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Hopepunk, the latest storytelling trend, is all about weaponized optimism

In the era of Trump and apocalyptic change, Hopepunk is a storytelling template for #resistance — and hanging onto your humanity at all costs.

Game of Thrones may not be hopepunk, but Jon Snow is.
HBO

Literary and artistic movements often arise spontaneously, out of specific moments — as a response to great cultural change, to geopolitical shifts, and/or to specific ebbs and flows within subcultures.

In the modern world, we find most of our rebellious clusters of artists online. So it makes sense that the literary world’s most defiant response to impending climate disaster and the rise of right-wing extremism around the globe has not been voiced from the pages of prestigious literary reviews, but rather from the home of one of the internet’s most stridently progressive and rowdily defiant creative communities: Tumblr.

“The opposite of grimdark is hopepunk,” declared Alexandra Rowland, a Massachusetts writer, in a two-sentence Tumblr post in July 2017. “Pass it on.”

With this simple dictum, the literary movement known as hopepunk was born.

Depending on who you ask, hopepunk is as much a mood and a spirit as a definable literary movement, a narrative message of “keep fighting, no matter what.” If that seems too broad — after all, aren’t all fictional characters fighting for something? — then consider the concept of hope itself, with all the implications of love, kindness, and faith in humanity it encompasses.

Now, picture that swath of comfy ideas, not as a brightly optimistic state of being, but as an active political choice, made with full self-awareness that things might be bleak or even frankly hopeless, but you’re going to keep hoping, loving, being kind nonetheless.

Through this framing, 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.

To understand the place that hopepunk occupies under the broader storytelling umbrella, it helps to understand its origins, and how it blossomed into a phenomenon that, in 2018, finally reached the mainstream.

The concept of hopepunk arose from a political mood of resistance

When pressed by other Tumblr users to expand on her two-sentence Tumblr post that coined the term, Rowland elaborated on what she meant by “hopepunk,” touching on themes present in both her own psyche and in the spirit of resistance and political agitation all around her:

Hopepunk says that genuinely and sincerely caring about something, anything, requires bravery and strength. Hopepunk isn’t ever about submission or acceptance: It’s about standing up and fighting for what you believe in. It’s about standing up for other people. It’s about DEMANDING a better, kinder world, and truly believing that we can get there if we care about each other as hard as we possibly can, with every drop of power in our little hearts.

Rowland was responding to the idea of “grimdark” — a literary descriptor for genre texts and media which evoke a pervasively gritty, bleak, pessimistic, or nihilistic view of the world. These are the worlds of modern-era Batman, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, and so many other contemporary pop culture properties — universes in which cruelty is a given and social systems are destined to betray or disappoint.

Yet it was immediately apparent in Rowland’s expanded definition that she was also responding to a real-world mood. “I was having a lot of feelings about the catastrophizing and despair that I was seeing amongst my social circles at the time,” Rowland told Vox earlier this month. “Everything was new and different suddenly.”

Rowland’s initial definition of hopepunk as “the opposite of grimdark” embraced the current political moment by drawing upon a number of established inspirations for how to act when faced with what seems to be encroaching darkness. In her follow-up, she crucially offered examples of both mythical and real-world political figures: “Jesus and Gandhi and Martin Luther King and Robin Hood and John Lennon” — heroes who chose to perform radical resistance in unjust political climates, and to imagine better worlds.

Hopepunk is part of a wider cultural and storytelling trend toward optimism and positivity in the face of bleak times

Ease your socioeconomic anxiety and resist the demands of late capitalism by looking at this cute kitten.
Martin Poole/Getty Images

If you’re thinking, “Okay, but if hopepunk is just about fighting back against an oppressive force, wouldn’t that make just about everything hopepunk?” then you’re not alone! The broad strokes of Rowland’s definition mean that a lot of things can feel hopepunk, just as long as they contain a character who’s resisting something. For instance, her original explanation posits that The Handmaid’s Tale is an example of hopepunk, because even though the world of that story is a grim dystopia, the main character never stops fighting against the system.

As the term has gained wider resonance, however, a few distinct parameters have emerged that more clearly align hopepunk with specific aesthetic and literary trends, and paint it as a counter to others. We can define these parameters loosely as:

  • A weaponized aesthetic of softness, wholesomeness, or cuteness — and perhaps, more generally, a mood of consciously chosen gentleness. “Being soft is not a weakness,” wrote Nikita Mor in a 2017 essay on softness. “It’s what makes you strong.”
  • A worldview that argues that the fight to build positive social systems is a fight worth fighting. “Feeling resigned is not hopepunk,” Rowland wrote in her expanded definition.
  • An emphasis on community-building through cooperation rather than conflict. For an example, think of the movie Pacific Rim, which unites its robot pilots by essentially having them soulbond in the cockpit.
  • A depiction of the fight to achieve human progress as something permanent, with no fixed ”happy” end. For example, see the Buffy the Vampire Slayer spinoff TV series Angel, which ends just before the big climactic fight in which all our heroes are hopelessly outnumbered.
  • A sense of self-awareness about weaponizing kindness and optimism — and even emotion itself — in the face of that fight. As Rowland noted in her definition of the term, “[C]rying is also hopepunk, because crying means you still have feelings, and feelings are how you know you’re alive.”

