Why this Tiktok aesthetic romanticizes the province

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What cottagecore tells us about life during the pandemic. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Life in the city is balmy: humidity prickles at the skin, exhaust lodges at the throat, sweat rushes down shoulder blades in streams. More disturbingly, life in Metro Manila is also deeply inequitable — magnified by failures exposed by the pandemic at a systemic and infrastructural level. To live in the most densely populated megacity in the country demands entropy that at worst, may hone a kind of pessimism and apathy towards life.

This very feeling has spurred a wave of young citizens from Metro Manila to move away to places like La Union, Baguio and Bacolod. They’re in cities, still, but with fewer amenities than what the metropolitan sprawl offers, leading Issa, 25, to cook, garden and learn to compost; Athenna, 22, to take walks in a setting she compares to when Bella in “Twilight” moved from Phoenix, Arizona to Forks, Washington (“but without the vampires and wolves”).

Diego, 25, admits he initially romanticized his move back to his birthplace, Bacolod.

He says, “I thought: once I get there, I'm gonna lose 50 pounds and I'm gonna start working out. I’m gonna cook, I'm gonna farm. But the way [this] capitalist society works is that –– my hours there [Metro Manila] are the same hours here. I’m still working the same amount of time.”

The internet labels this yearning to escape from society as “cottagecore” — an aesthetic that idealizes simplistic Western agricultural life and a return to self-sufficiency through foraging, knitting, baking and the care of animals. The term was coined in 2018 on Tumblr. On a photo of a lush green field, Tumblr users litter the screen with hashtags such as: #inspiration, #motivation, #paradise, #dreams, #goals. On Pinterest, you’ll find pictures of picnics by a scenic lake with wicker baskets, and even cottagecore cakes (read: minimal frosting or candied flowers).

According to GoogleTrends, as of writing, the Philippines is ranked at number five on the list of top ten countries that searched for the term the most in the past 12 months. The Philippines, right behind the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada, is the only Asian country to have made the list. Data illustrates that the term reached its saturation point around November to December 2020.

Cottagecore in 2020

On TikTok alone, videos under the cottagecore hashtag have amassed over 7.1 billion views as of writing and on Instagram, there’s been an emergence of cottagecore influencers whose profiles are littered with photos of women in long flowy dresses standing in more beautiful fields, and feeds strictly in pastel shades across evergreen pastures. The rise of cottagecore’s allure seems to mark the official subversion of a movement that symbolizes an escape from the restrictions of modern society, transforming it into a palatable aesthetic online.

On TikTok alone, videos under the cottagecore hashtag have amassed over 7.1 billion views. Photo from TIKTOK

By some criteria, Philippine National Artist Fernando Amorsolo’s works may also be considered cottagecore in the way they paint romantic landscapes of the rural Philippine countryside. Amorsolo’s art is characterized by tableaus of 19th century everyday Filipino life in master chiaroscuro: the Filipina as a subject: bathing by rivers, as radiant mango pickers shaded by swathes of greenery, dutiful farmers harvesting rice crops in the midday sun. The subjects are varnished caricatures of joy, tending to their humble work within the brand of manufactured Filipino resilience that paints over the struggle of the masses whose labor is inextricably tied to the consolidation of power within the Filipino culturati and elite.

In “Writing Philippine History of Ideas and Fernando Amorsolo’s Modern Art'' published by Kritika Kultura, Jovino G. Miroy writes: “The accusation of romanticism arises from the lack of social realism in the landscape art of Amorsolo. The modernism of Amorsolo is probably less certain because he chose to depict the countryside falsely as a haven of Augustinian peace and order, obscuring the social realities, such as poverty and unequal distribution of wealth, and gender relations. His hermeneutic, however, has created a space for the viewer’s interpretation; rather than conveying a univocal message, the paintings allow even for this bittersweet notion of a peaceful countryside.”

