Cynicism in Popular Media

August 13, 2019

For some time, maybe ever since Breaking Bad introduced the Unflinchingly Realistic Serialized Drama, or maybe since Batman Begins brought about the era of Gritty Reboots, I haven’t watched much TV. TV makes me feel awful.

I’m not saying that TV is worse now than it ever has been. I just know that right now, and for the past decade or so, there’s been an arms race among TV writers to see who could write the most depressing show, who could be the cruelest to their characters, who could depict the darkest vision of the future.

Look, I don’t watch TV, but here’s off the top of my head:

  • The Handmaid’s Tale is a story focussed on answering the vital question “what if our society was violent towards women?”
  • Thirteen Reasons Why asks “What if suicide was a great way to get back at your enemies?”
  • Dark Mirror, the most perenially stupid show on television. We, as a species, have access to quasi-magical technology, and virtually the only thing Dark Mirror allows us to imagine are “Well, what if people used the technology in a bad way?“. This exercise is exhausting and fruitless. We already know technology can be misused. Catastrophizing about it isn’t helpful.

What does it say about the people who put immense amounts of money, effort, and genuine artistry into creating these stories? What does it say about the people who put so much of themselves into consuming and internalizing them, or that with our boundless imaginations and limited time, we are choosing to host worlds which are worse than the already-pretty-terrible one in which we live? Why do we persist in the notion that only the most painful, hopeless, and brutal versions of reality are realistic? Why do we prefer that? Masochism? Internalized patriarchy?

If these are the futures which await us, it would be better for us all to roll over and die. This cultural pattern is deeply cynical, it is plainly wrong, and it is dangerous.


There is a counter-culture. It’s called hopepunk. Lots of good work is being produced, especially by marginalized or oppressed people. This work is coming especially from oppressed people because their survival depends on it. Read the zines put out by your friends’ friends. Read fanfiction, the most shat-upon of media. That’s where it’s happening.

Here’s some fairly mainstream hopepunk works I know about, because some people have caught on that there’s a market for this stuff. Most are from nerd culture because that’s my scene.

  • Queer Eye shows us that rejecting toxic masculinity and doing the hard work of self-love can save your life.
  • Hellboy tells us that no matter the circumstances of your birth, no one gets to tell you who you are; that’s for you to decide.
  • Star Trek (especially The Next Generation and Voyager) dares to suggest a future in which things have improved somewhat.
  • Black Panther wonders, what if a part of Africa hadn’t been devoured by the greed of white people? What if instead, an advanced and peaceful civilization of Africans had thrived?
  • Tuca and Bertie shows us that you can write funny jokes while still being kind to your characters, and that you can be honest without humiliating them. Also, what if birds had boobs? We can dream.
  • The Wayfarer Trilogy by Becky Chambers describes a galactic society in which myriad species and cultures are actively doing the hard work of figuring out how to live together.
  • Hamilton (the play) is a creative and hopeful retelling of our national heritage which steadfastly refuses to get swept up in glorifying evil men, and instead reclaims the bright spots, the good ideas, in the name of all of us.

Many of these things aren’t “true”, in a limited sense of the word true, because they are works of fiction. Africa was indeed dismembered by white people; Wakanda does not exist. But it remains a worthwhile story.

This counter-cultural trend is called “hopepunk”, a term coined by author Alexandra Rowland in a Tumblr post. She elaborates better than I could:

Hopepunk says that genuinely and sincerely caring about something, anything, requires bravery and strength. Hopepunk isn’t ever about submission or acceptance: It’s about standing up and fighting for what you believe in. It’s about standing up for other people. It’s about DEMANDING a better, kinder world, and truly believing that we can get there if we care about each other as hard as we possibly can, with every drop of power in our little hearts.

If we only have a limited amount of time with which to think imaginatively, then the time we spend fantasizing about our collective loss of humanity is wasted. If we cannot even imagine better futures, indeed, if we can only imagine horrible ones, then there will be no reason to hope. Do you Gandhi spent his time reading speculative fiction wherein the British were somehow even worse than they already were? Do you think MLK would have watched Confederate?

No! Tellinginly, MLK instead watched the shit out of Star Trek, telling actor Nichelle Nichols:

You are our image of where we’re going, you’re 300 years from now, and that means that’s where we are and it takes place now. Keep doing what you’re doing, you are our inspiration.

Nichols portrayed Uhura, one of the first black women given a non-token role in mainstream TV. MLK knew the power of story.

The ability to believe that the world can be improved is foundational, a prerequisite for us to be able to make progress.