Despite 40 years of feline imagery, despite the protestation of thousands of anguished fans, despite her very name — Hello Kitty, it turns out, is not a cat.
She is “a friend.”
A “little girl.”
A “perpetual third-grader” living outside of London with her twin sister and parents, eating apple pie and celebrating a Nov. 1 birthday.
But never — never — an actual cat.
Like many scandals that roil an easily outraged Internet, this news is not actually new. Hello Kitty’s British, human backstory dates back to the 1970s, when the Japanese toymaker Sanrio was marketing her to local women who idealized Britain. It appears on Sanrio’s Web site, where Hello Kitty is explicitly described as a “ a bright little girl with a heart of gold.” It was also discussed, in great detail, in a sociological study of Hello Kitty published last year; the author of that book, the anthropologist Christine R. Yano, is the one who casually let the cat out of the bag in an interview with the Los Angeles Times published Tuesday afternoon.
Here are some other things you might not know about Kitty: She has a twin sister named Mimmy. Her boyfriend’s name is Dear Daniel. She enjoys baking cookies and playing the piano. She has been that way since Sanrio said so, in 1976.
That said, Hello Kitty’s human roots were apparently quite a shock to the cat’s kid’s online fandom, which — as you might expect, given Hello Kitty’s global popularity, and the Internet’s fondness for all things cute and cat-like — is extremely vast.
Twitter rumbled with controversy. A confused fan started a new thread in the Hello Kitty forums, subject-lined “Hello Kitty is not a cat?” On Sanrio’s official Hello Kitty Facebook page, hundreds of fans debated the news. The comments and complaints and many, many outraged tweets reflect a kind of mass hysteria, the sound of a million people having the rugs pulled out from under them.
“If this is true and it is not April Fool’s day in Japan then I don’t any of my 1000 pounds-plus items of her!!!” Wrote one Hello Kitty fan on the character’s Facebook page. “This is so FRUSTRATING!!!! Sanriooooo don’t do this to your fans!!!”
“Lol! We’ve been living a lie,” wrote another.
“The world is crumbling before my eyes,” said a third.
And that reaction makes so much sense, actually. Not because these people are “right” and Sanrio is “wrong,” and not because this reveal represents some kind of mind-melting revelation, but because both the surprise and the backlash fit in perfectly with Hello Kitty’s narrative and her global appeal.
This is a topic, incidentally, that Yano takes up repeatedly in her book: Why has a cartoon cat become so popular? How did that odd cultural icon manage to conquer such wide swaths of the world/Internet, across so many cultures? Yano offers several reasons — among them: the cat’s non-threatening nature, as a symbol of Japanese power and the savvy, pro-social way it was marketed abroad — but the primary reason has to do with Yano calls “the wink.” Hello Kitty is so ambiguous and expressionless, as a character, that any number of traits can be projected on her: cuteness, coolness, sexiness, quirkiness.
Everyone assumes she’s a blank slate to project their own meanings on. The fact that she’s not a blank slate — and thus, that everyone’s meanings are wrong — kinda stings.
Nowhere is that more apparent than on Tumblr, a favored haunt for fandoms of all sorts. Post after post on the Hello Kitty tag slams the big “reveal” as a lie; bloggers have posted many a foul-mouthed defense of Hello Kitty, the cat, curiously insisting on their projection of the character over the long and well-established backstory.
But perhaps, at some point, the backstory changes: The character belongs to her fans.
“Nothing in this world can convince me that she’s not a cat,” one blogger wrote. “Don’t be an idiot.”
Update: Sanrio, perhaps following that same line of logic, has already begun backtracking on the non-kitty Kitty story. A spokeswoman told Kotaku Hello Kitty is “not a cat,” but a “personification of a cat.” (Riiiight.) The baffling back-peddling is worth reading in full.