Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Reflections: Approval ex nihilo

Today I’m going to devote a few lines to one of my least favourite words: Cute.

Why here? Because ‘that was cute’ is the phrase I hear most often from non-silent film fans after I’ve introduced/subjected them to some piece of soundless brilliance they mustn’t live without. Some gem I just can’t imagine them sliding into their graves having missed. Oh, this movie is sublime, I’ll tell them, and sure enough, they’ll enjoy it, I guess, sort of—do you enjoy something when the corners of your smile only reach the bottom of your earlobe?

‘Cute’ is never meant as an insult, but it is the damnation of faint praise, most assuredly. It is a quiet compliment with omissions that bellow. And while it’s pointless to bitch about what other people don’t like, or why they don’t like it, or how express their dislike, let me say that I never describe anything as ‘cute,’ even if I like it, especially if I love it, and I don’t think you should either. Consider other applications of ‘cute’ in daily life, and ask yourself how praiseworthy it really is:

1. “OMG, SO CUTE!!!”
Usually found in the comments field, directly beneath your Facebook friend’s newest batch of posted baby pictures. Usually written by a female, to the mother. The baby/babies may be doing something or nothing. If doing something, it may be succeeding or failing. And the baby may, in fact, be homely. Not all babies are cute, though we never admit that, and even very cute babies take silly, unflattering or boring pictures once in awhile. Miracle of life, beauty of first steps, etc.... the fact remains that the picture is ‘cute’ because babies are cute, and this picture contains a baby.

2. “Your [dog, cat, rabbit, hamster, gerbil, ferret, seal] is so cute!”
The baby rule mostly holds for beasts, too. ‘Cute’ is rarely applied outside the realm of the juvenile animal, and almost never to an animal without fur (tarantulas are a separate matter). I don’t know why birds aren’t ‘cute’—maybe they look too reptilian. When adult animals are cute, it’s usually because they’re doing something vaguely human (cowardly dog covering his eyes just like your cowardly uncle does, for example). In other words, they’re cute because they’re trying to resemble, by means of their limited faculties, us.

3. “She’s a cute girl.”
Better than being homely, sure, but I don’t know many women who appreciate being called ‘cute,’ even when a guy’s complimenting her features directly. ‘Cute’ usually means ‘short,’ and it does not mean ‘sexy,’ even though petite women can be very sexy. I’d argue that when a guy calls a girl cute, he’s mostly saying she’s not ugly. And notice how no one ever says ‘cute woman.’

4. “You’re a cute guy.”
Even I’ve received this one a few times, and I’m nothing special. That’s part of the problem. For a man, as for a woman, ‘cute’ does not equate to hot, must-have human real estate. Nor does it mean ‘masculine,’ and most guys like to think they can rely on the masculinity they project. A man shouldn’t be cute. Teddy bears are cute; fat, fuzzy things that make ladies smile and encourage them to dole out hugs aplenty, but probably no more than that.

So what is ‘cute’? I argue ‘cute’ is an adjective that opens more doors than it closes—a way to end a sentence without ending it at all. Call a silent film ‘cute’ and you’re complimenting it for managing to entertain you despite its limitations—like a cat wearing your sunglasses. A cute silent movie isn’t necessarily something you liked at all; it’s just something you think is likeable. But what, then, are you really saying? That it’s not ‘un-cute’? That it’s interesting, but cannot reach your vital self, take hold, and keep holding?

I can live with silent film being an acquired taste, really I can. I’m no better than anyone else anyway—take me to the ballet and watch my eyes wander to the orchestra pit to observe the tuba. Just please, when someone calls a movie ‘cute,’ ask him or her to be more specific. It’ll be better for us all.

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