The cuteness of cats, and people’s devotion to appreciating that cuteness has established cat videos’ value in the digital marketplace. As such, cat videos are emblematic of the shifts and transformations brought to cinematic production, distribution, and exhibition in the Internet age. This paper unpacks the cat video phenomenon investigating the ways that the cat video formula reflects and revises forms and aesthetics that have been characteristic of amateur cinematic practice throughout film history and links that history to recent scholarship on the superflat. A close reading of two cat videos suggests the cat video’s adoption of the cinema of attractions model suggests that online video spectators are oriented toward affective connections with commercial interfaces.

The camera loves cats.[1] They are irresistible objects for the cameras and screens of online video produsers. They’re playful, irreverent, cute, funny, and agile. Like Garbo’s or Monroe’s, their faces are both inscrutable and transparently emotional. Their antics recall the best slapstick bits of early cinema and their furry, purring bodies produce intense affective lures for viewers of online video. Cat videos offer virtually limitless scopophilic pleasures and dramaturgical possibilities. They are also revenue-producing clickbait: cat videos are the unmatched stars of the online video economy in its earliest era.[2] As Ethan Zuckerman, author of “The Cute Cat Theory of Internet Activism” notes, “The contemporary Internet was designed, in no small part, for the dissemination of cute pictures of cats.”[3]

Cute cat videos are emblematic of the shifts and transformations brought to cinematic production, distribution, and exhibition in the Internet age. As it circulates in our cultural moment, we can read the cat video as a discursive construct: it is simultaneously a mode of production, a generic designation, a collection of produser activities, a commercial imperative, and a series of productions. In this essay, I expand upon Zuckerman’s characterization of the Internet as a cat habitat by situating the cat video historically and aesthetically. I do this by comparing the emerging era of the YouTube video to the emerging era of cinema, while putting pressure on the way that cute cat videos engage the “omnipresent and global visual mode” of the superflat.[4] I unpack the historical comparison in two close readings, which suggest that that in the superflat we can find an updated, but debased, mode of the cinema of attractions. In discussing this superflat cinema of attractions, I focus on the cat video’s global reach; its affective lures; its integration of entertainment and commerce; and, its role as a pedagogical guide for the gaze of the Internet video consumer.

Japanese pop artist Takashi Murakami popularized the term “superflat” as a reflection on the relationship between contemporary art and culture in the 21st Century.

Fig.1: Takashi Murakami, KaiKai Kiki News, 2001
Fig.1: Takashi Murakami, KaiKai Kiki News, 2001

Murakami’s book Superflat offers a curated collection of images and essays that define and complicate the term. One of the book’s strategies involves juxtaposing images of prints and paintings from the Edo period with images of mass-produced anime and manga art popular in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries. The historical comparison is meant to help his readers to “reconsider” superflatness: “the sensibility that has contributed to and continues to contribute to the construction of Japanese culture, as a worldview, and show that it is an original concept that links the past with the present and the future.”[5] In this way, Murakami offers a model of aesthetic sensibility that emphasizes the ways that historical models of Japanese culture determine, link with, and shift contemporary art and culture. When he speaks of anime’s superflatness, for example, he speaks of an aesthetics built on a cultural and economic exigency: he notes that the superflat style of anime is both an inheritor of the depthless style of the Edo period and an effect of the material conditions of animation production in the postwar era.[6] Animators pressed for time and working with rudimentary tools and a limited budget created images that created a new style that emphasized a gridlike organizational strategy.[7] He contextualizes the resulting art of this era by identifying it as “the center of a Japanese culture that lacks prestige, authority, celebration, and cost.”[8] The YouTube interface and the aesthetic formula of the viral cat video reflect this global visual trend of cheap, fast, rudimentary art objects which embrace both depthless spectacle and the sleek commercial imperatives of consumer electronics and their interfaces. According to art historian Jinying Li, “superflat vision has increasingly become (or is becoming) a global cultural trend in the cyber-age, and its message is being articulated across various media that are rapidly converging.”[9] Li offers as examples the “current revival of comic-book culture in Hollywood”[10] as well as the design of consumer electronics, saying “we should be reminded that before Murakami coined the term, ‘superflat’ was in fact a well-advertised model name for Panasonic’s flat-screen television.”[11] As we will see, the cat video is also a convergence object with roots in commercial promotion.

