A spectre is haunting pop culture — an adorable and friendly, but slightly messed-up creature that beckons us into a world of kindness and surrealism.
Welcome to sweetweird, the storytelling trend that's been quietly taking the universe by storm. Everywhere you look, there are stories that feature lovable characters and a focus on supportive chosen family, set against worlds that are, shall we say, somewhat tarnished and bizarre. Where weirdness has frequently been paired with misanthropy and nastiness, "sweetweird" stories can be incredibly strange, and yet lovely.
And here's where I should admit that sweetweird isn't actually a formal movement, and nobody except for me has been using that term. I wrote in my recent writing advice book Never Say You Can't Survive that I'm burned out on "grimdark" storytelling that revels in nastiness and extreme violence, and instead I'm ready for "sweetweird." And ever since then, I've been meaning to write more about what I mean by "sweetweird," and why I think it's a thing that needs a name.
What is Sweetweird?
The core idea of sweetweird is: the world makes no sense, but we can be nurturing, frivolous and kind. We don't have to respond to the ludicrous illogic of the world around us by turning mean and nasty, or by expecting everyone else to be horrible. At the very least, we can carve out friendly, supportive spaces in the midst of chaotic nonsense, and maybe help each other survive.
Instead of demanding that the universe stop being a farrago, we embrace the strangeness and make it our own. The unrealness of our consensus reality liberates us, because it undermines the fiction of "normality" and creates a space for us to be our authentic eccentric selves. Decency without conformity, joy that doesn't depend on a false sense of stability. Affectionate silliness.
A sweetweird story can acknowledge ugliness and trauma without going full Candide. If anything, the suckiness of people is all the more reason for us to hold onto each other and help each other as much as possible.
I don't really want to create a draconian list of the defining traits of sweetweird, but I'm happy to generalize and provide some examples.
A lot of animation, these days, feels sweetweird to me, including stuff like Steven Universe, She-Ra, The Dragon Prince, Summer Camp Island, Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts, Hilda, Star Trek: Lower Decks, and The Owl House.
And in terms of books, Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki and the forthcoming Story of the Hundred Promises by Neil Cochrane both feel very sweetweird to me. I've also been thinking a lot about The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab and The House of Rust by Khadija Abdalla Bajaber, two of my favorite books of recent years. On Twitter, various people also suggested The House on the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente, and the Tiffany Aching books by Terry Pratchett, along with recent works by Becky Chambers, Sarah Gailey, and Ursula Vernon, among others.
A lot of queer stories naturally seem to trend towards sweetweird, in part because queer culture has always prized chosen family, and queers have always seen the illogic at the heart of heteronormativity and cisnormativity. In addition to some of the aforementioned cartoons, I'd say Our Flag Means Death is both weird and sweet, for example. A lot of sweetweird stories lean toward camp, but without quite so much archness and underlying meanness.
Comedies like Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, The Good Place and Parks and Rec manage to get loopy as hell, without losing their faith in human nature, and especially people's ability to be there for each other and do the right thing in the end. I'd also mention some wacky superhero shows like Doom Patrol, Legends of Tomorrow and arguably Peacemaker.
My favorite parts of TikTok and Tumblr feel quite attuned to sweetweird, with delightfully off-kilter celebrations of pop culture and music, and candy-colored memes commenting on memes, until hardly anything makes sense.
And check out recent music videos by Lizzo, Lil Nas X, Doja Cat and many others — they are delightfully dada, and yet radiate friendliness.
Wherever surrealism and kindness join in a beautifully unholy union, there you will find sweetweird.
The history of Sweetweird
In retrospect, the dawn of sweetweird came nearly a decade ago, with the popularity of Adventure Time, Guardians of the Galaxy, gonzo pop music and colorful, slightly askew fashions. A character like Rocket Raccoon feels emblematic of sweetweird: cuddly but messed up, spiky but with a massive heart.
And yet, sweetweird's roots run deep: the friendliest parts of hippie culture feel very sweetweird, and I think of the Yellow Submarine animated movie as a bit of a touchstone. There's also stuff like Little Nemo in Slumberland, The Phantom Tollbooth, some of Parliament-Funkadelic's late-1970s output, and some classic musicals. In the early 2000s, there were things like uglydoll and Cute Overload — the internet has always seemed to be made for sweet weirdness.
