But log on to Instagram, or Twitter, certainly Tumblr — the only way we see other people now, really, is the Internet. Yes, there are the stray still-in-bed selfies and confessions of ambient anxiety. But behold the sun-drenched countertops crowned with loaves of freshly baked bread with blistered crusts. The home-cooked meals, some of them even themed. There’s knitting and quilting and needlepoint, too, and there’s spring greenery along with flowers that run the ROYGBIV gambit.
These cheerily cozy glimpses are essentially a toned-down version of something called cottagecore. This community lurked in the web’s warmer corners for a while, but eventually it got enough hits from teens’ TikToks and their out-of-the-loop elders’ Google searches to merit the New York Times trend treatment in March. The movement fetishizes the twee-est sort of tranquility — where the creature comforts of modern-day urbanity disappear into a moss-covered fantasyland of flora and fauna.
Everything is pastoral, and everything is also adorable. Technology is invisible, even though technology is essential, because there’s no aesthetic if there’s no community, and there’s no community in the unpopulated wilderness unless you find it on a computer screen. What happens, after all, if a tree falls in a charmingly sun-soaked forest if there’s no one to put an Instagram filter on it?
Some people even before the pandemic had moved away to tiny towns or cutesy cottages to live off the land (plus the spoils of crafts sales on Etsy). For the rest, it may have been a romantic dream with too high a price to pay in reality.
Now, though, that price is reality: Bidding goodbye to sports stadiums, subways, supermarkets. Keeping a distance from the rest of the society, but still tuning in so that you can broadcast your own distance-keeping. A cottagecore lifestyle was once a form of escapism, but what was once our escape has become our prison — so we might as well make it as daintily delightful as possible.
Most of us still aren’t in cottages, of course, but in a studio apartment or a two-level house out in suburbia. But we manufacture our own cottagecore, each in bespoke variations, depending on how much time, energy, flour and flowers we have to spare. And why not? We’re simulating a return to a simpler version of the world and a purer version of ourselves. Deprivation becomes an affectation; our loss becomes our gain.
We’re telling ourselves this fairytale: Once upon a time, everything was beautiful, and not only can once upon a time turn into today, but also the transformation is up to us. We can’t control the virus, we can’t control the government, we can’t even control whether our faraway family members and friends stay safe and inside. But we can control our own individual existences by making them that much less complicated than an outside world we’re not even allowed to live in anymore. Or at least we can trick ourselves into believing we’re in control.
Of course, most of us are only interested in renouncing the comforts of modern-day living when those comforts aren’t available to us anyway — and “giving up” some comforts is only fun to those who are comfortable to start with. You’re probably not spending the evening hours putting the final touches on embroidered pillow-covering when you’re worried about feeding your family, and you can’t curl up by the fire with a dusty old book when you don’t have a house, let alone a fireplace. You definitely can’t do it if you’re on a ventilator.
The whole illusion, in other words, is a luxury. But is it wrong, to build little lives and tell little lies in bad times hoping that afterwards we’ll feel good? Is it wrong to actually feel good, when so many others can’t? Cottagecore pretends at a perfection that doesn’t exist, yet the bread might taste just the right amount of sour, and the needlepointed pillow might ease a tweaked neck, and the flowers might smell sweet. Or should it make us queasy to enjoy the extra hours that let us take the dog on a long walk or just sit next to the people we love, when we’re only getting those extra hours because of a dreadful disease that’s made it difficult for less lucky people to enjoy anything at all?
Some people always have been more fortunate than others. Yet now the tension is harder than ever to ignore and harder than ever really to resolve. The usual answer to being a beneficiary of inequality and injustice is to get out and do something, but staying in and doing nothing is the new gospel. Or maybe that’s only an excuse for all of us looking to soothe ourselves in an unsettled era — to retreat to the cottage, and to shut the door.