Hello Kitty and the unstoppable march of cute

She may not have a mouth, but this cool cat has just landed a $200m movie

By Kate Wills,

At the Hello Kitty Convention in Los Angeles, around 25,000 fans of all ages are queueing for bow-shaped bottles of water and glasses of Hello Kitty wine. You can make an edible Hello Kitty out of sushi, get a tattoo of her face (Katy Perry has one on her finger) or get some Hello Kitty nail art done.

Meanwhile, in Kitty-Con’s Super Supermarket area, you can buy a £75 Swarovski crystal Hello Kitty ring filled with perfume, a £250 vintage Hello Kitty telephone or a £1,132 Casio executive set, containing a briefcase, camera and watch (all Hello Kitty-themed, of course). On display is Lady Gaga’s 2009 dress made entirely of plush Kitty toys. A panel discussion tackles the topic ‘Even guys like Hello Kitty’, and lectures from academics explore the sprawling Hello Kitty universe. After all, it’s a universe that makes Sanrio, Hello Kitty’s parent company, around $8bn a year.

Even if you’re not a Hello Kitty fan, you’ll be familiar with its ageless icon: a white, cat-like character with a bow or a flower in her hair. She appears stamped on everything from handbags to debit cards, Stratocaster guitars, bullet trains and a fleet of Airbus A330 airliners. More than 50,000 Hello Kitty product lines are available in over 130 countries. She even went into space in 2014 aboard the small nanosatellite Hodoyoshi 3 to celebrate her 40th birthday. And in March this year, it was announced that Kitty will soon be making her big-screen debut as part of an agreement with Warner Bros that has been five years in the making. According to some reports, the movie boasts a budget of $200m.

So how did a little cartoon cat become one of the best-selling licensed entertainment characters of all time? Kitty was first sketched on 1 November 1974 by designer Yuko Shimizu, who was tasked with creating a decoration for a plastic coin purse. Over the years, Kitty’s character has been fleshed out in great detail with all sorts of random information: she’s five apples high, weighs three apples, is in the third grade at school and apparently has blood type A (told you it was random).

She was immediately embraced in Japan, where the culture of cuteness is known as ‘kawaii’. Japan has hundreds of ‘yuru-chara’ or ‘loose characters’, cuddly mascots which are meant to spread happiness and promote friendship. But, with the honourable exception of Pokémon, nothing has matched Kitty for crossover appeal.

Kitty goes global

Hello Kitty first arrived in the UK in the 1990s, adorning the imported T-shirts and hairclips favoured by clubbers. This coincided with the wave of ‘cool Japan’ sweeping into the West, bringing with it manga comics, anime and ramen.

The Riot Grrrl movement adopted Hello Kitty as a mascot to show punk girls and women that it’s OK to incorporate cute things into their edgy personas.

“Hello Kitty thus becomes the anti-tough tough stance, pink acting as the new, in-your-face black, performing its own youth-based, empowering femininity,” says Christine Reiko Yano, author of Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s trek across the Pacific. “Sporting Kitty, then, becomes a way for these punk women to thumb their noses at stereotypes, saying, in effect, ‘We can appropriate cute for our own purposes, on our own terms.’”

And yet despite her seemingly benign and utterly adorable appearance, Time magazine has called this unassuming feline “a polarizing cult figure around the world”. Fans who collect everything Hello Kitty say she’s empowering, or at the very least a harmless hobby. Critics say she’s a sexist throwback to a time when girls, particularly Asian girls, were supposed to be cute and silent (the character has no mouth). And yet in other feminist circles, she has been adopted as a counterintuitive symbol of the freedom to be feminine and strong.

For Yano, Kitty’s lack of a mouth simply reflects the Japanese way of showing emotion, which doesn’t always involve using words. “In the West, though, having a mouth is important because it gives you a voice, which is power. So some see her as anti-feminist, anti-assertive and anti-vocal,” she says.

According to branding expert Dorie Clark, it’s precisely this blankness that is responsible for Kitty’s global domination. “She’s stoic, she’s expressionless, and people can project onto her almost any kind of emotion. She can mean almost anything to anyone.” Kitty is mouthless and mutable, then, the cat for all occasions and (crucially) all consumers.

Even so, when Unicef made Hello Kitty a children’s envoy to Japan in 2004, an article in The Japan Times wondered how “a cat with no mouth can be a spokesperson for anything – especially girls’ education – and how an image that embodies female submissiveness is supposed to help banish gender-based stereotypes”.

