In a triumph of cynical marketing, there is a hidden devil in much of the “girl-power” and related “women with attitude” wear, such as the earnestly ironic “Hello Kitty”.  This devil is the sweat-shop labour practices used by the majority of popular clothes manufacturers.  These third world workers, the vast majority of which are young women, are employed in 60-90 hour stretches for wages as little as $0.13 an hour.  Few receive overtime benefits, they live in what are sometimes little more then barely converted pig sheds, and are usually fired if they get pregnant.  Advocates of the “girl power”, “pro-feminist”, “independent womanimage could be unwittingly funding the worst exploitation of women today(*).  Not so cute now, is she?

(*) See Naomi Kline’s “No Logo” bestseller, for more.

The chief designer of Sanrio (a Japanese company which was founded in 1960), Ikuko Shimizu, designed Hello Kitty in 1974 as a kid-friendly character to go on a children's coin purse. She was introduced on November 1 of that year (thus she is a Scorpio) though her name and biography were not really firm till the next year and have continually been expanded on.

She is a third-grader living on the outskirts of London, England with her family, whose surname is White. Kitty White wears a (most often red) bow on her left ear and her shy twin sister, Mimmy or Mimi, wears a (most often yellow) bow on her right ear; both of them started out wearing overalls but in the past few years have been depicted in all sorts of clothes. They live with their parents, Papa George White and Mama Mary White, and not too far from their grandparents, Anthony and Margaret White. ("Hello Kitty" is a nickname, and Sylvar tells me that "ohayo-neko," the general name for the cat statues with one paw raised which traditionally bring good luck in Japan, translates to "hello kitty"; one can guess that this is the source of the little girl cat's appellation. Generic-man, however, says that "The cat statues with one paw raised are usually called maneki-neko or "beckoning cat.") Hello Kitty is five apples high and weighs as much as three apples, and she has type A blood. She is a cookie baker (having learned from her mother who is more of a pie expert) and her favorite snack is apple pie with honey vanilla ice cream and cookie crunch on top. Also like her mother, she plays the piano. Her favorite color is red; her favorite school subjects are English, math, and music.

Hello Kitty has a lot of friends (indeed, her motto is "You can never have too many friends!") Bear is, unsurprisingly, a small bear who lives with the White family; their yard is also home to the reclusive Moley or Mory. Kitty has a cat boyfriend named Daniel Star or Dear Daniel, but he is usually off on safari in Africa with his father, who is a photographer. Other friends are Thomas, whose species I can't identify from the picture; Kathy the rabbit; Tippy the bear, Tiny Chum the bear; Fifi the sheep; Jody the dog; Tracy the raccoon; brother and sister monkey Timmy and Tammy, Lorry the squirrel, and Joey the mouse. Sometimes her neighbors are seen, and they are drawn from a similarly wide variety of species.

In 1976, Setsuko Yonekubo took over as Hello Kitty's chief designer, followed in 1980 by Yuko Yamaguchi, who still holds the position. The merchandise with Kitty on it became popular not only in Japan but elsewhere (Hello Kitty came to the U.S. in 1976, and I remember having a Hello Kitty travel toiletries kit in elementary school, which would have been in the early 1980s) and by 1983, the character became the children's ambassador for the U.S. branch of UNICEF. (She would become the same in Japan in 1994.) The first Hello Kitty animated movie, "Kitty and Mimi's New Umbrella" came out in 1981, and relieved many people by showing Kitty with a mouth when she talks. (Sanrio.com's FAQ answers the question "Why doesn't Hello Kitty have a mouth?" with "Hello Kitty speaks from her heart. She is Sanrio's ambassador to the world who isn't bound to one certain language.") Several more movies and videos have been made.

Hello Kitty has now been on more than 150,000 products. By 2000, such items as a 34-diamond Hello Kitty watch (retailing for around 3,800,000 yen, or $30,000) could be sold to wear in the new century (only 21 were made for the 21st century). There have been a Hello Kitty Yamaha motorcyle, a Hello Kitty Mira car (two or four-door, right-hand drive), Hello Kitty diet pills, Hello Kitty eyelash curlers, Hello Kitty toasters that put a pattern of her face on the bread, Hello Kitty Visa cards, Hello Kitty snowboards, "Kitty Babies" infant merchandise, and the well-known Hello Kitty vibrator (well, it's sold as an electric massager). In Sanrio's Japanese theme parks Puroland and Harmonyland, couples can even have a Hello Kitty (and Daniel)-themed wedding. Bill Hensley of Sanrio says Hello Kitty merchandise brought in $1 billion in sales in 2002, and that was an off year.

Sources:
Moss, Marie Y. Hello Kitty Hello Everything!: 25 Years of Fun! New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001.
http://www.sanrio.com/
http://www.sanrio.co.jp/english/
http://hellokittyworld.tripod.com/
http://business.fortunecity.com/ziff/139/
http://starbulletin.com/2003/06/24/features/story1.html
http://www.hellocat78.1hwy.com/
http://www.tdn.com/articles/2003/02/10/this_day/news03.txt
http://www.hellocat78.1hwy.com/
http://www.foreignpolicy.com/issue_mayjune_2002/mcgray.html
http://www.sonicsanrio.com/hellokitty.html
http://www.geocities.com/poetinme1975/hellokitty.html

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