On TikTok, a white teenage girl in a pristine white dress with spectacularly long, red hair mugs for the camera in front of a forest backdrop. A voiceover plays: “Anyone else wanna just, like, move off the grid into a cottage in a nearby forest where you can bathe in a stream and make your own quilts and grow your own herbs and spices and dance with the fairies, because…same.” Hashtag fairies. Hashtag dream life. Hashtag lesbian. Hashtag cottagecore.
Coined on Tumblr in 2018, the term “cottagecore” describes an Internet aesthetic inspired by a romanticized interpretation of agricultural life (the suffix “-core,” derived from the 80s hardcore music scene, is now used to denote a genre). The cottagecore aesthetic is marked by flowy skirts, ceramic toad figurines and bucolic scenery. It’s knitting, baking and rolling in meadows. It’s Beatrix Potter and Taylor Swift’s Folklore. It’s a denial of hustle culture and a fetishization of coziness that became a hashtag, a lifestyle and, most notably, an escape.
Cottagecore has proliferated multiple subgenres, including goblincore (a more androgynous aesthetic — think linen overalls and lots of mushroom imagery), grandmacore (a exaltation of skills of yesteryear like baking bread and embroidery) and fairycore (cottagecore with a sprinkle of pastels and butterflies). These celebrations of “simple living” paradoxically exist on apps, where cottagecore devotees document their picnics on perfect, grassy hillsides beneath a perfect, setting sun. During a pandemic that has confined many of us to our homes, TikTok, Tumblr and Instagram have seen an uptick in this idyllic content. Its creators are young, mostly white and overwhelmingly queer.
Unlike “tradwives,” a right wing movement that advocates for regressive gender roles, cottagecore presents domesticity outside of the binary. People of any gender are invited to participate in the cottagecore’s decidedly soft aesthetic, but women (and “women’s work”) are at the forefront. As Isabel Slone wrote in the New York Times, cottagecore “offers a vision of the world where men are not consciously excluded; they are simply an afterthought.” Perhaps this is why young queer women have embraced cottagecore with fervor — on TikTok, #cottagecorelesbians has nearly 33 million views.
Hazel, an 18-year-old queer woman living in rural Wales, is one of these content creators. “For a small portion of time, I can forget about what’s troubling me and be swept into a beautiful world of flowers and baking,” she said. “[Cottagecore] is the idea of this perfect, fantasy lifestyle where you’re away from the pressures of modern life.”
The queer drive towards escapism is a longstanding cultural marker. The ultimate cottagecore dream — to run away to a bucolic wonderland with your lesbian wife — hearkens back to the withering lesbian separatist movement of the 70s, which called on feminists to either claim lesbiansm or celibacy and move to “womyn’s” land. While cottagecore is more focused on the individual (running away to the woods with your girlfriend) than the collective (establishing a commune), the movement shares the lesbian separatist reverence of “community.” In this case, however, “community” is only built online through follows, likes and shares. While the cottagecore community lacks the IRL connections of the lesbian separatist movement, skill sharing as a radical practice has been embraced by both of these worlds. On TikTok, cottagecore creators teach each other how to start a vegetable garden, how to sew your own apron and how to make tea with fresh ginger. They’re also sharing their social politics.
While some lesbian separatist communes still exist, most dissolved due to harmful trans-exclusionary policies, the increasing acceptance of queer women in mainstream culture and the centering of white women’s issues and leadership. Cottagecore escapists tend to express trans-affirming ideology (some are trans or non-binary themselves). Many creators include anti-racist messaging in their online content, but like many queer separatist communities of the past, the cottagecore community is overwhelmingly white. Cottagecore content creators of color are claiming space for their joy in this predominantly white world, and they’re initiating critical conversations about what some elements of cottagecore represent.
Daphne is a 17-year-old, mixed-race lesbian in Oklahoma who finds comfort in cottagecore imagery. “It makes me feel very serene,” she said. “It lets me escape the troubles of the world, even if it’s just the few minutes a day that it takes me to post, to look at some frogs just chilling on a lily pad or someone harvesting some veggies.”
Daphne’s Instagram account, @sapphic.daph, is a collection of images featuring Black revelers — mostly women — smelling flowers, picnicking in parks, drying herbs and luxuriating in nature. “Some representation can show that we, too, can live happily, and I’m glad I can provide that content for my fellow Black people,” Daphne said.
Iridesscence is a 26-year-old Black Chicagoan who “very loosely” identifies as queer. She discovered the cottagecore hashtag this year and found that it applied to the pastoral fashion content she was already creating online.
“I’d like to see more non-BIPOC Americans within the aesthetic who fantasize about escaping to rural lands to reckon more with what that means for them to do,” she said. “It’s always important to remember who owned and who built up the land and be respectful of that.”
Iridessence isn’t alone in noting that white cottagecore fans can’t “reclaim” stolen land. Critiques of cottagecore are increasingly widespread on platforms like Tumblr, where writers point out that cottagecore romanticizes a period in which white colonizers stole land from indigenous people for their homesteads. While the cottagecore community attempts to reckon with the colonial past, the role of existing indigenous people in the cottagecore movement seems limited. Indigenous Tumblr users are encouraging white cottagecore creators to find more respectful ways to “connect to the land.” Indigenous TikTokers are using the cottagecore hashtag to presumably draw more white users to non-cottagecore content that addresses indigenous issues. Indigenous people who make their own cottagecore content are few and far between. Is cottagecore truly for everyone when some of us get dream of “running away to the land” while others struggle to take that land back?
Cottagecore’s “return to nature” ethos also echos the isolationist narratives of white cis men from Henry David Thoreau to Christopher McCandless, whose socioeconomic privilege allowed them to leave the perils of the “real world” behind. As one cottagecore critic wrote on Tumblr, “[‘Cabin narratives’] have the tendency to deny what may be the most politically important implications of a sort of agricultural, ‘natural’ rebellion against capitalism: solidarity and community; the sharing of skills, resources, and knowledge; liberation beyond the isolated, privileged individual – ultimately, I would argue, social justice.”
Aside from the occasional enthusiast moving to a cabin in the woods, in the cottagecore community, escapist fantasies tend to remain just that. The young queer people of cottagecore seem eager to engage in critical discourse while they fill their moss terrariums with crystals and bake bread. Colonialism, climate justice and gender justice are openly discussed in cottagecore online communities alongside gardening tips and photos of thrifted aprons. The conversation is occasionally clumsy, but it’s happening. While young people work to redefine their values, the cottagecore aesthetic helps some creators make space for delight in a callous world.
“I feel delicate and feminine and beautiful,” Iridessence said. “And like I’m giving others like me permission to feel the same.”