Trigger Warning: this article discusses topics including sexual violence, racialised violence, paedophilia and eating disorders.
She has liked to wear bows in her hair ever since she was a little girl. She liked pink, and then blue, but when she started listening to Lana Del Rey she realised she prefers purple. She wears her ballet flats, white and silky, to reflect the glow of the Vivienne Westwood pearls hanging around her neck. She lights iridescent candles to fall asleep, awoken only by a true love’s kiss on her glossy lips and the smell of burning lace. And so she is suspended on my screen, dripping with Chloe and alone in a sea of fresh flower petals.
When this vision of a young woman appeared on my TikTok feed earlier in the year, I was instantly struck by her composed and curated commitment to a new online trend. Cited by major fashion magazines like Vogue and Nylon as a “return” to more romantic and playful styles, this “coquette aesthetic” has overseen the rising popularity of heart-shaped necklaces, chiffon headbands and Brandy Melville. But these symbols are neither new nor benign fashion choices. The words in the title of this article are the exact search terms I found attached to “coquettecore” on Twitter, highlighting its racist, sexualised and misogynistic connotations. In its nostalgia for the styles of Victorian-era dress and vintage Americana, this movement expresses a far more sinister resurgence of white, middle-class hyperfemininity.
When novelist Hannah Webster Foster labelled her semi-fictional protagonist Elizabeth Wharton as The Coquette in 1797, she associated this term with flirtation and the temptation of sexual fate. As a young woman, Wharton enjoyed “seducing” two potential suitors but would not commit to marrying either of them. Her death by the age of thirty-seven, in a roadside tavern after giving birth to a stillborn baby, was intended to provide a moral lesson for young women engaging in “sexually provocative” behaviours: that bad things will befall “fallen women.”
Of course, the stigma and shame embedded in Wharton’s “coquette” has prompted many twenty-first century social media influencers to profess they have reclaimed this term as an emblem of femininity, sexuality and agency. For Kellen Beckett, it is a challenge to mainstream society’s association of “pretty things” with “being uncool”; for Duckie, this style “helps me connect to my inner child.” But coquettecore will never be truly emancipatory as long as it is founded upon structures designed to oppress and objectify women.
This brand of “girlish promiscuity” has become almost synonymous with a Lolita aesthetic. Recognisable through its use of childhood symbols like ruffles, frills and ribbons, the coquette aesthetic sexualises the innocence of young women. Beyond these obviously paedophilic connotations, the coquette aesthetic idolises pro-eating disorder content; ten years after Tumblr’s ban on pro -self-harm blogs, they remain inextricably connected and visible.
It is unsurprising then, that the coquette aesthetic is continuously linked to the recent phenomenon of ‘“trad wives’.” Advocating for women to return to the home and “find fulfilment” in caring for their breadwinner husbands, the trad-wife movement capitalises off the same conservative values of “ideal femininity” as that of the coquette: docility, infantiliszation, a rejection of feminism and an adherence to heteronormative binaries. To be sure, the coquette’s sexualisation appears antithetical to the conservative family values enshrined in the trad-wife. But upon closer inspection, both movements are guided by their purpose to degrade women. These two aesthetics therefore remain dependent on the rhetoric of what scholar Brenda R. Weber calls “toxic femininity”, restricting women’s behaviour to please the male gaze.
The coquette-to-tradwife pipeline is perhaps best articulated in the movements’ racialized and racist elements. Although researchers like Eviane Leidig might argue that the proliferation of the #coquette and #tradwife hashtags on social media might pluralise the cultural diversity of content creators, both movements originate in and reproduce Whiteness. Coquettecore not only idealises white bodies and European brands contemporarily, but also trivialises physical symbols of colonial power like corsets as “fashion.”. Furthermore, the trad-wife identity is often a dog-whistle to nationalist and white supremacist rhetoric; its purpose can be traced neatly as an answer to “The Woman Question” articulated by alt-right groups. Given these overlaps between race and gender, both movements’ iterations in the past and present must be articulated as intersectional issues committed to dismantling these power hierarchies in fashion and beyond.
It is only by removing our heart-shaped sunglasses that we, as feminists, can begin to take the rise of such hyperfeminine and racialised popular movements seriously. Indicative of a burgeoning postfeminist culture that prioritises personal choice over radical reforms to structural inequality, coquettes and tradwives are neither novel nor ahistoric. This young woman, although immortalised in the TikTok algorithm, may still break free of this pipeline.