The aesthetic of hopepunk can be seen as part of a broader cultural embrace of “softness,” wholesomeness, and gentleness. We see this in a growing emphasis on what might be thought of as an extreme, even aggressive form of self-care and wellness in response to stress created by bleak sociopolitical times. Embedded into this idea are trends like the high-end sleep industry; the popular home and lifestyle trend hygge, which emphasizes comfort and coziness; the rom-com resurgence; the ever-growing popularity of kawaii, or “cute” culture; “JOMO,” a.k.a. the joy of missing out; and the online shift away from cynicism to wholesome memes.

There’s a growing push to see consciously chosen simple pleasures — relaxation, self-care and communal care, and softness — as valid and important lifestyle choices. There’s a bit of millennial contrariness involved, too: After all, when you’re constantly characterized as “lazy,” why not turn laziness into a show of defiance? In essence, aggressive relaxation is starting to emerge as a new form of resistance against the dominant social narrative that ceaseless hard work, constant social “effort,” and profit-driven lifestyles are what define success.

And while that may sound paradoxical, it’s a perfect aesthetic accompaniment to the hopepunk philosophy that aggressively choosing kindness, optimism, and softness over hardness, cynicism, and violence can be a powerful political choice.

“Hopepunk says that kindness and softness doesn’t equal weakness,” Rowland wrote in her expanded definition, “and that in this world of brutal cynicism and nihilism, being kind is a political act.”

Hopepunk combines the aesthetics of choosing gentleness with the messy politics of revolution

The aesthetics of Bag End are all about coziness and comfort — and that’s a crucial layer of hopepunk resistance.
YouTube

Hopepunk’s roots as a form of literary resistance aren’t necessarily recent. “Hopepunk is a feeling,” Rowland told me, “and the feeling has been around for ages — I didn’t invent the feeling, I just put a word on it. All throughout history you can find examples of people standing up to terrifying regimes and holding the line against them, and surviving against all odds just by force of sheer, bloody-minded obstinacy.”

After 9/11, stories like Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings films provided essential tales of optimism in response to widespread narratives of war and anti-globalization. Andrew Slack, creator of the non-profit Harry Potter Alliance, which works to bring the fictional progressive values of fantasy worlds like Harry Potter to bear on real-world activism, said in an email that those fantasies “gave us an alternative to the [post-9/11] mainstream political narrative of fear.”

“[They] readied us for a message of hope, change, and global citizenry [that was advocated by] Barack Obama,” he wrote, noting that Obama’s presidency was also “met by a giant swell of popularity around fantasies that dwelled in the darkness: vampires, dystopias, and Heath Ledger’s nihilist Joker.” In essence, grimdark.

Because the immediate post-9/11 years involved such a strong embrace of “gritty realism,” antiheroes, and bleak dystopias, it’s taken us a while to return to a fuller appreciation of wholesomeness, virtue, and positivity in storytelling.

In describing the recent finale of what is perhaps the most hopepunk TV series to emerge in recent years, Sense8, Vox critic at large Todd VanDerWerff noted that the show is “endlessly empathetic, endlessly generous,” and an “expression of radical empathy,” before pinpointing that Sense8’s “audacious” story — which earned a mixed critical reception — walks hand-in-hand with its unending optimism. “The final sequence leaves viewers with the idea that love might save the world,” VanDerWerff wrote. “Is that beautiful or naive?”

In the framework of hopepunk, it’s neither. “Hopepunk is a radical call to arms for us to imagine better,” Slack said. “To embrace the fact that fantasy is not simply an escape from the world but an invitation to go deeper into it. That we must fall in love with the world that we so deeply wish to change.” Instead, he argues that love may be beautiful, but it’s also messy and painful, and far from being naive, it’s a conscious, hard-won and fully self-aware choice.

That self-awareness is a vital element of hopepunk because it sits partly in opposition to the fantasy trope known as “noblebright,” in which social systems are good because the leaders we choose are inherently good. The “chosen one” is chosen because they are mythically wise, noble, and just, and heroes win the day by virtue of being heroes.

“Hopepunk knows that everything is impermanent and that nothing is promised,” Rowland said. “Noblebright says that we can eventually win the fight and have a happy ending, and hopepunk says that there’s no such thing as winning, and that we have to keep doing the work every single day for the rest of civilization.”

Rowland characterized this distinction as the difference between the human prince Aragorn and the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings. Aristocratic and born to rule, Aragorn is inherently noble, and brings stability and unity to his realm mainly by possessing heroic qualities. Meanwhile, the hobbits, particularly Frodo and Sam, struggle at every step of their trek. The question of whether Frodo will succumb to the evil lure of the One Ring as he carries it to Mordor is perpetually in doubt — yet the two survive by leaning on one another and continually choose to fight despite highly uncertain outcomes.

