Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Passion of the Kitty-Hunter

Today is an important day. No, not referring to Kevin Rudd’s second stint as Australian Prime Minister, at the expense of Julia Gillard. We’re talking about the end of the McDonald’s Singapore Hello Kitty promotion.

McDonald’s Singapore always has excellent marketing machinery. Their messaging, timing, promotions and deals reflect something about the team that is better than your ordinary marketing team. Although some may see it as a privilege, it is even more challenging when your target market is what appears to be the masses (but in fact, it’s more of a heterogeneous mix of demographies with varying aspirations and behaviours).

And with one snap of a finger signalling the start of a 5-week campaign, the Hello Kitty promotion proves to be a major catalyst for that familiar craze that occasionally sweeps our sunny (or hazy) shores.

There were long queues, formed way ahead of the promotions that started at 12am. There were those with an entrepreneurial eye, who seek to sell their collected Kitties for a profit. There were queue-cutters and even the police was called. Of course, we’re nowhere near the glass-shattering shenanigans of the 2000 Hello Kitty promotion.

Because of these episodes, immortalised through media and conservations, we have come to conclusions about the “ugly” side of Singaporeans. We are kiasu, petty, ungracious, opportunistic and have a warped sense of self-entitlement. The list goes on.

At the same time, don’t you think it is really too convenient to direct attention and adjectives to a strange and uncommon phenomenon – as it appears to be misaligned with how we want and aspire Singaporean-ness to be?

I noticed some Singaporeans criticising and ridiculing others for battling the haze and displaying uncharacteristic patience by queuing up at odd hours for the Hello Kitties, attempting to provide sociological and psychiatric explanations for the phenomenon, tinted with negativity, and later distance themselves as wiser and trend-immune persons from the crazed “masses”.

For the record, I got 3 Hello Kitties from this campaign and waited 5-10 minutes for each of them. My daughter plays with them, so they’re worth it. I attempted to get the fourth one, but was put off by the snaking queues and rumbling tummy.

So, having been on both sides, I think there’s no need to take the “know it better” higher ground to ridicule those who queue for the Hello Kitties. Most of the Kitty-hunters are peacefully queuing up and generally not exhibiting any anti-social behaviour.

The episode presents an interesting yet overlooked sociological insight – the fascination with the uncommon and the disruptive. Little to no attention is given to the mundane, because of how deeply we are immersed into it and how we continue to implicitly and overtly sustain it.

For a change, why not let’s focus our sociological imagination and discourse analysis lenses on the persons who attempt to rationalise in such a way to impress upon others the claim of moderation, well-adjusted-ness, measured-ness and normal-ness in attitude and behaviour? The claim of being “normal” also empowers one to use behavioural and social mechanisms to other-ise and stigmatise.

There is an impatience, a sense of urgency and at times a very conscious effort to claim to be a normal and moderate person. But why?

For the Kitty-hunters, their behaviour and actions do say something about our consumerist culture, among other wider phenomena. But that doesn't mean that those who toe the lines of measured-ness and mundanity with attempts at impressions of well-adjusted-ness, are themselves not symptomatic of similar or other types of phenomena (obviously) related to modern urban life in Singapore.

I think it is just too convenient to use the truckload of theories to (re)frame, (re)rationalise and (re)imagine the Hello Kitty craze. It is also convenient to link it to our social, cultural, economic, material, historical, political, geographical or sexual conditions.

On the other side (bad binarist assumption, but heck), what is it about the conditions that underpin the claims to normal-ness and the overt rejection of consumerism and fetishism? Is the repeated and almost ritualistic claim to and exhibiting of normal, moderate and generally socially conformist behaviour or even claims to “good taste” not fetishistic? Are these claims and behaviours not reflecting a state of being subjected to larger middle-class urban discourses (oops, falling outside sociology here)?

In other cases, there are people who are quick to claim to be heterosexual and cisgendered. There are those are desperate to claim they are moderate. There are those who attempt to laugh a little less harder at a really dirty joke.

“Because normal people don’t do that!”

That means, do “normal” people subject themselves to more disciplinary mechanisms and prevailing/dominant discourses which produce and re-produce marginalities and of course paradoxes? Now that is very shaky ground to be on.

In fact, most Kitty-hunters reproduce the norms in their quest for the promotion. The queues, the smartphone time-killing entertainment, the passive demeanour while queuing  and the displays (generally) of patience. Most of them don’t actively seek to be different as a life of normalcy awaits them after the extra value meal purchase. But they become subjects of exercises by people who seek to internalise (link to psychology and psychiatric conditions) and externalise (link to wider phenomena and institutions) this behaviour.

The mundane is never sexy, never attractive, so we tend to question it less. That means, we end up taking it for granted, and normalising it in the process.

Well, think about it. If you thought "Does that mean we're all freaks and perverts?", all I can say is "You say one ah! I never say anything ah, I never say ah!"

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