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
This transcript was generated by otter.ai