How Hello Kitty infiltrated youth culture (2024)

How Hello Kitty infiltrated youth culture (2)

As the Sanrio mascot turns 50, we look at how she’s come to figure in underground culture, from punk feminism to scene kids, emos and goths

TextFelicity Martin

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For the past 50 years, a cartoon cat with a red bow on one ear has been an inescapable force. The Sanrio creation, which first appeared on a vinyl coin purse in the 70s, has since been a mainstay in our collective consciousness – as well as a serious cash cow, bringing in over $80 billion in revenue. Yet despite being a mass-marketed product, Hello Kitty has also been adopted by subcultures worldwide – among goths, scene kids and emos, as well as punk feminist and Riot Grrrl movements. But how and why did this figurehead of rampant capitalism come to represent subversiveness?

The fashion industry – both luxury and high street – has consistently co-signed Hello Kitty, from a Blumarine capsule of soft pink sweats, to a Yohji Yamamoto line, calfskin Balenciaga bags and accessories for Comme des Garçons. Then there are all the collabs: Nike, Puma, Doc Martens, Baggu, Crocs, Uniqlo, Lazy Oaf – the list is truly endless. The devil works hard but evidently Sanrio’s marketing team works harder – one example being their timely lockdown collaboration with Starface, Gen Z’s favourite spot sticker brand.

But despite Hello Kitty’s consumerist ubiquity, she also often rocks up in the ‘cooler’ corners of culture. Dua Lipa recently sported a GCDS crochet bikini, and Saweetie wore a Laser Kitten bralette with kitty charms. Frank Ocean is a fan, giving the cat a starring role in two lyric videos, later performing in front of a giant Hello Kitty face at Lovebox. This ability to straddle both high and low culture can be exemplified by her being the reference point for tracks by Alice Longyu Gao and this somewhat offensive, Asian-fetishising song by Avril Lavigne.

these hello kitty boots dua lipa has been wearing are so cutee pic.twitter.com/gaurxuHRvG

— alejandra (@wrkhs) December 20, 2021

Claire Catterall – the curator of a new Somerset House exhibition, CUTE, which is spotlighting Hello Kitty’s 50th anniversary – says that the character “is a cipher, a logo for cuteness”. “In other words, she is shorthand for everything sweet and cute,” she explains. “The way she is designed helps: a distinctive pose, always front on, bow placed in a very specific place and angled just so, two button eyes and no mouth.”

This “semantic flexibility” is what “means she can be many things”, agrees author of Pink Globalisation: Hello Kitty's Trek Across the Pacific, Christine R Yano. “[She’s] a shape-shifter. Some point to her blankness, her abstract design. But you’d also have to say that this particular kind of cute-coolness accounts for her broad swath of popularity.” Yano’s book argues that Hello Kitty’s ‘foreign’-ness – her Japanese origins – have helped give her a sense of cool to Western audiences that comes with distance.

What’s interesting, Catterall adds, is how she’s often taken up “in a subversive or ironic way”. In the UK and US, mid-2000s scene kids, goths and emos all adopted Hello Kitty in some shape or form. In the MySpace era, Kitty designs populated HTML-created pages and MSN profile pictures, while necklace and Nokia phone case purchases helped line Sanrio’s pockets. Emo culture typically embraces an element of cuteness as well as melancholy, and black and hot pink variations of Hello Kitty emerged via the likes of DeviantArt, with the original white, mouthless cartoon a blank canvas for emotions and aesthetics to be projected onto.

Hello Kitty’s subversive origins can be dated back to the 90s, to “the Harajuku kids in Tokyo rebelling against the restrictions of their societal norms, and using Hello Kitty as an ally in their rebellion,” according to Catterall. Kawaii culture grew out of the rise of women as a powerful consumer force in Japan in the 70s and 80s, later spawning a distinctive street style, a look that embraced cuteness and childlike innocence, sometimes in an ironic way.

This was mirrored in the States with the early 90s Riot Grrrl movement, where the aesthetic was adopted by feminists “who would often wear Hello Kitty hair clips or handbags in an ironic riposte to outdated notions of femininity,” says Catterall. As a radical reclaiming of girlishness, Riot Grrrl zines subverted imagery of 50s housewives and love hearts as well as the cartoon cat. In the movement’s original manifesto, Kathleen Hanna wrote that “we are angry at a society that tells us girl = dumb, girl = bad, girl = weak.” “Sporting Kitty, then, becomes a way for these punk women to thumb their noses at stereotypes, saying, in effect, ‘We can appropriate cute for our own purposes, on our own terms’,” writes Yano in Pink Globalisation.

i wish scene kid me didn’t lose all of her hello kitty clothing bc i would be making a killing on depop rn

— ヽ(*^ω^*)ノ (@grimdear) September 29, 2022

In her art is a hammer that shapes reality series, puss* Riot member Nadya Tolokonnikova explains she “combine[d] cute and dangerous, playful and serious in this series, just like we did in our name. The harsh statements are combined with plush toys and faux fur”. Tolokonnikova once explained during a performance, “If I wear a pink T-shirt and carry this Hello Kitty purse to my next demonstration, the police will look ridiculous when they arrest me.”

Suffy Baala AKA Goth Jafar, a DJ and trans woman from New York, says she’s been a fan of Hello Kitty ever since she was a kid. “As a child, I wasn’t allowed to play with girly items like Barbie, Bratz and Hello Kitty but I was always drawn to her post-transition. My love for Hello Kitty is freeing because it heals my inner child, but also, [I love] that character design.” Baala, who owns a Hello Kitty vanity and multiple plushies, adds that “she represents all things girly, an innocence that will never be lost. Bad bitches love Hello Kitty, like Mariah Carey, Britney Spears, and me!”

She might now be (at least) 50 years old, but Hello Kitty continues to crop up in subcultures and underground culture today. London label Sports Banger recently released an Aphex Twin x Hello Kitty T-shirt, while E-girls and boys are embracing the style, even spawning the internet archetype of ‘Hello Kitty Girl’, a type of E-girl with an affinity for collecting Hello Kitty merchandise. But as the Sanrio mascot remains dominant within commerce, so too will her meaning, which will continue to evolve alongside the culture she has so successfully infiltrated.

Cute is on show at London’s Somerset House between January 25 and April 14

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How Hello Kitty infiltrated youth culture (2024)
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