In this era of fake news and culture wars, a gift of a toy cat eating an ice-cream can sometimes convey the most gratitude and sincerity.
The black-market Pusheen merchant’s number was given to me by a guy from an online manga store, whose number was given to me by a guy who works at the Otaku bookstore Kinokuniya.
The merchant was young-sounding, maybe early 20s, with a mild Cantonese accent. I have no idea what he looked like, but I imagined him as a slightly built fellow with combed hair, wearing the same heavy black-rimmed spectacles Pusheen wears when reading.
I asked him for a very specific plush toy Pusheen. I was searching for a gift that needed to tender an expression of gratitude and sincerity, without losing a certain frivolous je ne sais quoi, and had decided Pusheen eating an ice-cream was the way to go.
The Pusheen merchant made a distressed noise. ‘Oh, I am sorry. That Pusheen is very popular, and very rare. It is impossible to find in Australia.’
I knew that much – I’d already called around 20 possible vendors for the Pusheen I needed. I asked him if there was anything he could do, or perhaps if there was a similar Pusheen that might do the trick. Maybe Pusheen in the party hat with a cupcake?
‘No,’ he said sadly. ‘You must have exactly the right Pusheen for you.’
I did indeed need the exact right Pusheen for me.
I’m a fan of Pusheen, having first met the bouncy anime cat through Facebook. Every Facebook account is automatically loaded with 56 Pusheen stickers designed to spice up its Messenger service – 56 units that have collectively redefined the art of subtext.
I never really cared for Facebook Messenger until I discovered Pusheen. Pusheen is so much more than a sticker. Pusheen is a device that allows instant transmission of pure emotion in a pictographic form. Not since Egyptian priests carved their gods into pyramid walls has a cartoon cat so perfectly encapsulated the elision of the metaphysical and the Cartesian.
The way people from far-flung corners of my life deploy Pusheen can be wildly different, but all have one vital thing in common: Pusheen becomes shorthand for the kind of emotions and banter that form the well-trodden paths of our most special relationships. Pusheen becomes an exercise in improvisation and empathy. No two iterations of Pusheen are ever the same. Pusheen is a procedurally generated emotional catharsis.
Pusheen becomes shorthand for the kind of emotions and banter of our most special relationships.
Depending on the sender, and the recipient, the subterranean world of precedent obsessions and past Pusheens, whole conversations can be spoken more eloquently than any hackish written language:
Today, the stickers are used more than 10 million times each day. We, the people, use Pusheen with ease, but with the greatest of intimacy. We tend to use Pusheen with someone who will understand, innate and implicitly, what that Pusheen means. By allowing us to convey complicated ideas in microseconds, Pusheen is the greatest revolution in democratising higher thought since the Gutenberg Bible.
Pusheen rises above questions of tense and context; Pusheen is a creature only of circumstance and nuance. At any given moment, Blushing Pusheen could mean:
‘I have exciting news,’ or
‘I love you,’ or
‘I just saw a cat that looks like Pusheen IRL.’
There is no truer force of communication. There is no braver attempt at understanding humankind. There is so much scope for interpretation that no misunderstandings can occur. ‘I am Pusheen,’ the cartoon cat says, with the force of Martin Luther hammering on the Cathedral Door, ‘and I am enjoying these noodles.’
According to Pusheen.com, Pusheen is a Grey Tabby Domestic shorthair. She is female. Her age is ‘All 9 lives left’. A contact is provided for business and licensing inquiries, but visitors who want to contact Pusheen The Cat directly are advised to ‘call out to her from your heart. She’ll hear you.’
That’s all that Pusheen.com has to say about Pusheen, an explanation as elegant and nonsensical as Pusheen herself. I went digging, and here’s everything my expensive and useless degree in journalism turned up.
Pusheen.com is a spin-off site, which calved from Everyday Cute, a Tumblr run by Chicago-based cartoonists Claire Belton and Andrew Duff. The original Everyday Cute was a mixture of autobiographical comic strips about Belton and Duff’s lives with their animals, interspersed with one-shot webcomics that riffed on pop culture: ‘20 points to Kittendoor,’ says a cartoon Snape to a tiny kitten dressed as Harry Potter. You get the idea.
