By Ben Gabriel
Why doesn’t Hello Kitty have a mouth? Is its absence more than an expedient, minimalist design choice? And does her lack of a mouth necessarily translate into the absence of a voice, as the arguments tend to go? The first Hello Kitty product, after all, was a coin purse with HELLO printed in block capitals over an image of Kitty; her name is her form, and it is speech.
Most political engagements with Hello Kitty have taken the mouthlessness issue as their impetus. They generally, through subversion or perversion, ironize Hello Kitty’s apparent inability to speak, suggesting her lack of expression is being upheld as a model, particularly for the young Asian girls who form Hello Kitty’s immediate target audience. A woman’s value, this particular feminine feline’s lack of mouth seems to say, is contingent on her voicelessness.
Jason Han’s painting I Haz Mouth, commissioned for the Three Apples exhibition in 2009 on the occasion of Hello Kitty’s 35th birthday, whimsically addresses this issue. From the painting’s smirking LOLcats reference — LOLcats being a premier example of how giving a voice to the voiceless can be infantilizing rather than empowering — to the reiteration of the mouth in Kitty’s speech bubble, Han’s painting seems to invoke feminist and postcolonial concerns about lacking a voice only to wave them away. But I Haz Mouth functions not as a dismissal of the problem but an advancement. Looking past the irony of its title, we can see I Haz Mouth as an attempt to answer the question: If we gave Hello Kitty a mouth, what then?