Several weeks ago, [Boing Boing has a post] featuring [this photo] of a pair of felt plushies meant to represent the World Trade Center on the day of the 9-11 attacks. Anthropomorphized with faces and arms, the Twin Towers express shock and disgust as they are hit with miniature airplanes, holding each other's hands as they are doomed to collapse. I very much liked these crafts, thinking they displayed a child's interpretation of 9-11, that sense of hopelessness, confusion and empathy that was swept under in favor of jingoist patriotic horn-blowing shortly after the attacks. Created by an adult, the plushies are a reminder that, No, we grown-ups don't have all the answers, and sometimes we can be just as scared as kids.
In the comments on the post, I saw a different reaction: "Nothing that happened on 9/11 was cute."; "I find this couple's work infantile at best, and entirely lacking in profunditiy."; "They are basically saying the suffering involved is trivial and stupid." Though attraction to cuteness is programmed into our brains as a survival mechanism, ensuring that younger members of the species receive protection and care, there is still a strong, negative reaction against cuteness, especially when cuteness treads where it dare not.
Of course this reaction will be stronger towards "sacred" topics - religion, politics, horrific events - but I've seen it directed towards Apple computers, cute mascots, and even children's toys.
It's a little odd that cuteness would incite such a reaction. By its nature, cuteness is weak and non-confrontational, but why does it inspire such vitriol? In Western culture, cuteness occupies a very specific space: that of children. (Cuteness in Japanese culture is a topic for another post.) Cuteness is simple, ignorant and easy to control. Complexity is seen as a sign of maturity: a child starts out doing simply finger paintings of blobs, but graduates to still lives and portraits.
Incorporating cuteness and "childish" assets into the domain of adults creates an uncomfortable juxtaposition- the 30-year old who collects action figures and comic books as a developmentally-stilted basement dweller. Embracing cuteness beyond childhood is seen as a step back to helplessness and naivete, a sign that one can not handle the complexities of the "adult" world. Only recently have the virtues of "childishness" been considered important in adulthood: companies encouraging playfulness to improve creativity and productivity, for example
Taking a sunny view point in a world of tragedy and pain is viewed as suspicious. Cuteness is happiness. Happiness can be threatening to the status quo. Cuteness is a sign of not taking things too seriously, or lacking the understanding to realize the severity of certain topics (a common sentiment in the comments on the Boing Boing post). Cuteness is an attack on the message, "Don't be weak; be suspicious; only care about yourself."