The short duration and minimal editing of the typical cat video invokes and re-frame the aesthetic forms of early cinema, with its emphasis on spectacle and actuality. The smartphone cameras used by many amateur video produsers are built for quick, rudimentary video capture that does not allow for articulated depth-of-field. Their minimal editing suggests a cinema verité-like spontaneity and sincerity; and, their absorptive focus on the cat in action opens a space for spectators to locate their bodies in relation to the screen. In the introduction to Superflat, Murakami identifies the superflat’s engagement with the interplay of time, affect, and user generated images when he says, “One way to imagine super flatness is to think of the moment when, in creating a desktop graphic for your computer, you merge a number of distinct layers into one. Though it is not a terribly clear example, the feeling I get is a sense of reality that is very nearly a physical sensation.”[12] Here Murakami figures a model of convergence that emphasizes affect and materiality in virtual space. Murakami is describing a moment that articulates something crucial about the human-computer interface: the experience of watching your labor become virtual is figured as an imaginary ontology experienced as a sensation. Murakami further locates the superflat sensibility in a temporal space when he says that “it is an original concept that links the past with the present and the future.”[13] I read this definition as an invitation to read the cat video across historical eras – to enact the kind of historical layering that Murakami invokes here.

As Radha O’Meara and others have noted, cat videos share “common features with early cinema:” they are short, they are more oriented toward spectacle than absorption, they are typically non-narrative, and their cinematography tends to be experimental and exploratory.[14] Murakami’s work evokes recent scholarship that reframes and reconsiders the cinema of attractions and its productive linkage of the material conditions of exhibition, the importance of spectacle in entertainment, and those historical moments when affect is foregrounded over narrative.[15] In his essay on cat videos, D.E. Wittkower argues that the speed of life in the digital era has led to art that is more “emotionally immediate:” we can see this appeal to immediacy in the cute cat video’s foregrounding of cat action over cat narrative.[16] Cat video production is a kind of self-aware filmmaking that invites viewers to have a straightforward relationship with what they are seeing on screen and to experience what they are seeing through a “nearly physical sensation.” A cute cat video is not trying to get you to identify with characters or follow a story or invest emotionally in an allegory: it’s showing you something to make you laugh, go “awww,” and click on another cat video. The cinema of attractions model offered cinema studies a revolutionary new model when it was introduced, because it allowed film scholars to rewrite the hegemonic dominance of narrative absorption in film history. In this moment, when film scholars are beginning to unpack the aesthetics of the online video, the concept of the cinema of attractions offers a useful figure for contextualizing and analyzing the globally ubiquitous attractions of the Internet cat video and its non-narrative emphasis on spectacle and amateur aesthetics. In the case of the cat video, however, it promotes a kind of superficial absorption. It is, as such, a debased and shifted version of Gunning’s original term. In the superflat model, the cinema of attractions functions as an enticement to participate in a hegemonic system. The cinema of attractions model is so germane to analyses of the spectacular lures of digital media that some scholars have argued that the term has become “overused.”[17] In this essay, however, I argue that the concept continues to offer a useful mode of looking at emerging moments in cinema, particularly those moments that locate affect within a temporal enmeshing of “the past with the present and the future.” The cute cat video era suggests that the cinema of attractions can be reimagined as an example of superflat aesthetics. Wanda Strauven defines the cinema of attractions’ relationship to cinema history by noting that “it can be considered as designating a specific period as well as a transhistorical style, a historical film practice as well as a universal film practice that appears, disappears and re-appears like a cyclical phenomenon.”[18] The moment of the cute cat video is roughly parallel to the first decade of YouTube’s presence on the Internet. The “moment” of the cat video runs roughly from 2006 to 2014: two years that see the greatest use of “cat video” as an Internet search term.[19] The cat video is a cultural phenomenon that is, itself, defined by a particular Internet tool: YouTube, a commercial website.

