Feline Hitler look-alikes. Dogs attired in hats and bow-ties. Rabbits wearing lace bonnets. Images of these animals abound on the Internet with a host of websites paying homage to their cuteness. Emphasising the cuteness of non-human animals by anthropomorphising them is a common trend online, but there is also another side to the human relationship with other animals that has created a different category of cuteness. The blogger, Tiffiny Carlson, remarks that there has been an “onslaught of virtual love for disabled animals” who are not dressed to look like humans or imagined as human look-alikes to signify as cute. Rather, an animal’s disability becomes the signifier for cuteness. Carlson defines this as “cute-ifying disability” wherein disability is what makes an animal cute. In this context, a dog with an artificial leg, a gold-fish with a “wheelchair”, and a cat with visible breathing difficulties register as cute precisely because of their disabilities.
In this paper, I draw on Carlson’s idea of “cute-ifying” disability to analyse the popularity of the cat, Lil Bub (https://www.facebook.com/iamlilbub). In doing so, I name non-human animals as animals and human-animals as humans. This is not to state that humans are not animals, but rather to use these terms to make visible the hierarchical relationship developed between them.
(Re)defining Disability and Cuteness
Critical disability studies aims to challenge and unpack the norms through which disability is dominantly represented, understood and politicised in terms of a “lack”. In keeping with this intention, Tanya Titchkosky argues that perceptions about disability need to move away from defining disability as an object of knowledge. Instead, Titchkosky advocates for an experience that conceives of disability as a “space of interpretive encounter” (56) that enables a “way of perceiving and orienting toward the world” (4). Here, Titchkosky discusses disability in terms of the norms through which disability is treated, thus intimating that “disability” and “ability” are socio-cultural constructs that establish the norms through which human capacity and capability (mental, physical and emotional) are understood. In line with this observation, this section intends to analyse the norms through which disability is formed, and in turn, how these norms inform human-animal relations and their impact on “cuteness”.
One of the fundamental norms that undergirds understandings of disability is the idea that disability is inferior to “ability”, so much so that the philosopher, Paul W. Taylor suggests that human illness and disablement equates to an animal’s existence, regardless if they are disabled or not. He specifies, “We [humans] have a sense of gratitude at the good fortune that we were not born one of them [animals], a sense that comes sharply into focus when, through some abnormality of birth or by some accident or disease a human being is reduced to leading an animal’s simple kind of life…In comparison with the severely restricted kind of existence that is the lot of plants and animals, our own human modes of life are naturally appreciated for being so much richer, fuller, more interesting and desirable in every way” (158). Taylor asserts that disability becomes equated to animality through defining both as simpler examples of existence. Animals are therefore recognised in a similar way to disabled humans, wherein both are rendered as reduced facsimiles of “interesting” and “desirable” human existence.
Other scholars of critical human-animal studies, such as Kari Weil and Cary Wolfe also make a connection between animality and disability, but do so in such a way that challenges normative assumptions about both as lacking agency. Kari Weil argues that the normative ways in which the complexity of human expression and consciousness is measured according to linguistic ability is not necessarily correct, rather, it is “an obstacle to a…fullness of vision” (88). Weil claims that this “fullness of vision” is expressed by “beings who are removed from ‘normal’ sociolinguistic behavior. These beings may be nonhuman animals as well as persons with certain linguistic and cognitive disabilities” (88-89). Drawing on the example of Temple Grandin, (who has written about her life with autism and how this has enabled her to form a bond with animals), both Weil and Wolfe state that the idea of animals and disabled humans as “simple” needs re-assessment. Wolfe makes this clear when she cites Grandin’s first book, Emergence: Labeled Autistic, as demonstrating the interior narrative to autistic thought and experience, and therefore enabling an “unthinkable” act “because it had been medical dogma…that there was no ‘inside,’ no inner life, in the autistic…” (111). Wolfe uses this re-conception of the inner life of disability to think through the complexity of animals’ “interior” life. This is not to conflate animals with disabled humans, but instead, to offer a more nuanced understanding of representations of difference.
