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My Late Complaints About Hopepunk

I got sick of hearing about hopepunk while it was an online discourse hot topic, but unfortunately I can’t seem to stop thinking about it, even though the discussion has mostly died down. So… here I am, not shutting up about it. Really, I don’t want to hear about hope in general anymore. I’ve had enough of empathy, I’ve had enough of optimism, I’ve had enough of positivity, I’ve had enough of kindness, and so I’ve had enough of hope. I mean, it’s not any of these abstract concepts that I’m sick of, but I personally find their ascension to buzzword status kind of nauseating.

Belief in the possibility of a better world and kindness to other people have been embraced as self-help lifestyle choices. The idea is that the world may be unfair, miserable, falling apart– but we don’t have to emulate it. There are almost as many people mocking hopepunk as there are people evangelizing about it, but I want to acknowledge that while I share a lot of the misgivings of its detractors, I like hopepunk on a surface level and it’s a very attractive ontology. If it weren’t attractive, nobody would buy it.

The issue lies in the concept of “buying” or “buying into” any set of ideals, no matter how winsome those ideals are. Hopepunk is human virtue reimagined as a product, a worldview wherein the way to fight back against an uncaring universe is to read the right books and watch the right movies and TV shows. It’s not a movement, it’s a consumer identity.

In the article “Something is Broken in Our Science Fiction”, Lee Konstantinou discusses this argument, characterizing the proliferation of “-punk” suffix science fiction categories (originating from cyberpunk, and in the vein of steampunk, solarpunk, et cetera) as “the hunt for a new market niche,” and paraphrasing SF scholar Sean Guynes Vishniac to contend that “publishers always want to find evermore-narrowly-sliced microgenres, hoping to squeeze every aesthetic niche dry”.

I agree that hopepunk is a “microgenre”, and furthermore I charge that it is as close to being a nonentity as any literary identifier can be without being totally absent from public discussion. It’s a post-hoc label applied to a collection of unrelated fiction (a Vox article about hopepunk cites examples as disparate as Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and the Supergirl/The Flash crossover episode) in order to appeal to the evergreen market of people who want to feel like revolutionaries without all the hard work of holding considered political stances or taking action in any substantial way– really, without even having to feel bad about themselves or their place in the world. Given that I’m addressing a term that originated in fandom, maybe it’s best to speak fandom’s native language. To quote William Goldman’s beloved parodic fantasy novel The Princess Bride, and the film adaptation it inspired: “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

I know that I’m being harsh on Alexandra Rowland, the creator who originated the term hopepunk. It’s not as though hopepunk was focus-grouped into existence by a corporation; it was in fact coined by a Tumblr post written by Rowland that read: “The opposite of grimdark is hopepunk. Pass it on.” In the essay where she elaborates on hopepunk as a subgenre-slash-personal philosophy, she acknowledges that life is indeed pain, that even she is beginning to lose her belief in “an atom of justice”, that “the world has always been on fire”.

She rails against “generalized, aimless, unradical kindness” and insists that “The work is never finished. The work will never be finished. There will never be a nice, comfortable utopia where we can rest on our laurels and sip strawberry daiquiris by the pool and trust that now things are Fine and we can all relax.” I do consider these assertions accurate and worthwhile. I can root for the idea that “You can do a lot when you decide to be a stubborn motherfucker who refuses to die.” It’s just an idea, though. It’s not an ethos. It’s incomplete.

Rowland sings the praises of fighting for one’s beliefs in the face of impossible odds, without expecting any permanent wins or seismic societal shifts, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There is something wrong, I think, with her curious silence regarding what exactly we should be fighting for, and how. Yes, she advocates for the world to pay attention to the plight of the marginalized, and she devotes a paragraph to the separation of undocumented immigrant and refugee families at the United States border. Yes, she extolls spite and anger and protest in addition to the consumption and creation of hopepunk media. That doesn’t mean she isn’t maddeningly vague in terms of actual goals.

It seems to me that the neoliberal capitalist machine in the United States has spent an awful lot of time and money on its attempts to brainwash us into voting for politicians based on personality, identity, and party affiliation rather than things like “actual policy positions” and “whether they will enact any positive and concrete changes”. Politics has become about what certain election results symbolize more than what they literally mean. To me, hopepunk is ultimately an extension of that machine rather than a divergence from it, because it traffics in the same currency. It’s all about what certain stories and actions symbolize– for example, striking back against an uncaring world– rather than the practical logistics of attempting to enact change.

