Emily Shih on the Cute and the Grotesque

My thesis was on the aesthetic modes employed in children’s media, specifically on the “cute” and the “grotesque”—what they are, what they make us feel, and what it means to present them together. In analyzing two texts dear to my heart, Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away and Jim Henson’s Muppets, I got to approach the question via a conversation about medium, too: what do animation and puppetry do to us as viewers, and how do they inform the conversations about childhood these texts present to us?

Most of all, I wanted to understand what the art made for children might say about children and the complexity of what we call “growing up.” But as any “grown-up” fan of children’s media knows, the art doesn’t stop speaking to us just because we surpass a certain age. So maybe my real motivating question was more personal: what excites and inspires me about the art intended for children? And why do I think adults should return to it?

Eventually, I got around to the idea that these texts offer us, even (or especially) as adults, an important opportunity: the chance to “play pretend.” They ask us to believe in them. And in doing so, they might teach us how to believe in others—however joyous or violent that experience might be.

(All this being said, it’s not completely essential to know these characters to understand my comic, but one helpful tidbit if you’re unfamiliar with Spirited Away is that No Face is mute… that is, until he swallows someone whole, allowing him to use their voice. Hope that helps!)

The first panel shows Kermit smiling and looking at the fire as he says, “Ah… it feels better… getting that off my…” He trails off, and in the second panel looks up at No Face with an expression of fear/realization as he finishes his sentence: “...chest.” The final panel is a bleed that runs off the page, showing No Face smiling and sitting alone at the fire playing Kermit’s banjo. In the night sky above him, there are the lyrics to the song, “The Rainbow Connection” with music notes: “rainbows are visions, but only illusions… and rainbows have nothing to hide.”

This is a bonus page in a different setting that features Chihiro, the main character of Spirited Away. She’s yelling, in all caps and a spiky speech bubble: “SPIT. HIM. OUT!!!” at a distressed-looking No Face, who towers over her. A smaller speech bubble coming from No Face’s stomach reads, “I’m okay! Classic puppet gag!”

Finding Joy

In this year’s English Honors Seminar, we talked a lot about our pop-culture preoccupations—from Harry Potter and the MCU to anime, musical theater, and telenovelas—unabashedly celebrating and lovingly critiquing our fandoms. Inspired by the pleasure activism of Dr. Sami Schalk’s journey to #TwerkWithLizzo, our seminar embraced the idea that joy and scholarship need not be mutually exclusive. And certainly in these very difficult times, we need all the joy we can give and get. (Plus, pleasure is good for your immune system!)

To that end, please comment below and let us know what you’re watching, reading, listening to, playing, etc., to get you through these days. Share your own problematic faves and fandoms, or feel free to just post some funny memes, GIFs, or TikToks. Perhaps this can serve as an archive of pandemic pop-culture pleasures for our QC English community. And here’s to finding joy, however small and fleeting!