The cuddly shapeshifter

But she’s actually not a cat at all. (I know, hold on to your hair bows.)

In 2014, Sanrio made an explosive revelation about its most iconic character. Hello Kitty, the brand claimed, is not a cat at all, but a British schoolgirl called Kitty White. The outcry from fans was so intense that Sanrio later backpedalled, claiming instead that Kitty is an “anthropomorphic version” of a cat.

However, according to Simon May, visiting professor of philosophy at King’s College London and author of the book The Power of Cute, it’s precisely this mercurial nature that makes Hello Kitty so popular.

“Cuteness is mesmerising because it moves between familiarity and unfamiliarity, delight and sorrow, harmlessness and menace, the imaginary and the real, and even the human and the inhuman (or nonhuman), without ever taking a clear stand,” he explains. “Without even seeking a resolution of these tensions, Hello Kitty’s many manifestations all convey precisely such a sense of something that seems endearingly, even tenderly, familiar – yet is also alien or monster-like. So a sweet cat-like girl is, by turns, a punk rocker or a pirate, neither adult nor child nor cat.”

Interestingly, our love of the saccharine stuff, as exemplified by Hello Kitty, might not be all sweetness and light. May posits that Hello Kitty has sinister undertones. “She perfectly embodies the spirit of cute and shows how it can be darker, more uncertain and more ambiguous than mere sweetness,” he explains.

“She’s deformed – mouthless, voiceless, fingerless and has only dots for her eyes and nose. Her ‘innocence’ is melancholic, her innocuousness is arresting, and her vulnerable demeanour is offset by her huge reach.”

This dichotomy might explain why so many fans, including adults, reportedly find Hello Kitty “mysteriously benign, even powerful”. According to Yano, fans perceive Kitty as “loyal to them, seeing them through good times and bad times, helping them face crises [and] brokering the challenges of daily life with her constancy”. They experience Sanrio’s cat-like girl as consoling not only because she is a lovable object to care for, but equally (or more so), because they feel cared for by her.

No doubt Kitty’s endlessly marketable appeal can also be linked to a need for cuteness in an increasingly uncertain world. “Our lives are getting complex and high-tech. Something as simple and low-tech as Hello Kitty seems to speak to a nostalgic impulse to get back to simpler things,” explains Yano. “She becomes that cute, mute object that accepts you no matter what you do.”

But ‘Kitty love’ is not universal. In 2007, it was reported that police officers in Bangkok were to be punished for minor transgressions by being forced to wear a Hello Kitty armband. “This is to help build discipline,” said a police spokesperson.

And in 2010, Dutch artist Dick Bruna, creator of Miffy, took Sanrio to court over Kitty’s rabbit sidekick Cathy and her similarity to his famous Dutch rabbit with an ‘x’ for a mouth.

Yet for Kitty’s most devoted disciples, she continues to be lovable (and lucrative) catnip. Masao Gunji is a 67-year-old retired police officer-turned-collector who has filled his home with more than 5,000 pieces of Hello Kitty merchandise. “The reason I like Hello Kitty is because of her expression,” he told the Guinness World Records in a recent video tour of his home. “For some reason, when I’m sad, she looks a little bit sad as well, and when I’m happy she looks happy.”

You can’t argue with that… especially if you don’t have a mouth.

Hello Kitty’s Weirdest Spin-offs

Maternity Hospital: 

In 2008, the Taiwanese town of Yuanlin opened an entire Hello Kitty maternity hospital. The walls were covered with Hello Kitty posters. The nurses wore Hello Kitty aprons. And you thought labour was bad enough.

Hello Kitty neck massager:

Originally marketed as a ‘neck massager’, this Hello Kitty vibrating wand ended up starring in porn films and has become a cult item.

Hello Kitty contact lenses:

See the world through Kitty’s tiny black eyes with these pink contact lenses. You can also get Hello Kitty dental braces to complete the look.

Hello Kitty hotel:

If you’re in Shinjuku, Tokyo, spend a night in the Hello Kitty hotel, which is entirely pink, with Hello Kitty toiletries, wallpaper, slippers and even a Hello Kitty kettle. It’s truly the stuff of nightmares…

A version of this article was originally published in Influence magazine, Q4 2019.


Leave a Reply