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That’s Cute

August 10, 2012

Over on Twitter, writer Pamela Ribon linked to this essay where she explores gendered outcomes in screenwriting. In particular, she voices her discontent about “cute”, since it’s often used`in a way that trivializes and dismisses women’s efforts. Of course, go read the whole thing.

But this got me thinking: how do I use the word? I must admit I haven’t really thought about it. Of course I know that it can be dismissive, but I don’t really think about it when I’m writing.

Lucky me, there’s a search box over there on the right. What do I get when I look for “cute”?

This isn’t a very nuanced search, though; lots of the results are something like “well-executed”. And I also want to throw out jargon terms like “meet-cute”, which are neutral (and Ms. Ribon agrees). So what’s left?

  • Morning Glory, written by Aline Brosh McKenna.
  • Flipped, adapted by Rob Reiner and Andrew Scheinman from a novel by Wendelin Van Draanen.
  • Mirror Mirror, written by Jason Keller and Marc Klein from a story by Melisa Wallack.
  • Men In Black III, written by Etan Cohen.
  • Moonrise Kingdom, written by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola.

Altogether, I don’t feel completely awful about this list. The worst example is Morning Glory, which I really didn’t mean dismissively, though I can understand if it comes off that way. Flipped, I didn’t actually call cute; I said a simpler version could be “cute enough”. In Mirror Mirror it was the style of the dialogue — which I feel safe in laying on Keller and Klein — that I called cute. And I did call Moonrise Kingdom — along with the rest of Anderson’s work — cute, which Ms. Ribon pointed out as the canonical example that usually doesn’t get dinged for “cuteness” where a woman’s script would.

It’s Men In Black III that really raises the question of what I mean when I say “cute”. It may be an academic background, but for me in writing, cuteness is often connected to a certain intellectual neatness. The circumstances fall together in such a convenient way that makes it obvious how constructed they are, but it’s genial and pleasant enough that it’s not really offensive. A naked Deus ex machina ending isn’t cute, but a chance encounter that has to happen just-so in order to get the story moving can be. That’s where I understand the “meet-cute” term to come from, actually.

That said, however I mean it, it’s important to pay attention to how people hear it. My own usage may have been relatively benign so far, but Ms. Ribon has given me something to think about as I go forward. And if you catch me unfairly waving off a female writer or director with charges of “cuteness” as if that means she or her work can be dismissed, please call me out on it.

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