Spoilers for lyrics from Disenchanted follow. Without context they only mean a little but if you’re avoiding spoilers, just move along…
Are you ready to be spoiled?
It’s how I’d make a world for you
That never breaks your heart
Where you can grow and thrive
And your every wish can flower
I will always love you, Morgan
I’m so proud of how I know you’ll carry on
I’ve known a lot of magic in my life
But never anything as strong
My love for you has power
And you’ll have it there inside you
When I’m gone
These lyrics make me sob as a mother AND as a daughter because of course this is what I want for my kid but the “When I’m gone” part hits extra hard when your mom has leukemia and chemo/TKI complications you know?
This is a big cry I’ve been saving up since January as I kept it together for everybody else.
Hello friends. I wanted to write a blog post about sweetweird and its relationship to hopepunk and other narrative aesthetics, we’ll call them, because they’re not exactly genres. But I am having some peripheral neuropathy today. And so I’m giving my wrists a break, and I’m gonna just record a podcast and then I’m going to upload the transcript with it so it’ll be effectively a blog post.
So sweetweird. Sweetweird, in case you are not constantly on the science fiction and fantasy internet as some of us are, is a term coined by Charlie Jane Anders. She first coined it in her book. I think it’s called Never Say You Can’t Survive and it’s like half-memoir, half-writing craft book, and she proposed it as an alternative to grimdark. So in case you’re not familiar with grimdark, it is fantasy or science fiction that’s set in a really hopeless, gritty world, and the most commonly thrown around examples are the are the Game of Thrones TV series/the Song of Ice and Fire books, or what I think is an even better example, The Blade Itself. So there’s really no one redeemable in those stories.They are fantasy stories without real heroes. When there are people who seem to be heroic like Jon Snow, things go badly for them. The general sense is that the world is terrible, and it’s just gonna stay terrible, but let’s read about some interesting happenings. Grimdark was fine.
Until 2016, when a lot of people started to feel that things went very badly, myself included. And so from 2016 to 2019, there was a bit of a shift that author Alexandra Rowland noticed and they called this shift hopepunk. Hopepunk is stories, especially fantasy and science fiction, but a lot of people have offered other examples, where the world is terrible, and it’s not going to ever be fixed 100% but it is worth fighting to do what we can to improve it anyway.
So in addition to being opposed to grimdark, this is also opposed to the idea of noblebright, which is where you get things like Lord of the Rings, where you have some foreordained hero who is guaranteed to save us all and they have a birthright. My easiest go-to example of noblebright is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Some people would say it’s something else. But Buffy has a destiny. There is an evil. She’s the one girl in all the world chosen to fight it and she consistently defeats it. New evil springs up, but it’s not the sort of ongoing, miserable world that she’s in. It’s that sometimes new evil pops up and that’s just when we happen to be watching her show because it’s probably not as fascinating to some people to watch she and her friends hang out. I would watch that, but not everyone would. And so Buffy is a great example of noblebright.
Angel, which is technically a spin off of Buffy, is a great example of hopepunk and it’s one of the examples Alexandra Rowland gave and it’s one of my favorite examples not just because I love it very much, but also because it sort of is quintessentially about this. In season two of Angel there’s an episode called “Epiphany.” And there’s a great quote from it, written by Tim Minear who is one of my favorite writers and himself, I would argue, a pretty hopepunk kind of guy, based on what we know about him from his writing, which is all we can know really. He also wrote the show Terriers, which I would argue is also hopepunk. So check that out. But the quote is,
“I guess if there’s no great glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do.”
That is as mission statementy for Angel as you can get. And it is the most hopepunk arrangement of words I think you can have and you see it going on through season two of Angel all the way up to the very last moments of season five when it’s very clear that these heroes are fighting a war that they cannot win. And they do it anyway. And there’s a great moment and a great quote there that I don’t want to spoil in case you’re a person who hasn’t watched Angel, but the world around them is horrid. It’s never going to get 100% better. The forces they face are not readily defeated. They keep coming back. They’re not like Buffy where new evil comes. It’s the same old thing coming back over and over again. And so that’s hopepunk, in a nutshell basically, I think is Angel.
