For a while now I’ve described myself as an optimistic realist. It started with just needing some short, snappy descriptor for myself for various platforms and was the most honest way I could think of describing my overall outlook on life.
When I became single and made some profiles on dating apps I’d use it on my profile and found that it was often a good icebreaker as it gave people something genuine to ask about. It still very much does fit me and my beliefs but I learned a new phrase recently that I’ve kind of fallen in love with.
I was scrolling through twitter one evening last week and started reading a thread, I couldn’t tell you who started it but I jumped in from a retweet by one of the hosts of a podcast I am a big fan of and who has a lot of good takes on societal things as well as writing and storytelling. The thread was all about a concept I’d not heard of before, not under this name at least; ‘Hopepunk.’
I’ll be completely honest, I haven’t looked too deeply into the phrase’s origins or full etymology but I didn’t feel like I needed to because as soon as I read it I knew. I had a vivid idea of what it meant, its use and examples of it not just in stories and media but in real life too.
Hopepunk sits alongside other descriptors like steampunk and cyberpunk but is vastly different from them. For those two it is describing more of a visual style, be it a technology-infused Edwardian time period with lots of engines, top hats and goggles or a neon-lit, rainy megacity with hard boiled detectives and holographic advertising. Hopepunk isn’t about a visual, it isn’t a fictional history or speculative future, it can be whenever and wherever. It can be here, today or in a galaxy far, far away. It is a state of mind, a narrative drive, a characteristic and a storytelling device.
It isn’t exactly the same as my self description of optimistic realist but it skews very close to it and shares a lot of the same DNA. I think that is why I have connected to it so much.
So what is Hopepunk? This is how I see it, to be hopepunk is to be defiantly optimistic in the face of adversity and the realistic shit that may be all around you. Maybe that is in the form of something actively oppressing you or trying to prevent you from achieving your goals, maybe it is just the state of the world around you. The point is that you stand up and say, “No. Fuck this. Can’t hold me down. Can’t hold me back. I am going to do this thing whether you like it or not because it is what I believe is good and right.”
It is about seeing the bleakness around you and rejecting it. Doing those selfless acts even when you know that ultimately, without more people doing the same, the effort will be but a drop in the ocean.
Sometimes you may do something for a cause you know is foolhardy and desperate but trying anyway.
It’s that level of defiance, that punk spirit, that may go unnoticed to most people but if it inspires just one other, if it knocks over just one domino, then there is still hope and a chance that it will continue on and succeed.
I think I’ve done a pretty good job of explaining what I see hopepunk as being but I want to highlight one example that may help bring it home for anyone still curious. It’s actually how I first learned the term as that twitter thread I was reading was about Rogue One and the podcast host I mentioned is from a Star Wars show I’ve talked about before.
Rogue One is a prime example of hopepunk storytelling. Throughout the final act of the movie, when the team has been assembled and are, ironically, defying the Rebel council by going on an assumed suicide mission, at no point does any member of the team falter. They are all split up and each has a role to play, if any of them fail then the entire mission fails and the Death Star plans never make it to Princess Leia.
Despite the odds being stacked against them at every turn they all keep pressing on with belief and determination that each of the other members are also accomplishing their goals. Eventually each member of the team dies, but only once they have successfully finished their job. They have no idea if the next stage of the plan will be as successful but it is a hopepunk mentality that drives them. They knocked over their domino without knowledge of what was going to happen further down the line. This doesn’t end with Cassian and Jyn on the beach either; they die together in the fiery explosion of a blast from the Death Star but they transmitted the plans to the Rebel ship above. Even those poor soldiers in the corridor with Vader at the end have a hopepunk state of mind; once it becomes clear that the door isn’t going to open their focus is on getting the plans to the next guy and the next guy until they’re eventually in the relatively safe hands of Leia. The original Star Wars doesn’t hold the same themes as Rogue One but it is that desperation, that defiance in the face of certain doom that epitomises ‘hopepunk’ in storytelling for me and is a big reason why I enjoy Rogue One more and more every time I watch it.
It may be my superpower that I can write a blog post about a fairly serious topic and still manage to make a fairly lengthy Star Wars analogy in the middle of it. Hey, it’s me.
Hopepunk is something I’m passionate about and I think is really important in these trying times we are living in. It is easy to get bogged down under the weight of the world. We have ‘leaders’ across the globe who seem hellbent on destroying the planet and the people on it, we’re more connected than ever but levels of hatred, violence and general shittiness to one another is at an all time high and every couple of years there is some new virus that scares people into thinking we’re all going to die. But we shouldn’t just sit back and accept that, any of it, we need to rise up put a fist in the air and say, fuck that. That is not going to be my life and that is not going to be my legacy. I want to leave the world better than I entered it. I might not be able to make a dent on a global scale. I might not be able able to make a dent on any scale that is noticeable to anyone but a few close friends and family members, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is you did something. That is what hopepunk is.