THE VISUAL EROTICS OF MINI-MARRIAGES
THE APPEAL OF TINY NUPTIALS BETWEEN CHILDREN, STUFFED KITTENS, AND OTHER SMALL, CUTE THINGS
Mr. and Mrs. Charles S. Stratton
(General Tom Thumb and his wife)
Photograph by Mathew Brady
That supreme showman of visual delights, Phineas Taylor Barnum, certainly had his spectators in mind—more than two thousand of them, and no one got in for free—when he planned the elaborate and highly publicized “Fairy Wedding” for Charles Sherwood Stratton (better known as General Tom Thumb) and his darling bride, Lavinia Warren Bump, on February 10, 1863, at Grace Church in New York City. Barnum had primed the audience with hyperbolic prose about the battle for Lavinia’s affection between Tom and George Washington Morrison Nutt—Commodore Nutt for short. Lavinia chose Tom, and Nutt was man enough to swallow his heartache and stand up as Tom’s best man.
The newspapers swooned over the diminutive spectacle with mock rapture. What a wedding! No detail left unattended to! What a vision of miniature perfection! Of course the bride was the focus of attention. With orange blossoms in her dark upswept hair, a flowing white gown of snowy satin and lace, white satin slippers, and tiny gloves to match, little Lavinia stood only thirty-two inches tall and weighed a mere twenty-nine pounds. How charming! How delightful! As Harper’s Weekly detailed, Lavinia was the poster child of cute, a veritable human dumpling:
Lavinia is a little lady of very fair proportions, decidedly of the plump style of beauty, with a well rounded arm and full bust, and all the appearance of amiable embonpoint. Her countenance is animated and agreeable; complexion decidedly brunette, black hair, very dark eyes, rounded forehead, and dimpled cheeks and chin.
In fact, Lavinia was so cute, Harper’s declared, that she caused ripples of envy through the fairer members of the audience, who had trussed themselves up for the occasion in “silks of every possible hue” and “every possible species of toilet—dainty head-dresses, delicate bonnets, and whatever can make the sex beautiful.” But beautiful as they were, they were not dwarfs: “How many regretted their ‘superb abundance’!” Lavinia’s button beauty was, however, outdone by that of her bridesmaid and sister, Minnie Bump, who was even smaller and—it would seem—necessarily cuter.
And cute was big business. The midget marriage was an overwhelming financial success. Audiences were delighted by the sight of the tiny couple on tour. They paraded onstage as husband and wife, danced together, and sang duets. What could be cuter? It was as if the fairy wedding had literally transfigured the two into fairies themselves: somehow ethereal in their idealized miniaturization. Tom and Lavinia weren’t, however, blessed with fertility, and, after an appropriate period of time, Barnum acquired them a baby from a local New York orphanage, which he replaced periodically when it grew bigger than its “parents.” As marriage is the domestication of sexuality, so too fairy perfection doesn’t permit any coarse or profane behavior. In other words, the everlasting baby was the perfect virgin-birth accessory for the cutest fairy couple.
TINY THINGS MAKE
ME FEEL SO GOOD.
In his philosophical ramblings through the ideas of the beautiful and sublime, Edmund Burke proposed in 1757 that “beautiful objects are comparatively small,” although not all small objects are beautiful. Of dwarfs, for example, Burke was highly suspicious. Despite their petite stature, they were, in his opinion, universally disagreeable. But should a man be found, Burke mused,
not above two or three feet high, supposing such a person to have all the parts of his body of a delicacy suitable to such a size, and otherwise endued with the common qualities of other beautiful bodies, I am pretty well convinced that a person of such a stature might be considered beautiful; might be the object of love; might give us very pleasing ideas on viewing him.
Consider for a moment Burke’s idea of love: “We submit to what we admire, but we love what submits to us.” If the word had been in existence at the time, Burke might have called this miniature man cute.
The first usage of the current meaning of cute—a charming and endearing object or person—recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary is the rather ambiguously suggestive statement “I’m goin’ to show you about as cute a thing as you’ve seen in many a day” made by a Charles Augustus Davis in 1834. The second and more definitive example is quoted from 1857: “‘What cute little socks!’ said the woman.” While the word itself only arose in the mid-nineteenth century, our cooing response to cuteness may be as old as human nature itself. Cuteness, it seems, makes evolutionary sense.