In his 2010 essay that reframes the cinema of attractions as a “cinemas of transactions,” Leon Gurevitch uses the concept to talk about the ways that digital media speaks to silent cinema. When he speaks of the presence of the cinema of attractions style in CGI sequences, he notes that though CGI is, itself, a new attraction, its deployment “does not represent a radical break from past configurations of cinematic and audiovisual promotional history.”[20] In addition to making an argument that asks us to rethink conventional or hegemonic readings of historical inheritance, the cinema of attractions model productively emphasizes the material effects of affective spectacle, especially when the cinematic objects are exhibited in commercial spaces. Gurevitch uses the concept to talk about the ways that CGI sequences “are not only attractions that seek to attract spectators through visual pleasure but also moments that transfer most easily to the logic of the promotion.”[21] He describes this logic of promotion as “the process through which spectatorial pleasure is gained in each new experience of beholding the apparently real.”[22] The spectacular moment of a multidimensional transhistorical experience of affect that Gurevitch invokes here reads very much like Murakami’s moment of “nearly physical sensation.” Gurevitch’s translation of the cinema of attractions into a “cinemas of transactions” emphasizes the commercial imperatives behind cinemas’ embrace of affective spectacle in apparently real, nearly sensational spaces. Murakami’s description of the superflat as the “image resulting from the integration of the layers of entertainment and art” echoes this emphasis on the commercial.[23]

Emphasis on commercial potential has historically been imbricated in the practice of amateur cinematography/videography. Amateur video has been linked to commodity culture since its inception, and the commodification of cat affect in amateur videography on YouTube is no different. As Patricia R. Zimmermann notes in her landmark work on amateur home video, early cinema and homemade productions “share a social formation constructed out of consumerism, leisure time, aesthetic norms, bourgeois family life, the utopianism of new technologies, and corporate capitalism.”[24] This is to say: the scrutability of the cat video’s charms has both aesthetic and industrial functions. The short, observational, comical scenarios that exemplify the cat video require little capital investment (most cat videos appear to be shot on cell phone cameras) and only entail rudimentary technological and aesthetic skills, but they can command significant capital. The form has been propelled forward by the limited requirements for technology and skill needed to produce and exhibit a cat video but it has been cemented as a cultural trend by the tool that capitalizes on the popular circulation of the cute, easily digestible video shorts. The ubiquity and popularity of the cat video suggests that it has emerged as a pivotal example of this moment’s engagement with the discursive fields identified by Zimmermann. Cute cat videos are constructed by and construct corporate capitalism and they emphasize its norms and its focus on consumerism.

In the moment of the online video, the links between the amateur production and the commercial imperative remain constant. As Lauren Berliner notes, “humorous home videos on YouTube do not exist simply to please viewers or to offer home moviemakers a cost-free platform to share their clips.”[25] Humorous home videos, she argues, provide exhibition spaces like YouTube with valuable commodities for exchange. One of the effects of the commercialization of amateur home video is the prevalence of formulaic aesthetic styles and content. Berliner’s research on viral videos identifies the ways that YouTube’s algorithmic sorting system maximizes profit and promotes videos that fit formulaic standards. Amateur cute cat video produsers have adopted the lessons of the virality formula and in their work we can see the ways that formula reflects and revises forms and aesthetics that have been characteristic of amateur cinematic practice throughout film history. As consumers, we watch cute cat videos with what Li calls “an animated shopping gaze.”[26] Li, who coins this term in a discussion of the superflat, suggests that the animated shopping gaze reflects the “heightened experience of consumerism” of a visual field dominated by walls and windows.[27] As Li points out, monetized personalization creates a visual field in which our gaze is “databased and computerized:” a visual field “in which our identities are nothing more than a list of products that the computer, or the website, decides we’d like to purchase.”[28] YouTube’s interface appears to suggest that it offers a limitless archive of related materials with the added function of personalization. YouTube closely guards and makes invisible the systems and algorithms that determine which videos are added to the recommended thumbnails that are meant to guide our gaze repeatedly across the exhibition space to its supplemental promotions. As Lauren Berliner has pointed out, “the invisibility of these systems helps to naturalize the appearance of YouTube as a democratic platform driven by users’ tastes and interests.”[29] But, of course, the architecture of the site is neither “natural” nor “democratic.” YouTube’s architecture uses personalization as a way to control user attention and as a way to generate data that can be monetized: the cute cat video has helped to promote and refine this system.

