TIME society

Why Women Have a Love-Hate Relationship With Hello Kitty

Hello Kitty dolls by Sanrio are displaye
Hello Kitty dolls by Sanrio are displayed at the Toy Fair 2011 on February 15, 2011 at the Javits Center in New York. Stan Honda—AFP/Getty Images

In honor of Hello Kity's 40th anniversary celebration Hello Kitty Con, we talked to experts about the character's influence on women throughout the years

This week, about 25,000 of the world’s most devoted Hello Kitty fans are expected to assemble in LA’s Little Tokyo district for the first-ever Hello Kitty Con–a four-day celebration of the character’s 40th birthday, going on now. Created by the Japanese company Sanrio, the little white cartoon has become one of the best-selling licensed entertainment characters ever, generating an estimated $8 billion annually for Sanrio, according to a company spokesperson.

The event, which started October 30 and runs through November 2, has been a long time coming for her most fervent acolytes—adult women who played with her as children in the 70s and 80s and still incorporate her into their daily lives. The sold-out event has acres of adorableness–from Kitty costumed fans to crystal jewelry and even historic artifacts like the very first product to feature the character –a coin purse from 1974, which is on display behind velvet ropes.

Despite her seemingly benign and utterly adorable appearance, the character has become a polarizing cult figure around the world. Fans who collect everything Hello Kitty say she’s empowering, or at the very least a harmless hobby. Critics say she’s a sexist throwback to a time when girls, particularly Asian girls, were supposed to be cute and silent (the character has no mouth). Meanwhile, in some feminist circles, she’s also been embraced as a counterintuitive symbol of freedom to be feminine and strong. And to further muddy the picture, Sanrio recently announced that the character is actually a third-grade girl and not a cat. A 40-year-old girl who looks just like a cat that is.

To get to the bottom of the Hello Kitty phenomenon, we asked experts and female fans to reflect on Hello Kitty “the girl” and the outsized influence she’s had on the culture over the last 40 years.

The first question is of course, why doesn’t she have a mouth. She’s all eyes. Sanrio has always said Hello Kitty doesn’t have a mouth so people can project their feelings onto her, imagine she’s happy or sad when they’re happy or sad. “She is so empowering because she can be anything you want her to be,” says Jill Koch, Senior Vice President of Brand Management & Marketing at Sanrio. “It’s a lot more powerful to not have to speak.” That way, “women feel like Hello Kitty listens,” says Yuko Yamaguchi, Tokyo-based head designer of Hello Kitty for more than 30 years. “She makes you feel understood.”

Jamie Rivadeneira, owner of Japan LA, a boutique that sells Japanese pop culture merchandise, explains why she has captured the imagination of so many little girls for so many years: “I was naturally quiet as a child, and I related to Kitty because she didn’t talk. She doesn’t have a mouth.”

Hello Kitty’s lack of mouth may also just reflect the Japanese way of showing emotion, which doesn’t always involve expressing feelings using words, according to Christine Yano, anthropology professor at the University of Hawaii, who curated the Hello Kitty exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) in LA with Rivadeneira. In some ways, Hello Kitty has become the international representation of Japan’s culture of “kawaii,” which are items that are cute and meant spread happiness and promote friendship. The little cat-like girl has become a touchstone for many Asian girls who’ve grown up in America. “She was made by an Asian company, so unlike Barbie, it was cool to have this Asian cartoon that’s ours,” says Kristina Wong, 36, a Chinese-American writer and comedian. “The first people to get Hello Kitty stuff were Asian girls.”

But not everyone’s a fan. “In the West, having a mouth is important because it gives you a voice, which is power, so some see her as anti-feminist, anti-assertive, anti-vocal,” explains Yano, author of Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek across the Pacific. And indeed, the quiet Kitty has gotten a lot of flack on some Western parenting blogs. One mother writes, “Parents raise their daughters to be confident, articulate and outspoken,” so Hello Kitty’s lack of mouth sends girls “mixed messages about self-esteem,” while another writes, “It’s hard to shout, ‘I am woman, hear me roar,’ sans mouth,” after her three-year-old daughter fell in love with the character.

Likewise, a 2004 editorial in The Japan Times, an English-language Japanese newspaper, argued UNICEF shouldn’t be using Hello Kitty to raise money for girls education programs noting that “someone needs to explain how a cat with no mouth can be a spokesperson for anything—especially girls’ education—and how an image that embodies female submissiveness is supposed to help banish gender-based stereotypes. Kitty is soft and pliable, doesn’t speak and sports a cute bow on her head: There’s your role model, girls!”

She has also gotten flack when she’s been seen as a symbol of the quiet, passive and submissive Asian woman stereotype. Take Avril Lavigne’s 2014 music video for “Hello Kitty,” which critics bashed because she used expressionless Japanese women as back-up dancers, who looked like “props,” as she screamed “Hello Kitty, you’re so pretty” over and over again.

