You could be forgiven for thinking that Hello Kitty is a cat. After all, she looks like a cat (albeit a somewhat cartoonish one). Her name is “Kitty,” which at least indicates feline nature. She has short, pointy ears, just like a cat. And she has little black lines along the side of her face that look just like whiskers. I’m willing to bet that nearly every person of any age who has bought Hello Kitty merchandise since it came out in 1974 has believed that their purses, mirror compacts, t-shirts, underwear, and alarm clocks bear the image of an adorable cartoon cat.
Guess what? It turns out that they don’t, because she’s not.
The revelation that Hello Kitty is not a cat, but rather an English girl in third grade, has burned up the Internet since yesterday, when an article from the Los Angeles Times started circulating on social media.
The story is this: Christine R. Yano, an anthropologist from the University of Hawaii, is curating a retrospective for Hello Kitty’s 40th anniversary at the Japanese American National Museum. Yano knows her Hello Kitty; she’s spent years studying her as a cultural phenomenon, and last year she published a book, Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek Across the Pacific. But even with all that, Yano believed that Hello Kitty was a cat. The higher-ups at Sanrio set her straight on that.
“I was corrected — very firmly,” she told the L.A. Times. “That’s one correction Sanrio made for my script for the show. Hello Kitty is not a cat. She’s a cartoon character. She is a little girl. She is a friend. But she is not a cat. She’s never depicted on all fours. She walks and sits like a two-legged creature. She does have a pet cat of her own, however, and it’s called Charmmy Kitty.”
It also turns out that despite the enigmatic blankness of Hello Kitty (most famously, she doesn’t have a mouth), she has a whole elaborate history and personality. For one thing, she’s not Japanese, either — Hello Kitty is British. Her name is “Kitty White,” and her parents are George and Mary White.
“She has a twin sister,” Yano told the Times. “She’s a perpetual third-grader. She lives outside of London. I could go on. A lot of people don’t know the story and a lot don’t care. But it’s interesting because Hello Kitty emerged in the 1970s, when the Japanese and Japanese women were into Britain. They loved the idea of Britain. It represented the quintessential idealized childhood, almost like a white picket fence. So the biography was created exactly for the tastes of that time.”
That’s a lot of history for a small white cartoon character that has no mouth. And a lot of people don’t seem willing to take the idea that Hello Kitty — sorry, Kitty White — isn’t of the feline persuasion lying down. Will mass burnings of Sanrio gear by disappointed fans be next? Does the revelation that Kitty is not a cat drain all the fun out of one of the most successful pop culture icons of the past 50 years?
Hardly. I’m sure that Hello Kitty’s sales will continue to do well. And no matter what Sanrio says about her, most fans will develop their own headcanon about whether she’s a girl, a cat, or both. Kind of like how Star Wars geeks have to keep mentally editing out the really stupid parts, like Ewoks and Jar-Jar Binks.
But if you want a good example of just how seriously fans take this revelation, take a look at this headline from the Washington Post, which positions it as a symbol of existential crises in the media age: Hello Kitty is not a cat. Everything is a lie. The article itself is only partly tongue-in-cheek. Obviously, for some people, Sanrio’s claim that Hello Kitty is human has sundered the fundamental principles of reality itself.
But some people are having it both ways. To those who are a little more media-savvy, it’s not really necessary to choose between “cat” and “human.” After all, as many have pointed out, Disney fans have been navigating the tricky issue of Goofy the anthropomorphic dog and Pluto the doglike dog for decades. It’s true that Hello Kitty (White) doesn’t really look like your average housecat — she’s more bipedal for one, and she has much more variety in her wardrobe. But she doesn’t really look like a little girl, either, for the reasons I laid out above.
One of my friends, a writer and artist named Creatrix Tiara, put it nicely on Facebook: “[I]f you look at the creator’s explanation closely there is a good reason for it: [It is] defining cats as being part of the animal class, which is strictly animal-like and doesn’t partake in human activities such as dressing up and doing all kinds of things. It’s a similar difference to Goofy vs Pluto: in Hello Kitty’s world, cats mean a specific thing. On Metafilter someone called her a “[ailuromorphized] human” … she is a catgirl! Who is more cat than girl, but a catgirl anyway! Like a mermaid or a centaur!”
My Google-fu has failed me in discovering what “ailuromorphized” means. A great big, platinum-coated No-Prize to anyone who can figure it out for me. But the basic point seems to hold true: In cartoon universes, there are a lot of animal-human hybrids living alongside regular, nonsentient animals.
The MetaFilter thread is a great place to go if you want to see just how much mental energy really smart people can put into this sort of thing. It’s a good start to see the sort of discussion happening all over the Internet. But in the end, Hello Kitty will probably continue to thrive. For 40 years, she has been an icon on every kind of merchandise you can imagine, and that’s not even counting the unofficial stuff, such as people who customize 9mm handguns and automatic rifles with Hello Kitty emblems. (No, really.) That’s not going to go away. I will say, though, that if you think of Hello Kitty as an English girl in third grade, those vibrators that became very popular a few years back look even weirder than before.
What do you think? Is Hello Kitty a cat or a girl? Does it matter?
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