The Twee Tribe
Updated: Mar 8
Consider the following phenomena: owl-shaped cushions, bird-print textiles and kitten ephemera. French horns, ukuleles and accordions. Grown women with wispy fringes who dress like little girls, grannies or Jean Seberg, and young men who sport excessively neat haircuts, horn-rimmed glasses and waistcoats. Cotton candy, gluten-free acai berry cupcakes and quinoa fritters with probiotic goat yoghurt. Anything that is locally sourced, vintage or artisanal. Cream-coloured retro bikes with wicker baskets and 1950s sun dresses in ice-cream shades. Polka dots and cocktails in jam glasses. The comic strip Peanuts, J. D. Salinger and Maurice Sendak. The Smiths and Belle and Sebastian. Taxidermy, stamp collecting and home baking. The films of Wes Anderson. What do they all share? According to Marc Spitz, they are emblems of “Twee” – “the most powerful youth movement since Punk and Hip-Hop”.
Since the Second World War, Spitz argues, there has been a “gentle revolution” in our sensibilities, aesthetics and tastes, driven by an ethos of kindness and a quest for purity in an impure world. Originally a niche phenomenon, the aesthetics and ethics of Twee have infiltrated mainstream film, fashion, literature, music and food. Spitz defines the movement’s key features as an unabashed celebration of beauty, whimsy and preciousness, a nostalgic fetishization of childhood paired with a wariness of sexuality, and a glorification of the awkward and geeky.
Is it regressive or progressive? Is the essence of Twee tragicomic, romantic or just escapist?
The “Twee Tribe” is characterized by a tendency to create highly stylized alternative modes of existence in opposition to competition-driven mass culture. Just as Greil Marcus sketched a history of influence from Dada via Situationism to punk in Lipstick Traces: A secret history of the twentieth century (1989), so Spitz creates a lineage of Twee from the 1950s to the present, one that includes Walt Disney, Dr Seuss, Edward Gorey, Holly Golightly, James Dean, Jonathan Richman, The Buzzcocks, Art Spiegelman, Sofia Coppola, Jonathan Safran Foer and Lena Dunham, among many others.
Spitz is certainly on to something very important – think of the extraordinary popularity of The Great British Bake Off and the seemingly unstoppable spread of the Cath Kidston franchise – and his book is heartfelt, entertaining, informative and very readable. However, his analysis is flawed in various respects. First and foremost, it is too inclusive, rapidly turning into a history of everything and nothing. Secondly, many of his examples do not fit his own criteria. Although he repeatedly asserts that a “punk spirit” or “punk sensibility” underlies Twee, the latter is, if anything, the very opposite of punk: where punk is angry, ugly, nihilistic and violently confrontational, Twee is gentle, celebrates beauty and goodness, and aims to preserve the past. A number of Spitz’s other examples of Twee are no less surprising: Anne Frank, Sylvia Plath and Kurt Cobain seem misplaced, and surely François Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films, especially the later ones, are much more twee than anything by Jean-Luc Godard? And what about The Sound of Music?
Furthermore, Spitz does not persuasively theorize Twee’s relation to that against which it stands. He argues that, in the face of a world perceived as violent and ugly, Twee is optimistic and idealistic, focusing on “our essential goodness”. Charlie Brown, for example, “became a sort of existential hero in an age of helplessness and horror, brokenhearted but still hopeful”. He faces a “cold world with idealism”. Yet one is left to wonder whether this steadfast idealism is naive or ironic. Is it regressive or progressive? Is the essence of Twee tragicomic, romantic or just escapist?
Spitz also misses the opportunity to assess the wider political implications of Twee. He acknowledges that the aesthetics of Twee appeal mainly to the affluent, liberal arts- educated, white middle class. Nevertheless, he endorses Twee as “a mark of a slow evolution toward a better, kinder, humbler, more politicized and ‘so pure’ human race”, but then adds: “or at least one with a better record collection”. Yet it is difficult to view wearing Peter Pan collars, Hello Kitty socks and collecting narwhal figurines as serious modes of political engagement.
the 1950s attempted to counter the horror of the Second World War with decency, homeliness and cupcakes
The most regrettable omission in this potentially important book is any reflection on why the post-war era has seen the rapid rise of Twee. Why is ours the age of retro, why are we so drawn to the mood, styles and objects of the past? Since the 1990s, we have not seen the emergence of an original collective style that has survived longer than one season. Has fashion simply become both more ephemeral and more violently eclectic, or do those who shape the cultural landscape indeed prefer to look backwards rather than forwards? Perhaps with the exception of the Renaissance, the glorification of the past has tended to be driven by escapism – think, for example, of the Romantic idealization of all things Gothic. It is no coincidence that Spitz’s account commences with the 1950s, a period that occupies a special status in the Twee canon. A faux new age of innocence, in which people were eager to forget the horrors of war, the Holocaust and revolutionary politics, and to seek both solace and meaning in the pleasures of consumerism, the 50s also saw a return to reactionary gender roles and to various other forms of cultural conservatism. Like the Twee movement more generally, the 50s attempted to counter the horror with decency, homeliness and cupcakes.
A turn to the past always entails a disenchantment with the present. It also testifies to a lack of optimism about the future. Twee is both weary and wary: it has neither the anger nor the energy to change the status quo. It is escapist in that it celebrates style over substance, aesthetics over politics. It has a regressive tendency, both in a temporal and in a psycho-sexual sense: while Twee sometimes borders on camp, it is ultimately profoundly asexual. Generation Twee appears above all to yearn to return to an idealized state of perma-childhood, eager to rid itself of the responsibilities of adulthood. Wes Anderson’s most memorable characters, for example, are either adults behaving like children, or pre-teens suspiciously aware of the dark continent that is human sexuality, but who generally prefer not to explore it. The blurring of generational boundaries and the fetishization of childhood aesthetics, tastes and behaviours produce hybrids such as the femme-enfant, the man-child, and the uncannily precocious child, or “adorkables”, such as the actress Zooey Deschanel, who co-founded the “HelloGiggles” website and who publicly declared that she wishes “everyone looked like a kitten”.
Twee, then, is a symptom of profound cultural exhaustion, a pop-cultural response to the death of grand narratives and radical politics: too weary to fight the corporate capitalist machine, the twee instead create hyper-stylized alternative worlds in which kittens play, ukuleles sound and childhood is eternal. Their basic disposition is melancholy rather than angry, and they will always opt for owl-print wallpaper over kicking against the pricks.
Anna Katharina Schaffner is Reader in Comparative Literature at the University of Kent. She is currently working on a cultural history of exhaustion. ----