Please don’t call Williams cute. (Photo: Getty Images)
How do you feel when someone calls you “cute”? Games of Thrones star Maisie Williams recently told the U.K.’s The Telegraph that she’s fed up with it. “I felt like I was boxed in by this one word,” she said of first being slapped with the divisive label. “I remember being told I was cute and feeling it was really patronizing — what if I wanted to get muddy and play with the boys?”
So is it insulting or condescending to tell a woman she’s cute, or is it perfectly acceptable — even a compliment?
“When someone calls me cute, I take it as a compliment,” said Olivia, one woman I polled for this story. “I’ve been called cute. But I have never been accused of not being tough.”
“If someone describes me as cute, I don’t think it means that they don’t consider me to be a capable adult woman,” Kelly chimed in.
But there’s another side to the controversy, and it has nothing to do with the playground — but rather the playing field. It has to do with a person’s brand of attractiveness. It’s pretty clear that society tends to classify women as either “cute” or “hot.” Very few of us have the distinction of landing somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.
Clothing company Reformation recently took a preemptive stance against the word when it launched its petites line and named it “Don’t Call Me Cute.” In the the company’s words: “… because, well, you’re not cute. Children and koala bears are cute. You’re hot.” The announcement was accompanied by a video in which a series of youthful-looking women react to the term with phrases like “What am I? A hamster? A cupcake?”
“I’ve been called cute a lot, especially when I was younger,” said Tara. “To me, it means the alternative to pretty. I’ve always felt it meant, ‘Well, she’s not pretty, not ugly, so cute it is.’”
“Cute is the compliment you get when whoever is giving it doesn’t want to call you beautiful,” echoed Denise.
But not every woman sees it as a slight to her sexuality.
“I’ve been called cute my whole life because of my short stature and young appearance,” said Juliette. “I don’t mind it one bit. ‘Cute’ is endearing, youthful, and almost part of my personality at this point.”
“I actually love being called cute,” Elizabeth told me. “It’s usually [said] in a very endearing way.” (And for the record, “cute” Elizabeth does fitness boot camps four days a week and is a die-hard football fan. She’s not afraid to “get muddy.”)
I even asked a heterosexual man, Sean, what he makes of the term “cute” as it applies to the ladies. “A beautiful woman is a beautiful woman,” he said, “but I think ‘cute’ is more attainable.”
With so many subjective definitions of the word cute out there, I was compelled to look up the actual definition — according to Merriam-Webster. “Attractive or pretty especially in a childish, youthful, or delicate way” was one sense. “Having a pleasing and usually youthful appearance” was another. And a third? “Attractive in a sexual way.” What? Even the dictionary can’t make up its mind!
So I turned to a body image expert. “It is a typical trend to define girls by their looks and boys by their strengths,” said body image expert Robyn Silverman, PhD, in response to Williams’s interview. “As I say to girls and women, you define yourself. Don’t take other people’s words and make them your own. You create your own truth and personal definition. And, yes, you deserve to be in charge of that!”
But what about the guys? “He’s so cute.” C’mon, ladies. We’ve all said it plenty of times about plenty of men.
In fact, I once dated a guy who was boyishly handsome, plus utterly funny and charming. “You’re so cute,” I said. He abruptly told me he hated being called cute. So I stopped. Well, I tried to. But he was so … cute. I came to realize that — like some of the female friends I talked to for this story — he felt that cute was the opposite of hot. And, I guess, patronizing and desexualizing.
Another guy, Corey, told me the opposite. “I think being called cute is kind of adorable. Being called sexy has always felt kind of degrading to me. Being cute involves a whole lot of things. Hot doesn’t really do it for me either.”
So there you have it. “Cute” is a label that transcends gender. When it’s good, it’s good across the board. But when it’s bad, it’s an equal-opportunity offender.
As one person succinctly put it, being called cute is “better than being called hideous.” Can’t argue with that! Or can we?
What are your thoughts on being called cute? Tell me in the comments.