“You’re so cute! You’re like a baby seal covered in oil.”
My roommate said this to me as I washed a zip lock bag in our sink and explained how we should reuse plastic products. His words shocked me. The image of an oil slick seal cub with my crying face came to mind. I liked being called cute, but I did not like being compared to a helpless baby animal.
To my roommate, a seal and the word “cute” are equal. To me, the word “cute” took on a whole new meaning and I realized it has always had multiple definitions, some of which are tragically negative and insulting. I looked at my roommate’s smiling face, realized he was joking, and laughed at his comment. But a gross feeling in my stomach kept nagging at me.
People have told me I am “cute” all my life and even though I understand the description as a compliment, I’m not sure I want to be described this way anymore. Poet Mary Oliver especially hates the word “cute”. She says, “Such words – “cute,” “charming,” “adorable” – miss the mark, for what is perceived of in this way is stripped of dignity, and authority. What is cute is entertainment, and replaceable. The words lead us and we follow: what is cute is diminutive, it is powerless, it is capturable, it is trainable, it is ours. It is all a mistake. […] We live, I am sure of this, in the same country, in the same household, and our burning comes from the same lamp. We are all wild, valorous, amazing. We are, none of us, cute.”
Ultimately, Oliver has a problem with the way people use their words. Parents constantly tell their children to, “Use your words.” I think you can learn a lot by the way a person — or even a country of people – understands and uses their words.
When people use the word “cute,” they usually say it as a “one size fits all” kind of word – like an adjective users often slap on without thought or logic.
Girls and women always describe each other as cute. I’ve noticed the word often shows up when women are trying to be polite. A common scenario involves one woman getting a new haircut and asking her friend how she looks. Instead of being honest and saying the cut looks bad, the friend will protect the other woman’s feelings and say, “Oh, it’s cute!” The vagueness of “cute” lives in a hazy gray area of safety, a place of nothingness. This nothingness scares me, it suggests that when a person calls me “cute” they’re using a throw away word, a word with little importance in the world of language, and I am somehow an example of this quality, this nothingness.
“What about context?” my boyfriend asks. We’re driving and talking about words, like we often do. We both majored in English, currently own two cats, use electric toothbrushes, shop at the coop, drive a Prius and regularly order artichokes on our pizza. Yes, we’re those people. The people who make Shakespeare jokes and still can’t tell you when you’re supposed to spell effect with an “a” or an “e.”
Anyway, my boyfriend thinks because the word “cute” is vague it can morph into whatever definition the user chooses through context, inflection of voice, and body language. For example, a lover softly whispering, “You’re so cute,” is much different than an angry person sarcastically saying, “You’re so cute!” When the lover says “cute” it means “I want to cuddle you.” When the angry person says “cute”, it means “I want to punch you.”
“Cute” has multiple personalities and it’s because of this that I have no straight answer for my boyfriend. He makes a good point. Words change contextually, and writers often play on words as a literary technique. I see nothing wrong with this use of language, but I’ve developed a bit of an upchuck reflex whenever I hear or see the word “cute,” even when I’m the one using it. I can’t shake the feeling that cute has the power to pigeonhole me into a place of nothingness for the uncomplicated, for the unworthy — a place where I don’t deserve a fuller description, a greater meaning, a more vibrant existence.
When most people call me “cute” I think their description address my short four feet eleven inches of height, my bubbly personality, and my Asian heritage – a heritage many people link with stereotypes. I find it difficult to detach myself from the clichéd images of wide eyed Korean pop stars, Japanese school girls, and giggly anime characters. Asian women have long been attached with the word “cute.” Think of the China Doll stereotype. Think of Japanese Geishas. Think of how Miss Saigon kills herself after her white American lover leaves.
People use cute to describe many women, not just Asians. Cute red heads. Cute waitresses. Cute grandmothers. We even use cute to describe things that aren’t human. Puppies are cute. Fresh manicures are cute. New shoes are cute. Overuse of the word has made it lose important meaning.
Although, I have to admit my cuteness has definitely proved very helpful over the years. When a stranger has an extra movie ticket, coffee, or even plates of food, I’m usually the lucky recipient of their bounty. I’ve been in many situations where people tend to be more comfortable approaching me than the other taller, whiter, women around me.
But even as I think about this, I must shamefully admit that I too, misuse the word. For a short time I had an online dating profile — *cough* OkCupid — and described myself as “A cute Asian girl with hot pink highlights.” Strangely, I don’t believe myself when I write “I’m cute.” It just seemed like the easiest and fastest way to introduce my personality on the page. So many friends, family members, and acquaintances have told me I am this word, and I use it. It’s a habit and completely lazy.
I don’t think cute accurately describes my personality or controls my identity, but it is a great tool during negotiations. If I’m at the flea market, I’ll turn up the cute dial, smile big, giggle a little, and bargain prices down. When I was a waitress, my co-workers sometimes gave me the grouchy regulars because my cuteness often put the customers in a better mood. I haven’t been pulled over for speeding on the road yet, but I’m pretty sure when that day comes, cute may be my best defense against a traffic ticket. In this way, I admit a part of me will always be cute, but I still dislike being described as such.
Perhaps it’s time I take responsibility for my treatment of the English language. The vocabulary at my disposal provides all the tools for better care. How a group of people — a country — uses its words greatly reflects the social and cultural awareness of the speakers. Worst case scenario is sounding like a know-it-all, but the best case scenario could be revolutionary in the way we treat and understand each other. For example, treatment of the “n-word” reflects how Americans view each other differently than they did 50 years ago. Words are great historical markers. They remind us of the past and encourage us to keep progress towards the future. Like Mary Oliver says, “We are all wild, valorous, amazing. We are, none of us, cute.”
 Oliver, Mary. Blue Pastures. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc. 1995. p92-93.
Mimi Nguyen is the founder of Story Club Minneapolis. When she isn’t daydreaming about deep fried cheese curds, she tries to write. She has published reviews, articles and personal essays in TriQuarterly, The CAF Review, Vevelicious and In Our Words. She won first place in the 2012 Union League Civic and Arts Writing Competition and was selected to represent Northwestern University in the category of nonfiction for the 2010 AWP Intro Journals Project. She recently received a Minnesota State Arts Board Cultural Community Partnership Grant.