2019 in Review: Hopepunk

By Emma Louise Backe

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)—the penultimate movie in the Avengers Marvel franchise—ended in defeat, the assorted heroes unable to stop Thanos from using the Infinity Stones and wiping out half of the universe’s population with the click of his fingers. Avengers: Endgame opens on the personal and material consequences of the heroes’ failure, as Hawkeye watches his family disappear before him, no matter how many superpowered gadgets he might have at his disposal. In the aftermath of “the Snappening,” Steve Rogers serves as a grief counsellor, helping those around him who did survive through the difficult process of grieving. “We lost, all of us. We lost friends. We lost family. We lost a part of ourselves,” Steve says to the remaining Avengers, those most aggrieved by their defeat. “I keep telling everybody they should move on and grow. Some do. But not us,” he continues talking to Natasha Romanov/Black Widow, who, five years after the events of Infinity War, appears noticeably effected by their loss. Despite the grim setting of Endgame, and the overpowering sentiment of grief that pervades the former heroes, the return of Scott Lang/Ant Man is able to reinvigorate a sense of hope in the team, even shaking off Tony’s initial misgivings and Thor’s fatalism. Despite the fact that five years have passed since their loss to Thanos, and the gamble to quite literally turn back the clock and rewrite history is premised on some very tenuous quantum theory, Rogers eventually convinces the Avengers to commit to the hope of an otherwise possible past, present, and future.

Hope in 2019, and hope looking towards the next decade, matters. As I wrote in “Grief and Getting Beyond the Endgame,” I watched Avengers: Endgame shortly after my father committed suicide, having bankrupted his business and left my family in desperate emotional and financial straits. Some have described suicide as the death of hope, as the apogee of a person’s inability to imagine a future that gets better. Depression, too—a likely precondition for my father’s decision to take his own life—as Laurie Penny describes, “confiscate[s] your imaginative capacity. Depression cannot imagine a future” (2019). Grief and trauma act in similar ways. Just as my father’s death took away the future I’d imagined for myself and my family, I could not see how things could possibly get better. Family friends told me, “It’s going to be ok,” and it was all I could do not to sneer and scream at them for their optimism.

In the impasse of grief, feeling immobilized by loss, I needed to be reminded of the ways hope could be used as a method. I needed to see heroes like Thor cling to hope rather than allowing cruel optimism to swallow them whole.

Packing away my father’s clothes, talking with lawyers about the specifics of the will, I couldn’t help but think of Lauren Berlant, that I was occupying the “long middle of the crisis” (2011, 63), the indissolubility and ultimate impossibility of the “good life” so many in the US strive for. Or Jasbir Puar’s (2017) indictment of the emptiness of the idiom “it gets better” for queer youth experiencing bullying, harassment, and homelessness. For Berlant and Puar, optimism invested in capitalism or homonationalism is more damaging than uplifting, for these systems are bound to fail us. But for others, hope is not simply a passive mode waiting for the better future to happen. Hope is “clinging to the life raft and kicking, even when there is no sight of land. Hope is a muscle” (Penny 2019). In the impasse of grief, feeling immobilized by loss, I needed to be reminded of the ways hope could be used as a method. I needed to see heroes like Thor cling to hope rather than allowing cruel optimism to swallow them whole.

It is this orienting ideology of hope—fragile though it might be—that has given rise to a new genre known as “hopepunk.” Coined by author Alexandra Rowland, hopepunk orients its readers around the belief 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.”

In reflecting on the past year—and even decade—hope might seem a naïve, even fabulist quality when confronted with the rise of nationalism throughout the world; a growing refugee crisis linked to the looming threat of climate change; incidents of xenophobia and targeted attacks against communities of color; and governments’ seeming inability to address the depth of their country’s problems. Indeed, hopepunk was initially conceived in juxtaposition with grimdark, a form of literary fatalism that frames the world around darkness and the inevitability of corruption or defeat. Even if you’re not familiar with grimdark, the grittiness of pop culture typified by grimdark is unavoidable. Some have even referred to Game of Thrones as grimdark. Christopher Nolan’s reboot of the Batman franchise, with a growling Bruce Wayne and a seedy underbelly to Gotham city, has come to influence much of the cultural zeitgeist for the last decade, with science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction attempting to prove its maturity through increasingly brutal depictions of the worlds their subjects occupy. Dystopian sf reigns supreme.. In these dystopian films, television shows, and books, the future or the fictional present often depict a world in disrepair, the characters fighting against a tyrannical government or struggling with the daily practice of survival. Reality is bleak and unforgiving, with few options for uplift or optimism.

