March 2020 marked our involuntary and unexpected seizure into a domestic insipid life defined by television, loungewear, and social media scrolling. Around this time, a curious presence began to dig its roots and spread onto our social media timelines — a presence romanticizing the domesticity we were experiencing, but also idealising a bucolic lifestyle: cottagecore. Cottagecore is an aesthetic characterised by quaint cottages surrounded by dense foliage, wicker picnic baskets full of preserves, and billowy prairie dresses. This rural ideation has a lifestyle component too, quite timely in its romanticisation of domestic activities like baking, sewing, and embroidery. While this aesthetic has entered the mainstream, it has found its greatest audience with sapphic-identifying people — women and non-binary people who experience attraction to women and women-aligned people.
This paper investigates the relationship between this aesthetic and sapphic people. My argument is derived from theoretical literature and several anonymised interviews with cottagecore sapphics whom I connected with on various social media platforms (Instagram, Tumblr, and TikTok). I will begin by exploring the question of why cottagecore has gained such traction with the sapphic community. This will be attributed to two key factors: 1. Cottagecore allows sapphics to subvert traditional lesbian representations; 2. Cottagecore builds a liminal and imagined community. Applying these theoretical foundations, I will discuss how cottagecore is practiced: virtually (on social media and video games) and in real life (in communes). Lastly, I will briefly touch on some criticisms of cottagecore, specifically analyzing the aesthetic through the lens of class and race.
Why is Cottagecore Sapphic
Subverting Lesbian Representations
An increase of sapphic visibility in media has been campaigned for since the 1980s, when sapphics were largely erased from the narrative of LGBT liberation as gay men received more media coverage due to the AIDs crisis. In the late 1990s, however, lesbian women began to emerge on screen, though rarely in favorable ways (Ciasullo 2001, 57). Then and today, sapphics are largely portrayed in two paradoxical ways: as sexualized feminine bodies, the ultimate male fantasy, or as masculine, predatory women, used as the punchline of a joke. This paradoxical divide in representation will be respectively referred to as the Sex Object-Predator paradigm.
Scenes featuring the Sex Object traditionally feature two feminine cisgender women in heavily sexualized interactions, meant for shock value or sex appeal. Following the interaction, the film or television show is likely to never reference the characters’ sexuality again, depicting their sapphism as a temporary transgression, mended by heterosexual contact. This trope is so common that critics have dubbed it “the lesbian kiss episode” (Smith and Tyler 2017, 11). The teen drama, Riverdale, depicted this phenomenon in its 2017 pilot episode. Two straight female main characters share a kiss during a cheerleading team tryout, only for the writers to subsequently sweep their sapphism under the rug, neatly placing both women into relationships with male characters (Heng 2021). On the other side of the spectrum, scenes which depict the Predator are intended for comic relief, showing a butch lesbian woman unable to control her urges, preying on straight women around her to no avail. The film Pitch Perfect (2012) includes one out lesbian character, a masculine-presenting woman who is consistently depicted as predatory, non-consensually groping and making suggestive comments about the other female characters, much to their discomfort (Obropta 2019).
A 2020 study on sapphic representation supports my paradigm, outlining six tropes that the media perpetuates: the “hot lesbian,” “out lesbian,” “closeted lesbian,” “butch lesbian,” “feminine lesbian,” and “bisexual lesbian,” with “hot lesbian” and “butch lesbian” being the most common (Annati 2020, 14). Further, it found that these media depictions lead to “internalizing an outsider’s perspective of one’s own body” (5), increasing sapphics’ anxiety surrounding their own self-image. This paradigm reinforces heteronormativity, placing heterosexual people and relationships in a position of superiority, as accurate portrayals of sapphism are rare. One of my interviewees, Selena, described this: “The movies and shows I watched showed an identity I didn’t want to be associated with which made me doubt whether or not I was actually a lesbian.” Cottagecore subverts this paradigm. Emphasizing domesticity, pastel imagery, and romantic love rather than a sexualised aesthetic, sapphics gravitate towards cottagecore, shunning the harmful tropes perpetuated by the media, tropes in which they do not identify with.
