clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Beatrix Potter, the unlikely hero of the anti-hustle culture movement

Welcome to critterposting, the very cute, very cottagecore, and (somewhat) radical antidote to American life.

Oh, to be a critter in a Beatrix Potter story.
Beatrix Potter/Wikimedia Commons
Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

It’s become common to lament (wrongly) that “nobody wants to work anymore.” Perhaps we would, if only the work in question was, say, putting on a pot of tea for several woodland critters inside one’s hollowed-out tree home. Call it a cultural aftereffect of the Great Resignation, or, as Kelsey Weekman coined in BuzzFeed, “the era of the sleepytime girlfriend,” but by far its most adorable iteration is people posting illustrations from Beatrix Potter or Frog and Toad and captioning them “Stop normalizing the grind and normalize whatever this is.”

This is not a new trend. People have been posting pictures of anthropomorphic animals on Tumblr and Twitter and Instagram and writing “me” underneath for what amounts to eons of time in internet culture (like, a decade?). But never has it been more mainstream, or really, more understandable, to eschew typical posting norms and express the desire to leave the real world behind and escape into one where bunnies have tea parties. These types of posts are funny, usually, because they juxtapose old children’s books like Brambly Hedge or The Wind in the Willows with modern references to “the haters” or “the grind” (a personal favorite uses the TikTok audio “I have plans that I cannot share with you right now because the haters will sabotage me” and the corresponding pictures are all of little mice napping in front of a fireplace). The meme encyclopedia Know Your Meme has even christened the genre with a fittingly adorable name: critterposting.

“A critter is harmless. It’s innocent in a childlike, girlish way. You can be like, ‘Yeah, this is me putting on my silly little outfits to do my silly little tasks,” explains Sakshi Rakshale, an editor at Know Your Meme who covers, among other things, “girl meme culture.” She compares critterposting to something like the “Little Miss” or American Girl doll memes, where the image is meant to represent the poster’s mental state. “I see it as a variation of shitposting, where you didn’t put too much effort into it and it’s like a brain soup dump.”

As critterposting falls firmly under the umbrella of “wholesome” memes, it’s impossible to separate from cottagecore, the aesthetic that romanticizes quaint rural living and fairy tale settings. Though it had been percolating on Tumblr for years, interest in cottagecore spiked in tandem with the worsening Covid pandemic for fairly obvious reasons: The scarier and more confusing things got outside, the more people sought a retreat into a simpler past, albeit one that never actually existed.

Of Romanticism, the arts movement that emerged in response to the Industrial Revolution and that is the primary reference for cottagecore, Paul Quinn, director of the Chichester Center for Fairy Tales, Fantasy, and Speculative Fiction told me in 2020 that “it’s a recall of the medieval era, this idealization of nature and Arthurianism — it’s a nostalgia for someone else’s past. There’s a notion that life was better back then, even though it wasn’t.” Critterposting adds an even more fantastical layer onto images of ivy-covered trellises and mushroom forest paths: Not only can you imagine yourself living in a quiet, dreamy cottage, but you can be a literal bunny living in a quiet, dreamy cottage.

There was irony in cottagecore just as there is irony in critterposting. It was ironic that being stuck inside during lockdown made many of us yearn for a life with no laptops and no cell service but that all that yearning took place while looking at a screen, and it is ironic that in order to feel more like human beings we imagine ourselves as tiny furry critters. Identifying with animals is a legacy of early mainstream memes; “Advice Animals,” or the widespread templates that showed a picture of a certain animal and text on the top and bottom, typically in Impact font, were an entire generation’s first exposure to internet humor. Now, it seems, that identification has veered toward the ethereal and the surreal: We are now fairies or biblically accurate angels or actual voids.

“I think a lot of people feel represented by Beatrix Potter characters because they don’t fit into that hegemonic Instagram ideal,” says Sarah Drago, a writer and TikTok creator in New Orleans. Rather than trying to compete for likes and attention by posting a hot photo of oneself, critterposting is a way of saying, “Not only am I not hot, but I’m not anything. I’m not even a person.” That critterposting is a hallmark of the girl internet as well as the queer internet feels relevant mostly because women and gender nonconforming people’s appearances, both online and off, are subject to far more criticism. The compulsion to say “no thanks” to the whole trap is often much stronger.