Rosemarie Garland-Thomson analyses how these representations of difference normalise disability as a spectacle. She writes, “the history of disabled people in the Western world is in part the history of being on display, of being visually conspicuous while politically and socially erased” (56). Disability, then, is visibilised as a spectacle to be looked at as “other”, and in this act of looking, disabilities are rendered as irrelevant to “ordinary” normality. Garland- Thomson further indicates that curiosity preoccupies the human eye when gazing on perceived disabilities, wherein the compulsion to “gawk with abandon at the prosthetic hook, the empty sleeve, the scarred flesh…” occurs without seeing (or wanting to see) the whole body “of the person with a disability” (57). In this context, those who gawk fail to see the interior life Wolfe and Weir state is taken away from disability. Instead, disabled people are labelled in terms of their perceived anomalies to a normative social order. Garland-Thomson states that this process of looking at disability is considered “illicit” (2002: 57) and therefore the need to look away accompanies the compulsion to “gawk”.
Why is this process of looking illicit? The stories of those who contend with disabilities provide an explanation. For example, the blogger, BigMamaDiva2, writes about how her son’s diagnosis of PDD-NOS (Pervasive Development Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified) was the official label used to identify the series of “symptoms” her son was exhibiting (1). PDD-NOS is under the umbrella of the Autism spectrum of diagnoses. In her blog, BigMamaDiva2 narrates how people perceive her son through a narrow lens defined by the hegemony of normalcy and the assumptions attached to autism. Through this lens, her son is deemed “limited” and “rude”. Part of the reason that he is perceived in this manner is the fact that he looks back and even stares intently at the people who misjudge him. The look of judgement people give him is thrown back in their faces, accounted for, and not dismissed. Even if BigMamaDiva2’s son does not intend to challenge these people, the fact that he does not give them the opportunity to look away, or to look with impunity, creates a sense of discomfort for those who mark out his “disability” and look down on him because of it.
This exchange in looking/being looked at contributes to the illicitness in looking at disability because of the discomfort it brings to those who stare and those who are stared at. There is a message that informs this sense of discomfort; it is a message that tells those who are looked at that they are being judged as helpless and inferior. Extending this discomfort is the fact that those who are looked at can look back and stare in response to those who castigate them. This desire to “look away”, as Garland-Thomson puts it, intimates the need to look away before the person being stared at has the chance to look back. In this context, this sense of looking at/looking away attempts to construct a hierarchy wherein the exceptional is pathologized and the “ordinary” is normalised (Garland-Thomson 56).
However, when a person views animals, a different kind of gaze can be evoked. This kind of gaze is informed by cuteness and how it frames some animals as human objects of appreciation and adoration. By “cuteness,” I refer to Joshua Dale’s definition of “cute” as:
juvenile features that cause an affective reaction, somatic cuteness…namely, large head and small, round body; short extremities; big eyes; small nose and mouth. Whether genetic, or activated by learned signals, the cuteness response is also associated with a range of behavioral aspects, including: childlike, dependent, gentle, intimate, clumsy, and nonthreatening. Such physical and behavioral features trigger an attachment based on the desire to protect and take care of the cute object. (1)
The reasons that contribute to the illicitness of looking at human disability are the factors which “cute-fy” animals and disability. It is precisely because of the animals’ supposed “disabled” characteristics of helplessness, inferiority and child-like appeal that package them as cute. In this context, this kind of animal refers to a domesticated pet. If that pet has a disability, this sense of cuteness is enhanced as it emphasises the factors which construct them as cute in the first place. Disability is thus “cute-fied” through asserting signifiers of disability as cute.
The following section draws on this process of cute-fying disability to chart the ways in which animals are framed in a human/animal hierarchy that conceptualises disabled animals as commodified spectacles for human consumption. The following section also demonstrates how cute-fying disability also engenders a re-reading of disability in the manner advocated by Titchkosky, Weir, and Wolfe to “see” and contend with disabilities in a more ethical manner.