YouTube’s superflat, monetized design is not precisely an invention of the digital age: here, again, the historical moment of a new cinematic technology’s emergence resonates between the silent era and the digital era. As Jeremy Groskopf points out in his study of “silent era precursors of online advertising techniques,” in 1916 Frank C. Thomas patented the design for a “collection of light diffusers flanking a movie screen that would allow for the stacking of advertisements along the screen in basically the same way that YouTube’s thumbnails of texts that are “recommended for you” appear on the right side of the YouTube interface.[30]

Fig. 2: Thomas’ patented design for screen-adjacent advertising.
Fig. 2: Thomas’ patented design for screen-adjacent advertising.
Fig. 3: YouTube interface with adjacent recommended views thumbnails.
Fig. 3: YouTube interface with adjacent recommended views thumbnails.

Of particular concern to early advertisers was the creation of an easily viewable system that added to the theatergoing experience without annoyingly distracting viewers from the primary cinema content and which offered a way to distinguish not only between the primary content and the advertisements, but between the advertisements, themselves. On YouTube, this two-pronged directive (to focus on primary content and to distinguish between different ads) is accomplished through scale and with visible metadata, though the advertisers’ imperative to not annoy, distract, or mislead the viewer is no longer a primary (or even secondary) concern. In fact, the interface’s display of metadata and its emphasis on personalization appear to be designed precisely for distraction and misdirection. Where it appears to offer unlimited avenues for viewer choice, the YouTube interface is, instead, ordered by what Daniel Chamberlain calls “vectors of customization and control.”[31] One of the primary vectors of this control, at least in YouTube’s emerging era, is the affective lure of the cute cat video.

Cuteness is, as Sienna Ngai notes, “firmly rooted in commodity culture.”[32] Scholars in a range of disciplines have taken up the question of the cat video, and though their work comes from a range of fields – from psychology to philosophy to media studies – the idea of “the cute” is central to each reading. A group of psychology researchers at Hiroshima University and Indiana University’s Jessica Myrick have conducted studies on the positive psychological effects of watching cute cat videos. In media and political economy studies, Zuckerman’s “Cute Cat Theory” is the most cited scholarly intervention: his work suggests that the presence of extremely popular, affectively alluring, non-activist content (such as cute cat videos) on Internet platforms makes it more difficult for governments to restrict activist use of those platforms. Issues of state control and popularity are central to the work of Radha O’Meara as well. O’Meara’s focus is on the ways that the cuteness of cat video aesthetics models the aesthetics and affective lures of surveillance culture. O’Meara identifies the role played by the cute in both the videos and their viewers when she says, “cat videos enable viewers to facilitate our own surveillance, and we do so with the gleeful abandon of a kitten jumping in a tissue box.”[33] The thrust of both Zuckerman’s and O’Meara’s work assumes that the viewing public’s intense affective connections to cat videos is a given. Zuckerman appends the word “cute” to his theory as a gesture to the intensity of cute cat videos’ affect. Other recent work on the cat video takes up the aesthetics of cat videos’ ubiquitous allure by explicitly situating it within scholarship on “the cute.” D.E. Wittkower, who reads cuteness as the “dominant aesthetic category in digital culture,” contrasts the allure of the cute with the dehumanizing graphical interfaces of the Internet. [34] He suggests that our cultural obsession with the cute is an instinctive mitigation of the “foreign, cold, and uncaring” digital environment.[35] Whether the affective connection evoked by cat videos is framed as a potential facilitator of progressive possibility, a cynical acknowledgement of our drive toward pleasure over principle, or an instinctive response to new media’s alienations, it is clear that cuteness is a central tenet of the cat video’s allure and a primary feature of the cat video’s discursive construct. The furry, loveable, purring bodies of cats produce intense affective lures for viewers and producers of cat videos. The cuteness of cats, and people’s devotion to appreciating that cuteness by clicking on videos, has established cat videos’ value in the digital marketplace.

