Churn Milk Joan, a Ted Hughes poem about a milkmaid, is not sweet. It ends, for example, with the lines: “Of her futile stumbling and screams/And awful death.” There is a bit in the middle about being torn apart by foxes. Yet here is how Hughes – the poet who could extract unsentimentality from such unpromising subjects as newborn calves and songbirds – is to be remembered in his birthplace: a twee, two-metre-high statue of a fat milk churn and two cute little foxes, in tribute to the poem. The cult of twee has come at last for Hughes.
It comes for us all at the end. Death, taxes and, shortly after death, twee. After we die we all end up alike: cute, innocently wise, like children are, spouting storybook platitudes. Our modern death rituals can grind even the spikiest character into twee little contours – a cartoon version. Condolence cards feature soft toys leading tottering old ladies off by the hand, social media leans on Disney and AA Milne to lead people through their grief. In death, twee ate the Queen: Paddington Bear grew to monstrous proportions and simply gobbled her up. Robin Williams, the actor who killed himself after being misdiagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, was afterwards buried in twee. That week, an image of Aladdin’s genie, whom Williams voiced, hugging the titular character and captioned “Genie, you’re free”, was shared some 300,000 times.
Twee is now how the secular grieve. As Christianity faded in Britain, twee has gradually arisen to take its place, starting with euphemisms such as “passing” and ending with the full Disney-themed funeral. After all, twee serves the same basic function: it helps us avoid looking death in the face. Just as Christianity puts (almost) everyone who dies in the same comforting location, so does twee: a storybook land of simple moral lessons, where everyone gets their just deserts: an escape from the frightening amorality of real life. Like Christian death rituals, twee soothes individual grief by absorbing it into long-familiar narratives and phrases.
Twee has always feasted on death. In fact, the late critic Marc Spitz placed the birth of twee in Walt Disney’s The Skeleton Dance, one of his first short films, featuring a boogie in a graveyard, which would later set the template for Tim Burton. It was inspired by Disney’s experiences of the horrors of the First World War. Disney’s later films would also work hard to apply cute to darkness: retelling Grimm’s fairytales without the grim (and leaving the moral lessons in). There is a lot of death in literature – take EB White’s Charlotte’s Web – after all, children’s books were often created to be read before bed to fend off nightmares. It is perhaps little surprise that in popular culture twee arises when things are at their darkest. In the past century, it has always boomed under the threat of war, or nuclear attack, or pestilence, and faded when times are easy. We turn to twee to escape. In Christian spirit, it works to protect innocence in the face of too much knowledge. (In the few past years there has been an explosion of twee.)
But although twee ministers to the dead, it is not suited to the role. There is something hollow, ghoulish and unhealthy about twee. It eats us up and digests us into identical people – cartoon versions of ourselves. Its sedative properties help us forget about death, but we also forget the dead. Let us remember them as they were.
• Martha Gill is a political journalist and former lobby correspondent