CUTENESS CRISIS Cripples Country!

This is serious, America.

We're walking into the valley of the '80s with less cuteness to comfort us than any time in recent memory.

Sure, we've got child stars. But they're Brooke Shields playing a prostitute in "Pretty Baby," or the foul-mouthed kids in the "Bad News Bears." We've even got a monster menacing a kitty-cat in "Alien," except that somehow the cat, named Jones, ends up being more aggravating than adorable. Our president gets attacked by a bunny rabbit. His 11-year-old daughter should be the crown princess of cuteness, but all she does is read.

This could even be dangerous.

Cuteness was society's way of taming the terrible, as in the traditional shot at an angry woman: "You're cute when you're mad." Women's liberation put a stop to that. Cuteness helped us pretend that the mighty were our equals -- hence the value of John Kennedy's boyishness, Eisenhower's smile. But somehow it didn't work for Ford, no matter how often he stumbled.

In fact, cute was our shield against all of adulthood, up to and including death itself -- it made children of us all. You know, open, loving and wide-eyed citizens of the New Age that ended with assertiveness training, the deliberately vicious arrogance of the National Lampoon, the get-mine ethics of the Me Decade.

So many soldiers have fallen: Norman Rockwell and Morris the Cat, dead; Volkswagen Beetles out of production; Steve Martin savaging cuteness excess in his wild-and-crazy-guys routine (cuteness is founded on excess -- it requires the knack of knowing just how far to go too far); and what have we done to the Carpenters? Donny and Marie? Joe Namath in pantyhose? What happened to all the young career women calling themselves "girls" and giving their cats names like "Aristotle?"

The nostalgia craze appears to be over. Bye-bye, Mickey Mouse watch.

We're seeing fewer bumper stickers boasting: "I Brake for Small Animals."

John Travolta took all the cuteness capital he'd accumulated on "Welcome Back, Kotter" -- the lopsided grin, the heavy eyelids and all -- and got seriously sexy in "Saturday Night Fever." Cuteness can't co-exist with full-bore masculinity. Or full-bore femininity, for that matter.

Mr. Ed, the talking horse, died.

We still have Gary Coleman, and all those helpless grinning drones on television advertisements but: "We're having a dry spell," says Sharon Lee, editor of Tiger Beat magazine, which makes her the biggest cuteness broker in America."Circulation is down from 950,000 to 600,000."

Tiger Beat is a fan magazine that specializes in teen-age boy actors on television -- Bobby-Wants-To-Love-You, fave raves, ultimate avatars of cutedome. It's a succession that claims descent at least as far back as the Beav on "Leave It to Beaver" (and let's not forget older brother Wally, who had a coy touch of hoodiness about him.)

"Cuteness is never threatening," Lee says. "It's sexy but vulnerable. There hasn't been a new cute star since Shaun Cassady and Leif Garrett came along. Leif's 18 now, and he's into kind of a punk-rock thing. Punk isn't cute. His mail is going down. We're hoping that Peter Barton, on the 'Shirley' show, will do it for us."

Cute as a button. Cute as all get-out. Cute as a speckled puppy sleeping under a wagon. Is this all fading into history?

The whole concept of cuteness is vernacular beauty, esthetics for Mr. and Mrs. Front Porch USA, with the plaster kittens nailed to the side of their house and the picture of the big-eyed Keane children hanging over the fireplace.

Cuteness, as we have known it until the present crisis, arrived just after World War I, with short skirts, the Lost Generation, backseat petting and the uproar of a new sexual freedom.

Strangely enough, this sexuality was accompanied by a fad for childishness. Women bound their breasts to make them appear smaller, bobbed their hair and wore dresses that completely hid that most sexual of Edwardian and Victorian curves, the waistline.

For men, boyishness replaced Edwardian stolidity, Joe College taking over from Teddy Roosevelt. Both sexes favored a deliberate awkwardness of hip-shot posture, and raccoon coats cut so huge that they made the wearers look like children playing dress-up on a rainy day.

Of course. The first prerequisite of cuteness is that it embody a contradiction, such as childishness next to sexuality. The contradiction is always disarming, even demeaning: the '60s poster of the sweet grandma rolling a marijuana cigarette, the little boy in "Annie Hall" referring to an adult with a particularly fundamental swear word, or middle-aged women calling themselves "girls."

