The Holly Hobbie Retrenchment

Holly Hobbie Mug

On a trip with friends to the west coast of Vancouver Island one summer, I found a tin “Holly Hobbie” mug that had washed up on shore. The next morning I showed it to my friend Jonathan, who was cooking us breakfast.

Me:  “Look! Isn’t that sweet. It says “Good friends are like sunshine…”

J: [looks at it askance, returns to frying pan]  “They come around every couple of weeks.”

Me:  “… And give you cancer.”

(For those who don’t live in this part of the world, the line about the sun coming around every couple of weeks identifies this as a Pacific Northwest joke.)

That joke is my only means of appreciating this mug.

Listen, the reason I’m bringing up Holly Hobbie and her ilk is that I’m going to implode if I don’t say something about the Rise of Cutesy Pioneer Girls in design. A scary proportion of the highest-traffic decor blogs and websites (not mentioning any names), hipster or otherwise, has lately undergone some sort of body-snatching by a powerful, unholy agglomeration of down-home samplers, gingham, cutesy illustrations of big-eyed bonneted little girls in country dresses, grandmothery country kitchens, wan girls on bicycles, wan girls doing nothing but looking wan, posters with bromide-y mottoes, lace, doilies, frilly stationery, tiny flower arrangements, illustrations of birdies on branches, tiny flower prints, early childhood decor in apartments not even occupied by children, general pinkness and the whole gamut of unrehabilitatable little-girl kitsch. The words “sweet,” “precious” and “darling” are appearing with a frequency that’s becoming really alarming.

Holly Hobbie Egg

This Little House on the Prairie Redux—all these white children in patchwork and smiling (white) women in frocks with their forearms dusted in flour—seems to be harking back to a simpler time that frankly never existed and even if it had: god forbid. But it wasn’t a simpler time; this is outright colonial nostalgia. Quite apart from my aesthetic recoil from this particular category of kitsch, I think on a broader level its flight from reality is an indicator of a politically conservative retrenchment. There’s also a lot of safe, semi-but-not-really-updated Edwardian or Victorian genteel traditionalism around in decor (hipsters, talking to you). It’s not as bad, gender-wise, but it’s definitely on the same continuum. The Neo-Stuffy traditionalism of all this airless decor isn’t just mildly backward-looking. A lot of it actually feels like a disposal not just of adulthood, adventurousness and any engagement in our real historical moment, but of feminism, too, which is all the more distressing when this region of the internet, with its multimillion-dollar glut of cutesy decorative craft, is so completely female-dominated. More and more I find myself wanting to stab myself in the eye with a fork.

Quite apart from the gender component, all this oldey-timey “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” sounds like capitalism in Hollie Hobbie clothing. Be resourceful! Be happy! Don’t complain about all the ways in which I’m exploiting you!

I can already hear people saying “live and let live” and “to each her own” and all that, but culture and aesthetics are not comfortably separate from the rest of the social realm; they’re not meaningless, sheerly personal follies. They’re the thin end of the wedge of politics and philosophy. I’m sorry to be ornery, but as Lizzie Bennet liked to say, I speak as I find. And what I find is that this Cutesy Utopia is my dystopia.

Click below. And if you think I’m exaggerating, just look at Etsy.

From here:

“Kitsch tends to mimic the effects produced by real sensory experiences [comparesimulation/simulacra , (2)], presenting highly charged imagery, language, or music that triggers an automatic, and therefore unreflective, emotional reaction. [5] Pictures of couples silhouetted against sunsets or songs with lavish, repeated crescendos elicit a conditioned response from a broad audience. Milan Kundera calls this key quality of kitsch the “second tear:” “Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see the children running in the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running in the grass! It is the second tear which makes kitsch kitsch.” [6] The appeal of kitsch resides in its formula, its familiarity, and its validation of shared sensibilities. [7]

The self-congratulatory spirit of kitsch can also be seen as a deception. Kitsch holds up a “highly considerate mirror,” according to Hermann Broch, that allows contemporary man to “recognize himself in the counterfeit image it throws back at him and to confess his own lies (with a delight which is to a certain extent sincere).” [8] By providing comfort, kitsch performs a denial. It glosses over harsh truths and anesthetizes genuine pain. As Harold Rosenberg perceived: “There is no counterconcept to kitsch. Its antagonist is not an idea but reality.” [9] [see reality/hyperreality , (2)] ”

Cutesy - Definition & Ngram frequency

7 comments on "The Holly Hobbie Retrenchment"

  1. Your tags!! Man. So funny (or not??). Maybe all this girly kitsch is a reaction to the technological revolution? And economic/ecological meltdown we are finding ourselves in?

    Perhaps people are trying to find comfort by reaching far back to the days of our grandparents – with their original sense of DIY and self-sustainablity – and these are the aesthetics and memes that reflect that? I guess if this is the case it would be difficult to find comfort in the 90ies, 80ies, 70ies, 60ies or fifties, (the postwar decades which seem to be those most referenced and remixed in this post-post-modern moment), because these periods either represent consumer gluttony or social revolution – neither which are very appealing at the moment. Not to most people that is.

    Anyway – that is my best shot at an explanation! Thanks for the deep thoughts.


  2. Great essay! LOL!
    The pest of cutism — in a way, we have had that in Germany after WWII as an understandable reaction on a world fallen apart. Here is an example from my own childhood (1950):
    The desire of humans to repair their world seems to be elementary. But what we see in the portals which you criticize is fraud. The products traded are not the genuine expression of a longing for a more beautiful world, but cynical exploitation of this urge. And most people who intend to “create”, imitate imitations instead. This is what makes us so uneasy about the inflation of cuteness, I guess.

  3. Much of the ‘Little House on the Prairie’ look originated in the 1970s after the oil crisis of 1973. The overnight quadrupling of oil prices triggered a nearly decade long depression (at least in Britain), which fueled the whole vaguely late Victorian childhood phase.

    It seems, therefore, hardly suprising that with the present crisis of yet another financial depression, we should have a rehash of the Victoriana cutism of the 1970s.

    These are cycles. There is very little anyone can do until the financial climate has settled and people have more confidence. Confidence produced the consumer trends of the 1960s, lack of confidence produced different trends in the 1970s and so on.

    If we all stick together and try to be brave, the haunting face of Laura Ashley and all her demonic Victoriana cutisms will recede back into the darkness from whence they came.

  4. Just found your blog. I have a blog crush. Awesome essay.

    I think it is all a continuum. I have thoughts, but too disorganized and tired. Hopefully they’ll congeal and I can come back and be thoughtful.

    I landed here because of your post about the industrial wall lamp. Now I’m afraid I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole.

    Best wishes…

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