“The idea of self-sufficiency, I feel, isn’t just a response to maybe capitalist production and consumption," says Adrienne Onday, a sociologist currently completing their Master’s Degree in sociology from the University of the Philippines Diliman. "Maybe self-sufficiency is also a way for us to tap into our creative power again, tap into that agency and say that: I have control over at least some aspects of my life.”

They cite the contextual grounds for the sense of helplessness that has ushered in cottagecore’s cultural epoch. “For a person to feel like they have political power or even a semblance of control in whatever is happening around them, they have to have control or agency about something in their lives,” they add.

As an aesthetic, cottagecore frames activities like baking bread and the domesticities of self-sufficiency as beautiful acts that serve as resistance towards the fast-paced consumer-driven world rather than the accumulation of the invisible labor of homemaking, inequitable working conditions and subsequently, the politics of land ownership. With cottagecore fashion trends, we can project our own imaginings by just slipping into a garment.

Individualizing the burden

Despite its recent popularization, cottagecore is representative of a longer historical desire to inch towards what seems to be our preconditioned destiny: man living in balance with nature. Such pastoral aspirations in the Western world take root in the ancient Greek province of Arcadia, where its residents were thought to be hunters, gatherers and outliers of modern society who lived in close harmony with nature. This idealization of the country from those in the cities flourished in 18th century Europe, an era marked by unprecedented urban sprawl, rapid population growth and the premium on scientific reasoning as a hallmark of modernity.

From a sociological perspective, this resurgence of idyllic aspirations possibly is a response to the pandemic. “Systemic issues are issues that exist outside of us. We may not be able to control these things but people seem to individualize action rather than collectivize it. Nandoon nga yung tanong: ano ang gagawin ko? Ako lang ba ang nakakaranas nito?” Onday says. “Cottagecore is possibly an escape or way to fantasize about life that does not force us into suffering, or at least alleviates, lessens it somewhat, or makes us feel like we’re in control,” they add.

Activities like cooking and taking care of plants may simply be necessary life skills, yet when understood as part of a phenomena through cottagecore specifically – point towards a fulfillment of the spiritual poverty aggravated by our current context and the systems we are employed in. Onday refers to this spiritual poverty as how capitalism conditions the personal, existential and spiritual aspect of human life.

“It was my deteriorating mental health that had really been the push into moving somewhere else. This was a selfish act — I did it for myself, and I’m happy I did. Now I’m able to think, feel, love, and move better, not just for myself but for my team, my friends, my family, and my work,” Issa says about her move to La Union in April.

Similarly, Athenna who moved to Baguio in July says that: “I’ve been more appreciative of my surroundings. Especially now, here I rarely take a car to travel, most of the time I just walk and take that time to look up and down, paying more attention to the things around me — something I don’t recall doing back in Metro Manila.”

Onday cites that these movements may be an attempt to individualize the burdens of capitalism. “Instead of turning these issues outwards, and saying, okay, there's something bigger than me that's going on, and that's what's wrong. People have turned inwards, and they've started bearing the burden on their own. It's either alam nilang may sistema pero hindi nila kayang baguhin ang sistema. Or they don't even they don't know that there's a bigger system that we can question. So people start asking themselves: what can I do to address [it] because maybe it's my failure?”

Moreover, unpacking cottagecore as an internet trend while reconciling lived realities in the Philippines also requires an examination of one’s socioeconomic position. “It is a privilege to be able to pack up everything and move out of the city; something a lot of people don’t have. To care for our people, we need to provide more green spaces in the city, or provide better jobs for our people in the provinces,” Issa says, acknowledging this freedom of mobility and choice. Romanticization of moving to the countryside for the sake of better living conditions and the fulfillment of escapist fantasies remains coddled by those with the social, political and economic capital to actualize the will to do so.

“Me being able to move out and saying that life here is cheaper when for other people here, it’s already expensive itself, is quite different,” Diego says. “With cottagecore, you’re buying into an aesthetic wherein you choose to move out because you’ve already experienced the Metro and benefited from the Metro. You’re taking your privilege and bringing it into other communities that don’t necessarily need it.”