Kitty with her friend, Bear


Original medium: Merchandising icon
Shilling for: Sanrio company
First Appeared: 1974
Creator: Ikuko Shimizu
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It's not too uncommon for cultural artifacts to start as cartoon characters, be used as merchandising icons, and eventually lose sight of the fact that they were once characters that could have adventures, being put through their paces in service of a plot. Mickey Mouse is …

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… a good example. With Hello Kitty, Sanrio, a Tokyo-based merchandising outfit, merely cut to the chase. Kitty started out as an image on a vinyl coin purse, and only later was given a character context within which she could act out stories.

The coin purse went on sale November 1, 1974. In the back-story that was later created for her, that date was designated Kitty's birthday. If that makes her older today than any cat who ever lived, we won't be the ones to say so, because a polite person doesn't mention a lady's age.

Sanrio registered Hello Kitty as a trademark in 1976, then started using her to sell more products, just as it had previously done with other simply-drawn animal characters that had been designed for widespread appeal, and would continue to do with newer images in that mold. Others among Sanrio's many merchandisable properties include Little Twin Stars, My Melody and Tuxedo Sam (no relation). In addition, it licenses such things as the Peanuts characters, at least in Japan, and some works of Osamu Tezuka, creator of Astro Boy.

But Hello Kitty is its biggest cash cow. Kitty started out pushing apparel, make-up and other small necessities, and is now used to sell everything from time-shares to assault weapons, all over the world. A maternity hospital in Taiwan uses Hello Kitty as a theme in such items as wall artwork and nurses' uniforms, at least partly to induce calm feelings among its patients. Kitty sells mountains of greeting cards, toys, school supplies and dozens of other products

Kitty was originally designed for Sanrio by Ikuko Shimizu, who continued to work on her merchandise until 1976, when the job was taken over by designer Setsuko Yonekubo. She's drawn as a young, white funny animal cat wearing a red bow by her left ear, with no visible mouth, staring blankly at the viewer. (Feminists have cited the apparent attractiveness of a female character who lacks the means of expression, or apparent thought processes.)

In the scenario that was created for her, her actual name is Kitty White, no relation to Snow or So, and she's in the third grade. She has a twin sister named Mimmy, who looks just like her except Mimmy's bow is yellow, and worn by the right ear. Her mom and dad are George and Mary White. They live in a suburb of London, and are so anthropomorphic, they even have a pet cat, Charmmy Kitty, of their own. Hello Kitty (apparently a nickname) has a boyfriend, Dear Daniel. (Feminists take no apparent stand as to whether Daniel's blank expression and lack of a mouth make him less or more attractive.)

Kitty has been used several times as a television or video game character, often (but not always) using this scenario as her setting. Among the actresses who have played her over the years are Melissa Fahn (Gaz in Invader Zim) and Tara Strong (Dil in Rugrats).

As a character, Hello Kitty holds her own in major animation markets all over the world. And as a merchandising icon, Kitty's star keeps rising, year after year. Her products currently sell in excess of a billion dollars a year.


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Text ©2009 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Sanrio.