The “punk” part of hopepunk also situates the genre within the larger media ecology of cyberpunk and steampunk. Cyberpunk emerged in the early 1980s with works like William Gibson’s Neuromancer or Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, representing a sleek yet seedy cybernetic aesthetic in which technology has been thoroughly incorporated into both human culture and human corporeality. As John Semley describes, “Cyborgs and cyberpunk are connected in their resistance to an old order, be it political and economic or metaphysical (as in Haraway). The cyborg and the cyberpunk both dream of new futures, new social relationships, new bodies, and whole new categories of conceptions and ways of being” (2019). It’s this element of resistance—punk as political refusal or subterfuge—that also informs hopepunk. While cyberpunk is firmly located within the economic and cultural ascendency of Japan in the 1980s and 1990s, steampunk, on the other hand, envisions a future located in a very different history—that of the Victorian era. Inspired by the work of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, steampunk essentially imagines what the world would look like if “modern” technology had developed earlier, combining historical fiction with a certain swashbuckling adventure narrative that often takes place on zeppelins or steam-powered trains. Both cyberpunk and steampunk, in addition to pivoting on defiance of ascendant power structures, essentially deal with time—the futures—and alternative pasts—we can imagine for ourselves.

While dystopian sf, grimdark and cyberpunk often represent a sort of casual fatalism, if not nihilism about the world, hopepunk presents a vision of resistance that is a little softer in nature. Hopepunk narratives reveal similar issues of corruption, economic exploitation, and political violence yet also present what anthropologists Rebecca Bryant and Daniel M. Knight refer to as “teleoaffective structures,” which they describe as “practices [that] haven an orienting effect through anchoring persons in different timepaces” (2019, 56). Through teleoaffective structures, Bryant and Knight argue, “urgency appears to draw the future into the present” (2019, 56), indicating that hope is essentially oriented towards the potentialities and possibilities of the future. Yet hope, in this sense, is also affective—it has an emotional resonance to it, helping us to similarly shape how we feel about the time we find ourselves living in, or the future we hope to arrive upon.

While this affective capacity may seem abstract, as Sara Ahmed reminds us, emotions do things. Bryant and Knight discuss the role of hope in Barack Obama’s 2014 election—his presidential candidacy, and ultimately his service as Executive in Chief, represented different things, different possibilities, across various constituencies. And yet the message of hope served as its animating power, one that was able to galvanize enough voters to believe both in the capacity of democracy and an otherwise-possible kind of president, and presidency. Or, we can consider Jyn Erso’s message in Rogue One (2016), “Rebellions are built on hope.”

Hope lies in rebellion

Indeed, the first movie in the Star Wars franchise, Episode III: A New Hope (1977) could be seen to typify many of the qualities of contemporary hopepunk. The Empire has managed to occupy much of the galaxy, wiping out crucial contingencies of the Rebel Alliance and eliminating the Jedi Order, the warriors who fought to balance the Light and the Dark sides of the Force. Princess Leia sends a missive to Obi Wan Kenobi, a plea for help she ends with the proclamation, “You’re my only hope.” The conditions by which Luke Skywalker gets recruited into the rebellion might seem futile—in fact, much of the first movie, and the numerous additions to the universe, is tragic in nature, from the destruction of Alderaan to the death of Obi Wan. And while some critics have maligned the reboots as being too comedic, A New Hope is ultimately grounded in several unlikely heroes goofing around on a starship, casually flirting with one another, and trying not to pick a fight with a Wookie. The films, perhaps most especially in Return of the Jedi (1983) with the introduction of the Ewoks (epitomizing the camp and softness of hopepunk) not only entertain the possibility that a better future is possible, while recognizing that the battle to right the wrongs of the Dark side should also be leavened with some moments of humor, levity, and even a cantina ditty.