As the following close reading will suggest, the cat video’s adoption of the cinema of attractions models suggests that online video spectators are have become oriented toward affective connection with something other than narrative. The most ineffable but most meaningful effect of the cat video is laughter, which we can read as the affective thrust of the cinema of attractions. As cinema theorist Laura Marks says,

The early-cinema phenomenon of a ‘cinema of attractions’ describes an embodied response, in which the illusion that permits distanced identification with the action onscreen gives way to an immediate bodily response to the screen.[36]

The “giving away” of distance in the favor of immediate embodiment is a conceptual idea that can be mapped visually, in this case, across the vectors of control that define the design of YouTube’s interface. The presence and appeal of the cute cat video within this interface opens a space for us to re-think superficiality and depthlesness, particularly when they are read as exemplars of the aesthetic of the contemporary.

Though there are many elements of cat videos that promote emotional immediacy and foreground action over narrative, I will turn here to a discussion of depth-of-field in cat videos and the ways that it reflects and responds to the superflat aesthetics of online videos’ monetized exhibition spaces. A close reading of an Edison short allows for a discussion of the usefulness of the cinema of attractions model for analyzing the cat video, while a close reading of a contemporary cat video that visually cites that Edison short then opens space for contextualizing the cat video within the history of cinematic aesthetics and as an example of the shifting cinematic modes and emerging aesthetics of the digital age. These examples demonstrate that the cat video’s lack of interest in depth-of-field is matched by a concomitant lack of interest in narrative depth as an affective experience and suggest that the cinema of attractions model has found a new articulation in the superflat.

The short film “Boxing Cats (Prof. Welton’s),” a cinema of attractions short that is a proto-cute cat video, was shot in Thomas Edison’s Black Maria film studio in New Jersey in 1894.

There are several cinematographic elements in “Boxing Cats” that beg analysis, but for the purposes of this project, which makes an historical comparison, those elements that are most determined by its historical moment—the lighting, the depth of field, and the framing—will be drawn into focus. Because it was shot in Edison’s Black Maria (which featured skylights above the filming area), the scene is lit from above. This lighting style draws the image toward the viewer. There’s a Rembrandt-like luminescence to the central figures – the things we are meant to see are being presented to us, and their internal glow is pedagogical. In this, cinema’s emerging moment, spectators’ viewing experiences are teaching them how to read moving images. This type of lighting schools the eye by drawing attention to the diminutive mise-en-scène and by demonstrating that there is something to-be-looked-at in this frame. The cats, the boxing ring, and the face of Prof. Welton all stand out against the depthless blackness that surrounds them.

The framing performs a similarly pedagogical gesture. The boxing ring, with its ornate posts, provides an unusual frame-within-the-frame: the front of the ring is pushed to the very edge of the picture plane. The central post blocks the viewer’s complete view of Prof. Welton’s face while pointing for several significant seconds to his eye. Prof. Welton appears to be grinning and looking directly at the camera, and, by extension, the spectators. His disembodied head floats in the center of the frame. The framing of the ring, which obscures and amplifies the cats, obscures and amplifies our attention to the man who is both looking at us and manipulating the action while foregrounding the film’s minimal depth-of-field.

It’s interesting to note the prominence of hands in the action, in part because the short is about boxing. One of the short’s cutest (and, hence, most affectively alluring) elements is the cats’ cat-sized boxing gloves. They perform a vivid alienation by evoking verisimilitude while gesturing to the artifice of the scenario. They both mask the cats’ catness – look! the cats look like human boxers with gloves! – and emphasize their catness – look! the cats’ paws have been hidden! Prof. Welton’s hands are similarly polysemous: it looks like he has cats for hands but we know he has man hands; it looks like the cats are boxing but we know he is manipulating them with his invisible hands.

Fig. 4: Dr. Welton’s floating head and boxing cats.
Fig. 4: Dr. Welton’s floating head and boxing cats.

