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How Frog and Toad became queer anti-capitalist cottagecore icons

Arnold Lobel’s quietly radical creations speak to those who don’t want to live a predetermined life.

An animated frog and toad in human clothes stand in a flowering wood.
Frog and Toad, as adapted for the AppleTV+ show named after them.
AppleTV+

It’s fitting that the first story of Arnold Lobel’s first Frog and Toad book — a pairing that has seen a memetic cultural resurgence in the years since the pandemic — is called simply, “Spring.” Even three years on, it feels like we count the months now starting from March. Frog, as he attempts to entice Toad out of bed after his winter hibernation, speaks similarly:

“What you see is the clear warm light of April. And it means that we can begin a whole new year together, Toad. Think of it,” said Frog.

In 2020, spring had never seemed stranger: trees alive with fresh buds, but the streets empty of cars; when you’d skitter all the way across the street if you heard feet approaching from any direction, the presence of another human a daylight jumpscare.

It was only a few months later, in the summer of 2020, that I saw the indelible illustration adorning the cover of Frog and Toad Together — the pair riding back-to-chest on a two-seater bicycle — memed with the all-caps FUCK THE POLICE beneath their pedalling feet. It was in 2021 that I spied the image of them from “Alone,” sitting above a pond on a rock facing away from us, Frog with an arm around Toad, Toad with his arm resting on Frog’s lower back. (On Tumblr, it was tagged “me and who.”). Then the former coworker retweeted a snippet of the book:

“I will just have to sit here and do nothing,” said Toad.

Toad sat and did nothing.

Frog sat with him.

But really I knew that Frog and Toad had taken over social media when I stumbled across a TikTok from May 2022 captioned “Knitting a tiny stripey jumper for froggy.” In the 46-second video, a little green yarn frog with big wet eyes plays in the background while fiber artist India Rose Crawford lovingly makes his clothes. Even before the heartsickness inspired by the sun-soaked picnic scene at the end of the video, when Frog tugs the sweater over his head, it’s enough to make one’s eyes misty — Pavlovian response to the opening theme from UP aside.

A year later, “Knitting a tiny stripey jumper for froggy” has over 10 million views on TikTok, and even before Crawford knitted Toad in a follow-up video, people in the comments on both that platform and on Instagram, where she cross-posts to 830,000 followers, were talking about Lobel’s book series.

“When I posted the frog video, so many people in the comments were just like, ‘Frog needs a friend!’ ‘Please make Frog a Toad!’ ‘Please make Toad!’” she says. “So I just had to do it. I was like, ‘Yeah, it would be so nice for Frog to have someone to go and do little adventures with.’”

Crawford was a bit baffled by the attention. She didn’t originally conceive of her Froggy as the children’s book character (she didn’t grow up reading the series, which she believes is “more popular in America’’ than her native UK), and had even posted a similar video of a rat getting a sweater just weeks prior, to much milder delight. Yet her creation clearly struck a nerve with scores of people hollowed out by years of isolation and government neglect, yearning for intimacy; particularly, the queer intimacy they imagined Frog and Toad shared. (Within eight months, Apple TV+ would announce a new animated Frog and Toad series was coming to streaming and LGBTQ-focused publication Them would proclaim that “Everyone’s Favorite Queer Couple” was coming to TV.) What was it about life in the 2020s that put these stories back into the public’s imagination, and how did Frog and Toad become queer icons to an entire group of people seemingly overnight?

Love that defies categorization

Silas, 24, was one of many people who took to social media during the pandemic to replace everyday social interactions — even more so than usual. As people moved back to their hometowns and reignited childhood interests, a new type of account dedicated to posting bits of media ephemera (lines from literature, lyrics from artists, stills from films) became increasingly popular on Twitter. Silas’s Frog and Toad Bot joined their ranks in December 2020.

Silas, who asked to be referred to by his first name, had been attending community college right before the pandemic hit when he suddenly found himself at loose ends at home with his family and was inspired to reread the Frog and Toad books after scrolling past those bots. Flipping through the stories, he thought about the comfort he derived from his father reading the series to him growing up, and made Frog and Toad Bot to share that comfort with other people feeling lost and alone at the end of an interminable year.

Across the four Frog and Toad books published in the 1970s, author and illustrator Arnold Lobel wrote with real humor about everyday adult problems (losing a button, not wanting to clean the house, feeling overwhelmed by a to-do list) and the desire to be seen, understood, and loved through your best and worst moments, without trivializing those insecurities. There’s plenty to love about the books as an adult reader, maybe even more to love, but Silas was also moved by context he didn’t grasp as a child.

“As I looked back into the books,” he says, “I was reading about Arnold Lobel and his life and the fact that he was a gay man. His daughter had talked about how she felt like that was actually kind of him coming out in his own way because Frog and Toad have this ‘best friendship,’ but also, you can see in the books, it’s a partnership. As a gay man, I was really drawn to that.”

