous: Child Avatars in Second Life”
  • Response by Eileen Joy
  • Response by Luke Wilson

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