The visibly invisible hand of the person producing the scenario wherein cats become a cinematic attraction is the central gesture of this cat video. On the one hand, the film straightforwardly reveals its artifice in the first gesture, but on the other hand, it’s staged for the camera. The sleight of hand is constitutive to the form, but the acknowledgement of that sleight is similarly central to its significations. This gesture positions the spectator as both pleasure seeking and as complicit in the knowledge that she is being manipulated for the sake of pleasure. It also highlights the lack of narrative absorption in the short: the apparatus is laid bare and it does not detract from the appeal of the work, it constitutes the appeal.

Where “Prof. Welton” offers depthlessness, “Cats Playing Patty-cake, what they were saying” offers the specular repetition of cat imagery and a condensed depth-of-field.

This video, which has over 20 million views, is a remix of another video, “Cute Cats Playing Patty Cake! THE ORIGINAL!”

Both are visual citations of the Edison video. hkbecky, the author of “Cute Cats Playing Patty Cake! THE ORIGINAL!” glosses her video in the comments by saying, “They do this all the time and I finally caught it on video. When they realize I’m filming, they stop and then resume when they think I’m not looking. Cheeky cat :-).”[37] She frames her work as an act of surveillance and transgression while rhetorically gesturing toward the affective lure of the cute by concluding her blurb with a smiley face. One of the most visually arresting moments of hkbecky’s video occurs in the first five seconds of the video: when she tilts her camera to get a better view of the cats, we see a calendar on the wall that features an image of two cats in a paper sack. When she slides over and tilts the camera back down, we see more clearly that the cats are playing in front of two computer screens and on each screen there is a photo of two cats looking at the viewer. Eight cats are on display: six virtual cats and two live cats, and they’re all pushed toward the picture plane.

Cute cat videos embrace a banal mise-en-scène. Their shaky camera movement foregrounds the videographic dispositif of the amateur videographer and their minimal editing suggests a cinema verité-like commitment to spontaneity and sincerity. Their absorptive focus on the cat in action opens a space for us to locate our bodies in relation to the screen. And, as the material condition of production, they display a lack of interest in depth-of-field and its concomitant significations of narrative depth. The amateur videographer’s mise-en-scène here includes the visual pun of the two cats playing an antagonistic game with each other on either side of a mouse—a computer mouse. The entire scene, in both versions, can be read as a kind of digital update of the Prof. Welton set. The depthlessness of the Black Maria’s luminosity is replaced here with repetitious images of flattened depths-of-field. The eye is not drawn into the representation of depth, but around the screen, from cat image to cat image. The greatest suggestion of depth of field that we get from the image is, in fact, in the still image of the cats on the computer screens behind them—the distance between the camera and the cats is minimal, and the framing is tight around them. The camera movement in “Cute Cats” is restless and resists conventional framing. The video foregrounds the presence of the videographer starting in its very first moment. Where in Prof. Welton we had a visual experience of the hands of the cat owner, here the hand is visible in the handheld camera movement and the apparatus of its production is visible in the diminished depth-of-field.

The inexpensive camera and the casual, spontaneous staging result in the image beyond the screens and cats being visually blown out by light. It is probably too clever to read this visually prominent over-exposure as an allegorical evocation of the video’s virality, but it is certainly reasonable to read the washing out of the space around the cats in action as an affirmation that the cat activity is this video’s primary focus. This is particularly true in the remix video, “Cats Playing Patty-cake, what they were saying,” which gains most of its humor from the voice-over and which makes a minor edit in the framing which brings the cats even closer to the front of the picture plane. The voice-over that anthropomorphizes the cats is an audio version of Prof. Welton’s performative gaze—it directly address the spectator. In “Cats Playing Patty-cake, what they were saying,” however, the agency for the cats’ action has been transferred from the human to the pet. This switch, which plays out in a number of key moments in the video, suggests that the online video’s formula anticipates a spectator with its “drive toward display” and its “direct, often marked, address to the spectator.”[38] This is most obvious, of course, in the moment when the cats stop playing, and look directly into the camera, and when the voice-over says, “Hello, Creeper.” It’s also highlighted in the cats’ meta-discussion about the fact that they’re being filmed.

Fig. 5: hkbecky’s cats say “Hello, Creeper.”
Fig. 5: hkbecky’s cats say “Hello, Creeper.”