The fact that Rowland offers family separation as an example is telling. Family separation is tragic, but it also represents only a single tendril of a deeply rooted issue. If the refugee and immigrant families at the border were reunited and subsequently deported, would that then constitute justice? What about if they were kept together, but remained in inhumane conditions? Would reuniting those families give them access to fair legal representation? Would it stop them from dying of thirst in the desert? Moreover, Rowland also fails to provide any potential solutions to the problem she illuminates, either ideal (abolishing ICE, opening U.S. borders) or incremental (protesting at ICE facilities, donating to immigrant legal aid funds).

What if instead of expounding on the values of hopepunk, Rowland wrote a piece about the importance of unions and workers’ rights? What if she gave us suggestions for both direct and indirect political action on that specific front? What if she wrote about the broken American healthcare system, and directed us to GoFundMes for people who can’t afford insulin? What if she wrote about people who are unjustly punished by the prison-industrial complex, and encouraged us to sign petitions and donate to funds for bail and legal defense?

She could still use works of fiction to make her political writing engaging and demonstrate her points, but she would also be taking the risk of standing for something specific and real. If Rowland is against “generalized, aimless, unradical kindness”, then I argue that she should engage in radical action and advocate for radical politics instead of merely saying that not being radical is bad. Radical is just a word, and it means whatever people want it to mean unless it’s given a concrete and consistent definition.

The fact that hopepunk isn’t associated with any potentially controversial calls for action is what makes it so vulnerable to manipulation and utilization as a product. Hopepunk is like a statue, an inanimate representation that reflects the contents of its creator’s mind, not a living movement agitating for any particular cause. When publications like Vox sand off the sharp edges of that statue, it can’t complain. When they paste a smiley face over its grim expression, it can’t peel off the sticker.

We know that statues aren’t people, despite the resemblance. They’re people-shaped objects. A statue may have the exterior of a human being, but it lacks the guts, and hopepunk likewise has the appearance of a political ideology with none of the convictions. That makes it laughably easy to paint it a fun color and use it to sell things, like “Better Worlds: a new animated sci-fi series” from the Vox-owned outlet The Verge.

This isn’t to say that the original ideas behind hopepunk aren’t also flawed in and of themselves, even absent commercially-motivated manipulation. Yes, we live in a difficult and hopeless world, but is writing cynical fiction actually, provably contributing to that? To accept the premise of hopepunk is to accept the premise that we need art to tell us who we should be and what a better world looks like– to imagine that we are all wayward children in need of role models, at risk of being led astray by a preponderance of nihilistic storytelling.

It divides the great diversity of human creativity into two categories: “politically useful” and “not politically useful”, without acknowledging that people make art for different reasons. Even if we accept that there is a need for works that engender hope in people, there isn’t a 1:1 connection between a piece of art concerning a certain emotion and inducing it. If that were the case, then nobody would want to watch (for example) movies about the deaths of family members, given that pretty much nobody really wants to experience the feelings that come with losing a loved one.

Actually, at a time when I was recently, one of the movies that cheered me up the most was a decidedly unhopeful movie about unpleasant people treating each other poorly. That movie, Lucky McKee’s May, concerns an (eponymous) young woman, who is profoundly awkward and counts a creepy doll as her best and only friend. She pursues two romantic relationships in succession, one with a man she meets at a laundromat and one with a coworker, and things appear to be looking up for her.

At first both love interests seem to enjoy her strangeness, rather than being repulsed by it, but with both she takes a step too far. It becomes obvious that May is well past quirky, and that others are inevitably disturbed by her personality and habits once they get to know her. She tries to recover from rejection by volunteering and being open to new experiences, but fails. She realizes that no one person or thing can grant her the total acceptance that she really craves, and that she simply isn’t all that good at being emotionally stable or independent. So obviously, she decides to start murdering her ex-lovers and friends, and then carefully stitches them together into a grotesque mannequin, so she can have a companion who will never leave her. As one does.

May embodies the problematic stereotype of the violent mentally ill person. Other people are repulsed and disturbed by her, and the movie never suggests that there is a place for her in the world at large. So why did May make me feel so hopeful anyway? For one thing, May becomes happier and more confident when she starts, y’know, murdering everybody.