The sometimes whimsical character design of the aliens in Star Wars also implicates the aesthetic qualities of hopepunk. The Jim Henson company also worked on a recent addition to the growing expansion of the genre—The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance. Adapted from the cult class 80s film, Age of Resistance is similarly replete with many of the trappings of an epic fantasy—the tragic death of Mira at the hands of the Skeksis, the promise of complete ecological collapse, and the difficulties of fomenting a revolution when the Skeksis empire has successfully disciplined inter-clan enmity. As Aja Romano notes, the puppetry adds an element of whimsy to the entire storyline, but the character design of creatures like the Skeksis—whose bodies are starting to betray their political corruption—and even allies like Mother Aughra is distinctly grotesque. The dark political allegory and imminent genocide of the gelfling already presaged by the first film, however, is lightened by the refusal of its small yet determined heroes to admit defeat, the cutesy aesthetic of the puppets working to bolster, rather than undermine, the much more sinister message of the show.

Other examples of hopepunk might include more overtly soft or cute shows like Steven Universe, Sailor Moon, My Little Pony, Legend of Korra and She-Ra: Princesses of Power. As animated television shows, the sophistication of the storytelling or the emotional stakes of the episode-arcs might seem immature or under-baked because of the medium, but true fans and critics will tell you a different story. Just as Akira (1988)—another seminal movie in the cyberpunk canon—was able to speak to complex philosophical issues in the midst of nuclear turmoil and gang violence, shows like Sailor Moon grapple with devastating social, ecological, and economic conditions, yet often focus on the importance of intimate friendships and offer alternative models of strength and heroism. Usagi, Sailor Moon’s titular character, and the quintessential “magical girl,” is both able to lead her friends and fellow Sailor Scouts into battle and lean into her identity as a cry-baby. Innumerable scenes from the original television show depict Usagi complaining about homework, worrying about her appearance, and going to the mall with her friends. Her femininity, and her moments of frivolousness or girlishness in no way diminish her capacity as a leader and a warrior—in fact, they are qualities that enhance her qualities as a Sailor Scout and her intuition as a friend.

As Rowland and others have indicated of hopepunk, the genre is not motivated by a blithe optimism that everything will work out for the best—hope takes work.

The transformative power of friendship is similarly on display in She-Ra: Princesses of Power, the rebooted series envisioned by Noelle Stevenson of Nimona and Lumberjanes fame. While the show is ostensibly about resisting the conquering forces of The Horde, its emotional core lies in the power, as well as the precarity, of friendship. Friendship is one of the most important emotional and martial tactics employed by the princesses fighting against The Horde, but that same friendship is never taken for granted. After the death of Glimmer’s mother at the end of Season 3, the relationships among the “Best Friend Squad” of Glimmer, Adora (She-Ra) and Bow are tested by grief, remorse, shame, and anger. Throughout Season 4, Bow—the lynchpin of the group—continuously reminds them that friendship isn’t easy; it requires everyone continuing to reaffirm their commitment and love of one another, even when it’s not fun. As Rowland and others have indicated of hopepunk, the genre is not motivated by a blithe optimism that everything will work out for the best—hope takes work.

Hope might also require practices of radical imagination that re-envision both who and how otherwise possibilities come into being. Shows like Sailor Moon and She-Ra depict multiple kinds and creeds of rebels—they don’t replicate the trope of Trinity Syndrome often found in dystopian sci fi, but instead represent heroism as an ongoing process of choices you make to continue to opt in, with strength and skill measured by a number of diverse attributes. Nor is the solution so simple as good defeating evil. In juxtaposition to noblebright (think of The Fellowship of the Ring), transformation in hopepunk occurs through fundamental structural change, rather than the blithe belief that the transition of power from one party to another is an all encompassing panacea for a society’s ills.