In the Edison short, spectators are positioned in their relationship to the gaze of Prof. Welton as it hovers behind the cats. Here, the spectator is positioned by the gaze of the cats when they turn toward the camera.

Transgressing on an intimacy is part of the thrill of the spectator position when you are watching cute cat videos. There are many possible interpretations of this moment, this caesura in the cats’ antics, but what is clear is that the cats’ look maps the very limited, almost foreclosed space between the cats and the camera. The location is intimate, the relationship is intimate, the space being marked between the camera and the cat is the space of a relationship with explicit power relations that are being humorously and ironically identified through the voice over. Our view of the space is necessarily flattened because of our perception of that relationship. That flatness does not, however, preclude an intense affective connection. In fact, it marks a moment that highlights the ways that online video spectators are oriented toward affective connection with spectacle and reflexivity rather than narrative.

The cinema of attractions model is primarily about positioning the spectator in relation to the apparatus of the film camera. The cute cat video offers a revised positioning of the spectator while maintaining the aesthetic characteristics of the cinema of attractions. When Murakami writes about the superflat, he says that it raises questions about “the way that a picture controls the speed of its observer’s gaze, the course of that gaze’s scan, and the subsequent control of the information.”[39] The ubiquity of the superflat, with its “heightened state of commodity experience” is made material in the affective lures of cat videos’ cute affect.[40] The bodily response of joy evoked by cute affect is, of course, central to the cat video experience. As it is in the cinema of attractions, the affect in cat videos is not identificatory, it is situational: the cute aesthetics and cinema of attractions-like pleasures of the cat video make visible the dimensionality and mobility of cats’ position as a “technology of capital” in an era of flatness and dispersion.[41] As Tom Gunning has noted, the attraction allows us to see “cinema less as a way of telling stories than as a way of presenting a series of views to an audience.”[42] The YouTube interface offers this series of views: it draws the spectator in and across the screen toward its recommended promotions. The superflat aesthetics of the cat videos within the interface act as a kind of visual pedagogy that habituates viewers to a mode of viewing that is not about resistant possibility but about consumer control: Li’s “animated shopping gaze.” Cute cat videos locate the 21st Century spectator pushed up against the picture plane on both sides: the cinema of attractions-like pleasures of the cute cat video and the pedagogical thrust of YouTube’s “vectors of control” make visible the limited dimensionality of representation in an era of flatness and dispersion.

Author Biography

Leah Shafer is Assistant Professor in the Media and Society Program at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Her work focuses on amateur video and on advertising. She has a chapter in The Wiley Blackwell Companion to the War Film & one forthcoming in The 25 Sitcoms that Changed Television: From I Love Lucy to Modern Family. Her experimental documentary, “Declaration of Sentiments, Wesleyan Chapel,” was recently screened by the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival.


    1. 1 Many people have helped me work on this essay. Special thanks go to Elizabeth Ramey, Alla Ivanchikova, Tonia Saxon, Stephen Groening, the anonymous Film Criticism reviewer, and the Hobart and William Smith Colleges Feminist Works in Progress group.return to text

    2. The popularity of the cat video is a notable cultural phenomenon. The “cat video” is, itself, a meme that refers to online video and online viewing habits as a general category.return to text

    3. Ethan Zuckerman. “Cute Cats to the Rescue? Participatory Media and Political Expression” (paper presented at the Center for Civic Media, MIT, April 2013). return to text

    4. Jinying Li, "From Superflat Windows to Facebook Walls: Mobility and Multiplicity of an Animated Shopping Gaze." Mechademia 7.1 (2012): 205.return to text

    5. Takashi Murakami, “The Superflat Manifesto,” in Superflat. Takashi Murakami. (Tokyo: Madora Shuppan, 2000), 5. return to text

    6. Ibid., 15.return to text

    7. Ibid. return to text

    8. Ibid., 25.return to text

    9. Li, "From Superflat Windows to Facebook Walls: Mobility and Multiplicity of an Animated Shopping Gaze," 209.return to text

