Seeking Refuge in Nature: Escapism and the Contemporary Pastoral Impulse in Cottagecore

Abstract: This paper explores the phenomenon of cottagecore, an internet aesthetic that has gained considerable popularity across social media platforms including Tumblr, TikTok, Instagram, and Pinterest. Characterized by its romanticized and simplified depictions of rural life, cottagecore content encompasses a multitude of topics such as farm life, ecological gardening, self-sufficiency, and crafting. The aesthetic seeks to present an idealized version of nature and rural living, rooted in a distant, idyllic past free from social predicaments such as capitalism, xenophobia, and the patriarchy. Though its advent predates the COVID-19 pandemic, it saw a significant surge in popularity during 2020. Through a case study, this paper aims to argue that cottagecore represents a contemporary manifestation of the pastoral tradition from literature and art history in twenty-first-century digital storytelling. It explores the interplay between socio-geographical changes and the resurgence of the pastoral impulse, comparing early industrialized America’s pastoralism in the literature of nature writing with the rise of the pastoral in cottagecore amid the pandemic. This paper argues that the escapist fantasy expressed in cottagecore is not rooted in the actual disappearance of the wilderness but rather in the perceived loss of an idealized pastoral refuge, a nostalgic yearning for an imagined past in harmony with nature as viewed primarily through the lens of an urban upper middle class.

Cottagecore is an internet aesthetic prevalent on a multitude of social media platforms such as Tumblr, TikTok, Instagram, and Pinterest whose content is characterized by its romanticized, simplified, and simultaneously carefully constructed depictions of nature and life in the countryside (Lickhardt 21). While the content ranges from video-blog insights into life on a farm or in a cottage, tips on ecological gardening and sustainability, self-sufficiency-based living, crafting, baking, knitting, and bookbinding, the unifying element of cottagecore content is its reductionist depiction of rural life, a purely aesthetic display of nature, and a sense of effortlessness and good-life mentality originating from its localization in a remote but unspecified past, away from capitalism, sexism, xenophobia, the patriarchy, heteronormativity, and the internet (Brand 2; Lickhardt 21). While cottagecore did not originate simultaneously or in response to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent worldwide lockdowns but came to life as early as 2017 according to both The New York Times and Architectural Digest, its popularity and spread across various aforementioned social media platforms increased notably in the spring and summer of 2020 and has since remained at high levels (Brand 2-3; Jennings).

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