A text had arrived oh Ruby's phone, and it emitted a baby-like groan by ways of notification. We were on a walking tour of Tainan, Ruby's hometown city. Ruby, my host in Taiwan, plucked her cell phone out of her pocket in time for the second utterance.
"You woke me u-u-u-u-p..."
Ruby's current text message notification is a soundbite from Gudetama.
Gudetama is an egg, or more appropriately, an egg yoke baby. It's a lazy egg yoke baby. A simple orange circle with two lines for eyes, a circle for a mouth, two arms, two legs, and sometimes two cheeky buttocks, Gudetama uses bacon for a blanket. He really doesn't like to be woken up. You can see this in over 250 youtube episodes of Gudetama and a strange man in an orange suit, who explores different angles of Gudetama's innocent laziness and existential thoughts. With an attitude that has been described as "defeatist" and "lacking spunk", Gudetama admits sometimes that he eventually knows he'll be eaten.
"Why do you have a Gudetama cell phone ring?"
I have been acquainted to Gudetama earlier in our walk when we passed by a Seven-11. He acts as a sort of corporate mascot for Seven-11's in Taiwan and Japan. Walk in there, and you can purchase lunchboxes, cups, and chopsticks with Gudetama's likeness on them. Most other purchases will be accompanied by a free Gudetama sticker at the cash register.
"Well, I like Gudetama. We Taiwanese really love Gudetama," Ruby responded to me. "He's so cute!"
But it's clearly not just the Gudetama cartoon that Taiwanese, and maybe East Asians in general, really love. Before, we had walked past a modest collection of anime animal statues assembled in rows in a park. Stylized chipmunks, hedgehogs, cats, and dogs, their geometrical arrangement left no room for thought of predation; only scripted coexistence. Stores, too: walk down a street in Japan or Taiwan, and you'll be compelled to buy ice cream by a giant strawberry cartoon, fast food by a family of fish sticks with cute faces drawn in, or shrimp cakes by a rotund statue of a cartoon papa shrimp. Now, we approach two large, friendly autobot Transformer statues perched near a river. The endless barrage of cartoon advertising is, simply, amazing.
As we near a stop on our itinerary, a historical village, I spy massive baby cartoonized ninjas.
"Ruby, I think this cartoon advertising is amazingly dangerous and, potentially, fraught with all sorts of imperialist baggage."
I mean, just think about it! Cartoonization doesn't just stop at store mascots. You can also buy everyday clothing to make you look like your favorite cartoon, too. For example, you can wear pikachu hats, or gudetama socks. One particularly strong trend amongst women seems to invoke a cartoonized schoolgirl image. Oversize bows flop behind girl's hair or ironically large bowties adorn their collars, plaid skirts ruffle around Tokyo, and long socks and shiny shoes are acceptable for many ages.
Ruby snaps a picture of me with the ninjette, hides a private smile, and then cocks an eyebrow.
"Yeah, OK? We see cartoons everywhere, and then start to dress a bit like them. What is your point?" Ruby questioned.
"It's not just the clothes."
Ultimately, I think cartoon inundation acts as a massive normative force that reinforces and further influences a dangerous beauty image. Look at many advertisements, and I'm sure you'll too find that the girls in them feel more baby-like. In Japan, girl dance troupes a la adolescent K-pop are a common entertainment; one I saw were eight girls aged 13 - 18, singing and dancing provocatively and calling themselves "chubbiness".
While some can attain this description naturally, others modify their bodies to become baby-like: colored bug-eyed contacts were common in Thailand and Taiwan, facial reconstruction exists among Chinese Han to reduce wideness, and there even exists an Chinese app called beautyPlus that retroactively edits ones' photos to slim one's face and enlarge one's eyes. All this may be to chase that elusive ideal of baby-like attributes: large foreheads, small cheeks, large innocent eyes that trip our brains neural circuits and conjure the feeling that we are looking at a baby.
What happens on the outside invariably reflects onto the inside: A society that places value on women looking like babies will place value on baby-like actions, too. The New York Times recently published research suggesting that Japanese women have traditionally spoken high above their natural pitch, thanks in part to subconscious societal training. Friends told me at length how intelligence actually hurts women in the Japanese dating world; an intelligent woman was dangerous, difficult to control. A group of local friends showed me a picture of their ideal couple: in it, a masculine, hardworking man sits, showing his computer programming to a tiny, child-like wife, who cocks her head confusedly and smiles.
We finish meandering through houses too small for modern humans, and make our way to a bubble tea stand. A baby-faced cartoon bubble tea cup affirms the tea's goodness in an ad, its exuberance slightly creepy given its composition.
We good naturedly sip for a bit.
Ruby offers, "That might be true, I guess. But I always assumed cartoon's big eyes to derive from a fixation with the relatively larger eyes of Westerners. It almost sounds like you're blaming us for reacting to our own position on the global imperialist hierarchy."
I stop, and stare.
Sure, western-centrism contributes to this. Many animes feature a range of hair colors beyond the black and deep brown of native Taiwanese. Perhaps as a result, hair dyes and colored contacts have arisen as popular styles or fads among young Thailanders, Taiwanese, and Japanese people. I certainly cannot hold anyone at fault for being influenced by the massive machine that is Hollywood and American cultural imperialism. And American commercial media has many, many problems of its own.
But I don't think that this possible origin should excuse from critical analysis any large-scale popular cultures that might perpetuate notions of Western beauty or cultural inferiority. Besides, there may be elements, such as the specifically baby-like nature or exaggerated positive emotions, that are independent from Western influence. Qualities like these are damaging on their own. And given the ultimate goal of these cartoons - to sell things directly and indirectly - I think they deserve thought. As global citizens seeking to reach a place of self-awareness and self-determination, who are we if we cannot offer a good-natured critique of an aspect of another's commercial popular culture, and hope for collaborative improvement?
Speaking of which, another text message arrived.
"You woke me uuu-u-u-u-up..."
Next time you see a Gudetama cartoon, fight the urge to immediately give into his lazy and sleepy antics. Instead, stop and think. Is this what you want your image of beauty to become? Is that how you want your society trained?
Be wary, be careful. Be warned.