Sex and the City
In line with the Sex Object-Predator paradigm, queer people have historically been intimately tied with urbanity. The “Great Gay Migration” of the 1970s and 1980s stressed this as thousands of LGBT people moved into major urban areas searching for acceptance (Weston 2020, 255). As Weston (2020) puts it, “specific historical and material circumstances have facilitated the emergence of various forms of sexual imagery” (257). Queerness became spatialized, tied into the Urban, characterized by free sexual living. This spatialized connection perpetuated understandings of queerness as overtly sexual and non-domestic, an identity unrelated to monogamous partnership or romance. The Urban became the site of pilgrimage for LGBT people, narratological and mythological, based on a plot of a “one-way trip to sexual freedom” (Herring 2010, 15). One of my interviewees, Aofie, a lesbian from a rural Irish town seconded this: “My university is in a city and I chose it because I really wanted to get out of the town I’m from. It’s small, religious, and homophobic. I wanted to escape that, be around other queer people, and be able to be out to the people around me.”
[Text Box] This view of urbanity is dependent on its binary opposition, “the Rural.” The Urban/Rural distinction is upheld by contrary views of the countryside as a place of rigid social norms, conservatism, and judgement. Further, the aesthetic of urbanity, corroborated by epistemological and temporal norms, is distinctly opposed to that of cottagecore—dark colors, filthy streets, and flashy billboards versus pastel colors, babbling brooks, and rolling hills. Embracing the rural, cottagecore sapphics reject this spatial association of their identity with the sexualized urban sphere. In this respect, cottagecore parallels several historical anti-urban queer (though male-dominated) movements like the Radical Faeries (Herring 2010, 64). Further, they impose sapphism onto a space otherwise known for its aversion to anything non-heteropatriarchal. Whether or not this standardized view of the Rural as a prejudiced space is true, cottagecore ruptures this aesthetically-reproduced association of heterosexuality: rural and homosexuality: urban.
[Text Box] Cottagecore allows for a reclamation of the domestic sphere by sapphics while rejecting this sphere’s heteropatriarchal and capitalistic origins. The association of the domestic and women is ingrained in Western culture. The notion of separate spheres calls for a husband to involve himself with public affairs and a wife to concern herself with private life, caring for children and the home. This capitalistic model is dependent upon patriarchy, sexually-dividing labor and thus oppressing and confining women in the home. Additionally, it necessarily entails heteronormativity, especially for women, as they cannot sustain themselves without a man to support them economically (Miller and Borgida 2016, 1-3).
This model was rejected by second-wave feminists who advocated for women to enter the workforce, viewing the domestic as the actualization of society’s patriarchal values and inherently oppressive. Sapphics have been disassociated with the domestic because queerness was not seen as familial. Much like feminist movements, queer movements often called on LGBT people to reject domesticity, patriarchy, and heteronormativity (Eisenstein 1999, 197-200).
Cottagecore subverts the domestic’s oppressive, patriarchal, and capitalistic nature by reclaiming it in a pastoral space. Cottagecore sapphics romanticize tasks like baking, sewing, and hanging up laundry, as they are not done for a man or to contribute to the free market. Rather than a patriarchal or heteronormative act, domesticity becomes romantic and queer. As my interlocutor Selena, a self-proclaimed “cottagecore lesbian” puts it, “I was always scared to call myself a lesbian because I didn’t see lesbians as anything other than sexual. Cottagecore helped me come to terms with my lesbianism.” She emphasizes how the fantasy of domestic living with another woman allows her to realize that lesbianism could be more than a temporary, strictly sexual identity — it could be a long-term romantic partnership.
The Female Gaze
The Sex Object and Predator represent opposing gender expressions; while the Sex Object is heavily feminized, the Predator is masculinized. Cottagecore rejects both of these gender expressions. While the Sex Object represents sexualized femininity, based on male ideals, cottagecore’s femininity is based around modesty—long dresses, flowy skirts, and puffy sleeves. Simultaneously, it contradicts the Predator archetype which typifies lesbians as butch-presenting women. Through cottagecore, sapphics simultaneously embrace a style that does not cater to male beauty ideals and reject masculine stereotypes of lesbians. While many sapphics present as masculine to make their sapphic identity clear, cottagecore also serves as a subtle way to communicate queerness while embracing femininity. Interviewee Emily, seconds this: “[Cottagecore] is how I express my queerness and show I’m a lesbian without having to dress masculine. It’s a form of feminine lesbian expression. I can put on toadstool earrings and a flowy dress and feel feminine and sapphic.”
