Image description: Sanrio character Hello Kitty is balancing on one toe with a sign that says “black lives matter.” She is wearing a pink dress, bow, and ballet shoes and is surrounded by hearts and sparkles.
Image credits: https://www.tumgir.com/tag/hello%20kitty%20acab
Throughout my childhood, my mom would constantly buy me clothes, toys, accessories and even lunchboxes adorned with Hello Kitty. My bed had a Hello Kitty comforter accompanied by a multitude of Hello Kitty stuffed animals in different outfits – mermaid, princess, student; a Hello Kitty clock hung on the wall; a pink Hello Kitty lamp rested on my little bedside table; Hello Kitty stickers were plastered all over my drawers and walls. To make matters even more absurd, younger me was basically a walking ad for Hello Kitty merchandise. She made frequent appearances in my outfits, whether it was through my T-shirt, shoes, backpack, or jewelry.
I never really understood why my mother chose to indoctrinate me with a deep-rooted reverence for Hello Kitty, but her presence in my formative years still resonates with me today. To me, she is an emblem of my girlhood as well as principles of peace, harmony, and warmth; and many teenagers now can agree with my nostalgic relationship with the endearing fictional cat even if their room didn’t look like Sanrio (the company that produces Hello Kitty) threw up on it.
In fact, Hello Kitty has always universally represented “cuteness, agreeableness, and friendship.” Created by Japanese designer Yuko Shimizu for Sanrio in 1974, Hello Kitty has contributed to the propagation of Japanese kawaii culture and left an everlasting impression on youths who grew up with her.
However, in recent years, Hello Kitty has been appropriated by modern media and consumer culture, therefore warping the sentimentality and iconic symbolism that surrounds the character into a tool to aestheticize race, gender, and identity politics.
During the Black Lives Matter protests and riots in mid-2020, Instagram was flooded with infographics advocating for the deconstruction of institutional racism and movement towards unprejudiced public policy. Interestingly, Hello Kitty made prominent features in these posts. Most popularly seen were pink glittery edits of Hello Kitty surrounded by hearts with the words “ACAB” or “Black Lives Matter.” Although these photos flooded social media timelines and were even reposted on many of my own friends’ stories, one thing was glaringly obvious: Hello Kitty ACAB edits were merely being shared because of their easy consumability and appeal.
Although there was a clear and conscious effort to educate the public about these mass uprisings and galvanize change in the policing system, the aestheticization of Hello Kitty in these memes diluted the importance of the information they were supposed to deliver. Through infographics like these, Hello Kitty has come to represent the trivialization of serious topics in modern media. The juxtaposition of the cute cartoon cat with a hard-hitting political statement conveyed a message that was much easier to handle than the actual brutality and injustice that the Black community was confronted with.
By aestheticizing brutal violence, both sharers and creators of the posts expressed a level of indifference to the situation. Reframing the situation through a cute, non-threatening medium like Hello Kitty meant they no longer had to come to terms with the real fear that Black Americans had been and are distressingly continuing to face. Rather, they could step back and experience the social movement through a warped reality, with a Japanese feline as the face of activism.
Like much of the news and media today, the Hello Kitty memes during BLM glamorized civic disarray by sanitizing the truth. And although the people who shared the “Hello Kitty thinks ACAB” posts definitely did not have the intention of undermining Black struggles, they inadvertently contributed to the romanticization of violence in contemporary media and “woke” culture. In fact, this connects back to the rise of infographic activism at its core: its neoliberal nature misconstrues far left-wing and more radical attitudes toward abolition, and instead paints it as more palatable to liberals. This misinterpretation of political messages on social media is thus reflected in the Hello Kitty memes.
The Hello Kitty memes also allude to another broader media phenomenon that has become popularized in recent years: people can simply repost an infographic on their Instagram stories just to give themselves a pat on the back and stroke their egos. But it’s important to remember that there are many alternative ways to become an activist and express solidarity instead of reposting a glittery Hello Kitty meme that perpetuates this connection between self-conceit and the idealization of politics. Hello Kitty holding a BLM sign definitely isn’t going to end racism, but educating oneself and others can actually inspire change. Donating to organizations dedicated to specific social movements, participating in a protest, or voting for beneficial legislation are all ways to move past the often performative nature of modern activism. Just leave Hello Kitty and Instagram aesthetics out of it.
Unfortunately, in addition to unintentionally propelling performative activism, Hello Kitty has become even further morphed into a damaging cultural media icon. With the rise of harmful stereotypes associated with girls who like Hello Kitty, her character has come to propel the societal dichotomization of women and widespread encouragement of internalized misogyny.
These divisions are reflected in modern social media trends: one shining example is the VSCO girl vs. “Bruh” girl distinction that arose on TikTok in 2019. If you don’t know what this was, TikTok popularized these two labels for different “types” of girls. VSCO girls were more traditionally feminine with a general liking of Hydro Flasks, scrunchies, all things pink, dresses, flowers, makeup, and fashion; they adhered to the broad socialization of women as delicate and gentle. On the opposite end of the spectrum lay the “Bruh” girls who enjoyed sports, the outdoors, video games, edgy humor, and sweatpants. They served as tomboys who “weren’t like other girls” and instead were “one of the guys.”
For a while, much of the content on TikTok was in reference to these categorizations, listing characteristics of each type of girl, making jokes about them, and even proving oneself in light of these stereotypes.
However, the typecasting of all girls into only two classifications contributed to patriarchal expectations of female competition over male validation. VSCO girls were looked down upon, “Bruh” girls were favored, and girls were expected to be one or the other. If they weren’t the way that guys deemed as desirable and “not cringe,” it felt as though they were failing to reach the expectations that society was imposing on them. But in reality, girls don’t just fall into two “types” and the demand for them to fit into these pressuring labels was, at its roots, misogynistic.
Similarly, the idea of a “Hello Kitty girl” became popular around 2020, emulating the VSCO girl and “Bruh” girl conceptions. Once again, this girl was “not like other girls”: she didn’t care about scrunchies or sports; instead she had an affinity for unique niches like Sanrio, plushies, and Japanese kawaii culture. Through this, Hello Kitty once again became a defining feature of an aesthetic that was used to promote harmful narratives. Hello Kitty symbolized being quirky and cute, and liking the character supposedly allowed a girl to stand out because that implied that she possessed unconventional interests and therefore had depth.
In reality, liking Hello Kitty or not doesn’t determine whether or not a girl has depth or is interesting. A girl can like Hello Kitty and not care about what that interest means to others. The stereotypes surrounding “Hello Kitty girls” reinforce society’s insatiable desire to label women and pit them against each other by putting them in antithetical roles. This polarization of media trends is what allows the patriarchy to gain dominance in gender politics, as it reduces women’s existences to being solely fueled to achieve male attention.
Marginalizing beliefs such as these are what contorted Hello Kitty’s original connotations of friendship and harmony into those of idealized politics. But we can redefine these toxic ideas surrounding the Sanrio character and return to peace by choosing to reject these diminutive trends. When something becomes popular again, ask yourself where its trendiness comes from. In doing so, we can avoid unintentionally oppressing racial and sexual communities in social media, shatter stereotypes, and practice productive activism together.