So sweetweird. Charlie Jane Anders offers as a different response to grimdark and alternative to noblebright and a lot of people myself included at first were like, “Wait, don’t we already have hopepunk for this?” but then as I learned more about it, I saw that they are related, sweetweird and hopepunk. I call them cousins, but they’re not identical. And the quick way I like to say this is that hopepunk is global. And sweetweird is local. So in hopepun,k you live in a hellscape and every day you muster your energy and you go out and you fight the bad of the world. And you just keep doing it because it’s worth doing. And I think from 2016 to 2019, that was a storytelling mode that we really needed. Because it felt like all right, we can do this. We’re going to have to fight it every step of the way. And it will keep coming back. But we can do that we can improve the world at least a little bit by doing that. And even into 2020 hopepunk was really something that seemed good.
But now it’s 2022 and I would say I don’t know about y’all, but I do know about y’all. We’re all exhausted. We live in the hellscape and it’s hard and it doesn’t always feel like we can make a difference. It feels like the places where we can make a difference are small. Sweetweird is an alternate way of approaching the hellscape. So the little phrase that I’m very pleased with myself for coming up with in the comments on Gwenda Bond’s newsletter about sweetweird, is that sweetweird is about the idea that even within a hellscape you can create a haven.
I think the best example of this is The Owl House and I’m gonna go to that in a minute. But just a quick shout out to The Book of Mormon which posited this in its big finale way back in 2011 with the idea that we can make this our paradise planet. And you know, that does sound bigger than sweetweird, but the idea I think is still there. So The Owl House is not the only example Charlie Jane Anders offers. She suggests many trends, especially in animation. I haven’t seen all of them. I am a little familiar with Steven Universe and Adventure Time and I’ve watched all of the Netflix She-Ra and I think those are sort of stepping stones on the path but that The Owl House, which I also have not seen all of but have seen enough of to have a sense of its vibe, is sort of the perfected sweetweird.
So in The Owl House, Luz, a middle-school-aged, I believe, girl longs to live in a fantasy world and just so happens to find herself in one instead of ending up at summer camp like her mom had planned for her. And immediately she’s very excited because she’s met a real witch and there’s this great moment in the pilot where they leave the witch’s house and Luz sees this fantasy world she’s ended up in for the first time and the place is called the Boiling Isles. And it is miserable. It is a literal visual hellscape. It looks like a terrible place to be. There are a lot of bad things happening there all the time. It’s a harsh and unfriendly world. But Luz and Eda the Owl Lady, the witch that she works with, and King the tiny, adorable — it’s not actually cat but a lot of ways feels like a cat to me — creature bent on world dominatio,n and then Luz’s school friends, and then over time Luz’s frenemy/love interest Amity, all build this sort of cocoon of love together. I would say that sounds more lurid than I meant it, but they create this group of people who all love and care for each other in the middle of the hellscape and they’re not trying to turn the Boiling Isles into not-a-hellscape. The Boiling Isles are a hellscape. It’s where they’re at. And so they are creating their own place here.
And so for me, the thing that makes the most sense with sweetweird in our current moment is that sweetweird is the story we need when we’re too exhausted for hopepunk. When we need time to recover and to remember that we are people who can do things. But we’re not ready to go out and be the people doing those things in the face of the horrible world we live in. Then we can retreat to these spaces of love that we have built for ourselves. And so that’s sort of the purpose in my mind of sweetweird and the distinction between sweetweird and hopepunk as a visual aesthetic.
A lot of the examples of sweetweird are a very specific vibe that is not one that resonates with me though I’m very happy so many people have found them resonant — specifically, Adventure Time and Steven Universe and The Owl House. But I have lately been into woodland goth which is a whole other blog post but I think can be related. Except there’s you know ominous fairies and stuff. But but still this idea at least in the book I just read, War for the Oaks, which is basically one of the first books to ever be an urban fantasy, even in the face of a giant fairy war, the main character Eddi builds a little band of people who all play together, and their music is related to fairy and to magic, but it also is its own thing and the connections they build with one another stand independent of that big fairy war. So it’s a similar idea, though the book itself is not sweetweird.
All right. That was a lot more than I realized I had to say and I’m super glad I said it out loud instead of typing it. I will post the raw transcript with this with maybe a few corrections because it seems Otter.ai does really not understand hopepunk as a word but yeah, that’s that. I hope you have enjoyed listening to and/or reading this and I hope if sweetweird sounds like the story aesthetic for you that you go out and enjoy a lot of it. Bye
Hello, friends. I want to talk about something from Stranger Things 4 that is brilliantly done. And that’s a Star Wars reference.