He’s referencing the 2016 interview Adrianne Lobel gave the New Yorker, in which she confirms that her father came out to the family in 1974 (between publishing 1971’s Frog and Toad Together and 1976’s Frog and Toad All Year), that he died at age 54 from AIDS, and that, of course, Frog and Toad are “of the same sex, and they love each other.”

This admission caused a wave of media coverage, but many regular fans (even queer ones) were slower to catch on with the numbers and enthusiasm that characterize active fandom. By the time Silas created Frog and Toad Bot in December 2020, coincidentally the 50-year anniversary of Frog and Toad Are Friends, pandemic interest for new and old readers had reached a sustained, all-time high. But more importantly, he created a nexus for fans on Twitter to engage in community at a time when frustration over trite LGBTQ+ representation in popular media — from the endless parade of “First Gay [Insert Whatever]Disney marketing to writing that didn’t engage as thoughtfully with queer characters and their plot lines as their cis-hetero counterparts — drove discussion around what better storytelling could look like. Seen through adult eyes and with a richer understanding of one’s identity than likely possessed during those Easy Readers days, Frog and Toad’s cozy domesticity, trust, and frank repartee looked an awful lot like two gay men basking in the steady glow of long-time romantic love, the kind sorely missing from those anemic efforts at queer inclusivity.

“I don’t think I grew up reading it as incredibly queer-coded because I didn’t grow up knowing queer adults in my life,” says Asha Thanki. A novelist and essay writer, Thanki shared a love of Lobel’s books with her sister growing up; during the first pandemic winter, she found herself sending tweets from Frog and Toad Bot to far-flung friends while living alone in a new city. Like Bert and Ernie, Thanki says, her interpretation of Frog and Toad’s relationship changed as her own understanding of her sexuality evolved. “As I learned more about me, but also saw more queer adults,” she says, “I think then you start to be like, ‘Oh shit, that’s exactly what it could look like.’”

Frog and Toad, while depicting nothing as overt as wedding bands, “I love you,” or lip contact, is nonetheless a deep portrayal of lifelong partnership. Rob Hoegee, the showrunner and head writer of the animated Frog and Toad show released on Apple TV+ in April, says that his read on the relationship was “a deep, loving, committed friendship that goes beyond all boundaries.” A large portion of the show’s animators, artists, and pre-production crew all across the board who identify as LGBTQ+, though, brought their own experiences and interpretation to their work. (One might argue that relationships that are intimate beyond easily categorizable labels are inherently queer.)

“I never really saw it as a romantic love, but it really does kind of show that it is possible and a beautiful thing when you can have that deep of a friendship,” Hoegee says. “It’s a rare and wonderful thing between any two people, but especially when there’s so many differences between Frog and Toad.”

That’s something Thanki echoes. “Toad and Frog are so different from each other in so many ways, but there’s this type of understanding,” she says. “There’s this type of intimate knowledge of the person you’re spending most of your time with that I think is something one aches for.”

A world alone inside your home? That’s so Frog and Toad-coded

By the time Crawford, the TikTok creator based in Cornwall, U.K, tenderly knitted a Toad companion for her Frog and staged them on a picnic date in 2022, the queer read on their relationship seemed to be the dominant interpretation — at least among those inclined to post about Frog and Toad on social media.

“To me, they’re just a couple of little gay frogs in love,” she says. But what Crawford likes most about them, she says, is that whoever you are — overzealous and nurturing like Frog, recalcitrant but stalwart like Toad — you “can see yourself in them.”

Without dialogue and the expressive faces of Lobel’s depictions to convey their personalities, however, the appeal of Crawford’s work is the curated atmosphere: a steaming cup of tea served in a thimble, the orange glow of a sunset as they reach for each other’s hands, the two reading a book among primroses. Watching one of her videos is like a half-minute reminder to take a deep breath, that attention paid to the simplest rituals is a way to make meaning out of otherwise disorganized days.

These are largely the patterns of Frog’s and Toad’s lives in the stories, when the act of making cookies or going on a long walk or waiting for a letter to arrive can consume a whole day. Replace some of those activities with their 2020 equivalent of baking sourdough bread or scheduling Zoom happy hours with loved ones, and the idea that people saw themselves in Frog and Toad during these years becomes clearer.

Around the same time people’s interest in Lobel’s characters was growing on social media, so was “cottagecore,” a hashtag popularized on image-based platforms like TikTok, Instagram, and Tumblr. Crawford occasionally tags her videos as cottagecore and says that, for her, the concept “embodies that kind of simple life: taking joy in small things, being connected with nature.”

