Guest Post by Julie Z. Rosenberg
Will someone please tell Peggy Orenstein that Hello Kitty can’t eat my daughter because she has no mouth?
Like many little girls, my three-year-old daughter loves Hello Kitty. About a year ago I introduced her to the demure feline via a t-shirt bought without much thought. I liked Hello Kitty when I was a girl and thought it would be fun to share one of my childhood affections with her. One part nostalgia, one part I was itching to have her do something other than play smash-crash with matchbox cars, I yearned for the sweetness of Hello Kitty and Japanese design. So when she immediately took to the cherub-cheeked character, I was thrilled.
But then one day I noticed Ms. Kitty has no mouth. I never not noticed the absence of a mouth, but I hadn’t connected the dots of what that might symbolize until recently. Of course that epiphany happened after I’d gotten my daughter hooked on the ubiquitous character.
If Hello Kitty has no mouth, she can’t speak. Or smile. Or “Just Say No.” How can she express her rage without a mouth? As Gloria Steinem once said, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” Obviously it’s hard to shout, “I am woman, hear me roar,” sans mouth.
Designed by Yuko Shimizu for Sanrio, a Japanese design company, Hello Kitty made her public debut in 1974 as an adornment on a vinyl coin purse. Spokespeople at Sanrio say she was purposely designed without a mouth so customers can project their own feelings onto the character. If the person is happy, Hello Kitty is happy. If the person is sad, Hello Kitty is sad. What if the person is conflicted? Does Ms. Kitty become one of those theater masks depicting both comedy and drama?
My daughter has a book called Hello Kitty Fun Fall Day. Like most popular character-driven books, the writing is craptastically bad, most likely created to expand the already saturated market of Hello Kitty merchandise.
Have you ever noticed Hello Kitty is everywhere? Not just lunchboxes and light-up shoes but laptops and toasters. Oh, and airplanes too: Taiwanese airline, Eva Air, has two Hello Kitty jets that fly to Japan everyday. Hello Kitty’s a lucrative character for Sanrio and its partners, most recently Sephora. A few months ago in the New York Times’ Style section, there was an article about character-branded makeup for adults, which of course included Hello Kitty. Sephora’s director of brand marketing, Casey Georgeson, was quoted in the piece:
“[Hello Kitty] has been around for a long time, and we knew there was an audience of people out there that would love to see her re-imagined in beauty. I think what’s really interesting is that we have a line that appeals to really young girls all the way up to grown-up girls because there are a lot of Hello Kitty fans out there who never really had a reason to return to the brand once they were grown-up, and we gave them one.”
You’ve got to admit, it’s kind of funny to market Hello Kitty lip gloss when Hello Kitty herself has no lips.
It’s not just her lack of lips that give me pause. If eyes are the window to the soul, Kitty’s soul is an empty vessel. How cute and cuddly can she be with peepers staring right through you?
And then there’s this: Sanrio doesn’t want Hello Kitty to be a fad, so they don’t advertise and never have. According to an article in the BBC, they want her to be “under the fad-radar and long-lasting.” Well, she is long-lasting—in two years she’ll be turning 40. And really, they don’t need to advertise since she’s on every possible type of kid-friendly merchandise in existence.
An interesting aside is that Sanrio doesn’t produce the merchandise; they just license her likeness to anyone and everyone who wants her, with the exception of products like knives, guns, cigarettes or alcohol (although wine and beer seem to be permissible). No pornography either, which makes me laugh because last year my brother was about to purchase a Hello Kitty t-shirt at the airport for my daughter until his traveling companion judiciously pointed out that it actually said “Hello Titty” beneath the double side-by-side icons of Kitty’s über-round face.
And yet, after all this criticism, I can’t quit Kitty. She’ll always be my adorable little feline fetish. As for my daughter, that’s to be determined. I promise not to influence her either way. Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye. Although my mother did get her a sweet Hello Kitty tankini for the beach this summer, which she’s already rocked three times over spring break.
Julie Z. Rosenberg is writing a book about her mother-in-law who was born in a concentration camp. Check out her companion blog at Googling The Holocaust.