You've seen them. They browse through the crammed shelves of Hello Kitty and Pochacco products in the Sanrio shops, examining the wallets and pencil boxes carefully. They try on backpacks that are obviously too small. For that matter, so are the undersized T-shirts they're wearing.
It's not younger sisters or relatives or even the kids they baby-sit that these teen and twentysomething women are shopping for. It's for themselves.
Erin Custer, 16, takes out of her thrift store Kelly bag a Kerokerokeroppi wallet by Sanrio in which she keeps coins, a few bills and scribbled notes. Her nails, cut fingertip short, are speckled with chipped, pearly blue nail polish.
She left her Captain Hook backpack, the one she got at Disneyland, at home because it didn't really go with her outfit today: a pink grosgrain ribbon that pulls back her snipped wavy hair, a '40s-inspired flowered dress that hits inches above the knee, white ankle socks and flat-heeled Mary Janes. "I have three pairs of Mary Janes," she says, "all black."
Erin looks cute. Cutesy cute. She's penciled in her eyebrows and mascaraed her top and bottom lashes like a porcelain doll's. A fake fur coat, an odd choice on this warm June afternoon, sits crumpled around her. "The look is of a little girl playing dress-up," she says. Intended image successful.
But don't confuse the image of an ingenue with the person within. Under all the prettiness is Orange County's most cherished ongoing representation of teen Angst: a punk rocker.
"A lot of people get the impression that because I dress like a little girl, I want to be treated like one," Erin says. Not true, she says. It is an attitude she doesn't tolerate and dismisses in the strongest terms.
Welcome to cuddle core. It's a scene that cozily balances the cuddly cute of infantile fashion and punk's hard-core ethic.
While its sillier cult origins lie with the Japanese trio Shonen Knife (which has exported the obsessions with pop culture and cuteness of their country's youth for more than a decade), cuddle core didn't develop an identity until recently. It goes beyond the fluff and borrows a feminist tone from Girl Power, a school of thought among some women from 13 to 30 who find empowerment in celebrating their girlhood.
The intent of Girl Power is to exaggerate what young women have been encouraged to downplay since they were toddlers--their differences from boys. It's not that they don't want to be treated as equals. But when girl implies weakness, second-string, then it's no surprise why so many prefer a tomboy persona. Even then, it's difficult to escape that favorite among the Y-chromosome pack: "Not bad . . . for a girl."
Girl Power seeks to reclaim the very "G"-word itself as something that should be revered. It means becoming a woman on a girl's own terms.
This philosophy found impetus with the underground feminist punk movement, riot grrrl. Unofficial and anti-media, riot grrrls promulgate a do-it-yourself credo when it comes to forming bands with girl members, publishing fanzines and organizing discussion clubs by young women for young women.
Its demons are not men (there are, in fact, male members in riot grrrl and cuddle core bands), but the realities of an unsafe world where rape and other crimes happen too frequently.
Since its four or five years in existence, the grrrl movement has splintered and gone further underground (it's a rare girl who'll publicly admit she's into it)--partly because of media attention that tended to frame them as a bunch of cute girls with pink hair and an attitude.
Some decided they would embrace the stereotype rather than be put down by it. By adopting it and making it their own, they could diminish its negative conceit. This newfangled empowerment gained momentum within the cuddle core.
Where hard-core riot grrrls proudly wear tees emblazoned with slang terms used to demean women, cuddle core girls deem it unnecessary, too extreme. It's the pop equivalent--a prettier shell but still brash on the inside.
Fashion caught on in the last year with a flood of junior labels and collections catering to this market. Peter Pan collars, pleated miniskirts, shrunken T-shirts, Snow White blouses, knee-high socks, heeled Mary Janes and other baby-doll clothes continue to ship to stores. Boutiques stock old lunch boxes and Sanrio products. Girlie wear, as it's dubbed, has its cover girl in rock starlet Courtney Love.
