‘Aren’t You Essentially a Yawning Baby?’: Sliding Into the DMs of Instagram’s ‘Tiny Gentle Asians’

Published January 24, 2019

@colsondoingthings, a tiny gentle Asian

Somewhere deep inside the veins of the internet outrage machine lies a distant land, a utopia where content is shared in great quantities, where flame wars are faint, where public disavowing is rare, and cuteness is abundant. This is the Mommy-web — a vast layered system where Mommy Bloggers and future Mommys congregate to get their gentle and ever sweet kicks.

One of the ringleaders of this social network is Mel Kenny, an Asian-Australian with a knack for curation only her work isn’t focused on collecting and sharing “sick fits” or “grails,” but rather, babies. Her pet-project Instagram account, @TinyGentleAsians, has gone from personal celebration of the adorable, preposterously cute and entirely heartwarming into a must-follow social media sanctuary. Kenny’s success in curating an endless stream of plumb babies has garnered her over 100,000 followers and a book deal with art publisher Rizzoli. (Her hardback is slated to be published in summer 2019.) Interview slid into Kenny’s DMs (how else would we do this?) for a gentle conversation about cultural identity, the politics of regramming cuties, and the need for content that can aggressively cheer up social media users. 

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MICHAEL MCGREGOR: Hi Mel, it’s my birthday and I’m making myself dinner, drinking some wine. Why did you start TGA? How did it happen?

MEL KENNY: Well, happy birthday! Let me just grab you a baby from the feed to gift you on this special day.  Then I’ll answer your questions. Here You GO! Elite and elegant, as a person should be on his or her birthday.

MCGREGOR: Balenciaga & Birks. My style icon.

KENNY: I started Tiny Gentle Asians using images I took myself around Sydney — not entirely above board, I know. But, I always felt giddy observing their doughy faces and rolly arms and legs, and I hoped other people would too.

MCGREGOR: What was it that you felt needed to be shared, and when did you realize you struck a nerve with the public?

KENNY: Surprisingly, a wobby, enlarged baby dressed as a watermelon is apparently very relatable. Aren’t YOU essentially the baby yawning and falling asleep in public? Isn’t YOUR FRIEND prone to eating too much and feeling sick and crying? When I realized how deeply adult beings related to small babies and when I noticed how my posts would have more @ tags than likes, I knew TGA was not just a weird thing I liked. There’s also something very novel about the way Asian mothers dress and present their babies on Instagram. They might choose a very low angle shot to emphasize multiple chins. Or ladder up their baby’s squishy arm with similarly shaped bread sticks. Dress their dog and baby as twins. Start early on self-care with a sheet mask. I wanted to uncover these things from Asian mom Instagrams and redistribute them to a (predominantly) Western audience.

MCGREGOR: Do you get any pushback that the account is fetishizing asian babies? Or co-opting a culture for a Western audience?

KENNY: I was conscious of that when naming the account. I labored a little over using “Asians,” as I grew up in a super white part of Australia — a beach town, where I was one of a few Asians at my school and a very disgusting lady called Pauline Hanson was trying to convince Australia that we were “in danger of being swamped by Asians.” So back then the word was used to deflate or segregate more than it is now. Now, I think people are able to see it for what it is is: a sweet celebration.

MCGREGOR: What sort of unexpected oddball moments has the account generated? Celeb acknowledgements? Ultra intimate friend comments? Parents honored to have their child featured?

KENNY: Once, Chelsea Handler mentioned the account on her show. Candice Swanepoel used to follow but has since fled. (Come back babe!) One time, I tagged a baby in a picture but forgot to ask permission first, and his mother was exclaiming a! lot! at me! in Korean. I translated it: She had really let loose on the swearing and, memorably, called me a rat.

MCGREGOR: You have a book coming out with Rizzoli. Do you think this elevates the project to”art” status? Are you thinking about the account in a different way since the book deal? 

KENNY: It was my intention to self-publish, but I quickly realized it would be cool to get a bit more reach, and that a publisher and proper distribution might be the way to do it. I wrote up a pitch, and my Australian publisher wanted more than double the babies. This required me to contact innumerable mothers from 10 different countries and plead my case: “Hi, I’m a stranger from the internet who wants to use your baby’s pictures for a book, that’s cool, right?” The book is essentially the account transplanted into the real world. Cute, squishy babies. Dumb captions.

MCGREGOR: It’s funny because I don’t think @tinygentleasians has anything to do with cute babies. On the surface, yes, but something deeper resonates because TGA both recognizes and, perhaps awards, those who take and share baby photos — while also subverting it. Showing how silly it is, and, in turn, creating a global group of people who can enjoy something, together, at once, in an era when that seems frequently impossible, given the political climate and the internet outrage machine.

KENNY: I’m not terribly into babies — a fact that may SHOCK and APPALL some. I appreciate the intellectualization of it all! It demonstrates real dedication.

MCGREGOR: Maybe, I’m overreacting but I’m pretty meh on baby photos, and I enjoy TGA.

KENNY: When I’m plucking stranger’s babies from the explore feed, I’m not interested in their ‘innocence’ or ‘purity’ inasmuch as I am their potential to be set up for something very absurd. This is both because babies aren’t actual people yet, and I can assign them fictional personas, which is very fun. It also helps that TGA exists in a time where people want to be aggressively cheered up.