A few days ago, the science fiction author Charlie Jane Anders published a short essay titled “The Sweetweird Manifesto.” Is it an essay? IDK. I hate it when people call anything I do a “write-up” so I’m extending Anders that courtesty. In the piece, she did a “towards a working theory of” type observation of a storytelling trend that pairs absurd/bizzarre aesthetics with generosity, kindness, and emotional connection as the focus of the character and plot development. To Anders, sweetweird encompasses “…stories that feature lovable characters and a focus on supportive chosen family, set against worlds that are, shall we say, somewhat tarnished and bizarre.” Since the post first went up, Anders has revised it to include more book recommendations and more background on the origins of this type of story.
Look I fucking hate this. It’s pretty weird to me in the middle of a wave of moralizing and puritanical panic about queer sexuality that a well-known author chooses to go to bat for wholesomeness. It would be one thing if Anders set out to define a subgenre and why she likes it, and even to express her desire for more of it, but she very much did use the word “manifesto.” The last section of the post is titled “the future belongs to sweetweird.” An author in AD 2022 is using the word “grimdark.” Throughout the post, Anders does some not very deft maneuvering to position sweetweird as 1. a mode of storytelling found particularly in queer stories. 2. a constrast to cynicism and misanthropy that is the domain of “cranky cishet white dudes.” 3. therefore ideologically and morally superior to darker/cynical/pessimistic/et al narratives. We’re talking about this because Anders ultimately positioned her preference as a moral taste. When challenged about this online she did the milquetoast “Steven Universe has incredible trauma in it” dance.
Put Away Childish Things
As a person who does not watch Western animation geared towards kids or families, I know Steven Universe is a (maybe unfairly) easy target for my points. I have people in my life that I like and respect who loved or currently love SU. I believe them that it’s doing the good things they say it’s doing. But it’s still, as my husband (who enjoys it) put it, “doing these things in a way that is legible to children.” The vast majority of Anders’ examples of sweetweird, especially before she edited the post, are likewise doing whatever they are doing in a way that’s legible to children. I believe adults need to engage with things that are illegible to children sometimes! Not doing so robs them of having their actual experiences reflected.
When I say “illegible to children” I don’t mean full of “adult” content like violence or sex. Some experiences and feelings simply can’t be understood by kids. And they shouldn’t be! The biggest example of this within my own tastes is a movie that’s often thought to be family friendly: the Christmas masterpiece It’s a Wonderful Life. I, like many kids, was made to watch it with my family at a young age. As a child, it becomes a watered down lesson about being grateful for the life you’ve been given. Because children are just plain not old enough to understand the enormity of George Bailiey’s regret, and they are not old enough to have faced the sorts of compromises and defeats that define his life. For young adults who are not kids but still not old enough to really get George Bailey, I would point to something like The Tatami Galaxy that portrays that youthful mix of regret and FOMO anxiety stunningly. It’s possible to find examples in cartoons, Disney movies, and children’s books of characters coping with regret. It’s even perfectly reasonable and healthy for adults to see themselves in these and map it to their own experiences. But by limiting their sight to stories that don’t take the more mature versions of these issues into consideration, they are in my opinion starving themselves.
The Tyranny of Kindness
Kindess – it’s a good thing, right? Well, yes, in a vacuum. I myself have used the “kind but not nice” distinction for a lot of things (individuals, the city of New York, etc). But increasingly I think the concept of kindness has become a bludgeon disguised as a balm. “I just think we should be kind” is trotted out to silence justified disappointment or anger. And I thought this flavor of progressive liberal hated “tone policing”! I cringed when a pivotal moment in Everything Everywhere All at Once saw a character urging the heroine to “be kind.” Again, in a vacuum, this line might have been powerful. In reality, I could already see this movie and this sentiment being adopted by the most irritating sorts of people online. Indeed, Charlie Jane Anders includes EEAaO on her extremely short list of “sweetweird” stories that are not family friendly cartoons.
It’s interesting to think about what kindness even is – or what a useful understanding of it could look like. We all know it’s not niceness. Kindness is supposed to be the non-superficial one. I think it’s related to harm reduction, but this can often be run off with and turned into a focus on couching terms, sparing necessary criticism, and a pathological clinging to the status quo. I think sometimes kindness is difficult and a very long game. “Harm reduction” can mean making a decision that hurts people in the short term, like ending a toxic friendship or choosing sides in a conflict. Kindness can also be to the self, which involves some of the same hard internal work. “Choosing kindness” is often erroneously presented as a choice to turn away from discomfort, darkness, and unpleasantness. To me, the most striking moments of kindness often come in the midst of those things.
