(The Cruelty of) Happy Narratives

Ai Weiwei, Study of Perspective – Eiffel Tower 1995-2003. Courtesy of MoMA.

In Emily in Paris, Netflix’ universally hated show that is also addictive and impossible to stop watching, nothing ever goes wrong. Emily Cooper, the show’s titular heroine, successfully overcomes and emerges happy from whatever professional and personal challenges life puts in her way. As a result of of two painfully banal posts, she becomes an Instagram influencer, and, at work, Emily churns out marketing campaigns that are both excruciatingly bad and universally liked. Generally, Emily is adored, despite (arguably) being one of the blandest protagonists to have ever inhabited Paris on-screen.

Even the most drastic plot twists are conveniently resolved in the saccharine reality of Emily in Paris, and no drama is dwelled upon for too long. Indeed, even as one of the show’s secondary characters, a caricature-like couturier, is hit by a car at the end of one episode, at the beginning of the next one, he is revealed to be alive, and well, and smiling. Predicaments do come up and challenges do appear, but no predicament seems too grave to solve, and no problem is too drastic to disrupt the show’s upbeat narrative. Difficulties are solved swiftly and easily, and are quickly forgotten with little reflection on the part of the show’s characters. Even the show’s central love triangle doesn’t seem to cause much of a stir, and neither of the characters involved in it seems too perturbed.

With its one-dimensional characters and clichéd portrayal of Paris, Emily in Paris is easy to shrug off as a silly fantasy. And yet, there is something offensive about its chirpy mood, simplistic plot and, above all, the inevitable ease, with which all its conflicts are resolved. In fact, the show’s simple, straight-forward, easy-to-resolve plot lines present the perfect example of what I would like to call ‘happy narratives.’ Such narratives offer an optimistic approach to problems and predicaments, affirming that any difficulty can be resolved and overcome. Whereas Emily in Paris provides a selection of crass and particularly unrealistic happy narratives, a multitude of the same kind persist across media and culture. Happy narratives occur in advertising and marketing, they can be found in personal testimonials of self-help literature, they are used in magazine profiles and throughout LinkedIn, which offers a deluge of first-person accounts about overcoming challenging situations, ‘learning from failure and bouncing back.’ They are also a staple of Instagram, with its mandatory positivity. Characteristically, happy narratives present a predicament, a painful episode or trauma, but show as these are happily resolved through labour and use of techniques. In the end of a happy narrative, the story’s protagonist gains something – either it is a learning or added experience (as every second LinkedIn post has it), or material profit, or success, or another aspirational gain.

From the point of structure, the happy narratives of contemporary culture are, of course, not a new phenomenon, similar happy plots have existed since times immemorial – we’d know them from classical literature and from folklore. In the latter, some of the most frequent plots across cultures can be described as happy narratives, as Vladimir Propp described in his theory on folktales1. According to the predecessor of structuralism and prominent representative of the Moscow Formal School Viktor Shklovsly, a literary plot is a structure that consists of logically organised parts2. One of the earliest and easily recognisable folkloric plots is set in motion by the protagonist’s encounter with a challenge. Overwhelmed, the protagonist then finds an object, learns a ritual, or meets a helper, through which the predicament is resolved. Finally, the protagonist lives ‘happily ever after,’ having gained wealth or love.

Akin to folkloric plots, contemporary happy narratives suggest tackling challenges and issues through objects or rituals. One of the most obvious examples of the use of happy narratives, is, perhaps, contemporary advertising, relying on narratives about how it was before (bad) and how it was changed after (for the better). Ads tend to present a vexing problem that then proceeds to be resolved easily and painlessly through the use of a product or a service. According to marketing campaigns, any problem can be solved by a product. Beauty and fashion goods promise youth, confidence and freedom, food is supposed to make you happy and healthy, and some brands assure us that, through their products, we’ll find calm and balance. In the marketing parlance of many a beauty brand, they offer you opportunities to ‘take time for yourself,’ ‘be in the moment’ and ‘find inner peace.’3

In her writings on happiness, the scholar Sara Ahmed makes a series of brilliant observations on what happiness is imagined to be4. Happiness, she claims, is usually presumed to lie outside the span of a current moment – either in the past or, more often, in the future. Happiness, thus, presents itself as a promise and is naturally aspirational – despite its hard-to-define character, that is something everyone is not just striving for, but is also expected to strive for.

Happiness is elusive and hard to define and, of course, happiness means different things to different people. But, however different our tastes and ideals of happiness might be, Ahmed remarks on the universality of cultural and societal beliefs about the good and bad, the auspicious and undesirable. One example of such universal ideas could be the trope of the wedding day as ‘the happiest day of one’s life.’ On what is expected to be the happiest day of your life you can but feel happy, and feeling otherwise is inadequate and goes against cultural dogmas and, culturally, is unacceptable.

