Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, a newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, retrospectives, recommendations, and more. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.
The Siren Song of a Simple Life
I grew up in a house with a hand-crank grain grinder from Lehman’s catalog in the kitchen — a kitchen that in spite of a fairly recent remodel, intentionally lacks a dishwasher.
My parents, while anti-dishwasher, are decidedly pro-garden. In the late summer they have boxes on boxes of purple plums and red apples from our trees, tomatoes straight from the vine, salad greens, onions and garlic that they dig in the fall, cure in the sun, and subsequently never pay for a single allium the entire year.
Compounding their self-sufficient homesteading vibe are details like the fact that my mom sewed all the curtains in our house, my dad built both futon couch frames, and the pair of them have been known to throw all-day kitchen extravaganzas which yield jars and jars of pesto, canned tomatoes, plum jam and other delights.
This lifestyle was a little embarrassing to preteen Caroline, who really only wanted to visit one of the four fast-food joints in our town of 4,300. But with some maturity and distance I grew to appreciate it.
And then a global pandemic happened. (Remember that? Unfortunately it’s still going on.) And suddenly, these things that I’d grown up with were ALL OVER the internet. The pervasiveness of videos, photos, and essays espousing a simple, bucolic rural life made it such that for every Covid infection map and death count on social media, there was a post about baking bread, foraging for edible plants, or moving to a quaint cottage as a way of embracing the isolation that had been forced upon us.
Vox reported that “Cottagecore,” the name for this genre of content, first surfaced on the website Tumblr in 2018 as collections of pastoral scenery, gentle animal husbandry, soothing farm-to-table cooking, and knitting. Lately, this fetishization of country living has gotten a little out of control. Which is why, in today’s newsletter, we’re going to look at rural representation through the lens of Cottagecore on social media.
Quaint Cottages, Charming Forest Glades, Lots of Ruffles … and Money
The commodification of “rural” is not a new thing, and Cottagecore appears to be its latest iteration. It’s a bit of a catch-22. On the one hand, Cottagecore celebrates what are arguably some of the best parts of rural life. On the other, its glossy facade and performative “modest living” is fairly impractical — and largely unachievable — for the average rural person.
Take for example this woman, whose videos happen to be one of the two top hits for Cottagecore on YouTube:
Against the highly-curated, whimsical backdrop of her cottage and the woods around it, she talks blithely about the animals that are just “so busy” in the fall. It’s giving Laura Ingalls Wilder meets Snow White, and while the effect is charming, I don’t personally know anyone whose day job entails filming themselves in a deep emerald-colored frock snipping autumn vegetation. Don’t miss that this channel, under the username TheCottageFairy, boasts 1.07M subscribers, and is accompanied by an Etsy shop selling rural tchotchkes, a book called The Cottage Fairy Companion, an open-invite for monetary donations, and a disclaimer about affiliate links off of which the creator makes money.
In a different video from the YouTube account monalogue, a woman wearing a brown pinafore over a cream blouse with puffed sleeves sits on the grass “unboxing” (a popular internet video format in which a person opens a box containing some item of interest live on-camera) autumn flower bulbs. Behind her ducks mill around placidly, wandering slightly closer when in the middle of the video this woman asks for donations to her Patreon — ostensibly to fund the creation of more videos.
Cottagecore for the Masses
Even if the #cottagecore hashtag on Instagram pulls up 3.9M posts, and a collection of videos with a combined 11.3B views on TikTok, I’ll hazard a guess that this term is a new one for some of you. Let me ask this then: Ever heard of Taylor Swift?
Over the course of the pandemic, the mega-popular country singer-turned pop star released two albums that really lean into the Cottagecore aesthetic.
Look no further than the music video for the single “cardigan” from the album folklore. It opens in a cozy, rural cabin, moves through a brilliantly mossy forest clearing to the open sea, then finishes back at the cabin. The only person in the video is Swift herself, adding to an impression of idealized, natural solitude.
Similarly, Swift’s video for “willow” from the evermore album, begins at the piano in the same cozy cabin before once again transitioning to an impossibly picturesque natural backdrop.
Throughout, Swift wears the signature trappings of Cottagecore: dresses with ruffles, lace, crocheted elements or the entire triple threat. Oversized sweaters. Hairpieces modeled after flower crowns. A cloak that evokes Little Red Riding Hood in all but color. It’s a veritable buffet of pastoral escapism, and even if you didn’t know about Cottagecore before this email, there’s probably someone in your life who pays attention to Taylor Swift.
It’s easy for me to come down hard on Cottagecore. The idea of people refining, packaging, and selling a lifestyle that I grew-up with — which in its authentic form, did not look anything like the videos I’ve invited you to sample today — feels wrong.
Not to mention the fact that the people promoting a Cottagecore lifestyle are overwhelmingly conventionally attractive white women who appear to cook and craft for pleasure rather than any real necessity.
And yet, much as I hate to admit it, I find some of this content unavoidably charming. Anyone who knows me well knows that I LOVE flowers. How could I not be enchanted by this TikTok that shows a cottage garden throughout the seasons? (Although, why anyone would keep a French window thrown wide-open while there’s that much snow on the ground is a puzzlement.)
Whatever your thoughts on this genre as a whole, I think the takeaway lies in the value of nuance. Actually, this is another point bolstering the work that we do here at the Daily Yonder in embracing complexity rather than smoothing it away. To portray only the best, most idyllic version of rural life can be just as damaging as focusing solely on the challenges and disparities that exist in rural communities.
But, like many things, a more nuanced accounting of rural is less flashy and harder to sell than either a fairytale or a tragedy.
This article first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, recommendations, retrospectives, and more. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered straight to your inbox.