The rejection of feminine style by many sapphics relates to a desire to reject any male attention or stereotypes (Lewis 1997, 108). Feminine identity is watched in the public space, constantly under the male gaze. As Braizaz (2018) describes, “women are held responsible for showing a feminine appearance in accordance with the beauty standards, thus meeting the expectations of the gaze of others, to ‘make pleasure', to work on their aesthetic sensuality” (66). Yet, if femininity is shown too ostentatiously, the feminine aesthetic is eroticized and female bodies are pigeonholed as vain, stupid, and provocative (Braizaz 2018, 66). In order to avoid both this gaze and this criticism, several sapphics refuse to adorn their bodies in a traditionally feminine way. Cottagecore, however, is a distinctly female-centered ideal of femininity, neither overtly sexual nor for the consumption of men. As Jody, a non-binary sapphic, explains, “[Cottagecore] provides a space for women who love women and allied non-binary people to explore femininity without being confined to masculine ideas of feminine fragility or overt sexuality.”
Liminal & Imagined Community
Liminality was first described by Arnold van Gennep (1909) in terms of rites of passage with the liminal as a temporal phase between the separation and aggregation phases (93). The separation condition is one in which the individual experiences detachment from their previous abiding by norms of their society. The subsequent liminal condition is characterized by ambiguity, unstructured living, and egalitarianism and comradery with fellow liminites. The reaggregation condition involves a stable state in which the individual returns towards the structure and obligations of broader society (Turner 1969, 94-97).
While rites of passage are temporal, this paper will primarily apply them spatially—the word primarily being of particular relevance as I understand the practice of cottagecore in real life as temporally liminal. Temporal phases involve a semi-permanent separation into each phase rather than an intermittent entering-in-and-out of the phases, characteristic of my spatial understanding. This necessitates understanding the separation phase as representative of one’s internal experience, the liminal as experiences on social media and video games, and the reaggregate as experiences with the external world.
Cottagecore is centered around its social media presence, imagery, and fashion. There are few cottagecore sapphics who actualize the fantasy of moving to the countryside with their partner. The aesthetic exists in the ideational sensibilities of those who patronize it. The aesthetics’ community parallels Benedict Anderson’s concept of the “imagined community” (2006) in which members of a group connect with their identity and define themselves by this attachment despite an immaterial connection to other members (6). Through things like fashion and social media posts, cottagecore plants itself in everyday experience despite its spatial nature. Even with the spatial association of the Rural, sapphics everywhere can cling to this idealized view when finding a sense of identity.
As noted previously, cottagecore is seldom fully actualized. Much of the aesthetic exists in the ideational sensibilities of sapphics through imagery posted on social media. As the aesthetic is unattainable for many, the pictures and objects that surround it are tangible yet also emblematic of an elusive fantasy. They do not exist in their pure materiality but rather point to something beyond themselves (Meyers 2015, 179). This “something” is a life away from heteronormativity, patriarchy, and capitalism in a picturesque pastoral scene of rustic living.
The image of the rural, the pastoral, and the domestic as sapphic is shared in the collective imagination of cottagecore sapphics. Yet, it is a subversion of traditional lesbian representations meaning it is not shared amongst other non-sapphic, non-cottagecore people. This, however, is not to undervalue the immense power of this ideal for sapphics, many of whom find comfort in this rural fantasy—even if it is just a fantasy.
2. How is Cottagecore Practiced
Virtually: Social Media and Video Games
The separation condition can be equated to internal struggle with stigma surrounding sapphic identity. Sapphic identities are fetishized or condemned as shown by the Sex Object-Predator paradigm. Cottagecore social media communities and video games allow an unstructured way of being and a sense of anonymity largely characteristic of liminality. The filter model of computer-mediated communication describes how cyberspaces’ technological features have a deindividuation effect, a loss of social-awareness within a group. The front of anonymity on cottagecore communities allows for an exploration into one’s sexuality and open discussion about sapphic experiences (Bargh and McKenna 2004, 577). Further, anonymity allows egalitarianism amongst liminites as they have autonomy over whether to share information on their appearance, age, or other stigmatized behavior, like a stutter or lisp (Lapidot-Lefler and Barak 2011, 434-435).
