by: Mimi Nguyen
“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 an infant animal made helpless. To my roommate, these descriptions are synonymous. The word “cute” took on a whole new meaning and I realized it has always had multiple definitions and implications, 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 remained speechless.
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. The Pulitzer Prize winning poet Mary Oliver especially hates the word “cute” when used to describe nature’s animals and plants, but what she says can also be applied to people. “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.”
When most people call me “cute” I think they are describing my short four feet eleven inches of stature, my bubbly personality, and my Asian heritage. It is often difficult to detach myself from the clichéd images of wide eyed Korean pop stars, Japanese school girls, and giggly anime characters. I’m Vietnamese, but I was born in Long Beach, California, never listen to Korean pop, never worn a Japanese school uniform and never had animated stars and hearts jump from my eyes. Despite these facts, I’m still grouped into the same “cute” category as these caricatures and this disturbs me because the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced these stock images of Asian women come from one primary stereotype – the “China Doll.”
The “China Doll” is characterized as a docile woman with childlike qualities such as submissiveness and reverence. Her opposite is the “Dragon Lady,” a domineering temptress with a violent streak. Television and cinema commonly use one of these two characterizations for their Asian female lead – think Lucy Liu in Ally McBeal or Ziyi Zhang in Memoirs of a Geisha. I’ll leave “Dragon Ladies” for another discussion, but “China Dolls” definitely fall under the sphere of “cute.” The obedient nature associated with “China Dolls” is exactly what Oliver means when she explains how “cute” is synonymous with “powerless,” “capturable,” and “trainable.” The word “China” brings to mind several definitions and images, the most obvious is the country – which implicates ethnic otherness or third world inferiority – but the first image in my mind is the translucent ceramic material used to make fine dishware and – more importantly – children’s dolls. Already connecting “China Dolls” with a breakable material, we are encouraged further to think of these women as lifeless and bendable playthings. Dolls that are “powerless” and “trainable.” Objects.
Of course, “cute” is used to describe other women too, and not just petite Asians. Red heads, waitresses, grandmothers. We even use “cute” to describe things that aren’t human. Puppies are cute. Fresh manicures are cute. New shoes are cute. The word has become so overused it has lost all significant meaning. So, when we describe people as “cute,” do they become as banal and insignificant as the word?
I’m not sure of this because my “cuteness” had definitely proved advantageous 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. People tend to be more comfortable approaching me about directions or clarification than the other taller, whiter, women around me. Incidentally, the majority of my friends are Caucasian, which is a result of my predominately white undergraduate and graduate programs; tack that on for another later discussion.
But even as I write this rant it is painfully obvious to me that I too, misuse the word. For a short time I had an online dating profile and the way I described myself was “A cute Asian girl with hot pink highlights.” The strange thing is 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. It’s completely lazy and that’s why “cute” has lost all significant meaning. Those who overuse the adjective lack the motivation to think of a more accurate description which ultimately becomes an act of apathy or disrespect.
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 pretentious, but the best case scenario could be revolutionary in the way we treat and understand each other. The next time my roommate calls me “cute,” I’ll do my best impression of Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, say, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means,” and suggest another adjective such as resplendent, ingenious, sassy, diligent, clever, approachable, rapturous, spirited, irreplaceable…
Tien (Mimi) Nguyen is a former TriQuarterly Online Art Director, and nonfiction and fiction editor. She is currently pursuing an MFA in creative nonfiction at Northwestern University. She contributes regularly to TriQuarterly Online and has worked for The Long Beach Press-Telegram, Runes Literary Magazine and The Iowa Review.
 Oliver, Mary. Blue Pastures. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc. 1995. p92-93.