Pusheen herself is based on a cat that once belonged to Belton’s parents. Her name stems from puisín, the Irish word for kitten.
The first Pusheen comic debuted on 18 May 2010, and she soon became the breakout star of Everyday Cute. Between June 2010 and February 2011, Pusheen went through something of a training montage, becoming more and more frequent and better drawn, both as a character (she loves holidays and snacks) and, in an animation sense, graduating from a digital line drawing into her characteristic gently bobbing GIF style. On 26 February 2011, Pusheen got her own site, and shortly after that her own line of merchandise.
Pusheen’s greatest incarnation happened when Facebook contacted Belton in January 2013. The social network was developing digital stickers to roll out new features in its digital chat function and wanted Pusheen to be one of Facebook’s proprietary vendor-lock-in emoji. When the stickers debuted in July 2013, Pusheen took over the world.
Pusheen’s greatest incarnation happened when Facebook contacted Belton in January 2013.
In 2014, Pusheen broke out of the virtual and moved IRL. Belton had been selling plush toys directly to Pusheen fans since 2011, but in 2014, the 118-year-old toy manufacturer Gund jumped on the bandwagon.
Gund’s production team have a sophisticated meme-to-url production line, which starts with a team that combs social networks and metadata to determine which images of Pusheen are trending. Belton and Gund then work together to create a three-dimensional prototype that is then fine-tuned before production.
The company now has more than 40 distinct Pusheens available; some, due to the vicissitudes of a fickle internet, are now more-or-less impossible to find – hence my foray into the plushy black market.
Right now, Pusheen is licensed to nearly 20 companies, ranging from vinyl toys to stationery, to sweets, to greeting cards. Global retailer H&M carries a line of Pusheen pyjamas, and Isaac Morris Ltd manufactures the ‘Pusheen Box’, a quarterly subscription service that offers eight or nine items at a time.
This seemingly simple cat is a corporate monster and a sweetie-pie. If her essence was to be distilled into one GIF, she would be bouncing joyfully in the middle of a teeter-totter, between the playful bricolage of meme culture and the ravenous nothing of Big Data that is slowly consuming the internet.
The appeal of Pusheen is playfully anarchic enough that the internet is awash with fan-art and homemade Pusheens: Pusheenicorn, Pusheen as The Scream by Munch, Pusheen doing blow. Pusheen is also the slick proprietary IP of a creeping multinational that harvests your innermost secrets and sells them to the highest bidder.
The appeal of Pusheen is universal precisely because it is intangible, ephemeral and influential enough that the character was included in an exhibition in New York’s Museum of the Moving Image. The exhibit took a ‘critical look at a deceptively frivolous phenomenon’ and touched on ‘anthropomorphism, the aesthetics of cuteness (and) the rise of user-generated content’.
Cats are, at heart, deceptively frivolous. John Bradshaw, author of Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet (2013) – which is a real book that exists – asserts that it’s a cat’s inscrutability that makes it loveable. We read them as goofy, cute, cuddly, when – with their claws, night vision, flexible spines, incredible agility, spatial radar and utter ruthlessness – they are as close to perfect a killing machine as evolution ever produced.
Cats are, at heart, deceptively frivolous.
A friend of mine, an emergency service worker who is often the first respondent to those who die alone in their homes, has warned that, given half a chance, your cat will eat you. While a dog will stand broken-hearted watch over your body until it collapses, a cat will go for the cheek-meat before you go cold.
Bradshaw hints that the inscrutability of the cat allows us to ascribe our own emotions to them, to project our own sadnesses, playfulness, loneliness, frivolity, existential longing for kawaii. Our tendency to project human traits onto felines may go some way towards explaining why 62 million people have watching this video ‘The Two Talking Cats’ – most of them watched from Japan, America, Western Europe and Australia.
The appeal of cats is culturally rooted – in some countries they are a cornucopia of LOLs; in others, they are hunted as vermin, and the idea of watching a cat video is perplexing, if not distasteful.
