By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Whereas Charles Phoenix straddles the divide between nostalgia and parody, Leavins’ purpose has three streams: The first is a spit-in-the-wind mission to counter the cultural flood tides of “cute.” The second is wading through the detritus of pet photos that hold almost no inherent interest to anybody but the pets’ owners, and then, using interactive storytelling, finding a narrative infused with more universal meaning than the pet owners could ever have intended. And, finally, Leavins is trying to fathom new ways to use performance to connect to people in the 21st century. He says this aim comes from his experiences as a stage performer in Toronto during the late ’90s, playing to audiences in the mere dozens, or less. His experiment with the Internet grapples with the possibilities of Web technology that’s potentially predatory and brutishly isolating, yet, paradoxically, contains a means of bringing us together and talking to each other in numbers like never before. These are the three lanes of Leavins’ Internet highway.
The origins of “cute” come from a concept in animal behavior called pedomorphism, a preference for faces and images of animals and people who resemble infants, explains Charles T. Snowdon, Hilldale Professor of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin. “Many breeds of pets have more humanlike features than their wild ancestors — pug-nosed dogs have flatter faces, rounder faces than the foxes or wolves from which they evolved. Cartoon characters — Tweety Bird, Mickey Mouse, etc., — are often drawn to have very human features, and we find them more attractive than we would natural pictures of mice or birds,” whose eyes are located on the sides of their heads, not in the front, as in their more humanoid cartoon images.
Snowdon also talks about how women’s makeup highlights their eyes to make them seem bigger “and thus more infantlike.” Rouge leads to rosy cheeks, which appear bigger and more infantlike as well. It’s unclear, he says, whether this is innate, “but it is likely that there is both an innate aspect and a cultural aspect in our preference for infantile-looking faces of both animals and people.”
“Cute,” of course, should be distinguished from “beauty.” “Cute” derives from the quality of infantile vulnerability that may be part of an innate survival mechanism. (Anthropologists have observed Pygmy Marmoset babies babble like humans, but when older marmosets are stressed or threatened, they will engage in similar babbling — a form of submission designed to ratchet down the threat, Snowdon explains.) “Beauty,” however, resides on a pedestal, a coveted quality of regal perfection that can be undone by the intrusion of a pimple or a roll of fat. “Cute” and “beauty” are both magnetic qualities, but “cute” is huggable, whereas “beauty” is a dare shrouded in mystery. “Cute” is an invitation to the party. “Beauty” stands aloof, intimidating and envied. The simplicity of “cute” is for children. The sadomasochism of “beauty” is for grown-ups. The biggest paradox of Cute With Chris is that Chris actually prefers beauty to cute. He prefers Julie from Arkansas, languishing on her bed, wearing a bra and gazing into the camera with a boozily detached expression, to her Chihuahua, Sparky, who sits on her breast. This would explain Leavins’ gradual drift in the direction of “Sexy Viewers.” The dramatic tension within his weekly broadcasts is, in a sense, Chris Leavins at war with his own concept.
“Never in the history of the world has there been such an array of ‘cute,’” Leavins proclaims in his live show. “After Episode 45, I realized I don’t like ‘cute.’ . . . If you’re not ‘cute,’ nobody will love you,” he says with the sunny moral authority of a minister.
He uses the lectern of his live show to tell the story of teenage sisters in foster care, both desperate to be adopted. It’s one of his many attempts to unmask the diabolical cruelty of “cute.” One sister is slim and “cute,” the other overweight. The slim sister gets adopted. The story closes with the image of the sister left behind, on a treadmill, bathed in sweat and working to shed the pounds it will take her to find a family that wants her, or, as Leavins describes her circumstance, “She’s now running for her life.”
That story holds hands with the recurring, ironic anthem, “All your dreams are dead,” which accompanies photos of the losing pets in Leavins’ weekly “Cute-Down” contest.
In his live show, when Leavins beams up a photo of a baby kangaroo being nestled by a teenager, the room is awash with the sound of “aaaaaaaahhhhhhh.” Leavins glares back at the mostly teenage crowd, with pinched lips and a withering expression of fatigue.
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