As the world is sliding into a capitalist hellscape, people are looking for a sense of comfort and familiarity. For millions responsibly isolating during the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, the release of Animal Crossing: New Horizons for the Nintendo Switch came at the perfect time. Even if Tom Nook is a wildly unethical lender and landlord, the pastoral game offers not real familiarity, but the fantasy of comfort and familiarity, which might be even more powerful.
That familiar fantasy is the mossy log foundation of cottagecore, an aesthetic trend born on Tumblr and reinvigorated years later during a health crisis that left everyone at home, uncertain, and looking for comforting outlets.
For people who are burned out on misery, there is an immediate draw in cottagecore. From the soft lighting and gentle color palletes to the wholesome subject matter, this aesthetic might appear very unchallenging – and while that is the appeal, it also comes bundled with some express and implied values that are intensely relevant.
We can learn a lot about what we value and what we want by our attraction to cottagecore, and though the dreamlike haze we might begin to glimpse a future that might not be as pretty, but one in which we could be happy for the same reasons.
When we start to take those daydreams seriously, asking “what if”, and examining what really stands between us and that cozy cottage, we start to find the rough edges in the soft fantasy; wealth inequality, class struggle, wage slavery. You might snag your sleeve on racism. You bump face first into the invisible wall of your fishbowl if you dream in the wrong direction, and the more you find yourself thinking about escaping capitalism, the more you find yourself herded away from its borders by the instruments of the wealth class.
The more you’re told you can’t have something, the more you want it. The more you’re told that this is for someone else, not for you, the stronger your resolve. Good. Hang onto that. Because what do you want? What is it, really, about cottagecore that calls you back like a siren’s song?
Cottagecore is about real freedom.
In America, “freedom” mostly means “free to do whatever you want as long as you’re generating wealth, not interfering with wealth generation in any way, and don’t upset the sensibilities of the white middle class too much”.
Cottagecore is about a different kind of freedom – not the freedom to do any specific thing, but more about not being told what to do, mostly by people who have nothing to do with you. Laws are fake. Tea is real. Get off my land.
Cottagecore is about independence.
Specifically, food and energy dependence. One of the most common scenes in cottagecore are quaint, beautifully manicured gardens that look as much a religious devotional as a place a person might expect to find food. This part, at least, is a bit of fantasy insofar as actually, reliably feeding yourself from the land is a complex and untidy business. You may well grow some treats or supplemental food in a tiny defiance garden, but if you really want to survive your first winter reading Chaucer by the fire, then you have a lot to learn.
But now you know you want it. Now that work can begin. And that’s what matters.
Cottagecore is about being left the fuck alone.
Lone wolves don’t really make it in the grand scheme of things. Humans evolved to live in family groups, and groups of family groups and for a whole bunch of good reasons. The cottagecore life is really only possible if you don’t have 18 hours of chores to do every single day just to stay alive. Expecting to live comfortably and peacefully by yourself for any length of time isn’t reasonable.
Wanting to be left the fuck alone is.
Of course a person could be attracted to cottagecore and be an extreme extrovert who would die like a seedling in a late frost without regular human interaction. You could take what you love about cottagecore and extrapolate it to a bustling anarchist commune. The latter might be the most likely real-world application of cottagecore aesthetics, in fact.
But those aren’t the images we see. We see single people, and parts of people, blurred or from far away. The isolation is a feature, not a bug. And why are people already trapped and suffering in isolation drawn to something that showcases isolation?
Cottagecore is about being safe.
For the same reason the people in cottagecore images aren’t worried about hauling in crops, they aren’t worried about loneliness, either. They aren’t worried about anything. That’s the point of cottagecore. These people are safe. They’re warm (we can usually see the fire), they’re inexplicably fed (there was a garden or something, right?), and they’re free to rest and heal and repair their threadbare sanity.
This is, perhaps, the most primal and least attainable of our attractions. When is the last time you felt well and truly safe? Your sense of security is bombarded daily with messages that you’re in imminent, existential danger. Some of this is used to manipulate you. A lot of it is real. In some abstract sense, you could probably argue that every day you’re a little less safe than you were the day before.
Our lives are such that we are never not aware of that creeping shadow now. When we truly aren’t safe, it envelops us in terrible confirmation. When we are safe, it is a thief that robs our joy. It corrodes our mental health and subsequently, our relationships, health, and identities.
The people in cottagecore images don’t have eyes red rimmed from crying, or sunken from lack of sleep. They don’t know of existential dread.
We want that. We want to go back to the before-time.
I don’t think we can go back. I don’t think that living a quaint, simple life would allow us to un-know, nor should we desire that. We’re still on the hook for the bad in the world.
Nor do I think it’s practical to live this lush, aesthetic life on your own. You’re going to get sick. You’re going to break bones. You’re going to lose crops, and all of the problems that can befall you in the modern world will be there waiting for you in the world with far fewer resources.
The financial barriers alone are incredible for most individuals. Any given cottagecore photo you see is likely to represent a half-million dollar property. Oh yes, simple living is quite expensive these days, and a luxury reserved for the land-hoarding wealthy. It’s not that those places don’t exist; it’s just that you’re not allowed near them.
But I’d rather light a candle than curse your darkness. Together, with a will, a group can absolutely begin to approach those very qualities that make cottagecore such an attractive escape. Network. Cooperate. Be a lot brave and a little stupid. Learn skills. Try.
What’s the worst that could happen? You end up isolated with poor nutrition and no access to healthcare? Psh. If you’re American, that’s a cakewalk.
Of course, cottagecore can always remain ephemera, where it will remain evergreen and unchallenging. Sometimes just dreaming can nourish the soul, and that counts for something.
But maybe, in the quiet corners of your heart, without your even realizing it, a seed will be planted.