Annalee Newitz works through this proposition with Ursula K. LeGuin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (1973). In the story, Omelas is described as a utopian paradise. Free from hunger or poverty or war, the secret to the Omelas’ success lies in the imprisonment of a child in a broom closet, where it lives in darkness and filth so that Omelas may thrive. Rather than the citizens who choose to walk away, disgusted by the costs of the utopian city, Newitz proposes that hopepunk would coalesce in the citizens releasing the child and burning the city to the ground, unsatisfied with the moral calculus undergirding the urban promise of Omelas. As Elizabeth Povinelli writes of the short story, “The ethical nature of the relationship between the residents of Omelas and the child in the broom closet cannot, therefore, be deferred to some future anterior perspective” (2011, 3)—in other words, the suffering of the child is constiutitive of the city itself. Instead, Povinelli argues, “the ethical imperative is to know that your own good life is already in her broom closet” (2011, 4)—our job is to envision better, brighter worlds, without sacrificing the materialities of the past or the moral obstacles of the present.

This question of how to deal with the materialities of the past, and the very real and pressing concerns of this contemporary moment, again reminds us of the problematics of hope. In the same domain of cyberpunk and sci fi, Afro-Pessimism and Afro-Futurism are concerned with how we look towards the future if we haven’t adequately atoned for and made reparations towards the harms of history—legacies of colonialism, slavery, racism, and anti-blackness. While it may seem like Afro-Pessimism is the antithesis of optimism, however, Zama Muthunzi indicates that, “The value and hope in Afro-pessimism is that it gives an honest critique of the world; and it helps Black people to better understand their suffering and therefore help to correctly formulate questions about existence, and what it means to be free” (2017). While Afro-Futurism (like that of Black Panther’s Wakanda) is often situated in a fabulist future, one this is not tethered to a history of anti-blackness (Sharpe 2016), Afro-Pessimism also seeks to radically envision the future, while contending that it must do so through and by encounters with lingering structures of oppression and subjugation (Mann 2018; Warren 2015). We must retain hope, but we must not dehistoricize it, or allow hope to shield us from the problems of the present.

Perhaps this is why hopepunk mattered so much in 2019. A United Nations climate change report, released in November of 2018, predicted climactic catastrophe as early as 2040. The dire consequences of political immobilization around climate change set a bleak tone for 2019, leading some politicians to develop Green New Deal plans which would drastically reshape how we thought about our diets, our forms of transportation, and the environmental impacts of climate change. Despite these strategic plans to avert climactic catastrophe, some took the opposite approach. Trump promised to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement and Jonathan Franzen published an op-ed in The New Yorker that explicitly rejected a premise of hope: “You can keep on hoping that catastrophe is preventable, and feel ever more frustrated or enraged by the world’s inaction. Or you can accept that disaster is coming, and begin to rethink what it means to have hope” (2019).

For Franzen, the belief that we’ll be able to save ourselves from the ravages of climate change represents a  “false hope of salvation,” such that we need instead to make peace with the “reality that the planet will soon overheat to the point of threatening civilization” (2019). Many took Franzen to task for his apocalyptic approach to climate change, a take many scientists rejected and many climate activists denounced as both privileged and unhelpful. As Bina Venkataraman, former senior advisor for climate change at the Obama White House wrote, “Resigning ourselves to going to hell in a handbasket, however, is almost certain to hasten the end of the world we’ve known. The only thing more dangerous than denying climate change is accepting defeat” (2019). Venkataraman reiterates the engaged optimism is a strategy, one that can enable grassroots mobilization at a localized level. While the scale of climate change at a global level might seem beyond the realm of human action, Venkataraman, Reynolds and others remind us that political mobilization within our own communities can have an impact, particularly if we invest in the strategies that have been employed by indigenous activists for decades. We can recognize the tangible impacts of climate change—the fires tearing across Australia, the demise of glaciers in the Arctic—while still investing in the hope that glocal solutions are possible. Indeed, we might even turn to the speculative sub-genre of solarpunk, which “focuses on green and eco-friendly futures made possible by eliminating fossil fuel energy in favor of solar power and bio-inspired design” (Hull 2019). To counter the terror of her students within an oncoming climate disaster, Hull assigns works like Blackfish City (2018)—”I find myself appreciating hopepunk because it allows us to  or 3, or 5 degrees Celsius of warming—what can we handle and how can we know?—means that we will probably lose things (species, homes, people) that we planned to save” (2019).