To the extent that sweetweird has been on the rise for the past decade in particular, this coincides with a few important trends. We have been living in a post-truth era, in which large swathes of the population proudly believe absurd things at any given time and there can be no consensus about basic facts.
At the same time, entertainment has become more fragmented in the streaming age, and more creators are rising to fame via YouTube or TikTok rather than via traditional production deals with huge entertainment behemoths. This has put an end to the era of "four quadrant," "mainstream" pop culture, except perhaps at the cinema, and allowed a lot more stuff to appeal to a niche audience with a higher tolerance for weirdness.
I'd also say that the (relative, insufficient) increase in diversity among entertainers has increased the prominence of both weirdness and sweetness.
In any case, surrealism has always contained the possibility of happiness and friendliness, but in recent years I've felt like they've gone together more readily.
The Future belongs to Sweetweird
It's always a mistake to try and forecast trends in pop culture. But I feel pretty confident that sweetweird stories will keep being a thing going forward, for a couple of reasons. The real world is only going to keep getting more nonsensical, as we grapple with the ongoing slow-motion compound apocalypse. And we'll keep finding comfort in stories where people comfort each other, without finding some miraculous logic underlying their worlds.
Arguably, sweetweird is my attempt to define something that's an aesthetic as much as a genre or a movement. Or maybe it's a feeling. When I binge-watch The Owl House and root for Luz and her beautiful chosen family to keep supporting each other, I revel in the grotesqueness of the Boiling Isles while simultaneously squeeing over Luz's unshakable bond with King. The two things feed off each other: the grotesquerie is more wonderful because of the emotional connection, and vice versa.
Let's embrace preposterousness, and each other. We can build ridiculous worlds and fill them with generosity. Things are going to be extremely weird no matter what we do — but we have the power to make them sweet, as well.
Update: I made some tweaks to this post here and there and added more book recommendations.
If you live in San Francisco and haven't yet voted, please please please hand in your ballot, on or before June 7. And please vote NO on Proposition H. (And also please vote YES on Proposition C.) San Francisco's district attorney, Chesa Boudin, has been doing a fantastic job during a uniquely challenging time — he took office right before covid struck — and has been helping to reform our broken criminal justice system. He's prosecuting cases of sexual assault as well as incidents of police brutality, and he's also ended cash bail, a major step forward. There's a scaremongering campaign against him, based on highly misleading claims about a crime wave in San Francisco. If you put a black square on your Instagram or tweeted about Black Lives Matter in 2020, now is the time to put your vote where your mouth is.
On Tuesday June 7 at 7 PM PT, I'm going to be having a virtual conversation with Maya Deane about her incredible new novel Wrath Goddess Sing, a trans retelling of the Trojan War, focused on Achilles. Just go to the Mysterious Galaxy website and click on "events." If you live anywhere in the world and care about trans people or Greek/Roman myths, this is gonna be a great event. (I'm no longer putting links in this newsletter, or I would link out to the event page.)
On Saturday, June 11, I'm once again hosting Writers With Drinks at the Make Out Room in SF, from 7:30 pm to 9:30 pm. Featuring Julia Serano (Sexed Up), Kirstin Chen (Counterfeit), Jon Papernick (I Am My Beloveds) and Shelly Oria (I Know What's Best For You). It's gonna be a super feminist, inspirational, wild night and I hope you can join us!
Also! I have published a lot of books lately! Like, so many.
If you are looking for wild seat-of-your-space-pants action, I have a young adult trilogy featuring teenagers from Earth who journey off to find themselves and save the galaxy. It's very silly and cute and fun, with occasional scary bits and a nasty villain. Victories Greater Than Death is out in paperback now, and the sequel, Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak, is brand new in hardcover.
If you are looking for some advice on staying creative and holding yourself together in the midst of (gestures around) all this, I published a book that's kind of a mix of writing advice and life coaching: Never Say You Can't Survive.
And if you just want a whole bunch of incredibly weird short stories, ranging from very silly comedy to dark intensity, then I have a short story collection called Even Greater Mistakes, which includes all my fav pieces of short fiction to date.