Among children, cuteness is pretension to wisdom and potency -- Shirley Temple as the Little Colonel, or dancing with Bill Bojangles Robinson (the interracial cuteness there could take years to analyze). Among adults it's clumsiness, immaturity, impotence, vulnerability -- Rock Hudson, for example, with all his bulk baffled by a perky Doris Day who, as a woman was cute because of all those girlish freckles.

"Cuteness requires potential terror," says Adam Hammer of Bowling Green University's department of popular culture. "A panda is actually a very fierce animal. There's something terrifying lurking in those paintings of big-eyed children. You've never seen a cute plant -- there's no danger there."

Literary critic Leslie Fiedler points out that "as late as the 29th century, children were still referred to as 'the limbs of Satan.' Cuteness was a way of taming them, in our own minds. Cuteness is a kind of impotent evil. First came the children, then women being seen as cute. And in early Dick and Jane primers there are lines like: 'See Father run. Funny, funny Father.' They wanted to take away the terrible authority of the father."

Cuteness is midget anything: animals wearing clothes; miniature golf; neo-Tudor houses; infant anything before the mess begins.Or it's little things rendered preposte roustly huge: restaurants shaped like hot dogs, souvenir stands shaped like teepees.

Not that the '20s were the beginning of all cuteness. After the French Revolution, young people affected English accents (which, in French, meant a dropping of Rs) and tail coats with tails that dangled nearly to the ground. Sounds cute. A couple of decades later, the English-speaking world was swept by a craze for child actors, pre-pubescent boys playing Hamlet, etc. Dickens drove a syntactical wagon overloaded with cuteness: Tiny Tim and the shambling of Mr. Peggotty. Mark Twain gave us Tom Sawyer, well-framed as an illustration of cuteness between his brother Sid, too good to be cute, and Huck, who is far too primal.

Anyhow, after the '20s we had a run of child stars in the movies, consummate cuteness in the naughtiness of the Our Gang comedies. Adult movie stars remained largely immune to cuteness. Nothing cute about Clark Gable or Joan Crawford. But that generation of stars was the last to portray humans as powerful, self-possessed people. In the '40s, Van Johnson and John Garfield heralded the triumph of cute, one being boyish, the other being vulnerable.

Cute: girls who are slightly (and deliberately) pigeon-toed; the early Beatles, especially Paul; Amos and Andy; huge gleaming teeth, as in the Osmonds -- teeth big enough to make you look like you're seven, and they just came in; hot weather photographs in newspapers showing girls in bathing suits sitting on cakes of ice; Erma Bombeck; the Princeton tiger; the Singing Chipmunks of 1950s Christmas hit parade fame (especially Alvin); Disneyland; spit curles, blushing, shyness and mild, sibilant lisps; fumbling fathers on sitcoms; Woody Allen (high cute) and Sandy Duncan (low); Teng Xiao Ping (because he's so short); the works of most cult-fiction writers since World War II, i.e. J. D. Salinger, J. P. Donleavy, Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Brautigan.

If this list starts to make you feel like you just ate a pound of marzipan, you're right up with the times.

What's gone wrong?

First of all, the threat posed by sexual freedom is vanishing. We don't need cuteness to make it less menacing.

Second, we cutified nature until it was so impotent that it took the whole ecology movement to remind us it can be dangerous. We do well not to listen to Walt Disney telling us that if we get lost in the woods, bluebirds will airlift a picnic lunch.

Third, the problem with cute is in the basic concept. Cute is a diminutive (cute!) of "acute," and originally meant cunning or crafty. When you think about it, this is just what cute is -- a self-conscious effort to create an effect. But self-consciousness is to this age what metaphysics was to the 13th century, and you have to be very good at it to keep from getting laughed at. Otherwise, the put-down is: "Don't get cute with me."

Fourth, sexy, mischievous cuteness has always been the society's approved deviation from the norm, evil with a Good Housekeeping seal of approval. It's 1950s college pranksters filling the snow around the zoology prof's house with fake hippopotamus tracks, year after year. It's the esthetic of flunkies.

Then again, consider the fact that Allen Ginsberg claims to have been thrown out of Cuba because he referred to Che Guevara as "cute." Exactly! Any concept that powerful is worth keeping around.