There are a lot of iconic quotes from Star Wars (and I mean the whole shebang, not just A New Hope). “Use the force, Luke.” “Luke, I am your father.” “I love you.” “I know.” “Do or do not. There is no try.”
People use these to varying effect, with varying degrees of acknowledgement. Sometimes it’s hackneyed, though I can’t think of any examples right now.
Sometimes it’s brilliantly used to reveal character, like in 30 Rock:
Liz says, “I love you,” Criss says, “I know,” Liz says, “You Solo’d me,” and then you’re certain that this is a love that will last.
But in this case, not only is this a Star Wars reference, it is a Star Wars reference that is then diegetically marked as a Star Wars reference.
Star Wars is 45 years old. It’s hard to make a Star Wars reference feel fresh. But Stranger Things 4 does, and here’s how (spoilers!):
This beautifully mimics this scene from The Empire Strikes Back:
The 20-to-1 odds of rolling a 20 on a 20-sided die make it line up extra beautifully with Han Solo’s odds of 3,720-to-1.
“Never tell me the odds” is something that most Star Wars fans will recognize as a reference, but in Star Wars it isn’t said with the gravity of so many of those other commonly known phrases. It’s something that people who like Star Wars okay, or are dimly aware of it, aren’t super likely to recognize. And it’s something that doesn’t take you out of the flow of the scene in Stranger Things. We’re not stopping the action to make a Star Wars reference: we’re making a Star Wars reference in much the way actual D&D players do, in the context of the actions surrounding the game.
I think this is probably now my favorite use of a Star Wars reference. Sorry, 30 Rock.
I just watched Single All the Way while making part of W’s Christmas present. It is the anti-Happiest Season and I love it extra for that. More stories about out queer people being in love and their families being excited for them, please. 🍿💻❤️🎄🏳️🌈
I watched this because it’s on the movie list on the aesthetics wiki page for dark academia. I’m not sure what qualifies it as dark academia; is it its noirness? The suspense? The sad inevitability of its conclusion? It doesn’t have a connection to learning or school.
Regardless, I enjoyed it and recommend it.
One of the elements of the film is that temperamental screenwriter Dixon Steele (one of the inspirations for Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Dixon Hill writes feverishly, composing by hand and then giving pages to his neighbor/girlfriend, Laurel Gray, to type up. He also gives her elaborate breakfast orders and makes other demands of her that are things people normally get compensated for doing. This reminded me of stories of J. D. Salinger and other writers relying on the women in their lives to take care of everything except the writing. It didn’t sit well with me in this movie and I think Steele’s behavior is supposed to serve as evidence that he is Not A Great Guy. It’s a little hard to be sure, as the film was released in 1950, but within the film a massage therapist tells Gray that she should be getting paid for typing and to look after her own career.
Steele being a dude who can alternate between charming and scary reminded me of Jenny Offill’s term, “art monster,” a concept I first encountered in Austin Kleon’s writing. He can be terrifyingly violent. At one point in the film, Steele’s friend’s wife says to Gray something like “He’s an artist; he can get away with being temperamental.” I read this not as an excuse being made by the film, but rather as another moment that is designed to make the audience worry for Gray’s wellbeing.
All told, a great movie, well executed.
🍿📺🗯️ I just watched the two pre-Loki episodes of Marvel Studios LEGENDS and y’all the MCU gets more obtuse all the time. In comics they do periodic resets that make it easy for new people to jump in. The MCU is labyrinthine enough that I think it’s time it had one.
Which Muppet do I most identify with? Well… 📺🍿
Reddit user JaytheChou is photoshopping Paddington into a different movie every day and it is a source of joy. 🍿🔖
I’ve always been resentful of the trope where girls have to pretend to be boys to get stuff done, but Natalie Zutter’s piece about Leia disguising herself as Boushh especially the part about Padme subverting it, is a welcome fresh perspective. 🍿🔖
Watching My Neighbor Totoro & my kid is saying that I’m like Mama Kusakabe because we both have dark hair and fair skin. I said, “And I, too, am voiced by Lea Salonga,” and he said, “No, you’re not, you’re voiced by your voice box.” 🍿
We are now at the “Watch Studio Ghibli instead of PBS Kids” stage of the pandemic. 🍿
What I’m learning from the MCU (caught up on WandaVision & currently watching Agents of SHIELD 3x15) is that everyone with a PhD in the natural sciences is good at hacking and creating algorithms. Scientists, is this true? 📺🍿
📽️ I just finished watching REBECCA on Netflix and it’s… fine. But it’s not gothic. Glen Weldon’s review sums it up pretty well.
