Merchandising icon or subversive millennial idol? Exploring the enduring appeal of Hello Kitty, from the kawaii boom of the 70s to a Frank Ocean festival headline slot.
Flickr / Vegard Grott via GettyImages.
In 2014, Sanrio made an explosive revelation about its most iconic character. Hello Kitty, the brand claimed, is not a Japanese cat but a British schoolgirl. Public outcry was so intense that Sanrio later backpedaled on the statement, claiming she was an "anthropomorphic version" of a cat. But add this to Hello Kitty's other eccentricities — she's 43 years old but still in third grade, and she's possibly the world's least assertive Scorpio — and it's clear we're still getting to know the ubiquitous Sanrio superstar.
Since her creation in the 70s, Kitty has become a universally adored icon, capturing the imaginations of uncountable children along with today's most intriguing artists. The contradictory Sanrio superstar's physical blankness is likely responsible for her global domination. Kitty is mouthless and mutable, the cat for all occasions and all consumers.
Take Hello Kitty's fanbase, which is equally full of surprises. Popularized by Japanese teenagers coming of age during the kawaii boom of the 70s, Hello Kitty now counts Frank Ocean, who has incorporated Kitty into two recent videos, as a fan. Ditto Rei Kawakubo, who plastered Hello Kitty on wigs and necklaces for Comme des Garçons's spring/summer 18 collection. Then there's her most devoted disciple: Masao Gunji, a 67-year-old retired cop-turned-collector, who lives in a house filled with over 5,000 pieces of Hello Kitty Memorabilia.
"The reason I like Hello Kitty is because of her expression," Gunji recently told the Guinness World Records in a video tour of his jam-packed pink home. "For some reason, when I'm sad, she looks a little bit sad as well, and when I am happy she looks happy." She doesn't have a mouth — she can't exactly argue otherwise.
Artist (and Ocean collaborator) Tom Sachs, who has installed a 22-foot-tall Hello Kitty in the plaza of Lever House, describes the Kawaii icon as a "merchandising icon" with "an almost Buddhist sense of nothingness." In an age when millennials' corporate distrust is so extreme that we arguably no longer respond to ads, authenticity is itself commodified. Hello Kitty DGAF about being authentic, making her something of an idiosyncrasy in 2017. The Sanrio superstar wouldn't be caught dead posting obnoxious inspo quotes or furtive #sponcon on Instagram — she's busy souping up car exhaust pipes, a urinal target, a quesadilla maker, and a sphygmomanometer. Taiwanese airline Eva Air recently announced special Hello Kitty-themed planes for select flights. Kitty isn't an influencer, she's an icon.
But Rei Kawakubo does not make plastic sandwich presses -- she makes avant-garde art. The contrast between Comme's deliberation and Kitty's consumerism is notable. "In good times and bad times the company is more or less the same," the elusive Comme des Garçons mastermind has said of her brand. "Comme des Garçons has always traveled at its own pace and will continue to do so." Then again, Kawakubo is notoriously private — I can't confirm that her Tokyo apartment isn't fully decked out with Sanrio sandwich presses and toilet seats.
Hello Kitty has long been prone to subversive appropriations. She's an anthropomorphic poster cat for goth and scene kids, along with other longtime Hot Topic tenants like the Care Bears and My Little Pony. During the height of MySpace in the 2000s, my sister and I spent approximately $2,500 at the Sanrio store in San Francisco's Westfield mall. (I would have bought these Hello Kitty 3-inch platform T.U.K. creepers in a heartbeat.) Hello Kitty's other unlikely fans include punks, queer activists, the sex industry, and Riot Grrrls. The underground feminist punk scene co-opted Hello Kitty in the 90s as part of a wider reclaiming of radical girlishness.
"Hello Kitty thus becomes the anti-tough tough stance, pink acting as the new, in-your-face black, performing its own youth-based, empowering femininity," writes Christino Reiko Yano in Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty's Trek Across the Pacific. "Sporting Kitty, then, becomes a way for these punk women to thumb their noses at stereotypes, saying, in effect, 'We can appropriate cute for our own purposes, on our own terms.'"
Infantilized hairstyles like pigtails, in the same way, came to symbolize a new kind of feminism. As Kathleen Hanna writes in Riot Grrrl's original manifesto, "we are angry at a society that tells us Girl = Dumb, Girl = Bad, Girl = Weak." Sanrio would later, with a knowing wink, come to appropriate punk, collaborating with T.U.K. on those platform creepers and swapping Hello Kitty's hair bow for a tartan version. As Reiko Yano points out, the brand's ever-expanding line of Kitty merch includes a Stratocaster Fender. That's not to say every instance of rocking out on a Sanrio guitar is subversive: see Avril Lavigne's 2014 atrocity "Hello Kitty."
We've come a long way, in terms of rejecting traditional gender notions, since the early days of Riot Grrrl. But Hello Kitty is still being appropriated as a subversive comment on gender, sexuality, and queerness. Take Frank Ocean enlisting Hello Kitty to bob over the lyrics of his "Provider" and "Nikes" videos like a cartoon conductor. Both tracks allude to Ocean's newfound wealthy status and Kitty-like collectibles, referring to sneakers, Prada, and trophy cabinets. Hello Kitty is also a bold choice for an artist who's redefining what it means to be a queer pop icon. Endless and Blond are not the overt LGBTQ statements many people wanted them to be. Ocean uses the word "gay" only once in the latter, and has so far avoided putting a label on his sexual identity. But appropriating feminine cartoons is a more subtle way of subverting gender stereotypes.
Sanrio's mouthless kawaii Kitty is equally averse to being labeled. I mean, it took 40 years for her to come out as an anthropomorphic British cat. But as Ocean, Kawakubo, and Gunji are probably aware, Kitty's power is in her mutability. She's a blank canvas we can all color with our own projections. Or maybe her power is simply in being ridiculously adorable — after all, it makes sense to take comfort in cuteness during unpredictable times.