At Will Employment Family
Multiple times in her post, Anders points to sweetweird’s focus on chosen/found families. I am pretty tired of this too. People will talk about their found family and then go to their parents’ house on Cape Cod for Thanksgiving. I hear this phrase so often that, like kindness and abuse and trauma and myriad other words, it’s starting to lose its meaning and power. It seems to get applied to any story that has a group of people doing something together for an extended period of time. But with the emphasis on “taking care of each other,” kindness, and sweetness, I often think our conception of chosen family has been sapped of what makes family special among other relationships. Family implies a degree on unconditionality. It’s a group of people who vow to be there for each other even if they don’t always like each other, because the mutual support and protection is the bigger picture. Instead I see it used to describe people, whether in fiction or real social groups, that pretty much all agree on most things and are together because they like each other. That’s called friendship everyone. When you’re using this framing to mean an insularity that protects you from doing things you don’t want to do and dealing with people you might not otherwise take to naturally, that’s more like at-will employment than the bonds of family. I guess One Piece is probably the real chosen family story. And, you know, most JRPGs.
Guess I’m a Cishet Man Now
Anders’ post made me groan and grumble in so many ways, but if I had to pick most-groan-causing part, it might be the idea that misanthropy and cynicism are the realm of cishet white men. I’m the most romantic person alive, but I would still say that I’m cynical. A lot of people who know me would probably pick that out as a defining trait, even. I also consider myself to be very sincere. I don’t think cynicism and sincerity are mutual exclusive, but I kind of think Charlie Jane Anders does! What bothers me is the implication that sweetness, goofiness, and hopefulness are the Real Sincere Feelings and skepticism, distrust, and despair aren’t. Paul has been reading Peter Watts’ Blindsight to me before bed lately. It’s a disturbing, beautifully written book that is very cynical, but it asks uncomfortable questions of the reader and it’s very earnest in its ruthlessness. I don’t think Watts is doing a little bit here. I don’t think the late Mark Fisher was lying about either his extreme (terminal, sadly) cynicism and his extreme sincerity. I guess they are both cishet men though. One of my favorite pieces of genre fiction is – here’s a woman – Joan Vinge’s Snow Queen and Summer Queen novels. They aren’t entirely pessimistic or, lol, “grimdark,” but they grapple with very adult – in the mature, weary sense of the word – themes. The second book in particular is one of the best explorations of how difficult forgiveness is I’ve ever read (it’s also full of NTR).
I love anime that delves deep into the best and worst of humanity that can be contained in one person like Evangelion and Oniisama e. I’m currently rewatching the very queer Gankutsuou with friends, and the struggle of the characters to hold onto hope and humanity wouldn’t be nearly as compelling if they weren’t doing it in the face of cruelty and malice. Even some of the “comfier” shows I love, like Hyouka, have a healthy mix of optimism and cynicism and characters who deal with emotions that we often think of as too ugly, like jealousy and bitterness. I can think of plenty of things I like off the top of my head that are sweet, weird, involve people taking care of each other, and still have a dose or a flood of cynicism: Disco Elysium, Darryl, or my friend Lane Yates’ comic Single Camera Sitcom, where her characters navigate the absurdities of love, existential angst, and captilalism in ways that can bare the ugly truths of modern life while leaving room for grace.
Anyway, I’m not a man. Granted, I’m not queer, but I’m still being told by Anders that dark shit is not my lane, or that for every step away from “cishet white man” you get, the more predisposed you are to gentleness. Her assertion that, “I think maybe a lot of cishet white men really expected the world to make sense, and were pissed off that it didn’t — whereas the rest of us always knew perfectly that the world was a logorrheic mess, and we were just going to do our best to help each other through it” glaringly ignores class. There is also something hilarious to me about Anders using mostly family friendly media as a counterpoint to adult fiction and then calling the latter the realm of cishet white men. Way to reverse engineer the idea that dudes are the smart ones after all. There’s an anti-intellectualism to the insistence on wholesomeness in storytelling.
I’m rambling and ranting at this point. I think it’s just ultra irritating that we’re still doing this. It does a disservice to queer people and straight people both to act like being queer actually makes you morally better. That seems like a pretty awful burden for the queer people and it leads to extremely confused and annoying things like “men all sleep on mattresses next to their PS5s” from straight women who have no intention of quitting men. And of course, marginalized people have just as much of a right to cynicism – jesus, if not more – as anyone. If you would rather read a cranky man’s much more well-written response, I loved Simon McNeil’s “Gothic anti-realism: art for the unsatisfied.”