top of page

Cuteness, Infantilism, and Failure in Queer Aesthetics

Updated: Mar 1, 2020

In the West, humans have historically only had two gender roles to perform, and two genders to identify as. Now, increasing numbers of people — inspired in part by the cross-cultural insight that third gender roles and identities have existed in some form in non-Western cultures, and by the ability social media has given us to connect with others who share even our most rare and particular views and feelings are voicing their identity as neither binary male or female, but something nonbinary, something that doesn’t feel like masculinity or femininity fits.

There are enough nonbinary people in the Bay Area for us to have formed an identifiable subculture with an equally identifiable aesthetic. There’s a queer “look” now, and a queer set of attitudes; we have what marketing execs would call a Values and Lifestyles set. We are a target market, now, as well as a marginalized group.

Cuteness and failure

The queer-nonbinary look is cute, with strong elements of childishness (meant in an entirely value-neutral, aesthetic sense) — bright and pastel colors, lots of ornamentation, soft textures, representations of unicorns and other mythical creatures, and references to fandoms like Harry Potter.

Our subculture’s way of talking, like the wider queer culture, also centers a certain kind of failure. Queer failure is a recognized cultural element explained most clearly by Jack Halbertstam and Lee Edelman (and recently given a nuanced critique by Mari Ruti) — essentially, to be queer just is to be kept from certain narratives of success because of the way straight society is structured, and therefore queer responses to the specter of failure provide a platform to interrogate the validity of what late capitalism tells us is a successful life, a focus for creativity and art, and an impetus for forming new kinds of communities and lives well-lived.

The particular kind of failure that nonbinary culture focuses on is not given a treatment in any of these now-classic studies of “bad feelings” in queer theory. it’s not a failure to produce economically or reproduce sexually, but a failure to “adult.” We talk about our inability to do adulting, our failure to have sufficient executive function, our lack of “spoons.” Queer culture centers the idea that everyone is broken, everyone has a history of trauma — a radical departure from previous generations and other contemporary cultural groups, where talk of such vulnerability is a source of shame.

Clearly, there’s a confluence here between the aesthetic of cute childishness and the psychological focus on adulthood as something we are not able yet to realize that demands some thought. What is it about cute and childish things that speaks to the emergent nonbinary and agender culture here?

One theory: The cute aesthetic of weakness

“The zany, the cute, and the interesting call attention to their own weakness…in a way that is significantly not the case for other vernacular aesthetic categories. The glamorous and the handsome, for instance, do something like the exact opposite.” — Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories.

Cuteness as a category calls attention to its own weakness — according to Ngai it is “a way of aestheticizing powerlessness.” Cute things are by nature diminutive, incapable, and they inspire in us the desire to protect and to hold close, even to the point of consumption (as in, “I could just eat you up!”).

Glamorous things, by contrast, create a certain amount of distance, they hold their own space and inspire a kind of reverence. In self-consciously adopting an aesthetic of cuteness, nonbinary culture could be understood as calling attention to weakness too — the same kind of softness and vulnerability and failure that characterizes the way we talk about ourselves. Our cute and childish aesthetic is a way of signaling a refusal to “grow up” in the sense of becoming harder, more self-reliant, less comfortable with expressing emotionality and vulnerability. If we find strength in communities where we acknowledge and share in each others’ vulnerability and healing, then perhaps it stands to reason that the aesthetic tropes of these communities are cute and childish things.

Another theory: Avoiding the sexualization of gender

Because there is no history in the West of adult performances of adults identifying as third gender or of no gender, there is also no history of sexualizing behaviors that are not coded masculine or feminine. We simply don’t have a cultural construct of reading sexuality without gendered ideals.

As children, most of us are assigned male or female at birth, and most of us are taught to behave like little boys or little girls, whatever that means. We’re taught gendered rules of behavior and taste. As we grow up, our gender performance becomes sexualized — people who perform masculinity and/or femininity well are generally considered more sexually attractive. Gender is sexualized by gay and straight society to the point where it’s almost impossible for most people to imagine a sexuality that is not determined by or related strongly to gender, as Kate Bornstein points out. (It is, in fact, possible, and more prevalent in kinky communities than elsewhere)

In intentionally trying not to perform masculinity or femininity, or feeling incapable of or fundamentally disinterested in gender performance, in being read as “none of the above,” we are, I think, more likely to be read as either asexual or somehow pre-sexual, like children.

As nonbinary identities become more widely accepted and the performance of a nonbinary gender role begins to come into existence in the West, we perhaps find ourselves gravitating towards a childish, cute aesthetic because we don’t have access to an adult, sexualized culture that doesn’t feel inescapably gendered. In trying to create an aesthetic that is just for us, and that reflects that certain kind of softness and failure to adult that has become a keystone of nonbinary culture, we turn to cute and childish things. Glamour and handsomeness are sexy in a way that cuteness is not — it is also difficult to imagine a glamorous or handsome person without thinking about gender performance; glamorous models and actors are paragons of masculine and feminine allure.

More questions

I’m not sure if either of these theories fully capture nonbinary culture’s relationship to the cute and childish, but I think that examining the intersection of our aesthetic and our values is necessary work. There is no way to perform queerness that is not bound up with morality, with politics, with sexuality, and with aesthetics.

Most important, I think, is the question of how these aesthetic choices play into how nonbinary people are read by society. It’s hard enough to be perceived as an equal adult when we exist outside the idea that adulthood is signaled by a certain kind of gendered performance, so does wearing a unicorn onesie and talking about our failures at adulting harm our chances at acceptance? By self-consciously adopting cuteness as an aesthetic, which is also an aesthetic of childhood, are we signaling that the nascent nonbinary culture is always already less than our cishet peers? Are we signaling weakness because we believe ourselves to be less than our binary peers, or because we’re committed to a radical revaluing of what it means to be beautiful and strong?

255 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page