Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Dressing up our pets and/or children (as one another)

In Nest, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge invokes the horrors of cuteness in a poem titled "Dressing Up Our Pets," a poem that, as I posted in August, reminded me of the inappropriate weirdness of a Regretsy post.

Now my sister Maria has alerted me to what I can only describe as a similarly horrifying crime against taste, and probably against animals in some states, in the name of cuteness: a photo gallery of pets dressed up in Halloween costumes, courtesy of the Boston Globe.

The screen shot below of "Madison Yee in a bee Costume" [sic] would seem to show an animal costumed as a different animal. But since it's a "Halloween costume," and dressing up for Halloween is specifically a children's tradition, it's actually a dog costumed as a child costumed as a bee.

I can only feel sorry for this animal. It had no choice in the matter.

What motivates the decision to dress a pet up like a child, or to dress a child up like a pet?

In A Christmas Story Ralphie is forced to wear an atrocious bunny suit sent by his aunt; his mother forces him to put it on and then, when he does, can't suppress a laugh as she exclaims, "Isn't that cute!" (His brother just laughs openly.)*

Sianne Ngai argues that the cute creature is defined partly by its unthreatening aggression. Cuteness has a "capacity to convert a subject's veiled or latent aggression toward a vulnerable object"--like a child or a pet--"into an explicit aggression that seems to be directed toward the subject" (828). Like Ralphie miserable in his animal suit, like the animals miserable in their child suits, the cute creature is on the receiving end of aggression and is visibly dissatisified, but can't do anything about it.

In the abstract that makes plenty of sense. But it seems like there's more going on here, because of the special symbolic connection between children and animals. Haraway points out that we are particularly prone to speaking of pets as if they were "furry children." To dress a child as an animal is an act of aggression that renders the child particularly cute.

Why is it that dressing a child up as an animal, and apparently vice-versa, according to the Boston Globe, constitutes a privileged special case of cuteness?

Perhaps it is precisely the symbolic closeness between animals and children that makes it so very aggressive and uncomfortable (therefore cute) to persuade (or force) one to masquerade as the other. This is the sort of thing that makes me think we need to think much more carefully about the relationship between animals and children.

Image by Yoshitomo Nara

*The humiliation of being dressed up in something awful is, oddly, not associated with being identified with an animal in the film, but rather with the ultimate humiliation: being "perpetually four years old [and] also a girl." It's not that the costume is appropriate for a girl or that a girl could look dignified in it (who could?) but that the indignity would somehow make sense for a girl. It is the father who protects Ralphie's masculinity by urging him to take the costume off. (Uh, and gives him a gun that can really shoot. But I digress.)

Haraway, Donna Jeanne. The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003. Print.

Ngai, Sianne. "The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde." Critical Inquiry 31.4 (Summer 2005): 811-47. Print.

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