Sunlight streaming through the treetops, fresh bread baking, baby animals frolicking in fields—these are just a few of the images that characterize cottagecore, an emerging internet subculture dedicated to a bygone rural lifestyle of simplicity, self-sufficiency, and harmony with nature.
Like any current aesthetic movement, cottagecore is unmistakably a product of the internet. The movement, which can be traced back to Tumblr, has gained mainstream popularity on TikTok seemingly overnight. On TikTok alone, videos tagged #cottagecore have racked up a cumulative 3.1 billion views. One prominent cottagecore TikToker, SoraBlu, has been posting regularly from her RV home in Washington since the platform’s inception. Her lush videos of a charmed, woodland existence—set to soothing indie music, of course—have garnered her nearly 200,000 followers on the app.
The aesthetic isn’t just limited to videos, though; browse through the #cottagecore tag on Instagram and you’ll find what looks like a shrine to country life—meadows, jam jars, and pressed flowers abound. In many ways, the aesthetic openly celebrates femininity, with men conspicuously absent from most photos in the tag.
It’s easy to see the appeal of this dreamy, airbrushed vision of country life, particularly when lockdown has deprived so many of us of any contact with nature. The aesthetic is a hyper-accessible online antidote to all the stress of 2020—well-timed for a year that has arguably induced more collective anxiety than the entire previous decade.
On its surface, the movement is nothing more than an innocent, airy celebration of rural living. But there’s more to the aesthetic than meets the eye. Namely, with its overt celebration of femininity and domesticity, cottagecore evokes many of the same themes as the “tradwife” movement—an alt-right subculture of women who, seemingly fed up with 21st-century mores (like, um, gender equality) are advocating a return to traditional gender roles. For self-described “tradwives,” or “trads” for short, childbearing and domestic servitude are high on the agenda. In the tradwife orthodoxy of motherhood and housekeeping, there’s a sinister underside to the agrarian fantasy of cottagecore.
The tradwife community is an especially reactionary faction of the alt-right, with many of its supporters overtly aligning themselves with white nationalism. For them, the yearning for rural life takes on a whole different meaning: the supposed idyll of a traditional existence, devoid of people of color, immigrants, and the LGBT+ community. Some tradwives take it one step further, encouraging others to beget white babies in response to falling birth rates in the West. Ayla Stewart, a Utah-based self-identified tradwife and YouTuber, even urged her followers to partake in “the white baby challenge” back in 2017. If this reminds you of the ecofascist “blood and soil” ethos of Nazi Germany, you’re not far off. Throw in the ongoing legacies of colonialism in the Americas, and you’ve got a white settler fantasy that airbrushes the violence perpetrated against Indigenous peoples for a racist vision of rural life.
With these political undertones, it may seem ironic that many of cottagecore’s most vocal devotees belong to the LGBT+ community.
The escapist pull of cottagecore is doubly intense for young queer people who are shunned, tokenized, and objectified by society. For the queer community, cottagecore offers a concrete vision of wholesome, unstigmatized life with a loved one—a vision that still hasn’t been depicted in most popular media and entertainment.
In fact, go far enough down the cottagecore rabbit hole and you may even veer into “anprimcore,” the aesthetic of anarcho-primitivism. The official Aesthetics Wiki entry for anprimcore reads, simply, “the most based aesthetic. It involves dismantling industrial society and returning to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle” in pursuit of a more egalitarian, eco-friendly existence.
So why are two political extremes rallying around the same blanket (or rather, quilt) movement—a twee aesthetic of baby lambs and pumpkin patches? Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin’s theory of the politicization of art offers a tentative answer.
In order to make sense of cottagecore’s political undertones, one must first consider the much larger realm of contemporary political discourse. Pundits have claimed for years that political rhetoric is increasingly based on performance and imagery: an aesthetic exercise rather than a rational one.
For proof, look no further than the sitting president of the United States, a former reality TV star whose political popularity can largely be ascribed to his brash, domineering persona. In the run-up to the 2016 election, Trump’s erratic online and on-screen presence only served to court his disillusioned voter base. His supporters are largely there for the spectacle—not the substance. Easily dismissed by his critics at first, Trump’s theatrical rhetorical antics nevertheless established him as a boisterous “truth-teller,” and his larger-than-life personality eventually won him the election.
On the left, too, current political discourse is aesthetically charged, with the boundaries between politics and aesthetics progressively dissipating. There is a singular, catastrophic consequence to such a system, according to Benjamin: “all efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in war,” war being the only means of expression for the masses in a system that deprives them of legitimate political power in favor of aesthetics. Benjamin anticipates that workers, stifled by capitalism’s emphasis on productivity, will utilize the technologies of production against material targets rather than directing warfare against the system itself.
When aesthetics and politics become one, the natural impulse to dismantle oppressive systems, finding no productive target, will instead turn to physical destruction. “Imperialistic war,” Benjamin writes, “is a rebellion of technology which collects, in the form of ‘human material,’ the claims to which society has denied its natural material. Instead of draining rivers, society directs a human stream into a bed of trenches.”
However, we can respond to the conflation of aesthetics and politics by politicizing art. In an oppressive society, pairing political ideas with artwork is an act of rebellion.
Enter cottagecore, a political bug trap; everyone from tradwives to LGBT+ activists can assign a unique ideological vision to the aesthetic. For young people, the pull of the aesthetic is particularly strong; jilted by a world of rising political tensions, climate catastrophe, and economic recession, they are in search of an escape from the humdrum depression of late-stage capitalism. Cottagecore is as much a cure for the cynical nostalgia of the tradwife movement as it is an answer to LGBT+ people’s search for belonging.
This is not to say that LGBT+ people and fundamentalist tradwives are in any way morally equivalent—only that both groups are increasingly frustrated by a dysfunctional world that privileges production over individual happiness. For disenfranchised and disaffected groups alike, subscribing to the cottagecore lifestyle is an act of protest against a capitalist system.
While it might seem like nothing more than a breezy movement on the surface, the rebellious elements of cottagecore are two-fold. Cottagecore devotees aren’t just glamorizing an aesthetic; they’re politicizing a lifestyle. The movement embodies an aesthetic, sure, but it promotes real, actionable choices. With its focus on sustainability and self-sufficiency, cottagecore shows that everyday actions have profound political significance.
By Irma K.
Photo by Darlene Lindsay and Michelle Dowe for Teen Vogue