The family twee, from Disney to Deschanel

How twee are you? If you’re a fan of Lena Dunham, Portlandia, Wes Anderson films and cats, maybe more than you think

Zooey Deschanel in New Girl: the tipping point in twee’s recent starry rise?

Zooey Deschanel in New Girl: the tipping point in twee’s recent starry rise?

 

What do Belle & Sebastian, Lena Dunham, Peanuts the cartoon, Portlandia, artisan pickles, food trucks, crocheted owls on Etsy, ukuleles, kittens and Zooey Deschanel have in common? All of the above can be linked in one way or another with the dorky, quirky, gentle movement called twee.

The movement – a celebration of an excessively sentimental, precocious and whimsical aesthetic – is clearly having a moment, with characters and characteristics identifiable as twee enjoying time in the mainstream cultural spotlight. It seems that the twee did inherit the Earth after all.

The arrival of a book on the subject was inevitable. Mark Spitz is a music journalist of long standing, having written books about David Bowie, Mick Jagger and LA punk, among others. He believes this is a good time to unleash some theories and thoughts on twee in the shape of Twee: The Gentle Revolution in Music, Books, Television, Fashion and Film before someone else gets in first.

As pop-cultural movements go, twee is no coy debutant. You can find precedents all the way back to Walt Disney, while the twee aesthetic ran riot in various music scenes in the 1980s.

Early in his history of the culture, Spitz reels off a list of some of the influences he believes define what twee is all about. Belle & Sebastian’s leader Stuart Murdoch, film-maker Wes Anderson and author Dave Eggers are to be found in this litany of names alongside such formidable – and somewhat improbable – figures as J D Salinger, Jean-Luc Godard and the Velvet Underground. As the book unfolds, many more names are pushed into service to hoist the twee flag.

 

Overlap with the hipster world

All of the names brandished with the twee handle throughout the book could just as easily be aligned with other movements. The definition of twee is “meek, mild and strangely malleable”. Those descriptions could just as easily be attached to hipsters (a term Spitz does his best to avoid in the book).

It quickly becomes apparent that there’s a sizeable overlap between the worlds of twee and the hipster. Both narratives and characters run along parallel tracks. Spitz opens his account in Brooklyn, the epicentre of both hip and twee, according to the author, and there are huge similarities between both casts.

When it comes to identities and definitions, Spitz attempts to pin down twee as a series of cultural and political values and ethics. Some of these include the championing of beauty, a wistfulness about childhood, a distrust of adulthood, an interest in sex but a shyness when it comes to the actual deed, a fetishisation of geekdom and the cultivation of a passion project of one stripe or another.

It’s worth noting that, as with hipsterdom, twee is very often the preserve of the privileged and financially enfranchised. Spitz asks in the introduction if he is writing a book for well-off white people. There’s no real need for him to answer this question because there’s no doubt about twee’s class links.

 

A form of escapism

In many ways, twee represents a form of escapism from the modern world. You can choose to embrace the twee lifestyle and activities as a way of avoiding an engagement with the “real” world and its forces of progression, ambition and strife.

Again, there’s a noticeable looseness when it comes to these definitions, and it does feel as if Spitz’s interpretation of twee includes widespread traits. Surely most people gravitate towards beauty over ugliness, for example, and very few would have any truck with bullies, at least publicly. This nebulousness ties in with Spitz’s contention that twee is now very much in the ether, and thus worthy of this kind of forensic examination.

Going back to the beginning, there was Walt Disney, one of the first arbiters of twee taste. His films were full of made-up worlds, sweet characters and fantastic stories that were often cloying, and always sentimental and whimsical.

But while you can see how the worlds of Mickey Mouse and Goofy could be viewed as twee, Spitz then starts skipping and jumping around the houses in an effort to make his theories about twee’s long tail stack up.

Presented in the right way, many hip cultural signifiers can be seen as twee, although it lessens his main argument – that twee matters – when he keeps having to point out that it’s all around us. By the time Spitz starts talking about Anne Frank, REM and Elvis Costello as twee totems, you begin to wonder just what the hell he is at.

When he does rein in his more outlandish flights of fancy, Spitz does get at some fascinating ideas as to how this soft-shuffle culture has acquired so much heft over the years. Although often flippantly dismissed as fey and uninteresting, twee’s strengths and preoccupations have nonetheless played a striking part in the development of various pop-culture memes.

For example, teen films such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Heathers and Clueless contained many twee tropes. Out went the flawless hero, and in came a bunch of awkward, often socially inept geeks and nerds in their place. Cool losers were suddenly worthy of Hollywood love.

 

Cross-generational

Unlike many pop-culture movements, twee is cross-generational. Spitz compares it to punk and hip-hop in terms of how it has rounded up various tribes of people, regardless of age, who share a fondness and appreciation for various twee touchstones.

What has pushed Spitz to write a book about it is how twee has gone mainstream with such speed. He points to the huge popularity of the actress Zooey Deschanel following New Girl as one possible tipping point in twee’s recent starry rise.

It takes more than one actress with a penchant for kooky roles, however, to make a movement. Twee is about wanting a slower, better, kinder, humbler world. It’s a scene that favours the DIY spirit, localism over globalism. These are ideals most of us would have no problem with, and we may even find at the end of Spitz’s book that we are more twee than we initially thought.

Twee: The Gentle Revolution in Music, Books, Television, Fashion and Film by Mark Spitz is published by It Books/Harper Collins

 

 

THE TWEE AMIGOS: PARAGONS OF THE SCENE

  • Belle & Sebastian The Glasgow band behind such albums as If You’re Feeling Sinister bring twee to your turntable.
  • Zooey Deschanel Between the TV show New Girl, a classic turn in new-classic Christmas movie Elf and her role in indie-schmindie duo She & Him, the actress is twee from fringe to toes.
  • Wes Anderson Anderson’s films are intricate, idiosyncratic alternative worlds populated by outsiders hoping that good can successfully battle evil.
  • Sarah Records Clare Wadd and Matt Haynes’s 1980s-1990s record label and fanzine, which released music by such earnest and introspective acts as The Field Mice, The Sea Urchins and The Orchids.
  • Portlandia The TV show that caricatures Portland’s twee-friendly boutiques, cafes and coffee culture.
  • Cats Felines rather than canines are the pet of choice for tweenagers.
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