Cute is usually designated by a series of visual cues, which—not surprisingly—evoke the idea of a baby: round, short, plump limbs; roly-polyness; large forward-facing bright eyes set low on the face; a proportionally larger head in relation to the body; and a wobbly, teetering walk. As with panda bears, Hello Kitty, young animals, and infants, cuteness suggests harmlessness and vulnerability and stimulates a pitying, tender love. Given that humans produce remarkably defenseless offspring totally unable to take care of themselves, behavioral scientists claim that we’re programmed to protect and coddle cuteness. Recent neurological studies have even given substance to those “very pleasing ideas” that warmed Burke when considering his perfect little man: cute objects are believed to trigger the same pleasure buttons in the brain as sex, drugs, and a good, hearty meal. It serves our species very well that gazing at cuteness makes us feel so good.
Cute things don’t have to be little, but smallness certainly helps. The majority of the world’s objects of endearment are diminutive: dolls and dollhouses, toy soldiers, kittens, babies, fairies. Stanley Hall discovered that most cases of doll phobia are provoked by large dolls, and even fearful and horrible objects “excite pleasure when mimicked on a small scale.” Diminutive things make us feel big and commanding, even if we’re only little. The smallness of dolls, Hall suggests, panders to children’s desire for superiority, their desire to boss something about. Similarly, while thinking about fairies, Diane Purkiss concluded that “the desire to rescue the cute object, cuddle it, take it home, nurture it, give it love” can also be a desire to possess and control.
The visual enchantment that comes from dressing up cute things in frilly clothing and making them act out scripted roles can be as innocent as a little girl making her Barbie and Ken “kiss” or as tyrannical as the Roman emperor Nero’s fascination with the boy Sporus, whom he castrated and dressed in a bridal gown and veil. Nero then married the boy in a public ceremony attended by the whole court before bringing Sporus home as his wife. Most mock marriages fall somewhere in between. Nevertheless, from delight to the visual erotic, at the heart of every mock marriage is this hazy association between the longing to coddle and the yearning to possess and dominate.
Soon after Tom and Lavinia’s nuptials, a strange phenomenon captured the American imagination: the Tom Thumb wedding. As Susan Stewart describes in On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (1993), Tom Thumb weddings were mock marriage ceremonies between children—sometimes as young as five or six years old—playing the roles of bride and groom. The weddings, held in Christian churches, were frequently sponsored by church communities with the full support of their ministers. The bride of a Tom Thumb wedding held in 1900 at the Campbellite Church in Bethany, Nebraska, was actually the minister’s tiny daughter, and the 1956 ceremony in St. James Lutheran Church in Brogueville, Pennsylvania, was not only proposed by the minister, organized by the church ladies, and performed by Sunday-school children, but the minister himself “married” the bride and groom.
In 1898, W. H. Baker outlined the procedure of a Tom Thumb wedding as part of his published series on children’s entertainments. Attention to detail was imperative, as the goal was to produce an idealized vision of a model wedding on a miniature scale. The wedding participants should include not only a minister, bride, and groom but also a maid of honor, a groomsman, bridesmaids, flower girls, father and mother of the bride, ushers, and—of course—guests. Baker drew up a plan of how all the participants should be arranged and scripted various amusing vows for the actors such as “for better, but not worse” and “so long as your cooking does not give me dyspepsia.” As for the costumes, they should be modeled on real wedding outfits and as elaborate as possible to ensure the success of the event. “The effect of the costumes is startling,” Baker assures us, “and the outbursts of enthusiasm that invariably greet the little ones in the attire of their elders is scarcely imaginable.”
What is so visually delightful about children dressed in satin and bow tie finery and acting out the ceremonial prelude to wedding-night revelry? Stewart maintains that the spectacle arises from an urge for the idealized flawlessness of miniatures and the pleasure an audience experiences in observing such perfection. We might even say, as Stewart suggests, that the miniaturized form of the Tom Thumb wedding allows the ceremony to reach a precision of detail no “real” wedding, with its messy reality and weighty obligations, could ever achieve. The parody presents the child bride as the immaculate body of the doll or fairy, which is to say, “What is lost in this idealized miniaturization of the body is sexuality and hence the danger of power.” The cute replaces the dangerous, but the cute is exploited in the process. The miniature, as Stewart explains, is always “a term of manipulation and control as much as it is a term of endearment.”
