I’ve died and gone to my happy place, and it’s full of Hello Kitty.
I have loved Hello Kitty for as long as I can remember, and I blame my maternal uncle. Long ago, for a birthday or Christmas, he individually wrapped and gifted to me about 20 individual, adorable, itty bitty Hello Kitty toys. Tiny erasers, tiny stationery sets with tiny kitty and tiny flowers and tiny stickers to close the tiny envelopes around the tiny little itty bitty notecards. I’m talking a couple inches here, if that. There was a tiny colored pencil set in an itty bitty see-through envelope with a red snap closure and tiny decorations on it. There was a coin purse. There was a pencil case. There was just a bunch of red and white and black vinyl and kitty and joy, individually wrapped, and it stamped the glee of Hello Kitty on me for life, and left me with a disproportionate appreciation for stationery, pens, and sending mail.
This was the mid-70s, and Hello Kitty was younger than I, by two years. The founding principle of her character – a little gift with a big message of friendship – has stuck with me since then. My childhood love for her turned into a teenage nostalgia, a 20s appreciation that morphed into some form of girl-power in my 30s, at which time she experienced a huge, popular and pop-culture resurgence. I didn’t resurge until my 40s, at which time she may have jumped the shark (MAC cosmetics line, Beats by Dre, Swarovski bling, back off).
My active adoration for her continued unabated and public this entire time. In my 30s alone, I was gifted a hello kitty toaster, which toasted the face of hello kitty, complete with bow, into a piece of bread, to make your morning more joyful; a tote bag, which I still feel is unparalleled by any other tote, and you can see I have loved part of its face off; a cell phone trinket, which dangles from my car’s rearview mirror; and juice glasses, which we use for tequila in my house, but that’s beside the point. This year, I turned 43 and a friend gave me this:
It doesn’t stop there. A lifelong friend lived in Korea, then Japan, and bestowed upon me an endless stream of fantastic gifts that arrived in vague connection to Christmas and my birthday. The mouse pad next to me right now, barely larger than the mouse and in the shape of Kitty’s head; chopsticks; duct tape; something related to shoes that neither of us can figure out because all the package writing is in Japanese; origami paper; candy; food-like items I was eventually forced to discard because, due to my inability to understand Japanese, I could never figure out what they were.
So imagine my relief, my first week in LA, slightly out of pace with the world and myself, trying to wrap my head around this ‘staying in one place’ concept, when I saw that the Hello! Exhibit – Exploring the Super Cute World of Hello Kitty – had just opened at the Japanese American National Museum downtown. If HK herself was here for a while as well, clearly LA was the right place for me. I vowed to get downtown as quickly as possible. On the red line, because I was determined to use public transport in LA.
I finally made it, in my car, six months later. And it was ever. So. Awesome.
Even without the big sign outside, you know you’re getting close to the Hello Kitty exhibit because people of all ages and orientations – male, female; Asian, Caucasian, African American, Latin – are wearing the ridiculous paper Hello Kitty crown you are given with your admission. Case in point: the first couple I happened upon the minute I walked into the exhibit:
Where else would this man put on this crown? (I don’t know him, so maybe he wears Hello Kitty PJs to bed every night, but judging from his response when I asked to take their picture, I’m guessing not.) And yet EVERYONE was wearing them. Giant Polynesian dude? Wearing it. Two elderly women accompanying an even more elderly woman in a wheelchair? Wearing it.
Me? Wearing it! Happily, but not well.
The exhibit starts at the beginning: with a coin purse, a man, and the concept kawaii. The term can be translated as ‘cuteness,’ but is also related to the Japanese word for ‘pitiable,’ “suggesting a fundamental emotional basis of empathy and caring.” By using the English-language greeting with the character, the brand welcomes the customer as a friend and marks Hello Kitty as a global, social character. The original creator, Shintaro Tsuji, intentionally focused on items that “foster ‘social communication,’” which explains why so many of the early Hello Kitty paraphernalia was stationery-oriented. Also, Hello Kitty is a twin – who knew? Poor Mimmy must feel very much in her sister’s shadow – and her last name is White. And they live in London. Wait – what? They are very international. Also, Hello Kitty is not a cat. I just have to leave that one alone.
The first half of the exhibit focuses entirely on the building of the brand, by displaying a growing family of branded items. Since I’d had the toaster, the small appliances came as little surprise. I’ll confess the motor oil, in a three quart can caught me by surprise, and the toilet paper just made me jealous. As did the sanitary napkins. I mean, what can make a period happier than HK tp and maxi pads? HK candy, I suppose.
This, however, blew my mind, and there was no description for it other than “mask.”
A glimpse of the inevitable fetishization of anything girl-plus-Asian appears with the hello kitty vibrator, which Sanrio assures is just a “massage wand,” (though even the exhibit plaque puts that in quotes). They assure the visitor it is, “designed to buzz away one’s troubles around the neck and shoulders with a quick flick of the switch. Ahhh!”
The Hello Kitty Kiss dolls are all in good humor and part of her resurgence as some sort of pop icon. Clearly, if HK is becoming a celebrity, she’s going to rub shoulders with the big (shoed) boys. And as those of us who grew up with her help morph her character into something we can still use as adults, she is bound to grow too (though the exhibit notes multiple time that Kitty’s birthday is November 1st, “but she never gets another year older!”). Hence, her inspiration of Japanese street fashion (always inspired)
or her appearance in the western fashion industry, with an entire slew of outfits featured on America’s Next Top Model.
Then comes the art, which also walks the line between nostalgia, pop art, and fetish. How is this not a sexualized cross between cosplay and a blow up doll?. When did Kitty get boobs (she never ages…)?
Dark but less sexual is this one, titled, “Uh Oh Kitty Ho.” I’m not sure that isn’t reproductive organs on her shirt.
She goes on a Life Aquatic-inspired ride with Paul Frank’s Julius and friends,
morphs onto Lincoln, storms Tokyo as Godzilla, . impersonates the Sphinx, and bursts into bloom
My favorite artwork, though, is Marc Dennis’s Allegory of Love. Nothing else sums up so perfectly what Kitty has provided to the women of my generation, who were introduced to her when we, and she, were young, and have relied on her to grow, change, express and nurture ourselves, while holding on to a simple, happy semblance of childhood to console or strengthen us when we need it. All of that is wrapped up in this image, which I stood in front of for quite some time, smiling…and wondering where I could buy that sweatshirt.