First thing’s first: Hello Kitty is a pop culture monster 40 years in the making. This is evidenced in the way everyone lost their damn minds when we found out that Hello Kitty is neither feline nor human. I was at a sex-trivia night in the Mission in San Francisco and everyone was like, “Oh my God, have you heard? Hello Kitty is not a cat.”
This would have been more significant to me more than a decade ago, when Hello Kitty was my thing. My mother used to treat my siblings and I to trips to the Sanrio store. I’d get a pencil or some stickers and my siblings and I would always fight over our prizes in the backseat of the car with my harried mother threatening to “turn this car around.” (Back to the Sanrio store? I sure hoped so.)
But it wasn’t until I was a mall-addicted teenager that Hello Kitty became a profoundly significant figure of obstinate girly-ness to me. I had been feeling sad, so I walked into the Sanrio store, and walked back out with a Hello Kitty pen and a smile on my face. I surrounded myself with her image — bags, notebooks, hair clips, clothing, underwear, beauty products — and she reflected back the sort of carefree affection and innocence I desperately needed during that fraught time of my life.
So it only seemed fitting — working for Catster and a one-time Hello Kitty fan — that I should go cover the convention. Held at the Geffen Contemporary and running concurrently with a curated Hello Kitty art exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum, Hello Kitty Con 2014 was the first of its kind in the non-cat’s 40-year history. And for something so significant, the convention’s debut was kind of a mess.
There was a line at every turn — a line to get my badge, a line to enter the convention, a line to visit the gift shop, a line to get a tattoo, a line to get food. As a friend of mine once said when we rolled up to a Hollywood club with a line around the corner: “I don’t wait in lines.” That night we’d been able to convince the security guards to let us cut to the front. Hello Kitty would give me no such luxury, and I still don’t wait in lines, so I found myself feeling mostly bewildered and frustrated at the convention.
I get it: Lots of people adore Hello Kitty. But the Geffen Contemporary — which is an otherwise amazing art venue — was just too small to support the onslaught of Hello Kitty fans who’ve probably been waiting their entire lives for something like this. Fortunately, there wasn’t a line for the series of lectures and panels, and as Catster’s former official Cuteness Correspondent, I decided to check out “Cute Culture,” a lecture presented by Christine Yano. With a Ph.D in anthropology from the University of Hawaii, Yano is the author of Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek Across the Pacific, and she curated the Hello Kitty art exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum.
At that point, I wasn’t expecting to gain any sort of insight at Hello Kitty Con, but Yano’s lecture offered a take on Hello Kitty’s place in both Japanese and United States history that seems painfully obvious after it’s been pointed out. I won’t get too much into it because, as I understand it, you’re here for cats and not for history or politics, but the point is that in the vacuum of its dismantled military power, Japan turned to the “soft power” of cuteness in order to take over the world with influence — something some of you geeks may know as kawaii.
Hello Kitty is probably the most emblematic export of kawaii. Yano referred to Hello Kitty as a “transitional object,” that, like a safety blanket, provides a sense of security and stability as we move from one stage to another. Mouthless and chameleon-like, she can be anything we want her to be. Her cuteness makes her seem innocuous even as she incites hundreds of people to stand in line for the entire day just to get their hands on some overpriced tchotchke.
And that’s when I realized what was so damn interesting about Hello Kitty Con, and why I hadn’t bailed after walking in and being like, “Aw, hell no.”
Hello Kitty would be nothing without her followers, and on that Thursday — the first day of Hello Kitty Con — they had turned out in droves from all corners of life, united under one adorable cartoon character who transcends comprehension as she exists in some sort of third space between feline and human, silence and noise, weakness and power. And I realized what exactly — as a cynical jaded adult — Hello Kitty means to me.
In high school, my football player boyfriend told me he was embarrassed to be seen with me. So I shaved every hair from my body — even my arms, even my toes — and did my best to conform to an idealized femininity to earn his love. Much later on, I took my first women’s studies class, I cut my hair short and tossed my razor, and the guy I was seeing dumped me cause I’d “let myself go.” After the feminine restraint imposed on me by my high school boyfriend, I rejected all things girly. A boyfriend I lived with made me get rid of all my Hello Kitty stuff because “we’re grown-ups now.” That identity — devoid of femininity and of cuteness — wasn’t right for me either.
There was a cosplay contest at Hello Kitty Con, and the winner was a woman who interpreted Disco Hello Kitty with a sheath mini dress and pink afro wig that was so deliciously girly I would have maybe stood in line for it. She was one of a dozen entries and other folks in costume, each person embodying Hello Kitty with her own style — weaving their own identities into the Japanese icon who provides a canvas for just that.
In San Francisco, I’ve finally found a gender performance that suits me. It’s known as femme and it’s about an aggressive and confrontational femininity. It’s about taking back the idea of feminine, disowning it from oppressive hierarchies that associate it with weakness, and making it into your own brand of beautiful. And, for me, Hello Kitty was the unconscious foundation of my femmeness. In high school, my penchant for Hello Kitty was obsessive, because there was something in her that I needed even if I didn’t quite yet know what that thing was. I would discover that “thing” later on, when, finally free of my codependence, I had to figure out who I truly am. And I truly am a strong and feminine woman, who blends gender into a performance that both invites and mocks the male gaze.
I asked Yano if she thinks Hello Kitty is a feminist. Yano deflected, saying that the key to Hello Kitty’s success is that she can be anything we want her to be. Whether or not Hello Kitty might advocate for women’s rights is unclear, but if there is one thing the long lines and thousands of dollars I am sure people spent at Hello Kitty Con prove, it’s that she is a symbol of power. She is a symbol of a taking back. She is a symbol of unabashed cuteness and what kind of global influence something seen as weak can actually have.
When they announced that the gift shop was no longer open for business that day, I could only roll my eyes at the folks in attendance who wailed with disappointment. I decided that it was time to get out of there, that I wasn’t cut out for Hello Kitty Con because I simply don’t care enough.
Hello Kitty may no longer be my thing, but — as I caught a glimpse of myself looking quite feminine in my gold heeled boots and velvet crop top — I knew I wouldn’t be who I am without her.
Okay, so, one of the most popular features of Hello Kitty Con was the Hello Kitty ink station. Yes, they had a team of renowned tattoo artists inking folks for free. The catch? Your only options were the Hello Kitty flash they offered and you had to — you guessed it — wait in line. Fortunately, however, you didn’t have to wait in line for a temporary tattoo, and I’ve got a whole sheet of them that I’m happily giving away. Just comment below with why Hello Kitty is so important to you and I’ll email ya on Monday to let you know you’ve won. You need to have a valid email address and be within the United States — sorry to everyone else. Good luck!
What does Hello Kitty mean to you? Let us know in the comments!
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About Liz Acosta: Catster’s former Cuteness Correspondent, Liz still manages the site’s daily “Awws,” only now she also wrangles Catster’s social media. That’s why she wants you to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and — her personal favorite — Instagram. See ya there!