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Hello Kitty turns 40: Is she still relevant?

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On Nov. 1, 1974, Hello Kitty was born. The Japanese gift company Sanrio first introduced the character on a coin purse, and she quickly attained the status of pop culture icon not only in Japan but throughout the world.

Though it's difficult to sustain a successful career and a fan base for four decades, Hello Kitty seems to be as beloved as ever. An estimated 25,000 fans will have flocked to the first-ever Hello Kitty Con in Los Angeles' Little Tokyo neighborhood by the end of the weekend to show their love, passion and devotion to the expressionless feline character.

The sold-out event kicked off on Oct. 30 and runs through Nov. 2. At the Con, fans can shop, pose with a life-sized Hello Kitty and even get her likeness permanently tattooed on their bodies. Fans can even see the first coin purse to feature the character on display "with all the pomp of the Hope diamond," according to The Associated Press.

With all the fanfare surrounding the Hello Kitty Con, it's clear that people care about her and are interested in the character after all these years. Hello Kitty also helps bring in $8 billion annually for Sanrio, according to a company spokesperson, which would also signal that her presence in pop culture is as strong as ever. But the world has changed a lot in 40 years. Is she still relevant to our lives?

Hello Kitty's aforementioned popularity, continued financial success and occasional appearance in many aspects of pop culture would suggest that she is. When the news broke in August that Hello Kitty isn't actually a cat but a British girl named Kitty White, it sent shockwaves and caused tons of confusion around the Internet. In the late 2000s and early 2010s, it seemed like every major pop star incorporated Hello Kitty into her wardrobe, from Lady Gaga to Nicki Minaj to Katy Perry, who recently revealed a new Hello Kitty tattoo on her middle finger. The Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles opened an exhibition dedicated to the "Supercute World of Hello Kitty" last month. She even went to space this year.

However, there are some aspects of Hello Kitty and what she seems to represent that don't necessarily mesh as well with contemporary ideas of gender and race. For instance, the character inspired a song and music video released by Avril Lavigne in April 2014 that was heavily criticized for its cultural appropriation and use of emotionless, robotic back-up dancers that seemed to perpetuate the stereotype of female submissiveness among Asian women.

That has also been a criticism of Hello Kitty, and many have argued what message her expressionless face without a mouth sends to women. Sanrio says that feature is empowering because it doesn't tell you how Hello Kitty feels, and you can project your own feelings on to her, according to TIME. Others say that encouraging women to speak up is a key part of the feminist movement, and the character of Hello Kitty discourages that by not having a mouth.

Hello Kitty is also a part of Japan's "kawaii" culture, which is Japanese for "cute" and is characterized by upbeat and childlike imagery. Some see this as also promoting the idea that all women need to be in life is cute and really nothing else. However, that isn't an issue unique to Hello Kitty as that message is communicated in many toys targeted toward young girls, such as Barbie dolls.

But just as Barbie dolls have evolved somewhat with the changing political landscape in their more than 50-year history, Hello Kitty might want to consider doing the same if she wants to remain just as popular in another 40 years' time.

Image: Dan R. Krauss / Getty Images

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