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Cute. Real Cute : The Look Is Dainty, but Cuddle Core Followers Are Brashly Telling the World They'll Grow Up the Way They Please


You've seen them. They browse through the crammed shelves of Hello Kitty and Pochacco products in the Sanrio shops, examining the wallets and pencil boxes carefully. They try on backpacks that are obviously too small. For that matter, so are the undersized T-shirts they're wearing.

It's not younger sisters or relatives or even the kids they baby-sit that these teen and twentysomething women are shopping for. It's for themselves.

Erin Custer, 16, takes out of her thrift store Kelly bag a Kerokerokeroppi wallet by Sanrio in which she keeps coins, a few bills and scribbled notes. Her nails, cut fingertip short, are speckled with chipped, pearly blue nail polish.

She left her Captain Hook backpack, the one she got at Disneyland, at home because it didn't really go with her outfit today: a pink grosgrain ribbon that pulls back her snipped wavy hair, a '40s-inspired flowered dress that hits inches above the knee, white ankle socks and flat-heeled Mary Janes. "I have three pairs of Mary Janes," she says, "all black."

Erin looks cute. Cutesy cute. She's penciled in her eyebrows and mascaraed her top and bottom lashes like a porcelain doll's. A fake fur coat, an odd choice on this warm June afternoon, sits crumpled around her. "The look is of a little girl playing dress-up," she says. Intended image successful.

But don't confuse the image of an ingenue with the person within. Under all the prettiness is Orange County's most cherished ongoing representation of teen Angst: a punk rocker.

"A lot of people get the impression that because I dress like a little girl, I want to be treated like one," Erin says. Not true, she says. It is an attitude she doesn't tolerate and dismisses in the strongest terms.

Welcome to cuddle core. It's a scene that cozily balances the cuddly cute of infantile fashion and punk's hard-core ethic.

While its sillier cult origins lie with the Japanese trio Shonen Knife (which has exported the obsessions with pop culture and cuteness of their country's youth for more than a decade), cuddle core didn't develop an identity until recently. It goes beyond the fluff and borrows a feminist tone from Girl Power, a school of thought among some women from 13 to 30 who find empowerment in celebrating their girlhood.

The intent of Girl Power is to exaggerate what young women have been encouraged to downplay since they were toddlers--their differences from boys. It's not that they don't want to be treated as equals. But when girl implies weakness, second-string, then it's no surprise why so many prefer a tomboy persona. Even then, it's difficult to escape that favorite among the Y-chromosome pack: "Not bad . . . for a girl."

Girl Power seeks to reclaim the very "G"-word itself as something that should be revered. It means becoming a woman on a girl's own terms.

This philosophy found impetus with the underground feminist punk movement, riot grrrl. Unofficial and anti-media, riot grrrls promulgate a do-it-yourself credo when it comes to forming bands with girl members, publishing fanzines and organizing discussion clubs by young women for young women.

Its demons are not men (there are, in fact, male members in riot grrrl and cuddle core bands), but the realities of an unsafe world where rape and other crimes happen too frequently.

Since its four or five years in existence, the grrrl movement has splintered and gone further underground (it's a rare girl who'll publicly admit she's into it)--partly because of media attention that tended to frame them as a bunch of cute girls with pink hair and an attitude.

Some decided they would embrace the stereotype rather than be put down by it. By adopting it and making it their own, they could diminish its negative conceit. This newfangled empowerment gained momentum within the cuddle core.

Where hard-core riot grrrls proudly wear tees emblazoned with slang terms used to demean women, cuddle core girls deem it unnecessary, too extreme. It's the pop equivalent--a prettier shell but still brash on the inside.


Fashion caught on in the last year with a flood of junior labels and collections catering to this market. Peter Pan collars, pleated miniskirts, shrunken T-shirts, Snow White blouses, knee-high socks, heeled Mary Janes and other baby-doll clothes continue to ship to stores. Boutiques stock old lunch boxes and Sanrio products. Girlie wear, as it's dubbed, has its cover girl in rock starlet Courtney Love.

Then there is the music. Waifish Juliana Hatfield became a pop star with her pre-pubescently high voice. Also getting plenty of airplay is Veruca Salt, a band named after the bratty girl in Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; the band's publishing company, Are You There God It's Me Music, is a takeoff on Judy Blume's classic "Are You There God? It's Me Margaret." Other sugar-pop groups with a sense of kiddie humor are London's Huggy Bear and, from Wales, the Pooh Sticks, which got its name from a game in A. A. Milne's "Winnie-the-Pooh."


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