This is probably something you can type into Google and find a scholarly Harvard thesis on. But since this topic has been bugging me for quite some time, I thought I could put in my two cents. I feel like the amount of cynicism in entertainment, or lack thereof, has been largely under debate since forever. And it’s something that’s come to a head for me on a personal level since the start of the pandemic, and as of finishing Volume 8 of RWBY. For this post, I’ll try to lay down both sides of the coin in a civil manner. There will be spoilers for RWBY and Re:ZERO among others throughout this discussion.
The first thing to bring up is the fact that darker times are hard to face in real life. And for some people, the SOLE counter to that is in Escapist fantasies such as those put out by Disney. That company has continued to inspire hope for generations, and is almost at the one-century mark of its running. On the flipside, Disney doesn’t make the bad things go away in real life. You will not only be faced with personal issues, but societal ones as well (more on the latter later). Even if you watch something like Soul for example, which has the lesson of living life to the fullest, you’ll still have to toil at school or a job even if you take that lesson to heart.
But let’s flip it back again, and discuss the question I asked at the beginning: When is cynicism too much? At the point I’m at in Re:ZERO and RWBY, there have been so many deaths that it has completely desensitized me. The fourth (or is it fifth?) arc of Re:ZERO starts with a child being thrown from the top of a building, after which an entire crowd of people explode into blood and guts. This happens after the main character has died and respawned after at least a dozen gruesome deaths, including being eaten alive by hundreds of demon rabbits. And RWBY? There’s death everywhere! RWBY is particularly controversial because it started off as a very silly battle shounen, then took an incredibly dark direction following the passing of its creator. And for the record, it has legitimately made me depressed. While I have no doubt that any American drama is still darker, RWBY is the most cynical work of fiction I have ever consumed. It has literally made me think to myself: “Life was not God’s gift to us; it was a punishment.”
To define how cynical a narrative work is, you should first find a definitive answer to how dark real life is. The problem is that everyone suffers in different ways and amounts. Re:ZERO seems exaggerated, since I definitely haven’t lived a life where I watch a close friend die right before my eyes every single day. But what about someone living in the Middle East? There are refugees for a reason, you know.
But here’s the kicker. While I have written off stuff as “torture porn”, and accused people of reading too much into social media, I must admit that I’ve become like that as well. The pandemic has affected the lives of pretty much every human, yet instead of bringing people together, it bolstered existing issues and—in essence—ruined everything. It doesn’t take long to find news about fully vaccinated people dying of COVID, countries re-entering lockdown (heck, the bands I follow are still having gigs cancelled left and right), governments stripping unvaccinated people of human rights, California slowly burning to the ground, the slaughterhouse that was Travis Scott’s Astroworld concert, and other human failures. You don’t even need these past couple of years to see how miserable life has always been. America has violated its own Constitution, and created racist and misogynist propaganda since its birth. How can I write off series as torture porn, when they seem perfectly apropos to actual life?
The argument I see the most in favor of cynicism is that it makes the story more mature and intellectual. But sometimes I feel like it’s actually more childish than even Disney. One example that comes to mind is Dungeon Busters, which is an urban fantasy that shows the political ramifications of RPG tropes existing in the real world. I want to say it’s a really thoughtful series, but I’m not sure I can. Trump is portrayed in it as a whiny brat who wants to nuke everything. I don’t know if that portrayal is actually mature, and since we’ll probably never know what Trump was truly like during his term, I can’t say that Dungeon Busters’ Trump is effective. Also, there’s a scene where a supporting protagonist shows a deep prejudice towards Americans entirely because of America’s past crimes against Japan, such as the atomic bombings at the end of WWII, decades before her birth. You’re meant to sympathize with her. However, in real life, Japan allows and welcomes American tourists with open arms (at least before COVID). I can’t judge if such deep-seeded grudges are actually mature or not. I just can’t.
Another example I can place is the famous videogame, A Way Out. I’ve seen three playthroughs of it on YouTube, and that final plot twist will always be infamous. You know, the one where Vincent was actually a police officer trying to nail Leo, and Harvey—the game’s villain—at the same time? It’s SUPER cynical, because it basically implies that your closest friend will stab you in the back someday, that no one can mutually agree on anything, and that there’s no point in ever trying to be nice to anyone. They completely throw away logic (such as parts where Vincent commits other crimes while undercover and endangers civilian lives) in order to make a purely cynical gaming experience, and cause mental whiplash for the people playing by turning the game from co-op to PvP right at the end, with a different—equally sad—ending based on who lives. Does that really make it better, though?
There is no end to different examples of arguments over whether or not cynicism is too much. But regardless, I’m starting to think that there can never be too much of it. Thanks to what COVID has done to me, in conjunction with social media being itself, I have lost all hope. How much cynicism can you handle? Let me know in the comments!