As much as hopepunk might represent a particular feeling employed to help motivate action, hopepunk is also a way of taking care of ourselves. Franzen’s climate fatalism is also evidence of the high levels of burnout many are feeling—politically, professionally, and personally. Anne Helen Petersen’s article on millennial burnout for Buzzfeed discussed feeling paralyzed by cycles of financial catastrophe, student loan debt, and the culture of busyness that pervades the professional hustle of your early 20s and 30s. We are crushed under the cruel optimism of upward economic mobility, despite the fact that the predetermined pathways to the American Dream seem rigged, a target always moving beyond the threshold of possibility. The incessant optimization of Millennials—being professionally successful, performing political wokeness, developing a personal brand displayed on social media profiles—has led to fatigue, flatness, a general lack of affect. Petersen notes how this phenomenon of burnout is specifically gendered, percolating into what Emmeline Cline qualifies as “dissociation feminism” (2019). This emotionless, out-of-body woman has learned not to feel, precisely because society has trained her that feeling is dangerous and that hope that things will change—for instance, the radical possibilities of the #MeToo movement—ultimately ends in disappointment. Tiana Clark draws our attention to the fact that burnout is also raced—”being burned out has been the steady state of black people in this country for hundreds of years. There’s too much to cover, and my buffering, black millennial brain is short-circuiting the litany of inherited trauma — or should I say inherited burnout?” (2019). Our mental and physical health is suffering. We might not have the insurance coverage or the disposable income to access comprehensive healthcare, nor do we feel comfortable giving ourselves a “break.”

Hopepunk, then, could also be envisioned as a form of self-care. As Aja Romano writes for Vox, “The aesthetic of hopepunk can be seen as part of a broader cultural embrace of ‘softness,’ wholesomeness, and gentleness,” demonstrated in “a growing push to see consciously chosen simple pleasures — relaxation, self-care and communal care, and softness — as valid and important lifestyle choices […] 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” (2019). The return on investments we were promised has yet to materialize, so instead we are investing in personal nourishment in any way that we can.

After my father died, this flatness, numbness and disassociation marked most days. Given the glut of dark movies and television shows, I needed something soft to round out the sharp edges of grief. As a PhD student, I was used to the constant hustle, dedicating every waking moment to grading, coursework, fieldwork or publishing. But in grief, I couldn’t focus, struggled to find the motivation or energy to get anything done. During this (ongoing) mourning period, it was perhaps the first time in years I gave myself permission to relax, to pursue interests that would help to remind me of the possibilities of joy and love. I reread favorite books from my childhood—Harry Potter, Abhorsen, Coraline—and rewatched shows like The Legend of Korra. Part of this felt indulgent. I’ve never been good at pursuing pleasure only for pleasure’s sake—I often justify watching television or movies by speculating that I can turn it into a blog post, a teaching prompt, or a journal article. But instead these “indulgences” felt like a survival strategy. These books, graphic novels, and shows might seem superficially childish, but they helped me to conjure the flashes of discovery I’d initially found in them when I was younger. They also addressed many of the same issues I was coping with and processing—the loss of a parent, the adoption of new and terrifying responsibilities, the pall of trauma that colored how I moved through the world.

