Dystopia is one of the best-known YA genres out there, and the fixation on a dark future for mankind extends far past just the young adult demographic. “Breaking Bad” and “Game of Thrones” both also heavily incorporate the message that the world is fundamentally bad, and good will be snuffed out along the bad’s path of destruction.
This bleak message is strewn across literature from all eras of history and firmly settles itself within certain philosophies, particularly nihilism. Circles of media critics have come to refer to the genre as “grimdark,” in reference to the grim pessimism the ideology exhibits.
The temptation, for some, is to simply ignore the dark underbelly of much of the world’s core problems and instead create a utopian world filled with happy endings and feel-good messages. While fine on their own, these things quickly become problematic when met with a worldview that refuses to look past the fun things in life or sit with the darkness. Those who choose to ignore the dark side to the world might be freed from nihilism, but find themselves submerged in apathy. They aren’t harmed personally by the darkness, but they also aren’t fighting against it, and are therefore complicit in allowing the darkness to harm others.
There are those, though, who refuse to let the darkness win. This third group of people chooses to look that darkness in the eye while still holding the good in the world by the hand. This group holds tightly to love and kindness while not discounting the forces at work against those concepts. Above all, this group believes in hope. That’s where they get their name — hopepunk.
Hopepunk came as a counter to the grimdark style of bleak and violent dystopia and is grounded in the belief that choosing to care about something is an act of bravery.
The term may be new, but the concept isn’t at all. The idea of fighting against the darkness while clinging to inner hope is something that spans all ages and all cultures, including such massive ideologies as Christianity and humanism. The writings of Gandhi also assume a strong bent toward hopepunk, evident in his strong belief that India could see freedom if its citizens would follow nonviolent rebellion.
Literature and media have both also included hopepunk installments.
One of the more famous highlights of hopepunk comes in the speech Sam Gamgee gives Frodo in “The Two Towers.” Hearing Frodo mourn that he doesn’t think the pair will ever succeed, Sam turns to his disheartened friend and says, “I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are.”
Sam reminds Frodo of the stories they both loved as children — “the ones that really mattered.” He recounts: “Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end, because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad happened.”
At that point, Sam turns the narrative on its head, claiming, “But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer.”
As he finishes his speech, he turns back to the concept of stories, saying that “those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something.” He says he finally understands what made those stories so important, and tells Frodo, “Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. Because they were holding onto something.” He stops, and Frodo, still despondent, asks what they have left to hold onto. Sam responds, “That there’s some good in this world. And it’s worth fighting for.”
Sam’s speech epitomizes hopepunk in that it acknowledges despair and chooses to march onward anyway. In this scene, Sam is as weary and downtrodden as Frodo as the pair journey toward a seemingly-impossible goal. Where Frodo begins to lose hope, though, Sam holds onto his, and the strength of that hope manages to not only keep him moving, but to raise up those around him too.
Other examples of media that incorporate hopepunk are “Rogue One,” in which a group of ground fighters overcome impossible odds at great personal cost, all due to the strength of their convictions. They include “Pacific Rim,” in which soul-bonded humans fight back against apocalypse. They even include books and games and TV shows. The term may be new, but the idea it presents is grounded in examples.
The ideology doesn’t just stop with media. Several organizations make hopepunk into a core facet of their framework, such as the Extinction Rebellion and On Earth Peace. Leaning into the long tradition of Gandhi and Henry David Thoreau regarding civil disobedience, these and other, similar organizations seek to change the world not through hate, but through a resistance based on love.
The hopepunk trend feeds directly into the ideological differences that have steadily differentiated Gen Z from the millennials that came before them. Where millennials looked into the darkness of the world and the possibility of a war-torn, fiery future, Gen Z has risen from that culture and begun the hard work of reclaiming hope as an ideal. They do it with a sense of rebellion against the nihilist outlook that they see around them — easy to fall into if one looks at the news too long. The Gen Z’ers who have embraced hopepunk resist nihilism and fight against it with weaponized hope.
The seeds of hopepunk as a named movement toward determined striving against the corrupt things in life began among Gen Z in social media outlets in July 2017, quickly spreading as the idea caught on. From its conception, hopepunk was meant as a reaction to the grimdark attitude present in so much modern popular media as well as online posts. While the meaning of hopepunk will no doubt shift as usage becomes more popularized and conceptions of genre change over time, the core will remain constant.
The opposite of grimdark is hopepunk. Pass it on.