I’ve been pulled deep into Dark Academia’s orbit, because it is the aesthetic I’ve been unknowingly building my whole life, and because of this I watched DEAD POETS SOCIETY for the first time in a very long time last night.
Sometimes I’ll watch a movie that I haven’t watched in a long time and realize that it is one of the threads woven into the fabric of my very being. It’s true of LABYRINTH. It’s true of Tim Burton’s BATMAN. And it’s true of DEAD POETS SOCIETY.
I don’t know when I first saw this movie, only that in the ten years between its release and my high school graduation, it came to hold a special place in my heart. It was a constant cultural presence.
On the day our textbooks were issued in AP English, our teacher pointed out that there was an essay introduction not unlike that written by the apocryphal J. Evans Pritchard, PhD. He said that we would not be ripping it out of the book, but that we should ignore it.
To keep from having the dull inflected practice of the Latin teacher’s declension lesson in the movie, my Latin teacher had us stand on the desks as we shouted verb endings. When I became a Latin teacher, I did the same thing. In my first year of teaching, my students O Captain My Captained me after I assigned DPS for them to watch on a day that I was out sick. I thought, “Well, I have achieved a teacher’s dream in my first year, guess it’s time to retire.”
When I started this viewing, I thought, “Surely it won’t be as amazing as years of distance have made it seem,” but it is. (Is it without flaw? Of course not. And yet, still stunning.)
No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.
Mr. Keating said this and I held my breath. Here he had articulated something that lives at the very core of who I am.
I don’t want to spoil too much, though I feel like a 31 year old movie should be past the statute of limitations, but I’ll say this: a student dies in the film. And when the prep school administrator is speaking to the other students about this death in an assembly, here is what he says:
“He was a fine student. One of our best. He will be greatly missed.”
I got a little ragey. A fine student? I got a little horrified, as that’s kind of been my identity for much of my life. I got a little…
WHAT IS IT ALL FOR?
Why are people fine students, and why is THAT the thing you would remark on? This same character was kind, joyful, welcoming, compassionate. Isn’t that more important than being a fine student?
Looking at it from a realistic perspective, the administrator probably didn’t know the student well enough to know anything about him except that he was a fine student.
But in the moment, that’s not what mattered to me. I looked at myself and I asked myself, “Why? What was I a fine student for?” This character, I think he was a fine student out of duty, a sense of obligation to his family. When I talked to W. about it, he pointed out that I enjoy learning more broadly, and that there is value in learning. But I tossed back, “But you can learn a lot without being a fine student.”
I guess this is what it took for me to crack after devoting almost my entirely life to education in one way or another, especially my professional life. Here I am approaching the end of a PhD, and asking myself WHY DO WE EVEN SCHOOL?
There are reasons, and I’ve also been reading about unschooling, and I’m not going to break with school.
I just want to be sure it’s not the only remarkable thing in my or my family’s life.
📽️ Just finished watching DEAD POETS SOCIETY for the first time in years and now I’m having an existential crisis because I don’t want my eulogy or epitaph to be “She was a fine student.” How’s your Sunday going?
📽️ I am watching BLACK PANTHER for the first time. The fact that every single Wakandan is awesome is not a surprise, but it is a delight. I was like, “Okoye is the best! Wait, no, Shuri is the best!” but there need be no best, they’re all wonderful.
🍿 This is the best thread I’ve read in forever, and it’s so heartening to see somebody come fresh to The Princess Bride and love it as much as I’ve loved it for more than 30 years.
OKAY. The Princess Bride. Super well known and beloved film, and I have absolutely no idea what it's about. Now I did initially think it was the one (also not seen) where the lady comes down on a meteor or something but apparently not so, and I think I also got it-
We must acknowledge that much of what we know of this country today, including its culture, economic growth, and development throughout history and across time, has been made possible by the labor of enslaved Africans and their ascendants who suffered the horror of the transatlantic trafficking of their people, chattel slavery, and Jim Crow. We are indebted to their labor and their sacrifice, and we must acknowledge the tremors of that violence throughout the generations and the resulting impact that can still be felt and witnessed today. I thank Dr. Terah ‘TJ’ Stewart for the text of this labor acknowledgement.