Hello Kitty, Goodbye Your Childhood: The reveal that the character’s not a cat leaves us feline glum


To paraphrase Rene Magritte: “This is not a cat.” (photo: Gary Hershorn/Reuters)

 

THE MAKERS OF Culturally Significant Creations have got some nerve.

Now, I gradually accepted the revelation last year when Steve Wilhite, the brains behind the Graphics Interchange Format, informed the world that it was saying the shorthand word wrong. He decreed: “It’s pronounced JIF, not GIF.”

And I’m still coming to terms with the glacially delayed admission/revelation that in the controversial, cut-to-black series finale of HBO’s landmark “The Sopranos,” Tony does not, in fact, die. At least if we believe the sudden “reveal” and whim of his creator, David Chase, lo these seven years later, based on an interview published today on Vox. (This, after I and a small national army shared our theories on my Sopranos chat/blog back in the day.) And it is of some relief that Chase subsequently told Vulture that he was misquoted — which lets us preserve the ambiguity like some Schrodinger’s Kitty.

But now — brace yourself, cartoon fans — the news comes on little non-cat feet that Hello Kitty, that globally popular feline, is not, in fact, a cat.

That sound you hear is much of the planet hissing back at Kitty’s corporate keepers in disbelief and arching its back in defense. Let the fur fly — this artistic scrape could get nasty. (And to all you fans around the world who knew this all along: How could you keep this to yourselves for four decades?)

This latest travesty comes courtesy of an article this week in the Los Angeles Times, which is preparing for a forthcoming Kitty retrospective and Hello Kitty Con that mark the 40th anniversary since Japan first stamped the blank-faced cat not-a-cat on a coin purse.

In talking to the curator of the Japanese American National Museum’s retrospective in L.A., Times writer Carolina Miranda asks

(Duke University Press)
(Duke University Press)

the right questions — to which the curator gives the answers that scratch like the honest truth. I’d hoped against hope that we, the pop-culture world, might be able to rebut this curator. Turns out, though, Christine R. Yano — a University of Hawaii anthropologist and a visiting Harvard professor — is the author of “Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek Across the Pacific” (Duke University Press), and her revelations come straight from Sanrio [株式会社サンリオ], the powerhouse company with the deceptively innocent heart-shape in its logo.

Now, Sanrio is the keeper of all things Hello Kitty and Friends, as well as so much of Japan’s cute-cool kawaii pop culture — from toys to fashion to publishing to entertainment production. To the tune of more than 50,000 products in 70 countries that put the brand’s worth at about $7-billion, reports the BBC. (Then again, the BBC, like me, apparently labored under the same mass charade that the iconic character — name: Kitty White — was, in fact, a white kitty.)

Here is an excerpt from what Miranda reports in her piece:

When Yano was preparing her written texts for the exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum, she says she described Hello Kitty as a cat. “I was corrected — very firmly,” she says. “That’s one correction Sanrio made for my script for the show. Hello Kitty is not a cat. She’s a cartoon character. She is a little girl. She is a friend. But she is not a cat. She’s never depicted on all fours. She walks and sits like a two-legged creature. She does have a pet cat of her own, however, and it’s called Charmmy Kitty.”

And then Miranda’s immediate response is exactly the right one: “I grew up with Hello Kitty everything and all I have to say is, MIND BLOWN.”

Now, you might think that a grown male cartoonist and “Comic Riffs” columnist devoting this much time/space/mental energy to a cartoon cat not-a-cat is a bit much (even if Kitty White has also turned out to be a suburban London twin). And that I should reconsider dashing off a stern e-letter to Kitty White’s original character designer,  Yuko Shimizu, who fooled many of us all the way to the bank. But then, you would be dismissing out of hand two highly salient facts:

1. Some of us (a-hem) have to explain this unwelcome little revelation to our young daughter(s). And should tears occur, we might try to soothe the childhood hurt by purchasing, at least on this occasion, a toy that is made by anyone but Sanrio. (Heaven knows what other non-animal human characters these corporate anthropomorphic deniers have lurking in their blank-faced chamber of secrets.)

AND…

2. Sanrio, it seems, owns the Japanese rights to Charles M. Schulz’s beloved “Peanuts” characters. Which, in a worst-case scenario of our waking nightmares, would lead to an even more horrifying reveal…

That Sanrio’s version of Snoopy is not a beagle, but instead a rather long-eared little boy.

Good grief, indeed.

Update: A Peanuts Worldwide spokeswoman, appreciating our whimsy, confirms to Comic Riffs that Snoopy is indeed a DOG-dog and not some quasi-anthropomorphic international ruse.

Update: Kotaku.com offers a more nuanced take on just what vague female/feline realm Hello Kitty actually inhabits.

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