The liminal entity that enters various groups within cyberspace is often tabula rasa (blank space), as van Gennep (1909) describes. As such, those who find solace within cyberspace groups benefit from the sense of community they provide and serve as blank slates onto which the knowledge of the group is imprinted (Turner 1969, 103). As the cyber subculture provides corroboration for the liminal entity’s own internal experiences of the separation condition, they begin to take on many of the belief systems, vocabularies, and moral values as the rest of the community. It is through the language that the transitional cyberspace provides through which the liminal entity understands their own identity. Through this, as van Gennep describes, these liminal spaces often emphasise comradery (Turner 1969, 108).
Interviewee Penelope, who has an active Instagram account where she reposts cottagecore photos from Flickr1 said, “It lets me be anonymous. You can present what you want to an audience without them knowing everything about you. You can share a fantasy with likeminded people who understand your identity.” Penelope emphasized the fact she was only out to a few friends and none of her family. Laughing, she noted she would not have given the interview were she calling from home rather than from her university accommodation.
When we spoke, Penelope used terms like “femme2,” “gold star3,” and “U-Hauling4.” These terms are slang words used in sapphic subcultures. Just as van Gennep describes, sapphics initially enter the liminal space tabula rasa, solely with the knowledge of their “unacceptable” homosexual attractions, and soon develop their identity through vocabulary. The mutual vocabulary used in cottagecore allows for a sense of comradery with other sapphic people.
Video games most commonly used to practice cottagecore like Animal Crossing, The Sims, and Stardew Valley, are sandbox games. Sandbox games are described as having minimal limitations and a general ability for the player to experiment in the virtual world at will. There are next to no prescribed tasks to complete and the game rarely has a solid objective (Tornqvist 2014, 78). These games are the epitome of the liminal’s unstructured living, with no rules to govern your play. Often, they are used by cottagecore sapphics to embody the fantasy to the greatest extent they can—especially if they can’t actualize it in person. They build cottages, decorate their home with flowers, and generally incorporate the cottagecore ideals of slow-living and domesticity.
Aofie, a lesbian, discussed her exploration of cottagecore through video games. Aofie primarily mentioned using Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a game which allows you to customize an island, to live out cottagecore. Utilizing cottagecore’s rustic feel and sense of domesticity, she stressed how her cottagecore paradise allowed a sense of escapism: “It allows you to escape to a place where you are accepted. Reality is what you make it. If you want to make a cottage for you and your girlfriend, you can.” Laughing, she noted that was exactly what she had done on The Sims.
In the reaggregate stage, which I consider spatially as one’s lived experience outside the virtual, this level of fluidity to explore your identity or world-build is not permitted. That said, some features of this liminal condition are peeking through to real life, as cottagecore fashion is being mainstreamed and positive representation of lesbians in the media is increasing. This representation is allowing many cottagecore sapphics to come out of the closest, thus not necessarily needing to reaggregate as van Gennep describes. Although, there is not the same level of fluidity within our society to freely experiment with and speak candidly about sexuality in the way one can in the liminal condition.
The motif of yearning is commonplace in sapphic cottagecore circles. It is often romanticized as a coping mechanism to deal with the ostracization that sapphics experience, and the lack of romantic options they have for a partner in traditional society. Kathryn, a queer woman with an active cottagecore Tumblr blog, describes how the aesthetic comforted her in high school when struggling with her queerness. She notes how cottagecore went against the “fetishization” and “conflict” her queer identity was otherwise met with and gave her something to aspire towards: “Originally, I was interested in cottagecore because I enjoyed the pictures I saw on Tumblr but as I got more involved with it, it became a method of expression...like a daydream about the life that I wanted to live. It basically gave me something to live for.”
The imagined nature of cottagecore was further emphasized by my interview with Aofie who elaborated on the town she is from: “My town is very much ‘cottagecore’ visually. You can pick berries and run in fields but cottagecore is not real life. My town is very religious, not accepting of gay people. I couldn’t just spring around in a puffy dress holding hands with my girlfriend and live out cottagecore.” Ironic for an aesthetic focused on the outdoors, Aofie noted that staying inside and playing games like Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing are what lets her live out cottagecore, not the pastoral town she is from. Her experience with cottagecore, she says, has more to do with the fantasy than any actualized form.
