"Pop" Cuteness, and Why it's Terrible
Have you ever seen those "Pop" figures? Probably, because they're all over the place, invading every finger of pop culture and regurgitating it as a big-headed, round-eyed vinyl figure. I hate these figures, and only in part because they look like they should bobble, but don't.
I'm picking on these figures because they're quintessential of the kind of nonsense that gets called "cute" these days. Their heads are big, simple shapes; their faces are generally featureless, save for a pair of plain, soul-less dots that pass for eyes; their bodies are too small for anything practical, so they stand bolt upright in whatever simple pose makes the most sense for the character in question. In short, they're catatonically devoid of personality.
Why is this variety of "cute" so increasingly popular? There was a time when it seemed to be unique to the Hello Kitty sect over in Japan, but over time it spread throughout anime culture until it seemed like everything had to have an impractical, semi-faceless mascot. One needs only to look at Final Fantasy refusing to evolve beyond its cartoonish "moogles", even as the aesthetic of their games gets otherwise edge-lordier and more realistic. And if that doesn't convince you that we have a problem, go to whatever store you can find that sells Japanese pop culture goods, find something that is literally nothing more than a shapeless blob with eyes, and see how much they're charging for it.
When I see this kind of phenomenon, I see the "cute" equivalent of what the fashion industry does to the concept of "pretty". Just like Pop figures, fashion models are vacant, unobjectionable, and personality-free; they aren't allowed to smile, they have everything but their broadest features polished away, and they strike whatever pre-approved pose will give some semblance of life without detracting from the fact that they exist only to be seen.
It makes sense that we would treat "cute" and "pretty" largely the same way; from an evolutionary standpoint, our perception of either is probably based on the necessity for us to identify those who are more vulnerable than ourselves, and give them our protection. With this understanding, it's reasonable to say that cuteness carries an obligation with it. "Cute" is the baby you need to care for. It's the girl you need to court. It's the dog that you need to walk and feed and play with. But when you strip away the personality from "cute", it entails no responsibility. Something that can't smile is something that you don't need to make happy. Something with no flaws is something you don't need to care for.
Perhaps that's a step too far into "overthinking" territory, but the bottom line is that I prefer "cute" characters who still suggest at this responsibility. No art can be created without risk, after all; I want to see them cry so that it feels great when they laugh, I want to see them with warts and bruises so that it feels meaningful to look past them, and I want them to be threatened so that it feels great when they're saved. Because otherwise, it's just a stupid plastic figure to put on your shelf.