Your cultural indoctrination is entirely responsible for how you feel about cats and has been for millennia. Exhumation of the grave of a Neolithic human dating back to 7500 BCE found they were ceremonially buried with their stone tools, decorative seashells, and a dead kitten. (This is, incidentally, the current terms of my will.)
I like to think that the man was buried first, and then his companion died of grief. That’s fantasy, though. Probably the cat didn’t care all that much. We’ve adored them forever, and they have tolerated us in response. You can crack open the most sacred Egyptian pyramid and find a Hieroglyphic cat staring back at you, not giving a shit for thousands of years.
It might help to consider Pusheen et al. a kind of modern Hieroglyphic, in that it is a return to logographic language demanded by an age where culture is so fractious and at odds with itself that a whole sentence is just too hard. Communication has become so swift, so unhitched from civility, and unaired by logic that it’s become abstract again.
After all, emoji stand in for a written sentiment evolved from a hacking of obscure cyphers to communicate free from the tyranny of sentence structure. Once we had a god to symbolise anger, which evolved into a written symbol, which evolved into a written declaration of vexation – and now we circle back, from I am disappointed with you to (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻ to Frowny Pusheen.
Perhaps we need this in an era of fake news and culture wars. The democratising of communication through social media has changed the game so dramatically that it is, in an unprecedented way, not the smartest, or wisest, or eloquent who is heard, but the loudest.
After recent geopolitical events, there has been much hand-wringing about the self-referential social media echo chambers we all inhabit, so the urge to retreat to a sphere of reference where you are intrinsically understood without effort is understandable. Modern discourse is tribal. A tweet, like life, is a Hobbesian nightmare – nasty, brutish and short.
A tweet, like life, is a Hobbesian nightmare – nasty, brutish and short.
Of course people, given the choice, retreat into a hall of mirrors that reflect their worldview. Cognitive dissonance is uncomfortable, and the internet is painful. The babble of an interconnected humanity is not good for anyone’s mental health. The effect is a kind of cultural psychosis – thoughts that aren’t yours upset and offend. Hell is other people, but especially other people online.
It’s hard to be human. It’s lonely. Some things are best left unsaid. That’s why, when you’ve had a bad day and someone asks how things are going, you might say, ‘Good,’ instead of:
You know that sadness when someone breaks your heart so badly in your early 20s that for the next decade every time you see someone walking with the same broad-shouldered slouch your heart seizes – and also the related but entirely different sadness of boarding a bus going downtown in an entirely different city 20 years later and recognising them in the seat opposite you, and panicking for a second, not sure whether you should be dismayed or elated by the way time has ravaged them, and taking comfort from the uncertainty of your response because it contains the certainty that you are finally over them, and then realising that it is not them at all, doesn’t even look like them really; they just have the same cheekbones, and the fact you are still looking for their face in the faces of strangers means you are not over them at all, and you realise that the callous scar over your heart has all the tensile strength of Glad-wrap and, suddenly, the transparency of it too.
Because that is too much, and it’s easier to smile and send a friend a Collapsed On Her Back Pusheen, just to check in.
Once upon a time humanity was superstitious. Then came a brief ascendancy of facts and pragmatism before a sudden swift return to tribalism facilitated by modern communication. Two people can read the same set of facts, or see the same Pusheen, and come to different interpretations.
We live in a post-fact world, a world where feelings, hunches and suspicion are more important than thought. For every truth, there is rebuttal – for every light, a snuffing – for every Pusheen, a Pepe The Patriot.
If, in the face of this, human instinct is to retreat into insularity, we can at least try to keep a sense of empathy.
So, although we’d never met IRL, my black-market Pusheen connection understood why I needed to purchase a very specific Pusheen. It speaks, through the mass-produced sentiment of a stuffed cat clutching a treat, of a common understanding, mutual experience, a shared worldview.
Such things are finite. They are fleeting. In time we all become ashes and dust. In time all the thoughts I’ve had, all the words I’ve written, will be forgotten, as will I, buried next to my obsolete tools and seashells, my primitive mind, maybe next to my poor late kitten, and perhaps, I hope, the ghost of Pusheen, bouncily enjoying her ice-cream forever after.
All Pusheen images © Pusheen Corp.