Culture At Large

Blessed are the twee?

Craig Mattson

Can you use the word twee in a sentence? Maybe not. But you have felt the aesthetic nonetheless, described by Marc Spitz in his book Twee as “the gentle revolution in music, books, television, fashion and film.” You see twee wherever skinny jeans and indie folk and preppy sensibilities converge in self-aware music, in tender wittiness, in nostalgic youthfulness. Think Lena Dunham, Wes Anderson and Gilmore Girls. Spitz’s book spans a broad cultural topography, but I’d like to explore an expression of the twee aesthetic that he leaves undiscussed: the way it now even pervades corporate rhetoric, especially in regard to corporate social responsibility (CSR).

Burt’s Bees, the lip balm company, produced a video featuring Lea Michele before a background of wildflowers, warning with smiling urgency about the disappearance of an important insect from our planet. To raise awareness for the vanishing honeybee, she encourages tweets without b’s — something like, “elieve we can make the world etter!” The ad’s playful, admittedly saccharine childlikeness compellingly evokes what Spitz calls “the purity-via-simplicity ethos.”   

Also consider Lush cosmetics, which produces handcrafted, sustainably sourced products ranging from bath bombs to lip scrubs to tabs for your teeth. The company is so organic that one of its massage bars sprouted a handsome green plant in a customer’s tub drain! Lush’s twee identity also includes their pledge to not involve animal testing in connection to their products. As James Parker has noted in The Atlantic, “Twee has, beneath all the chirping, something passionately affronted and defiant … an actual moral application.”

And then there’s Toms, the highly successful buy-one-give-one shoe enterprise started by Blake Mycoskie. Despite the enormous financial success of his philanthropic business model, the cover of his bestseller, Start Something That Matters, makes him look like an entrepreneurial hobbit who spends his days stroking artisanally designed products. But as the company’s “chief shoe-giver,” Mycoskie is willing to come off as naïve, so long as he can summon a whole tribe of hipster-indie-preppy problem-solvers to not only buy shoes but also respond to human need.

So, all this to say: it may be hard to use twee in a sentence, but companies like these sure have been using it in their modes of communication. That raises another question: can we imagine a list of twee-atitudes that blesses Christian responsibility and skinny jeans in the same couplet? The cuteness of corporate social responsibility campaigns might give Christians pause: Scripture makes room for more prophetic sharpness than twee usually allows. John the Baptist had a thing for wild honey and also, presumably, for honeybees. But it’s difficult to imagine him shouting “ehold!”

Still, I think there’s a sense in which a twee concern for the disempowered suggests new possibilities for corporateness in contemporary society. By blessing the poor in spirit and those who mourn, twee corporate rhetoric assists corporate entities in exercising real responsibility. Further, the inclusive nature of twee-ness evokes a corporation that is less walled-off, less boundaried than the General Motors of mid-century America. Twee CSR messaging now positions citizens as corporate stakeholders, as participants in world-bettering projects. When we cast “slings at the corporate ogre,” to use Spitz’s phrase, we may be posturing ourselves as archly ironic spectators. We may also be indicting ourselves for lacking that social responsibility that twee corporateness cultivates, and that Christian identity requires.

The cuteness of corporate social responsibility campaigns might give Christians pause.

Topics: Culture At Large, Business & Economics, News & Politics, Media