Lil Bub: Commodity, Charity and Companion
Lil Bub, a cat which has become a celebrity, is an example of how “cute-ifying” disability occurs online. According to Mike Bridavsky (Lil Bub’s carer/owner), this cat was:
discovered as the runt of a healthy feral litter in a tool shed in rural Indiana, she was taken in as a rescue when it was clear that she would require special care. BUB was born with a multitude of genetic anomalies […] She is a “perma-kitten”, which means she will stay kitten sized and maintain kitten-like features her entire life. She also has an extreme case of dwarfism, which means her limbs are disproportionately small relative to the rest of her body and she has some difficulty moving around. She has very short, stubby legs and a weird, long, serpent-like body. Her lower jaw is significantly shorter than her upper jaw, and her teeth never grew in which is why her tongue is always hanging around. (1)
As of the 16th of April 2014, Lil Bub’s genetic anomalies have garnered 669,617 likes on the Facebook page dedicated to her. This page has links to an online shop selling merchandise (for example, shirts, calendars, and mugs) highlighting Lil Bub’s genetic anomalies, as well as a YouTube channel which showcases Lil Bub’s disability as cuteness. A documentary about Lil Bub (Lil Bub & Friendz) also won the award for best online feature film at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival. On both the Facebook page and the YouTube channel, people have written about how cute Lil Bub is. Many use highly emotive language to express how cute they think Lil Bub is, writing that they are “dying” from Lil Bub’s cuteness to how “overwhelmingly sweet” Lil Bub’s face is. These comments are predominantly in response to images of Lil Bub walking and sitting. On the Facebook page, these images are paired with captions written by Lil Bub’s owner and fans of Lil Bub. These captions imagine a context to Lil Bub’s expression of permanent cuteness, which shows her tongue hanging out and eyes that boggle in a look of surprise. For example, the caption “Friday!” is written above a picture of Lil Bub staring at the camera. Another caption, “must be raining yoghurt” is written above a picture of Lil Bub with a similar expression. Images of Lil Bub are predominantly the same, but the captions change to add diversity to what viewers can see on Facebook. Lil Bub also features on the online portal, I Can Has Cheezburger, which has a page dedicated to animals with disabilities (http://icanhas.cheezburger.com/tag/disabled).
Carlson questions the popularity of these animals, and more specifically, why animal disabilities are considered as cute. Taking the definition of cute as categorising something/one as infantilised, needing assistance, and simpler than oneself, it can be argued that this definition matches with the views expressed by Taylor, as well as akin to how disability is seen in terms of “normality”. In this context, cuteness can encourage reductive ideas about disability and those who are differently-abled as “simple”.
In Lil Bub’s case, several memes are made about her, including one with her usual look of surprise. This meme (http://cheezburger.com/7459833088#comments), which features on I Can Has Cheezburger, notes, “most cats look at you, questioning your intelligence…not this one.” The assumption that Lil Bub is not “condescending” (like other cats are supposed to be) is due to the fact that her tongue is sticking out because she has not grown any teeth. Her disability is framed as non-threatening, less confrontational than other cats, and therefore is a cuter, loveable option. In this context, disability is used to neutralise and make disability a manageable spectacle that can be commented on. Consequently, cuteness makes disability palatable by rearranging how people can consume and grasp the spectacle of disability.
As mentioned earlier in this paper, Garland-Thomson writes about the illicitness which surrounds looking at disability. Cute-ifying disability through animals can remove the illicitness that informs the interaction Garland-Thomson describes. The online presence of cute animals, who are “cute” because of their disabilities, invites the human gaze to rest on their disabilities and encourages them to linger, to keep looking without feeling the need to look away. This desire to linger on the cute animal informs the commodification of Lil Bub. For example, the range of products produced to celebrate Lil Bub’s cuteness highlight how viewers are invited to visually absorb everything to do with Lil Bub. Cute-ifying disability, in terms of packaging “cute disabilities” as commodities, re-signifies how humans can perceive and view disability through rearranging the “awkward partnership” between disability and ability. Disability, in this case, can be marketed as “cute” and bought and sold because of its cuteness.
