There’s this speech at the end of the second “Lord of The Rings” movie. You might know the one.
“There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.”
That speech didn’t stick with me back when I first saw the movie more than 15 years ago. But rewatching it now, in 2019, feels different.
Mostly because in an era of dark, gritty television like “Black Mirror” and “Game of Thrones,” hope is refreshing.
“We had a period for a while where people wanted fantasy to be grimmer and darker because they wanted it to reflect reality a little more,” said Marshall Ryan Maresca, a fantasy and science fiction writer. “But now it’s reflecting reality a little too much.”
Enter: “hopepunk,” the literal opposite to those gritty, dark movies, often called “grimdark.”
While “grimdark” books and movies assume that everyone is, at their core, a bad person and does bad things, hopepunk flips that assumption on its head.
Fantasy author Alexandra Rowland coined the word “hopepunk” in a Tumblr post in 2017.
“Hopepunk says that kindness and softness doesn’t equal weakness,” she wrote. “And that in this world of brutal cynicism and nihilism, being kind is a political act. An act of rebellion.”
Rowland wasn’t inventing a new genre, but rather putting a name to the more hopeful media and attitudes she’d been seeing and seeking out: characters who weaponized optimism.
Others in the literary world have caught on. Rowland said she’s seen a handful of panels discussing the term at literary conventions over the past year.
That’s because it’s everywhere, even if you don’t have a name for it.
For example, while “The Handmaid’s Tale”— a dystopian TV series based on the 1985 book about a society that treats women as property — might appear dark, the female characters never stop fighting for a better world.
That makes it hopepunk.
It’s a mindset you can put to use in your own life, too.
For Maresca, the difference between hopepunk and grimdark is kind of like the difference between Superman and Batman.
They’re both superheroes, but the way they go about things is radically different. They’re both attacking evil, but Superman is more about saving lives in the process.
Maresca considers his own novels hopepunk.
“My favorite stories are about heroes who do things just because it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “So that was the kind of story that I wanted to write, where there’s people who are just striving for a better world, whether or not they’ve even got a chance to succeed at that, because that’s the kind of world they want to live in.”
In one novel, the character is a warrior who talks people down instead of beating them up. He’s about putting himself in front of the trouble instead of killing people for no reason.
They’re still set in dark worlds. Life is hard and gritty.
But the way the characters approach that world is different than, say, a “Game of Thrones” character.
Being hopepunk is putting other people first and doing the right thing amid all that darkness.
That doesn’t mean you have to be nice all the time. As Rowland explains it, hopepunk is about making the right choices — knowing when to fight fire with fire, not doing it just because you can.
But it also means taking action when you need to.
“One of the most wonderful descriptions I’ve heard of hopepunk was, a colleague of mine said, ‘People forget that punk is the operative half of the word,’” Rowland said. “It’s not about softness and kindness, it’s about being punk.”
You might have heard of “steampunk,” dystopian fiction that marries old-timey gadgets with flying cars. Or maybe you’re familiar with “solarpunk,” a science fiction genre featuring radical environmentalism.
Each of the “punk” genres can be traced back to “cyberpunk,” which features heroes among a high-tech future. And in each genre, it’s really the “punk” that makes the genre what it is. It’s radicalism.
In “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” which aired in the 1980s and 1990s, the characters could be considered hopepunk, Maresca said, precisely because of the way they approach conflicts.
“Whenever they’re presented with a problem, they have a meeting with how to solve the problem rather than opening fire,” he said.
Rowland said it’s easy to feel like we’re living in a world where we have no agency over the bad things that are happening.
Mass shootings. Natural disasters. Political unrest.
Grimdark embraces this — we’re not going to change anything, anyway, so what’s the point?
Hopepunk says there is a point.
“Individual action is almost always pointless because we’re going against systems,” Rowland said. “An individual can’t really do much about that, but communities can, and if we all contribute to resisting what’s going on and standing up for ourselves.”
Being hopepunk, then, is about standing up with your entire community. It’s voting. It’s calling your senators.
It’s being politically active, because while you may not be able to spur change on your own, you and a whole bunch of your friends might be able to.
Sure, the word is about being radically kind. But kindness is relative.
“Sometimes being kind to yourself means not putting up with the person who is being mean to you,” Rowland said.
Hopepunk isn’t being so soft that you let yourself get pushed around.
In “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the women actively resist their oppressors instead of sitting by and letting themselves suffer in silence.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy, and that doesn’t mean it’s always safe.
“It’s… accepting that the world is complex, that the world contains… terrible, terrible things,” Rowland said. “But also that the world contains goodness and that people are capable of extraordinary acts of kindness.”
In other words, hopepunk is not a glass-half-empty or glass-half-full kind of thing. It’s acknowledging that there’s water in the glass at all.
And as Samwise tells Frodo, “It’s worth fighting for.”
Gretchen has reported on the criminal justice system in rural Minnesota and covered everything from politics to millennial truck drivers for Wisconsin Public Radio. She is passionate about public media as a public service. She’s also into music and really good coffee. Follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.