In 2012, Plushland, a stuffed doll company specializing in custom order and fundraising dolls, launched its Hello Kitty Collegiate series. The sporty dolls have since been cropping up in airports and souvenir shops across the nation. Earlier this year, it also made a National Championship collectible — for the team that my fingers refuse to type out — that was part all part of a line of dolls ostensibly aimed at college football fans.
As a Korean expat, my thoughts on Hello Kitty run fairly deep. Growing up in Korea, a land saturated with zillions of cartoon characters that children are encouraged to take on as their personal mascots, I hated Hello Kitty. She was too girly, too cute, and most of all, too Japanese, representing to me an oppressive colonial culture.
Once I crossed the Pacific, though, I started to embrace her. All of a sudden, in North America, Hello Kitty didn’t signify colonial Japan anymore. She embodied global Asian culture. There’s even an entire book devoted to her global exploits. Her growing ubiquity signaled to me a pan-Asian racial pride, one that was fabulous, a bit ridiculous, and wholly in your face. Even though she said nothing, you could never ignore her. Kind of like Margaret Cho if she were on mute all the time.
Hello Kitty represents a culture of not fitting in, and reveling in it. Her head is too big for her body, a malady perhaps many Asians can relate to. Though completely silent, she is everywhere—on kid’s backpacks, bars of soap, cell phone covers, underwear, bumper stickers. She can’t ever be ignored, and she steals the show without saying a word. It’s sneaky ninja-type strategy meets over-exposed commodification.
Her biggest power, though, is how she is able to make anything kawaii, or super-ultra cute, automatically. The Hello Kitty dolls stand out in collegiate merch, a field saturated with (pretty ugly) automobile accessories and way too many sweatpants. She’s a femme-y person’s dream come true: Pink, a cartoon, bows everywhere—and she stands in complete contrast to the aggressive, turbo-masculine image of college football.
If you’ve ever looked into Hello Kitty’s eyes, you’ll see so much staring back at you. Is she judging you? Loving you? Just being cute? Plotting to kill you in your sleep? She’ll never tell you, because she has no mouth, maybe the most successful passive-aggressive marketing strategy in the history of plush kitty-girls.
If you think about it, both Kitty (as Koreans fondly call her) and college football ask similar questions about over-saturated markets, addiction, exploitation, veiled truths, and exaggerated gender roles. As I too get ready for a new school year, I imagine a college football locker room full of plush Hello Kittys leaning against helmets and shoulder pads, a perfect picture of another ambivalent eason of college sports, where opposing gender norms join forces to expose a clash of entertainment and rapid consumerism. Go Kitty!
SERENITY JOO | @JooSerenity
Serenity Joo is an educator, thinker, spectator sport fanantic, and nacho enthusiast. She grew up in the Deep South, which explains everything. Her body currently resides in Winnipeg, Canada. Serenity is a 2015 Dat Winning fellow.