Happy Anniversary, Hello Kitty!

hk40th_nav_janm2014 is a big year for cultural icon Hello Kitty. She turns forty! Her creators, the Sanrio Corporation, are celebrating with a convention, HelloKittyCon, October 30-November 2; a Hello Kitty Reading Day on October 25; and with a special exibhit at Los Angeles’s Japanese American Museum, “Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty,” which opens tomorrow, October 11.

The exhibition is co-curated by Christine R. Yano, Professor and Chair of Anthropology at the University of Hawai`i, Manoa, and author of Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek across the Pacific. The exhibition examines the colorful history of Hello Kitty and her influence on popular culture. Hello! includes an extensive product survey, with rare and unique items from the Sanrio archives, alongside a selection of innovative contemporary artworks inspired by Hello Kitty and her world. On December 6, Yano will discuss her book at the museum.

Pink GlobalizationYano recently made news when she revealed in a preview of the exhibition that Hello Kitty is not a cat. “Hello Kitty is not a cat,” Yano told the Los Angeles Times. “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.”

Here’s a short excerpt from the conclusion of Pink Globalization, in which Yano explains Hello Kitty’s staying power and importance. Read the entire introduction here. Happy Anniversary, Hello Kitty!

Yet she is always Kitty, even as her guises and appropriations slip and slide the semantic terrain. Indeed, the hypermeanings of Hello Kitty — that is, Hello Kitty as the uber-cute, the uber-feminine, and, for some, the uber-Japan — are part of her fetishization. She exists in her very excess, playing it multiply, exoterically. Throughout this tumble, she still manages to shock through the strength of her iconicity. The only way in which consumers might be continually shocked by a Hello Kitty vibrator or gun or tattoo is when these items overturn the image of the mouthless cat: the items undermine our expectations set in a mode of overdetermined market meanings. Each shock reconditions us to a new equilibrium of expectations, a newly calibrated zone of meaning. This gives new meaning to the name of several Sanrio stores in the United States, “Sanrio Surprise.” Such constant newness and shock cause one female punk admirer to declare, “Hello Kitty is rock ’n’ roll!” By that, she points to the edginess that rock occupied in its infancy, but her statement may have been more prescient than she realized.

Indeed, as Hello Kitty wears hats both corporate and individual with equal panache, Sanrio’s cat shares the stage with many pop culture expressions who have moved from the margins to the center. Hello Kitty and the pink globalization she leads may be rock and roll to some, but she is inevitably, unabashedly, irreverently, celebratory Japanese Pop. Pure product, her logo appears seemingly everywhere. Look through the Hello Kitty lens — literally and figuratively — and every point of light transforms into Kitty. This is the wow factor, achieved simply as a low-tech wink that is both artful and artless. Moreover, as pop, she provides the ultimate shifting commercial wink upon ourselves. That wink of Japan’s mouthless cat provides important lessons on the politics, pleasures, and aesthetics of foreign-as-familiar commodity play in this age of global desirings.

Excerpt Copyright Duke University Press, 2013.

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