Then there is the music. Waifish Juliana Hatfield became a pop star with her pre-pubescently high voice. Also getting plenty of airplay is Veruca Salt, a band named after the bratty girl in Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; the band's publishing company, Are You There God It's Me Music, is a takeoff on Judy Blume's classic "Are You There God? It's Me Margaret." Other sugar-pop groups with a sense of kiddie humor are London's Huggy Bear and, from Wales, the Pooh Sticks, which got its name from a game in A. A. Milne's "Winnie-the-Pooh."
Erin and the other teens she hangs out with in downtown Huntington Beach prefer the biting edge of female-fronted bands as Babes in Toyland, Hole, Elastica and the Muffs. Liz Phair gets a "killer" mark for her music and an "ugh" for her fashion sense.
At Huntington Beach High, where Erin just finished her sophomore year, her classmates always remark how cute she looks. But it's not in the way they tell the popular girls that their outfits are cute. Some, bolder, ask Erin why she comes to campus looking like that .
"I'm so over the baggy, skate girl look, the unisex thing," Erin says. "I like looking like a girl. I like to be able to dress up, and I was never into the grunge thing."
There was a brief stint with ripped clothes when she woke up to punk culture. This year, though, she realized she didn't have to be a slob to be punk. She found a short red and white polka-dot dress in a San Francisco vintage clothes shop. That did it.
"When I was little, I never wanted to be caught dead wearing dresses. Now my mom can't get over it. She says it gives me my own sense of individuality."
As one of the very few young women at her high school into cuddle core, Erin's sense of individuality drives her interest further. Those in this scene are not a mass collective: they are comfortable socializing with others in the fragmented punk and alternative culture.
The owner of "80 million little dresses" now, Erin indulges in red lipstick, tap pants, fake-fur jackets, tiny tees, sweater sets and folded ankle socks--preferably trimmed with lace. For hair, it's ribbons and barrettes, especially the novelty type made for little girls.
"It can look real innocent and at the same time a little naughty. But I'm not a toy. Any guy who acts sexist is just immature," she snaps. "The guys who dig the cute look respect us as equals.
"You can still be feminine and strong-willed," she continues. "A lot of women can dress like little girls but be very powerful. Look at Courtney Love of Hole. It softens her edge a little."
The feminism of Girl Power can boggle any old-school feminist who remembers the days of bra burning. But today's young women grew up figuring they can have their cake and eat it too. (Baking it, of course, is another issue altogether.)
"Is it fair that I have to worry about what I wear and the attention, the catcalls I get?" she asks. "I feel confident looking like this."
Erin and her friends draw the line with most cuddle core fashions on girls younger than 13, but only because it doesn't look right. "They look like their mom is still dressing them." She also deems it inappropriate on anyone over 35.
Her room in her family's Huntington Beach home is pure teen, or what Erin prefers to describe as "visually entertaining." A collage of magazine tears and pictures splatter the wall. A trashed teddy bear sits atop her teal bedspread. There's a comfortably worn dresser and several old Barbies and antique dolls.
As Erin says, "It looks like a chick lives here."
The teddy bear, the dolls, the Mary Janes, barrettes and baby doll dresses shouldn't be construed as Erin's way of avoiding the inevitable: growing up. Sure, life was uncomplicated when she was in primary school. There is a comfort in that simplicity that the cuddle core crowd recalls and cherishes.
Erin, who has a brother age 11 and a sister who's 2, isn't interested in regressing, though. She much prefers traipsing around in her own Size 8 shoes.
"I'm grown up, but I like to keep a playful attitude. I'm not avoiding reality or trying not to grow up." She has a job after school as a bookkeeper for an accountant. She loves to smoke, a bad habit, she admits, and not something any kid should do. Reality, she says, isn't perfect, but it can't be avoided, either.
"I just like to have fun with what I wear. So many teen-agers try to spend all their time acting like they're 25. You know, everyone's busy trying to be so mature nowadays."