“Cottagecore for me is more than just the aesthetic; it’s also a feeling. It’s kind and it’s gentle and slow and quite different to a lot of what modern-day life is like,” Crawford says.

Cottagecore can be summed up as an aesthetic movement idealizing countryside living (think prairie dresses, wooden furniture, wildflowers), and although material goods don’t amount to a philosophical lifestyle shift, the idea that you can fill your home with love with small, everyday acts of nurture — baking bread, cultivating a tomato plant, drinking tea by an open window — can be a moving alternative to a system of labor optimization.

In both the aesthetic quality of the Frog and Toad illustrations — Arnold Lobel’s olive-y color palette, faded summer greens and friendly browns viewed through sun-blinded eyes — and the surface-level activities of the stories — taking walks, baking cookies, flying kites, and planting seeds — that hide moral lessons of apologizing, indulgence, perseverance, and patience, there was plentiful material to help Frog and Toad ascend to cottagecore icons.

“We’re so constantly bombarded with bad news all the time,” Crawford says. “And I think the thing that people escape to with cottagecore — and with the Frog and Toad books — is just disappearing into another world where things aren’t bad all the time.”

The trend to shy away from difficult circumstances with uncomplicated, frictionless depictions of friendship and good times is a point in favor of Frog and Toad as childhood comfort and cottagecore catnip. But the fantasy of the latter could be more powerful for people stuck in small, expensive city apartments without the means of fleeing to the countryside like so many wealthy urbanites did at the beginning of the pandemic. People for whom homeownership is a fanciful delusion, people lucky to see grass at a public park, let alone spend a day taking a walk through nature. People feeling isolated, socially bereft, and without a support system.

“I live at home with my family ’cause I don’t have the income to move out,” says Silas. His economic circumstances are part of the reason he started Frog and Toad Bot to begin with. “It would be great if I could live in a little house with my own partner — or even just living near my partner — and in these warm, small homes. It’s definitely idyllic.”

But for people his age, and for a broad cohort of people closer to financial precarity than security, Silas is not under any delusions that it’s a life that’s accessible to him. “You’re not really going to be able to get that,” he says. “Some people might, but I think you’d have to be independently wealthy.”

Emotional fulfillment in people who make you feel seen, days set at the pace of your own needs, life devoid of arbitrary work and the concerns of paying bills (perhaps the most appealing aspect of Lobel’s stories: These amphibians don’t need jobs!) — once you go down the rabbit hole of what life could look like, it’s hard to resurface.

Rebellion against late 20th-century models of work, homebuilding, and American individualism was in the air at the end of the 2010s. That slow-building outrage — and then disbelief — only worsened with the pandemic as federal stimulus checks and improved unemployment benefits proved that all along there were means to help people who were struggling — just not requisite sympathy. It proved that the capitalist lifestyle was broken. And a lot of people realized when there weren’t structures in place between work and home life that they hadn’t made much of an effort to create a fulfilling life outside the office.

The “dominant mythology of work,” labor theorist Kathi Weeks writes, is that it asks us to “cultivate an intimate relationship to work as a site of personal development and social belonging.” But as Tressie McMillan Cottom writes in her New York Times newsletter, “There is a difference between a job and your life’s work.”

Rest isn’t necessarily an act of resistance, and buying into the trillion-dollar wellness industry certainly isn’t, but decoupling our intrinsic value from capitalist structures that demand we monetize our time, energy, and relationships is a step in the right direction.

It makes me think about how the Frog and Toad Bot tweet that initially blew up to 300,000 likes in May 2021 and quadrupled Silas’s follower count was a line from the story “Tomorrow”:

Toad pulled the covers over his head.

“I will do it tomorrow,” said Toad. “Today I will take life easy.”

What sticks out to me about this story is that, even when Toad puts off picking up his clothes from the floor or doing the dishes or dusting, he never neglects Frog. Even if this is a tale of little problems accumulating, it’s also one of priorities. Those marking off to-do lists and making calls and running errands would probably still acknowledge that the business of our daily lives is manufactured. What truly can’t wait until tomorrow is what Toad always makes time for: spending time with Frog.

“I’m just obsessed with friendship as a concept of: What does it mean to be a good friend? What does it mean to be a good sister, a good daughter, a good friend, a good partner, even,” Thanki says.

For her, the enduring appeal of Frog and Toad as an adult is not only considering how identifying as queer puts her in historic community with Lobel, but also how his stories model purposeful stewardship of the relationships in our lives. In the 2020s, Frog and Toad retaught us what it means to show up for our communities and loved ones, to rethink the people we want to be when no one is looking but our most precious people need us. Truthfully, Lobel’s world is not one where nothing bad ever happens; the heart of his stories is how we can be compassionate to ourselves and others when it does, how life’s difficulties feel easier with the help of a friend.

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