“Avril does not relate to, look at, talk to, the Japanese women in the video,” says Sharon Kinsella, author of Schoolgirls, Money and Rebellion in Japan. “I find the presentation of the Japanese women as asexual and silent background dancers with mute inscrutable expressions embarrassingly passé and disturbingly colonial in undertone.”

Meanwhile feminist blogs railed against a 2012 ad for Sephora’s Hello Kitty “Head of the Class” makeup collection that shows a woman in business attire putting down her book, erasing math equations on a chalkboard and applying Hello Kitty makeup, arguing the brands are teaching girls that looking beautiful is more important than smarts. “The feminists’ argument is a perception that women might be infantilized by this cute product that doesn’t speak to their full powerful womanhood or their sexuality,” says Merry White, anthropology professor at Boston University and author of Coffee Life in Japan.

The Riot Grrrl movement of the 1990s adopted Hello Kitty as a mascot to show that punk girls and women that it’s OK to incorporate cute things into their edgy personas, says Yano. The idea was—and it still applies today—feminists believe in freedom of self-expression, so women can enjoy “cutesy” and “girly” things like Hello Kitty whenever and however they want to, as long as they aren’t doing it because they think they need to in order to be considered feminine or to please men, explains performance artist and writer Denise Uyehara, 48. “You can be cute, but you have to ask yourself, am I being cute because it’s the only way I can get through life, or can I speak my mind directly without using a high cute voice, which is often associated with Hello Kitty and being Asian.”

Kinsella has a theory about Hello Kitty’s popularity at a time when Japanese women were distancing themselves from those old stereotypes. Even as women in Tokyo in the 80s started shifting from primarily family roles to office jobs with higher wages during a “period of unprecedented credit boom wealth” in the city, they were still in an “awkward” position in which the social structure was “hostile” to young, working, independent women. “So liking Hello Kitty, being a bit childish, is a bit like acting like the kind of girl who is acceptable—a little school girl with nice, girly pastimes,” she argues. “They’re suger-coating their obtrusive new presence in the labor market by covering themselves in pink and candy and Hello Kitty, disguising themselves as harmless.”

And for American fans, she’s also an escape from the realities of adulthood. Jennifer Masaoy, 35, says she started making papercrafts of Hello Kitty as a hobby to cheer herself up at a “stifling, repetitive, boring, miserable” job: “Hello Kitty is a way for me to escape work stress, all of the stuff you have to do as an adult to take care of yourself.”

So will this 40-year-old school girl ever get to grow up? Writer and comedian Kristina Wong says she hopes so: “Let’s see Hello Kitty at her first job when she has to go on maternity leave. That’s when we’re going to find out whether she’s a feminist or not a feminist. Let’s put her real situations because cuteness will only get you so far, and there are some moments in life when you actually have to kick some a**.”

TIME celebrity

Katy Perry Wins Halloween by Going as a Sad Cheeto

Celebrity Sightings In Los Angeles - October 30, 2014
Katy Perry is seen at Kate Hudson's annual Halloween party on October 30, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. Chinchilla/Bauer-Griffin—GC Images / Getty Images

And not even a sexy Cheeto. Just a sad Cheeto.

Last night in L.A., Hollywood elite gathered for Kate Hudson’s annual Halloween party. But among the A-listers presumably dressed up like sexy kittens or sexy lemurs or whatever, one celeb forged her own path.

That celeb was Katy Perry, who attended the party dressed as a Cheeto. A giant, sad Cheeto. Of the Flamin’ Hot variety.

Thank you so much for doing this, Katy Perry. You are an inspiration to us all. This is almost as good as all the times you wore a pepperoni pizza onesie. Almost.

TIME Food & Drink

This Food Can Glow in the Dark

Happy Halloween!

This article originally appeared on Food & Wine.

A transcontinental couple is changing the reputation of glowing food, proving that it doesn’t have to be radioactive, third-arm inducing, dangerous fare. And they’ve come up with the best use for a blacklight that we haven’t seen since college. For their blog Luma Bites, Minnesota-based Steven Johnson and his Croatian chef-fiancée Martina Županić use ordinary ingredients that just happen to give off an eerie glow under ultra-violet light. One classic example is to make Jell-O with tonic in place of water. The quinine in tonic water lends its bitter taste and glows icy blue under black light. But Martina never much cared for Jell-O so she developed a whole array of dishes that glow in unnatural colors thanks to naturally fluorescing compounds occurring in ingredients like mustard, honey and some secret oil mixtures she’s keeping to herself. Steven and Martina dream of opening a glow-in-the-dark restaurant , but until then you can just enjoy looking at these spooky crepes, sushi and more.

More from Food & Wine:

TIME Bizarre

Here Are 25 Photos of People Freaking Out in a Haunted House

Aaah!

The Nightmares Fear Factory in Niagara Falls, Canada has been offering its guests the scare of their lives for over 30 years. Take a look at the faces of pure terror that awaits those who dare explore this haunted house.