For me, she represented the thrilling forbidden fruit of the “worst self” that I could never embody in real life. Secretly, don’t we all kind of want to stab and dismember everyone who’s ever been a dick to us, before hiding their severed body parts in a beverage cooler to save for later? Okay, maybe not literally, but I feel like we as a species generally retain a broader impulse to wreak vengeance on those who wrong us. Why should we refuse to depict that impulse in art just because it would be wrong to act on it? It’s there, whether we like it or not.

Moreover, I personally am plagued by the fear that I’m uniquely horrible and unlovable and would probably be some kind of serial killing jerk bastard if society weren’t stopping me. May as a film isn’t meant to condone serial killing jerk bastardry, but rather to shine a light on those fears. It allowed me to confront why I had them and what they meant about my vision of the world. It made me think, “May should’ve kept searching for love and understanding instead of going on a killing spree. Maybe I should keep searching too, instead of deciding that I have no place in the world.”

Hopepunk sits on a thematic high horse, imploring me to rise above the shittiness of the world and the corresponding shittiness inside of me. Telling me to keep my head up, and fight to protect a molecule of justice or whatever. Conversely, instead of encouraging me to believe in a better future, movies like May kneel down to where I am now– probably crouched down and crying in the shower. They say: “Hey, I know it feels like no one will ever want you. I know it feels like you’re the worst person who has ever existed. I’ve been there, dude.” I’d rather have art that sympathizes with me than art that tells me what to do.

The “now vs. the future” issue relates to another beef I have with hopepunk. Its lack of specific ideas for actions to take, combined with its stance that fighting for good may not yield any concrete results, coalesces into a philosophy that is not very hopeful at all for people with actual problems. If you’re worrying about housing, or medication, or how you’re going to have to work until you die, it’s understandable if you’re less concerned about a better tomorrow than how you’re going to survive right now.

As is explained in “Consolation Prizes”, the recent article in The Baffler by Alex Pareene, entertainment commodities have gotten cheaper while food and medical care have become more expensive. So a lot of the time, I don’t want the media I consume to make me think about how to be a better person, I want it to distract me from how I need a job to pay for college and how expensive my psychiatric treatment is for my family.

There are times when I am interested in exploring the political implications of works of fiction, but I don’t want to be in that mindset all or even most of the time. An analytical lens as vague as hopepunk isn’t all that politically edifying anyway. In the words of a show I love that is often (understandably) subject to political criticism: “Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV.” Life is short, and I’d rather spend it picking my battles than fighting an ideological war that doesn’t have any real goals or any end in sight. I’d rather do what little work I can on specific social problems than drown in anxiety about a “world on fire”.

Fuck destroying Sauron, fuck killing Voldemort, fuck toppling the Empire so we can watch it resurrect for the next trilogy. Fuck grand, sweeping, nebulous ideas of revolution. Revolutions are for people who aren’t born yet, so they can build a society that’s centuries from existing. Fuck any ideology that focuses more on what to buy than what to do. Raise awareness for real causes, donate to real charities, take real actions, in addition to considering the stories we tell.

Watered-down aesthetic responses to imaginary boogeymen like fiction that’s too “grimdark” won’t help anybody. Decide what “radical” means for you. Try to pick a definition more productive than one that can be summed up in words like: “the idea of choosing hope becomes both an existential act that affirms your humanity, and a form of resistance against cynical worldviews that dismiss hope as a powerful force for change”.

Relevant links:

https://festive.ninja/one-atom-of-justice-one-molecule-of-mercy-and-the-empire-of-unsheathed-knives-alexandra-rowland/ (Hopepunk as defined by its creator)

https://www.vox.com/2018/12/27/18137571/what-is-hopepunk-noblebright-grimdark (The hopepunk Vox explainer, which– I would like to state for the record– is utter garbage)

https://slate.com/technology/2019/01/hopepunk-cyberpunk-solarpunk-science-fiction-broken.html (Hopepunk Can’t Fix Our Broken Science Fiction, Lee Konstantinou)

https://thebaffler.com/salvos/consolation-prizes-pareene (Consolation Prizes, Alex Pareene)

https://www.patreon.com/scumbelievable (The Patreon of author and critic Gretchen Felker-Martin, whose choice words for hopepunk were invaluable in the formation of my own negativity)