However, the marketing of cuteness can also act as an entry point to think through and create awareness about complex social issues. For instance, cuteness can promote awareness about the “right to life” of disabled animals, which is one of Bridavsky’s aims. On a fact sheet written by Bridavsky, the message of celebrating difference is expressed:
Beyond being overwhelmingly cute, exceptionally smart and painfully witty, BUB is an advocate for homeless and special needs pets all over the universe. Since before she was a star she has made it a point to spread a message of positivity. She proves that being different is better and she encourages the adoption of pets and helping those less fortunate. To date Lil BUB has directly raised more than $60,000 for various charities through her online store and meet-and-greets at animal shelters all of the country while spreading awareness about the importance of adoption, and spaying and neutering your pets. (1)
While Bridavsky focuses on difference through the figure of Lil Bub’s cuteness, this does not detract from the potential cuteness has to expand normative horizons and go beyond acting in the service of enabling reductive norms. For instance, through Bridavsky’s initiative, Lil Bub has partnered with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) to generate funds for cats with special needs. In this context, Lil Bub’s “cute-fied” disability enables humans to think charitably towards animals with disabilities, and brings awareness to animals with special needs. Moreover, the online presence of Lil Bub and other disabled animals, and their packaging as cute creatures, can operate in the service of disabled people. This is not to state that animals are only relevant in terms of human existence, but to specify that representations of disabilities can resignify normative ideas about disability as something that is other to the complexity of human existence. Viewing an animal’s disability online can be a recuperative process with humans with disabilities. For instance, Nancy, a person who commented on Carlson’s idea of “cute-ifying disability” on 24 February 2014, remarked: “Children identify with cartoons and animals. A lot. Children have told me how Winter the dolfin has a fake tail, and relate it to their leg brace. Or how they saw a dog in a wheelchair and they identified with it since they are in a wheelchair [sic]” (1).
As the examples above demonstrate, Lil Bub’s popularity can be read in terms of the interaction between the commodification and characterisation of animals as cute, the use of cuteness and disability to raise awareness and funding for charities, and the relationship between animals and humans as companions and sources of inspiration for one another.
Cute-fying disability is informed through this complex assemblage that reorients one-sided ideas of cuteness as simply enabling ethical engagements with disability or disenabling such negotiations. At the heart of this is the question: “in whose interest is this for?” As Carlson notes, the issue is not so much in seeing animals as cute, but in not seeing humans with disabilities in a way that sees them as human beings (1). Carlson takes issue with the fact that the same level of benevolence and friendliness offered to disabled animals online is not extended to humans with disabilities. By this, Carlson is not suggesting that people see other people with disabilities as “cute”. Rather, she, like Garland-Thomson, advocate for the “process of dismantling the institutional, attitudinal, legislative, economic, and architectural barriers that keep people with disabilities from full participation in society” (75).
The example of Lil Bub demonstrates the various ways through which these barriers are erected and challenged. For instance, Lil Bub has been framed in terms of a human/animal hierarchy that positions her as figure for human entertainment. Her disabilities have also positioned her within another kind of hierarchy wherein she is packaged as less complex and less threatening than “normal” cats, as suggested by the meme that claims that Lil Bub does not judge people, unlike other cats. Simultaneously, Lil Bub’s popularity has garnered awareness towards animals with disabilities and the help humans can offer to assist them. Moreover, Lil Bub, and other disabled animals that are represented as cute, are relatable as companions for humans and can be a source of inspiration for many people. In mapping out the nuances to cute-fying disability in Lil Bub’s case, this paper is not invested in stating whether cute-fying disability is wrong or right, but rather, to point towards the ways in which cute-fying disability can simultaneously work for and against ethical engagements with disability for humans and animals.
BigMamaDiva2. “Winn-ER son!!!” BigMamaDiva2, 2014. 10 Jan. 2014 ‹http://bigmamadiva2.blogspot.com.au/›.
Bridavsky, Mike. Lil Bub: About. n.d. 2 Apr. 2014 ‹http://lilbub.com/about›.
Carlson, Tiffiny. “Animals and Wheelchairs: Cute-ifying Disability.” Easy Stand Blog, 19 Feb. 2013. 17 Feb. 2014 ‹http://blog.easystand.com/2013/02/animals-and-wheelchairs-cute-ifying-disability/›.
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