TIME fun

Feel Good Friday: 11 Fun Photos to Start Your Weekend

From the joy of the World Series to a grinning Pope Francis, here's a collection of photos to get your weekend started with a smile

TIME Internet

This Interactive Honda Ad Will Make Your Jaw Drop

Honda's The Other Side video HOnda

Just press "R"

What kind of person drives a Honda? Apparently any kind. A new, interactive commercial by the car company shows a double-sided story. While watching the commercial on a special YouTube landing page, you can press the “R” button on your keyboard in order to switch between story lines.

One story follows a dad picking up his children from school, the other a getaway driver. Try it yourself. The videos are perfectly parallel.

 

 

TIME relationships

These Are the Top 5 Reasons People Reject Marriage Proposals

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Getty Images

Key takeaway: if you want them to say yes, choose a romantic setting

If you’re thinking of proposing to someone soon, then you’re presumably hoping they will say yes. Or, better, yet, “Yes! Yes! A thousand times yes!” or some other dramatic thing. If that’s the case, a recent study conducted by VoucherCloud about why people choose to reject proposals might be of use to you.

The company surveyed 2,144 American residents, both male and female, who were 21 years or older and had previously rejected a proposal, Bustle reports. The participants didn’t have to choose one specific reason — instead, they were asked for all the factors that contributed to their rejection. These were the five most reasons:

  1. Unromantic proposal setting: 67 percent
  2. Poor ring choice: 53 percent
  3. Bad wording of the proposal: 51 percent
  4. Lack of trust in the relationship: 39 percent
  5. Scared of the commitment: 36 percent

These results may seem a bit surprising. The reasons seem fairly: poor ring choice? Lame location? “As much as it seems silly to turn down the big question because the cost isn’t high enough, it’s important to remember that getting engaged is a huge moment in your life,”VoucherCloud’s Matthew Wood told Bustle. “It’s an investment and should be treated as such.” Of course, he added that there “are ways to make a person feel special during a proposal without going bankrupt.”

So, take all of this with a grain of salt, of course, but it couldn’t hurt to pick an extra romantic proposal location. Just in case.

(h/t Bustle)

Read next: This Ridiculously Romantic Ad Aims to End Divorce

TIME Food & Drink

Papa John’s Now Sells a Pizza Topped With Fritos and Chili

"I can't believe I waited 30 years to put Fritos on a pizza"

In a new ad, Papa John himself admits he’s ashamed of something: “I can’t believe I waited 30 years to put Fritos on a pizza!”

A pizza topping that surely someone must have been asking for. Right? Maybe? Well, Papa John’s CMO Bob Kraut told Businessweek a chili and Fritos-topped pizza was a “no-brainer,” so clearly someone thought it was a good idea.

While we have yet to try the new dish, which is being marketed to NFL watchers, the staff of Esquire did it for us. In the words of the publication’s Anna Peele, “Eating this pizza is like having sex with a coworker: Primarily intriguing because it’s transgressive, then instantly regrettable.”

American fast-food chains have a long way to go before entering the same league as its Asian-based locations’ weird fusions — Pizza Hut Korea literally put shrimp, calamari, bacon, steak and sausage on a pizza and then stuffed the crust with either cranberry or cinnamon apple nut and cream cheese filling — but it’s good to know America is putting its hat in the ring.

TIME celebrity

These Photos Show Taylor Swift Experiencing the Full Range of Human Emotion at a Knicks Game

Euphoria! Shock! Confusion!

It’s been a busy week for Taylor Swift, but she managed to make time to attend a Knicks game at Madison Square Garden Wednesday evening with her bestie, supermodel Karlie Kloss. (Maybe it was actually part of her new job as New York City’s Tourism Ambassador. Unclear.)

What we do know is that Tay — who sat next to Ben Stiller and his son — really seemed to experience the full range of human emotion while attending the game, making for an emotionally rich game-watching experience. Take a look.

Euphoria:

Celebrities Attend The Chicago Bulls Vs New York Knicks Game - October 29, 2014
James Devaney—GC Images / Getty Images

Shock:

Celebrities Attend The Chicago Bulls Vs New York Knicks Game - October 29, 2014
James Devaney—GC Images / Getty Images

Confusion:

Celebrities Attend The Chicago Bulls Vs New York Knicks Game - October 29, 2014
James Devaney—GC Images / Getty Images

Melancholy:

Celebrities Attend The Chicago Bulls Vs New York Knicks Game - October 29, 2014
James Devaney—GC Images / Getty Images

Bemusement:

Celebrities Attend The Chicago Bulls Vs New York Knicks Game - October 29, 2014
James Devaney—GC Images / Getty Images

Hopefulness:

Chicago Bulls v New York Knicks
Alex Goodlett—Getty Images / Getty Images

And more euphoria:

Celebrities Attend The Chicago Bulls Vs New York Knicks Game - October 29, 2014
James Devaney—GC Images / Getty Images

 

TIME Bizarre

The 32 Most Surprising Photos of the Month

From the return of Kim Jong Un to spooky Halloween traditions, TIME shares the most outrageous and intriguing images from October 2014

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