And always lurking behind this vision of fairy perfection is a degree of titillation. It’s not surprising that the Victorians envisioned the fairy child as a nude little girl dancing naively amongst the flowers in the soft morning light. The fairy paintings of Victorian artists John Simmons and John Atkinson Grimshaw, for example, used pink wings, nodding tulips, and gauzy, see-through fairy robes as an excuse to paint naked girls with barely budding breasts. More voyeuristic still were the notorious photographic studies of naked little girls by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known by the pen name Lewis Carroll. If fairy pinups added a forthright eroticism to cute innocence, the spectacle of children dressed up in adult wedding regalia is only a piece of lace behind.
In 1633, King Charles I arranged a marriage between two pages in his court, Anne Shepherd and Richard Gibson, both three feet ten inches tall. The ceremony was a lavish visual orgy of cuteness: the king gave the bride away, the queen presented her with a diamond ring, and the poet Edmund Waller commemorated the event in a poem titled “Of the Marriage of the Dwarfs.” While the marriage was actually happy—Anne and Richard lived to the ripe ages of eighty-nine and seventy-four and produced nine children, five of whom survived—the performance was nevertheless a bawdy delight for the court audience, who eagerly speculated on whether the union would prove fertile.
All royal courts of the day had their dwarfs. King Sigismund-Augustus of Poland had nine dwarfs while Catherine de’ Medici had only six but actively encouraged those six to engender more. Vitelli, a Roman cardinal, amassed thirty-nine to serve as waiters at a special dinner. But it was during the reign of Charles I, king of England from 1625 until he was beheaded by his people in 1649, Leslie Fielder claims, that “the erotic cult of the Dwarf” reached its peak and was perhaps most sumptuously embodied by all eighteen inches of Jeffery Hudson, whom Charles presented to his young bride hidden beneath the crust of a cold pie.
With his soft blond hair, big blue eyes, and boyish charm, Hudson was as handsomely petite as he was audacious. He frequently bragged of his sexual conquest of fifteen court ladies. (Such daring-do eventually led him into more dangerous situations. Acting as a courier for the Stuart dynasty during the war, Hudson was captured and held for ransom three times. During his last captivity, he was buggered by pirates, an indignity that, he claimed, caused him to grow to the looming height of three foot nine and forced him to retire.)
As Hudson’s ribald court adventures make clear, cuteness and overt sexuality haven’t always needed a gauzy fairy veil. Indeed, in his classic work on the history of childhood, Centuries of Childhood, first published in 1959, Philippe Ariès describes the astonishing liberties adults took with children in the early seventeenth century. In order to hammer home his point that children were hardly excluded from the lewdest of merrymaking, Ariès details the fun centered on Louis XIII’s genitals. While he was still in his crib, his nurse took great pleasure in wagging his sexual parts between her fingers, a game the young Dauphin took it upon himself to repeat, waving his member at anyone he encountered—including the king and queen—and demanding that it be kissed or at least lovingly admired. Ribald antics involving children’s privvies were apparently a widespread tradition well into the seventeenth century: whether it was the young would-be king of France waving his penis at his mother or Hudson crowing over his conquests, the result was high enjoyment. Such behavior was as adorable as it was diminutive.
PET SEX AND
Cute has since been denuded of all of its former sexuality. Any association of prurience with cuteness outside naughty adult bedroom antics is regarded as downright obscene, even criminal. The mock marriage hasn’t disappeared, but its actors have changed. Dwarfs and children are now well off limits, but what could be cuter than marrying your pets?