“[Queer people] don’t have as much realistic representation, so we’re like, ‘Yeah, I really relate to this anthropomorphic squirrel right now,” explains Cheyenne, the 27-year-old behind the popular Instagram meme page @hotmessbian, and who prefers not to use her last name for privacy reasons. Much of her content is made of text-based nostalgia memes drawn from pop culture but with a distinctly femme, queer slant. “It’s a callback to when we were younger and could make up a fantasy world of our own.” (Example: “idk i just think a picnic like this with a bunch of other gay people could fix my mental health for good.”) That instinct isn’t dissimilar from the association with lesbians and frogs, or nonbinary people and “goblincore.” The less we feel seen by popular representations of women and queer people, it seems, the more likely we are to relate to things that are utterly genderless to the point of not even being human anymore.

Rakshale compares critterposting to something like the rise and reclamation of the bimbo, or the nihilist, sometimes radical idea that the best a woman can hope for is to be hot and stupid. “I think it’s downstream from bimboism,” she says, “where you’re portraying this airhead, innocent, and kind of dumb version of yourself. It’s like a harmless way of infantilizing yourself, but ironically. Like, don’t take this seriously.” I’d also add the romanticization of dissociation in all its forms — some much darker than others — as an influence on critterposting, where instead of lusting for lobotomies, smart women lust for the simplicity of fairy tale domestic life.

Perhaps appropriately, Beatrix Potter’s work, too, was a form of self-erasure and escapism from her own life. Though she lived a life of relative luxury and was born to an upper-middle-class family whose money came from textile mills, hers was not the childhood romanticized in her stories or illustrations. She was raised in London in the late 19th century, in an urban environment she hated and where she had few friends. That wealth, however, afforded her family frequent trips north to Scotland and the Lake District, where she became an ardent student of nature, botany, and mycology, and where she dreamt up beloved characters like Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddle-duck.

Potter saw the English countryside in almost the same way smartphone-addicted Americans do today, as a dreamlike utopia forever out of reach. “One of the most powerful images of the Victorian countryside for the modern viewer, and for the Victorians themselves, was provided by scenes of cottage life, featuring rustic simplicity,” wrote one author of Potter’s work in 1981. “This prettily sentimental view of country life was almost as mythical to its contemporaries as it is to the twentieth century and seems to have owed its popularity as much to its unattainability as to the evident charm of the paintings it produced.”

Ironically, however, Potter only romanticized rural life until she experienced it as a local rather than a tourist. After she found literary success, she bought a country home and a working farm in the Lake District. Of the lifestyle, she wrote in a letter, “Somehow when one is up to the eyes in work with real live animals it makes one despise paper-book-animals.” There is grotesquerie in rural farm life just as there is grotesquerie in womanhood; while the appearances are easy to romanticize, living the reality is often brutal and bloody. Yet tourists still flock to her home at Hill Top in the hopes of experiencing some of it themselves. “All of her stories celebrate rural virtues, and correspondingly, contribute to a still-powerful myth of English country life,” writes Shelagh Jennifer Squire in her 1991 doctorate on Potter’s impact on tourism in the Lake District. “The cozy cottage interiors … highlight how in lovingly transferring Hill Top and its furnishings into her work, Potter also captured a way of life; one that never existed as she portrayed it but which evokes an idealized golden age.”

The thing is, anyone who posts a photo of Peter Rabbit or Tom Kitten knows they’re yearning for something unattainable. That dream of an actual cottagecore lifestyle has been destroyed by a housing crisis that makes it much more difficult to imagine such a lifestyle being affordable and a political environment in which being female or gay is increasingly dangerous. Instead, we dream of a society where even badgers own homes, and where a single mother rabbit of four can feed her little bunnies bread, milk, and blackberries for supper. What’s the point of spending our lives, our time, our money, striving for anything less?

This column was first published in the Vox Culture newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss the next one, plus get newsletter exclusives.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.