‘Hello Kitty is not a cat’ is just an argument in semantics

marissavoo/deviantart

marissavoo/deviantart

Few two-dimensional cartoon characters graduate into global stardom like Hello Kitty has. What started off as a way to appease Japanese females by connecting them to British culture, she has become an omnipresent icon raking in tons of money to support her and her London-based family from an enterprise of over 22,000 officially-licensed products.

If you missed it today, the Internet went ablaze after a Los Angeles Times article revealed that Hello Kitty (real name Kitty White) is not, and has never been, a cat.

Christine R. Yano, an anthropologist from the University of Hawaii who has been studying the Hello Kitty phenomena for years, was dutifully corrected by representatives from Sanrio when she dropped the C-bomb.

Hello Kitty is not a cat. She’s a cartoon character. She is a little girl. She is a friend. But she is not a cat. She’s never depicted on all fours. She walks and sits like a two-legged creature. She does have a pet cat of her own, however, and it’s called Charmmy Kitty.

Surprising? Maybe. But should we feel so aghast by it? No.

A brief history of Kitty White

Kitty’s backstory was no mystery. A Scorpio “little girl” born into a family in the suburbs of London, she has a twin sister named Mimmy (who now we have to assume is the introverted, less extravagant one of the pair), and enjoys baking, music and traveling. Her most popular motto is “You can never have too many friends.” She has two pets– a cat and a hamster.

What cat do you know who can do all that?

According to Yano, Kitty White emerged in the 1970s when the Japanese were particularly fond of British culture. This year, the Hello Kitty brand will turn 40, and there’s even a first-ever Hello Kitty convention being held in Los Angeles.  (Why it has taken 40 years to officially have a con around the brand, I have no idea.)

But why is she not a cat?

It has been well-believed that Kitty was conceptualized from a Japanese bobtail cat. While there is not much evidence that Sanrio actually intended for that, it’s not surprising to hear from their representatives that Kitty is not a cat.

As the quote above explained, Hello Kitty is a cartoon character. She may eat, sleep and breathe akin to a house cat, but she walks, socializes and bakes like, well, a human. Which in fact, makes her a cartoon inspired by a cat.

Are you feeling me here? It all just comes down to semantics, and how we relate to a cartoon differently than how we relate to a cat.

norman reedus walking dead hello kitty

The company probably feels it very necessary to clarify as a part of its branding strategy. If we somehow keep buying into the fact that she’s a cat, isn’t it then feasible that we treat her as one? Will it stunt her growth as a global icon, a la Barbie? Perhaps.

Hello Kitty vs. other cats

Let me offer another way to look at this. Take Grumpy Cat for instance. While his popularity dwarfs in comparison to Kitty White’s, you can already tell that he’s not going to be worth as much money as Hello Kitty in his lifetime. He’s a cat. He’s got one expression. Albeit, a very popular expression, but we can’t imagine him in fantastic scenarios like we can with Hello Kitty, which is the real reason we love cartoons in the first place. We can make them as complex as we want, as relatable as we want, in whatever environment and emotion we choose.

And as children, it’s easier to be given that sense of creative freedom. A child’s imagination will take Hello Kitty and Mickey Mouse far, but can only do so much with a grumpy cat or dopey-faced feline.

hello-kitty-head

Her simple caricature and blank face give people a canvas on which they can emote. We look at her and we can envision her as happy, sad, pensive, friendly, frustrated — whatever we want. She’s been blended into other areas of pop culture because if it’s one thing people love more than Hello Kitty, it’s Hello Kitty mash-ups.

All in all, who cares, right?

Childhood ruined. Mind blown. 40-year lies. EVERYTHING YOU KNEW WAS A LIE. All the sensational articles today will make you feel like Sanrio committed the most elaborate and heinous crime in the latest installment of #FirstWorldProblems. But if the company truly and deeply cared about how the world should view Kitty White, it would have had a longer PR campaign surrounding this topic years ago, when a vicious online rumor spread about the dark history of Kitty White’s inception.

It’s all about Sanrio creating a long-lasting, iconic and yet ambiguous character, protecting the integrity of Kitty White and preserving her history (which cannot be for a real cat, obviously.)

Update 8/28/2014 10:21 am PST

Rocketnews24 got the lowdown from a Sanrio PR rep on the overall confusion. It’s as I expected. Here’s the update:

“We never said she was human.” The PR rep calmly explained that Hello Kitty is a 擬人化 (gijinka), a personification or anthropomorphization. Basically just like Micky Mouse, the Sanrio representative told me. No one would mistake the Disney character for a human–but at the same time he’s not quite a mouse. Just like Hello Kitty isn’t a human, she’s not quite a cat either.

 

And here I leave you with the worst Hello Kitty tribute ever.

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Rocky Vy
Rocky Vy 101 posts

<a href="http://www.artofonline.com">Digital marketing consultant</a> by trade, a freelance writer by passion. Also, anything that involves innovative tech, fashion, entrepreneurialism, Pantone 021C and pandas are cool, too. Follow him <a href="http://www.twitter.com/rockyvy">@rockyvy</a>.