Pets have recently been included in several high-profile celebrity weddings, but Sigourney Weaver went one better when she married Petals, her Italian greyhound, to Jimmy from around the corner, because Weaver’s daughter worried that Petals shouldn’t have pups out of wedlock. The nuptials included such winning phrases as “Bark now or forever hold your peace.” The actress Bernice Liu recently held a similar marriage for her two bichon frises, Bailey and Mac, before mating them. But you don’t have to be a celebrity to have a pet wedding. For a cost of $14.95, PetWeds.com sells official wedding certificates signed with the paw print of a Scottie dog named Tyker, an ordained minister of the Universal Life Church of Modesto, California. The site heartily encourages owners to “WED THAT BULL TO THE WHOLE HERD! MAKE AND [sic] HONEST MAN OUT OF YOUR RAM. IF THEY’VE BRED…… GET THEM WED! STAMP OUT ILLEGITIMATE CRITTER LITTERS!” And if the plethora of pet wedding services, from bow-wow-ties and doggy wedding dresses (“A fun way to give your pampered dog a romantic look”) to invitations to fly your pets to Hawaii for a beach wedding complete with pet leis, begins to bewilder, just consult Diana Guerrero’s book on the subject, Blessing of the Animals: A Guide to Prayers and Ceremonies Celebrating Pets and Other Creatures (2007). The pet mock marriage: it’s cute, it’s fun, and, best of all, the bride and groom are blissfully unaware.
But not all pet weddings are quite so innocuous. At a cost of more than sixteen thousand dollars, the 1986 marriage between Phet, a male part-Siamese, and Ploy, his tabby bride, in Thailand’s biggest discotheque is recorded by the Guinness Book of Records as the most expensive pet wedding. In addition to a twenty-three-thousand-dollar dowry, five hundred guests, and sixty thousand dollars in cash and presents, no wedding detail was forgotten: the bride wore pink satin, the groom was fitted out in a matching pink tuxedo with lacy cuffs, the bride arrived by Rolls-Royce and the groom by helicopter, the maid of honor was an iguana, the best man was a parrot, and Ploy received a custom kitty wedding ring. What a visual treat for the guests. Or was it? Animal-rights activists tried to stop the wedding and have the cats seen by a veterinarian as both Phet and Ploy had “the diamond eye,” a rare type of feline glaucoma that is considered to bring good luck in Thailand. Phet’s untreated condition was so advanced that his left eye was transfigured into a bulging glassy orb, a freakish counterpoint to the otherwise “cute” wedding portrait of two blind cats swamped in bubble-gum pink silk. Their owners were hoping to mate the mystical-eyed cats in the hopes of increasing their luck with a litter of glaucoma kittens. As ever, one man’s cute is another man’s queasy.
Perhaps the most disquieting of all animal mock marriages is Walter Potter’s tableau of eighteen stuffed kittens, created in 1898. The lady kittens are dressed in cream brocade gowns and frilly knickers, beads, and earrings; the bride has a brass ring on her finger while the groomsmen sport dashing morning suits. All have oversize kitten eyes, and all would be adorable—that is, if their eyes weren’t made of glass and if they weren’t the stuffed carcasses of unwanted, drowned kittens from a local farm. The tableau was on display in Potter’s Museum of Curiosities in the village of Bramber in Sussex, England, along with Potter’s other fantasies in taxidermy, including the “Kitten Tea and Croquet Party,” featuring thirty-seven kittens pouring each other cups of tea and waving mallets; “The Rabbits’ Village School,” which showed forty-eight young rabbits variously learning their lessons, cheating, or sewing; and “The Guinea Pigs’ Cricket Match,” which included thirty-four guinea pigs, some playing cricket, some tinkering on tiny brass instruments.
But even a guinea-pig brass band can’t compete with the cuteness of a kitten wedding. Just as the Victorians domesticated the malevolent Celtic fairy into the ideal and innocent child, so too they oversentimentalized cats into a declawed, defanged prettiness devoid of all predatorial instincts. Highly popular artists and writers like Louis Wain and Beatrix Potter (no relation to Walter) depicted anthropomorphized cats as innocuous little people engaged in all manner of darling human activities—they went to school, they played truant, they got married. And yet while cats evolved into the cutest and meekest of household creatures, becoming the very image of domestic bliss, few people thought twice about drowning excess litters (as Potter’s vast collection of stuffed baby animals makes evident). Potter didn’t kill the kittens, the guinea pigs, or the bunnies; he merely did something cute with their dead remains.
And finally, by way of conclusion, it is worth mentioning that after 127 years of continuous operation, Potter’s Museum finally fell on hard times. Despite the English artist Damien Hirst’s late offer of £1 million for the entire museum, the collection was sold off item by item by Bonhams auction house in 2003. The “Kitten Wedding” realized an astounding £21,150. But we shouldn’t be surprised. In the land of cutie-pie weddings, the stuffed kitten is king.
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