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Cottagecore is the pastoral fantasy aesthetic taking over TikTok

The new internet trend for tranquility-craving teenagers is “all about softness and being gentle."

by Sarah Woolley
12 February 2020, 5:00pm

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“Ayo! Cottagecore check!” These are the words you’ll hear on TikTok before a nice teenager shows you a bedroom filled with quilted blankets, dried flowers, and -- in most cases -- 300 ceramic frogs. This trend is called cottagecore, and if you’ve ever dreamed of running away to sunlit meadows filled with baby deer then you might have a little cottagecore in your soul, too.

Cottagecore is just one aesthetic community blossoming on Tumblr alongside fairycore, goblincore and the fabulously named dark academia. Clicking those hashtags is like opening a big, digital dressing-up box that, since 2018, has inspired its fans to make moodboards, playlists and even fanfiction dedicated to their favourite visual microgenres.

“Cottagecore, for me, is sort of a dream way of living,” explains 16-year-old Redditor InfamousBees who lives in Minnesota. “It's all about softness and being gentle, and kind, and nurturing. All things I haven't been able to find in past friendships.”

If you're older (or less online), then stumbling upon these aesthetic accounts can feel like you've gatecrashed a treehouse that is lovingly decorated with images cut from a magazine. These online temples of the heart, reminiscent of The Virgin Suicides in their airy, unapologetic sweetness, are easy to mock. But they're also an unguarded celebration of ethereal, bucolic girlhood. But what does all this pastoral yearning mean today? Broadly speaking, it means running away from capitalism to live on a farm with your lesbian wife. Obviously.

As cottagecore has risen in popularity, a spin off wave of TikToks, created by so-called "cottagecore lesbians" have emerged. One popular video is titled "When your mom says you can’t decompose in the damp grass with your girlfriend" and shows its 16-year-old creator slamming her door to listen to the only man worshipped by cottagecore: Hozier. Other videos are romantic, educational and hey look -- there’s those frogs again.

So why does the utopian pull of cottagecore attract young queer people so intensely? “Lesbians tend to be oversexualised by the media,” explains Redditor Ralice177. In comparison, “cottagecore sees love as a connection between two souls.”

For 27-year-old Reid in Arkansas, it’s a way back home. “Unfortunately, my hometown, like many rural areas, is very anti-LGBTQ+,” he tells me. “Even now when I go back I can't help but feel watched and judged all the time for how I look or dress. It especially makes me feel like the things I loved in childhood, like having farm animals and picking blackberries in the fields and getting lost in the woods, are cis- and hetero-coded. So for me, cottagecore is an ideal where I can be visibly queer in rural spaces.”

In another space, the cottagecore aesthetic could have easily become a magnet for eco-fascists. The less creative corners that repost stock images of white women in white lace don’t feel a million miles from the ‘tradwife’ nonsense peddled by white supremacists. The fact it has instead found a queer audience feels like welcome serendipity. We_could_have_danced, a 22-yeard-old Redditor, tells me it’s still easy to encounter negativity in the online world of cottagecore, though. “I enjoy traditionally female-gendered activities, like cooking, gardening, sewing,” she says. “But find a lot of spaces celebrating these activities are also very hostile to women’s rights, LGBT+ people, people of colour..." The exception, of course, is cottagecore, where instead of a fascist agenda the politics lean decidedly in the opposite direction.

None of the cottagecore creators I speak with have a ‘blood and soil’ agenda, but healthy debate on Tumblr pushes previously unaware teenagers to ask "Who owns land in the first place?" and "Who gets exploited when our food is farmed?" It might explain why there’s more than one cross-stitched hammer and sickle lurking on cottagecore TikTok.

For InfamousBees, the countryside was never the real destination. “I'm a city girl at heart,” she says. “The ideal cottagecore life isn't something realistic for me or many people. But I can still do little things. I can make bread in a tiny city apartment. I can grow herbs in my windowsill or in flower pots or in old mugs. I can surround myself with loved, cared-for plants that can thrive on little sunlight. I don't need a huge yard to have a few chickens or a big, fluffy dog. I certainly don't need a cottage to be vulnerable with my girlfriend. I didn't realise that though, until I was exposed to those ideals through this aesthetic movement. And in that way, cottagecore, to me, is beautiful.”

The future of cottagecore, however, lives under the shadow of climate grief. That's something which hits close to home for 27-year-old Lola, a beautician in Australia. I asked what changed for her since she blogged about cottagecore in 2018. She says, “Since then, and especially in light of the fires in Australia, which I, along with the rest of my neighbours, fled [...] I think I probably romanticise cottagecore more. I am frustrated with the lack of any real, tangible action here, and fatigued by the endless dryness and heat. I would love nothing more than to live in a place where I can actually water my plants, which is green and where I can light an open fire. I really miss rain too.”

When cottagecore fans dream of a world where they’re safe and welcome they’re all asking the same question uttered in the most cottagecore of novels, The Secret Garden: “Might I have a bit of Earth?” It's harder to say yes when the world is burning, but at its best, cottagecore isn’t about running away from reality. It’s a chance for its fandom to find each other and imagine the future they want to sow.

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