In this context, Sam’s famous “It’s like in the great stories” speech from The Two Towers — in which he encourages Frodo to keep fighting by comparing their journey to those of mythical heroes who never gave up — could double as something of a hopepunk manifesto:

Ultimately, Sam and Frodo are able to succeed because they remain true to their well-established hobbit values of love, community, coziness, and friendship as they fight.

Even more, in the literary sense, hopepunk has the power to embed the conscious kindness that Sam encourages within the worldview and worldbuilding of a story itself. A primary hallmark of hopepunk is that hopepunk narratives portray the fight to build positive social systems as an inherently good thing. The definition of a “social system” in this context is nebulous, but at minimum, it starts with community-building.

“Community is a huge part of hopepunk,” Rowland told me. “We accomplish great things when we form bonds with each other. We’re stronger, we can build higher, and we can take better care of each other.”

In other words, a story like Game of Thrones would be the opposite of hopepunk, because although many of its main characters are hopeful, positive characters who fight to overthrow an unjust system of government, and who ultimately need to unite to defeat a larger enemy, the entire world is defined through violent conflict.

Characters overthrow the system by joining it or manipulating it from within, making morally gray choices to survive and advance. Throughout the storyline, attempts at peacemaking, cooperation, and parlays are met again and again with bloodshed, betrayal, and cyclical violence. No character is left untarnished.

But just as The Lord of the Rings’ Frodo and Sam represent a thread of “hopepunk” through the grimmer world in which they walk, the storyline of Game of Thrones has steadily built the character of Jon Snow, with all his allegorical “chosen one” signifiers, into its literal hope for the future stability of the realm.

Though Jon’s secret nobility gives him noblebright status, the fact he doesn’t know he’s royalty means he’s had to make his way through the world using a combination of persistence, gentleness, dealmaking, natural leadership, and famously unkillable determination. Above all, though he’s a capable fighter, Jon is known for his softer qualities. Because he chooses kindness and optimism despite his perpetual experience of violence and death, he is the essence of hopepunk in a grimdark world.

2018 has seen hopepunk come into its own

Rowland’s original hopepunk definition has now been widely shared and discussed throughout the sci-fi and fantasy community, in online forums and in panel discussions at a number of conventions, and writers have frequently started to describe their own works as hopepunk.

If the idea took hold in 2017, it seemed to really catch fire in 2018. In May, the prominent Nebula Conference (overseeing the annual Nebula Awards, which along with the Hugo Awards are the premier awards for fiction within the science fiction and fantasy genres) hosted a panel on hopepunk and optimistic sci-fi/fantasy. In August, acclaimed author N.K. Jemisin, whose works carry themes of resistance in a time of apocalypse and bear sharp signifiers of hopepunk, won a historic Hugo Awards threepeat.

As the first black woman to nab the top prize in 2016, and then the first writer to win it three years in a row thanks to her 2017 and 2018 repeat wins, Jemisin’s 2018 win became a moment of convergence in which literary hopepunk evolved into real-world activism — a show of defiance in an ongoing battle against radical right-wing extremism within the sci-fi/fantasy community. In recognizing her work, with its themes of finding humanity and love amid apocalyptic change, Hugo voters sent a message that they would not allow blights like racism to undermine the sci-fi community’s humanism and idealism.

Ever since, Hopepunk has seemed to be suddenly everywhere, becoming a true force in the literary landscape in the last couple months of 2018: At IO9, Eleanor Tremeer argued that we need utopian fiction now more than ever; the piece didn’t explicitly identify hopepunk, but many of its readers did. Return to the Stars, a tabletop game and online zine billed as an optimistic hopepunk sci-fi role-playing game, featured a popular essay by Rowland herself on hopepunk as a method of resistance.

Vox sister site The Verge announced its upcoming Better Worlds science fiction series, intended to promote sci-fi that “imagines better worlds” — in essence, hopepunk. Another Vox sister site, Polygon, released a recommendation list of hopepunk podcasts (including, full disclosure, a rec for my podcast, which I did not consider hopepunk until it showed up on this list). Tor wrote about “high epic fantasy hopepunk.” And popular radio show 1A recently did a segment on hopepunk and utopian fiction.

As the idea of hopepunk has caught on, many people have expressed gratefulness to Rowland for coining the term. When I first introduced and explained the term to Slack, for example, he wrote me an ebullient 15-paragraph email, exclaiming, “This is some seriously important and sacred shit!”

Part of the reason that hopepunk feels so important in the current moment is that two years into Donald Trump’s presidency, it’s arguably difficult for many people to stay motivated and alert to the many political crises happening at once. Hopepunk, then, is a way of drawing energy and strength from fictional inspirations in order to keep fighting the good fight in the real world.

“This is not an easy task,” Slack wrote. “It shakes us to our core. But hopepunk reminds us to thank fucking goodness that we have such a beautiful core.”

A hopepunk recommendation list

If you’re wondering where to start on the ever-widening world of hopepunk media, here’s a handy starter list for you, culled from other recommendation lists, conversations with friends, and my own media consumption.

Books

Amanda Lawrence in Angels in America
Amanda Lawrence in Angels in America
Helen Maybanks

Music

Movies and TV

Other media