There’s an interesting phenomenon that occurs when I walk around with my kids in public. There’s oohing and ahhing, and often a well-meaning comment. When I’m with Elyse, the comment is often, “Aww, she’s so cute.” I’ve received the same comment walking around with our toddler Penelope, but she’s more likely to receive a comment on her behaviour or her intellect, “She’s so smart!” or, “Look how good she is.” Ariel, our eldest, is less likely to elicit comments now that she’s getting older, other than what a great big sister she is.
While I appreciate the good intentions, it’s come to my attention that cute isn’t always a good thing. Cute can be downright condescending and dismissive. Reductive and infantilizing.
Two years ago, I was to go a talk with a good friend of mine to a group of college students. While we were standing in the hall waiting to give our presentation, a few young women happened to pass us by. In truth, we were lost, looking around, and waiting for my professor friend to come pick us up. It was at that moment a group of young women passed us, and one of them made a comment about my friend.
“Aww,” she said to her friend, “She’s so cute.”
My friend is 35 years old, and she has Down syndrome.
The young woman caught me in a moment of surprise. I said nothing. My friend looked unperturbed. I mentioned the incident to my professor friend who urged me to share the experience with the class, which I did. Did they see how wrong that was, how demeaning, to be labelled as “cute” by a complete stranger?
You could argue with me there are worse names to be called, and I won’t disagree with you, however there are ways to acknowledge someone that don’t rob them of their dignity; of their adult-ness. Do we take the needs and wants of someone who we label “cute” seriously? This is the same false reasoning and notion that kept/keeps women oppressed. Women were thought to be too delicate, too fragile. Best for them to stay home, and mind the children. A friend told me a man at her work apologized for swearing in front of her – same idea. I’m not saying I want people swearing at me, but why have two sets of standards? Would that woman have called another typical woman she didn’t know “cute”. Highly doubtful.
“Cute” is a stereotype. It’s a label that contributes to keeping the voice of those with Down syndrome small.
It’s true that at six years old my daughter is cute. I love to snuggle her. She has adorable glasses that slide down her nose, big eyes, and a bright smile. Her clothes are sometimes a titch big on her, and that’s endearing, and she has delicate features, small fingers, and a tiny pug nose. I get that she’s cute, but please let’s not let that define her; let’s not let that be a factor that holds her back, and tears her down. Let’s look beyond appearances, past cute, to building on potential and feelings of self-worth tied to intrinsic factors. Let’s acknowledge the person with a simple “hello,” instead of talking about them like they’re not even there.
Babies are cute. Let’s leave it at that.
Very well said. Cute is for babies. and besides, we don’t talk around people, we talk to them.
Thanks Philip, and excellent distinction!
I chose to read this entry first, probably because I’m a retired teacher of children with special needs, and I’m particularly drawn to children with Down Syndrome.
I love that you have undertaken to educate adults on why the word ‘cute’ in this context, is ill-advised. You explained it so well. I commend you for that.
Thank you for reading Miriam, and I appreciate your kind words.