If the popularity of Baby Yoda is any indication, many of us are in desperate need of a little cuteness in our lives. Hopepunk is not necessarily a distraction from the difficulties we’ve faced over the last year, but rather a reframing of the conditions, an orientation towards the present and the future that begs a little more patience, a little more softness, and a little more tenderness with ourselves. We are allowed to unplug every so often. Perhaps hopepunk even allows us to recommit to the cause, reminding us both what we’re fighting for and that the fight can occur through a myriad of different strategies. I think a lot about a lyric from Harry and the Potters, the wizard rock band that distilled the entire message of the Harry Potter franchise into one sentence: “the weapon we have is love.” It’s a simple reminder that when a dark wizard attempted to create a regime premised on genetic hierarchies, the tactic that Harry and Ron and Hermione kept returning to is the power of friendship. Indeed, in the face of tragedy and hardship, perhaps the most radical response and rejection of fatalism is pleasure. Pleasure might actually be one of the most important forms of resistance, a form of activism we need in order to enact healing (brown 2019). Hopepunk reminds us to take pleasure in the small things, the opportunities of solidarity and community-building that make life not only tolerable but also help us to transcend the tonic immobility of trauma and despair. After all, they win by making us feel alone.

Works Cited

Header Image by Ketch Wehr, http://www.ketchwehrart.com/

Ahmed, Sara. “Affective Economies.” Social Text 79 (2004): 117-139.

Berlant, Lauren. Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.

Bridges, Rose (2014). “The Feminism of Sailor Moon.” Bitch Media https://www.bitchmedia.org/post/the-feminism-of-sailor-moon

brown, adrienne maree. Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good. AK Press, 2019.

Bryant, Rebecca and Daniel M. Knight. The Anthropology of the Future. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

Clark, Tiana (2019). “This is What Black Burnout Feels Like.” Buzzfeed. https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/tianaclarkpoet/millennial-burnout-black-women-self-care-anxiety-depression

Cline, Emmeline (2019). “The New Trend in Feminism is Feeling Nothing.” Buzzfeed. https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/emmelineclein/dissociation-feminism-women-fleabag-twitter

Hull, Alyssa (2019). “Hopepunk and Solarpunk: On Climate Narratives That Go Beyond the Apocalypse.” Lit Hub. https://lithub.com/hopepunk-and-solarpunk-on-climate-narratives-that-go-beyond-the-apocalypse/

Mann, Justin Louis. “Pessimistic futurism: Survival and reproduction in Octavia Butler’s Dawn.Feminist Theory 19 (2018): 61-78.

Miller, Sam J. Blackfish City. New York: Harper Collins.

Muthunzi, Zama. “Afro-Pessimism is the Greatest Form of Black Optimism.” The Daily Vox. https://www.thedailyvox.co.za/afro-pessimism-greatest-form-black-optimism-zama-mthunzi/

Newitz, Annalee (2019). “Our Opinions Are Correct, Episode 22.” https://www.ouropinionsarecorrect.com/shownotes/2019/1/29/episode-22-transcript

Penny, Laurie (2019). “On Hope (in a Time of Hopelessness).” Wired. https://www.wired.com/story/laurie-penny-on-hope/

Petersen, Anne Helen (2019). “How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation.” Buzzfeed. https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/annehelenpetersen/millennials-burnout-generation-debt-work

Povinelli, Elizabeth. Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.

Puar, Jasbir. The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.

Robinson, Tasha (2014). “We’re Losing All Our Strong Female Characters to Trinity Syndrome.” The Dissolve. https://thedissolve.com/features/exposition/618-were-losing-all-our-strong-female-characters-to-tr/

Romano, Aja (2018). “Hopepunk, the latest storytelling trend, is all about weaponized optimism.” Vox. https://www.vox.com/2018/12/27/18137571/what-is-hopepunk-noblebright-grimdark

Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham: Duke University Press.

Venkataraman, Bina (2019). “Why We Still Need Climate Optimism.” The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/09/16/why-we-still-need-climate-optimism/ 

Warren, Calvin L. “Black Nihilism and the Politics of Hope.” The New Centennial Review 15 (2015): 215-248.

About Emma Louise Backe

PhD student in Medical Anthropology at the George Washington University and independent consultant, focusing on the intersections of international development, global health, reproductive health justice, gender-based violence, and the politics of care. Social justice sailor scout working on behalf of survivors of sexual violence, gender equity, and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health among vulnerable populations.

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