In Real Life: Communes
Only one interlocutor described fully actualizing cottagecore — Jody lives in a commune in rural America. As a non-binary sapphic person, they described the feeling of ostracisation they experienced growing up, being temporally characteristic of the separation phase of the rites of passage. Now, in an eco-community which emphasizes egalitarianism, their life in the commune is emblematic of liminality, the phase in which this sense of comradery is encouraged. Outside heteropatriarchy and masculinist capitalism, the commune abides by a different mode of life and offers community. “My friends in the commune are all sapphic or queer. We make almost all of our clothes and furniture, harvest our own food, and just do not engage with patriarchy and capitalism in any way. It’s the biggest f%#k you to heterosexuality because we refuse to be part of any of it,” Jody says. As they are yet to leave the commune, Jody has not experienced reaggregation.
Though Jody moved to the commune prior to discovering the cottagecore aesthetic, they echoed the idea that their material experience has taken on a presence beyond itself, evocative of sapphic bucolic fantasies. Like Aofie, however, Jody also stressed that they do not see the fashion-element of cottagecore as applicable to their day-to-day life, despite the pastoral commune they live in. “You can’t do physical labor in a puffy dress and sandals,” they said, “So I don’t really lean into the aesthetic in terms of fashion.”
Jody notes a connection between their queerness and their self-sufficient agricultural lifestyle, “The commune makes me feel more in touch with my queerness and lets me live out this fantasy so many queer folks are aspiring towards.” Much like a fluttering rainbow flag, pastoral objects have come to elicit associations with sapphism even when not fully actualizing the aesthetic due to its impracticality.
3. Exclusionary Nature of Cottagecore
As has been demonstrated, cottagecore takes on a niche that can be very comforting for sapphic people. However, it is important to note that the aesthetic is immensely whitewashed with a colonial historical underpinning, especially in the context of the United States. The fantasy of a pilgrimage to the rural embodies ideals similar to those of the United States’ Manifest Destiny expansion. The idea of entering into the uninhabited woods is problematic in an American setting because that land was not uninhabited—rather, it was stolen from indigenous people.
The issue of class also came up in my conversations with Jody and Aofie, both of whom have experienced pastoral life in its true form. Just as Jody mentioned that physical labor is not realistic in a puffy dress, Aofie said, “I completely understand the appeal of cottagecore, I think it’s a gorgeous aesthetic, but I also think that most of the people trying to embody it would not last a day on a real farm. Like, it’s a great fantasy, but it’s also a bit weird to me that people are romanticizing the life of a low-income farmer. I get the whole baking and embroidering thing, but, at the end of the day, I don’t think most of these people would last a day on a real farm.” This view is interesting—the fantasy of cottagecore often excludes or is at least less romantic to many of the people who actually embody the aesthetic. One’s day-to-day life becomes less fantastical when you are actually living it out.
Beyond being a fantasy largely for those of an upper class, or at least a non-rural area, the imagery surrounding cottagecore is greatly racialized. The aesthetic is dominated by white women, packaging the “cottagecore lesbian” as white. Selena, a woman of color, describes her initial feelings of invisibility within cottagecore: “In like the early days of when cottagecore first started getting popular on Tumblr, it was a lot of skinny white girls dominating it. Don’t get me wrong, I still liked the aesthetic but it was hard for me to think of myself as cottagecore when so much of cottagecore is about this ‘Little House on the Prairie' type of fantasy which a woman of color would simply not be a part of.” Selena went on to say that the conscious effort of the community to uplift the voices of cottagecore creators of color helped her find her place in the community: “I think because it is pretty queer-dominated, and queer people are an oppressed group, they’re generally more aware about making other minorities feel included.”
Cottagecore sapphics share various relationships with the aesthetic and how they relate it to daily life, yet there is a common thread of reasoning amongst those who patronize it. By understanding lesbian media representations as characterized by a Sex Object-Predator paradigm, it can be seen how cottagecore marks a subversion of this damaging trope by connecting the sapphic and the rural, queering domesticity, and abiding by a feminine non-sexualized style of dress. Further, cottagecore allows for sapphism, a stigmatized identity, to find a sense of community, one that is both liminal and imagined. It is liminal in the sense that it rejects patriarchal structure, allows for open dialogue on one’s sexuality, and is largely egalitarian. It is also imagined in the sense that the community is based around imagined comradery with other sapphics through the rural as well a bucolic fantasy for sapphics to yearn for (despite knowing they are most likely to not achieve it). However, stories like those of Selena and Penelope are comforting — cottagecore allowed them to understand their sexuality in a way traditional media has ￼￼not. By exploring new aesthetics and subverting traditional, mainstream realities, people can begin to live more fully realized lives, both online and in the flesh.
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