    10. Ibid.return to text

    11. Ibid., 211.return to text

    12. Murakami, “The Superflat Manifesto,” 5return to text

    13. Ibid.return to text

    14. See, Radha O’Meara. "Do Cats Know They Rule YouTube? Surveillance and the Pleasures of Cat Videos." M/C Journal 17.2 (Apr. 2014), accessed November 7, 2014, [formerly http://journal.mediaculture.org.au/index.php/mcjournal/article/view/794]. See also: Leah Shafer. “I Can Haz an Internet Aesthetic?!? LOLCats and the Digital Marketplace” (paper presented at the Northeast Popular/American Culture Association Conference, Rochester, New York, 2012), accessed March 5, 2014. http://fisherpub.sjfc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1094&context=nepca.return to text

    15. When I refer to “recent” scholarship I invoke, among other texts cited here, the arguments in Wanda Strauven, ed. The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006). return to text

    16. D.E. Wittkower, “On the Origins of the Cute as a Dominant Aesthetic Category in Digital Culture,” in Putting Knowledge to Work and Letting Information Play. (Boston: Sense Publishers, 2012), 218.return to text

    17. Strauven, quoted in Leon Gurevitch “The Cinemas of Transactions: The Exchangeable Currency of the Digital Attraction,” Television and New Media 11:5 (2010): 373.return to text

    18. Wanda Strauven, “Introduction to an Attractive Concept” in Strauven, 20.return to text

    19. Google Trends search, accessed May 17, 2016, https://www.google.com/trends/explore - q="cat video"return to text

    20. Leon Gurevitch “The Cinemas of Transactions: The Exchangeable Currency of the Digital Attraction,” Television and New Media 11: 5 (2010) 367-385: 367.return to text

    21. Ibid., 381.return to text

    22. Ibid., 381.return to text

    23. Murakami, “The Superflat Manifesto,” 25.return to text

    24. Patricia R. Zimmermann. Reel Families: A Social History of Amateur Film. (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995), 153.return to text

    25. Lauren Berliner, “Shooting for Profit: The Monetary Logic of the YouTube Home Movie” in Amateur Filmmaking: the home movie, the archive, the web. Laura Rascaroli, Gwenda Young and Barry Monahan, eds. (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014), 291.return to text

    26. Li, "From Superflat Windows to Facebook Walls: Mobility and Multiplicity of an Animated Shopping Gaze," 203.return to text

    27. Ibid., 214.return to text

    28. Ibid., 216.return to text

    29. Berliner, “Shooting for Profit: The Monetary Logic of the YouTube Home Movie,” 293.return to text

    30. Jeremy Groskopf, "Profit Margins: Silent Era Precursors of Online Advertising Tactics," Film History: An International Journal 24.1 (2012): 86.return to text

    31. Daniel Chamberlain, “Television Interfaces,” Journal of Popular Film and Television 38:2 (2010): 85.return to text

    32. Sianne Ngai, “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde,” Critical Inquiry 31: 4 (Summer 2005), 811-847. Ngai cites, as part of her argument about cuteness’s inherent commercialism, that the OED’s first example in its list of usages of cute, from 1857, is “‘What cute little socks!’ said the woman,” 813-4.return to text

    33. O’Meara, "Do Cats Know They Rule YouTube? Surveillance and the Pleasures of Cat Videos," np. return to text

    34. Wittkower, “On the Origins of the Cute as a Dominant Aesthetic Category in Digital Culture,” 212.return to text

    35. Ibid., 216.return to text

    36. Laura U. Marks, Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media, (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 2002), 7.return to text

    37. hkbecky, “Cute Cats playing Patty Cake! THE ORIGINAL!,” YouTube video, 1:38, https://youtu.be/KvxCv_yrcCY.return to text

    38. Tom Gunning, “Cinema of Attraction[s]: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde,” in Strauven, 386.return to text

    39. Murakami, “The Superflat Manifesto,” 9.return to text

    40. Li, "From Superflat Windows to Facebook Walls: Mobility and Multiplicity of an Animated Shopping Gaze," 206.return to text

    41. Ric Knowles, “Editorial Comment: Interspecies Performance,” Theatre Journal 65.3 (2013): np. return to text

    42. Gunning, “Cinema of Attraction[s]: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde,” in Strauven, 382.return to text