Everyone loves it when trend pieces talk, like when you have Jim Windolf at Vanity Fair complaining about our obsession with “cuteness” and A.O. Scott at the New York Times taking on “grimness.” In some ways they’re actually worried about the same thing.
Windolf proposes that we as Americans live in a culture of “growing self-infantilization,” what with our addiction to websites about cute lil’ puppehs and our habit of posting baby pics on Facebook. He grabs examples from everywhere and anywhere, not all of which have the same weight — does Weezer’s evolution from “Pinkerton” balladeers to Snuggie spokespeople really mean we’re all regressing? (Most people agree Weezer’s been regressing for years, no?) If this is really the way of the future, what are we to make of Disney’s rebranding Mickey Mouse as a silent, mischievous and occasionally cranky figure?
Scott’s argument is that the sophisticated and surprisingly dark family movie trifecta of “Where the Wild Things Are,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “A Christmas Carol” put the lie to the infantile nature of most “adult” narratives. But Windolf’s talking about neurologically pre-ordained responses to cuteness; Scott ends with a mother weeping at “Wild Things,” which is exactly the same thing: by tugging at mom’s fears for her infant, she’s being yanked around in exactly the same way.
Funny enough, both Windolf and Scott cite “The Hangover” as an example of infantilization. For Windolf, Zack Galifianakis putting sunglasses on a baby is an example of infants not being inherently cute — cuteness “is something we do to them.” Scott, meanwhile, mocks the movie’s relative lack of emotional complexity when compared to “Wild Things”: “Justice is served. The bad guys pay. Love conquers all. The naughty boys come home from their crazy adventures and find that their mommies still love them.”
Both Windolf and Scott take refuge in the antonyms of the problems they see (crankiness for Windolf, softly sad for Scott). Which is the perpetual danger of the zeitgeist piece: in decrying one thing, you’re forced to embrace the other side. Those “Wild Things” may scare kids, but they’re really just as cute as all those kittehs; the only “complexity” is in the gap between children and adult perception. Cute and cranky can and do coexist.
[Photos: “Runaway Brain,” Disney, 1995; “The Hangover,” Warner Bros., 2009]