In happy narratives, the concepts that have been socially and culturally constructed as happy and good are usually positioned as desirable outcomes. Thus, the reward that folklore protagonists gain at the end is usually what society considers to be good – wealth, marriage, revenge. And, similarly, in contemporary happy narratives, the gain that protagonists receive is a reflection of current values. Contemporary happy narratives offer recipes for professional success, confidence, increased visibility, or, in the jargon of LikedIn, ‘growth,’ ‘learning,’ ‘impact’ or development – all things considered good and desirable in the current neoliberal imagination.

The structure of ‘happy narratives’ relies on two plot devices – a presentation of a challenge and a happy resolution thereof. If either one or the other is missing, a happy narrative loses its power to convey a cathartic resolution. Such narrative structure, beyond the candy-hued world of Emily in Paris, corporate fables of LinkedIn and marketing scenarios, is also a favourite of lifestyle journalism. In lifestyle and fashion magazines, celebrity profiles tend to unfold as stories about successful overcoming of difficulties. Focusing on those who already are famous and successful, magazines present fame and success as results of a struggle – they appear to be fought for, and, therefore, earned. Thus, in its profile of Bella Hadid from 2022, Vogue US dwells on the difficult aspects of the model’s life – indeed, she might be one of the world’s highest-paid models, living in a luxurious apartment, but she also cries every day.5 As proof that celebrities’ wealth, fame and success are deserved, fashion and lifestyle magazines tend to introduce famous people as deserving, calling for readers’ compassion and empathy. The magazines claim that celebrities have fought – either for themselves or for other people as celebrity activists.6

Under the economic and cultural conditions of late capitalism, happy narratives no longer involve encounters with magical helpers or use of magical objects. Instead, they portray labour as a means to obtain happiness. What they share with folkloric happy narratives is a hope for a happy outcome and anticipation of happiness as a reward for a life righteously lived. The philosopher Michel Foucault’s idea of ‘technologies of the self’ could probably offer a key to understanding contemporary happy narratives. In Foucault’s words, ‘technologies of the self permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality.’ This idea succinctly captures the expectation of a reward for an effort given, suffering sustained, or a challenge overcome. It may also be seen as a coax that sustains and reproduces the existing ways of being and living by feeding into the societal and cultural expectations of happiness. Imagined as professional success, relationship status, fame, visibility, parenthood, power or influence, happiness is an aspirational promise that sets society and culture, with its habits of consumption and production in motion.

While happiness and success are believed to be predicated on personal labour and effort, failure, too, is believed to be personal and private, a proof that you were not doing enough, not doing it right, or not feeling right. In their work on confidence culture, Rosalind Gill and Shani Orgad look at the phenomenon of affective neoliberalism, dissecting how confidence and attaining confidence have grown to be regarded as recipes for success. Abundant self-books, media narratives, social media posts, and advertisements discipline users to be confident7. Confidence has turned into a happiness pointer, a magical object that is universally believed to bring about good things and change one’s life for the better. But only if one does confidence the right way, will everything work out right – hence multiple instructions on happiness. What the mainstream confidence cult(ure) fails to account for are the structural hurdles and social inequalities that personal effort and struggle can rarely overcome.

What if one’s successful self-work, skillful use of technologies of the self or acquisition of ‘happiness pointers’ (to use Sara Ahmed’s term) do not bring about a happy outcome and satisfaction? ‘Happy narratives’ promote an inherently optimistic view that labour, effort and compliance with societal expectations guarantee happiness. This optimism, however, is cruel in the sense articulated by the cultural critic Lauren Berlant. In Berlant’s view, optimism turns cruel when it channels hope and effort towards something that is perilous8. ‘I have indeed wondered whether all optimism is cruel,’ Berlant writes,’because the experience of loss of the conditions of its reproduction can be so breathtakingly bad, just as the threat of the loss of x [object of optimism] in the scope of one’s attachment drives can feel like a threat to living on itself. But some scenes of optimism are clearly crueler than others: where cruel optimism operates, the very vitalizing or animating potency of an object/scene of desire contributes to the attrition of the very thriving that is supposed to be made possible in the work of attachment in the first place.’ In other words, when it generates a false hope in detrimental conditions, the optimism is cruel.

Happy narratives turn bankrupt and risky ways into aspirational ones in Berlant’s cruelly optimistic way. Especially at a time of a climate emergency, deepening inequalities and increasing precarity, optimistic scenarios based on the glorification of labour, success and visibility, seem particularly dangerous. True, advertising and mainstream fashion media would want us to believe that solutions to climate change lie in ‘shopping sustainable brands,’ yet following their lead would be naive, stupid and dangerous. It might be easy to discard self-help books, sentimental LinkedIn posts and, indeed, the optimism of Emily in Paris as meaningless and laughable, but the ubiquity and pervasiveness of happy narratives have a disciplining effect, as they reiterate and entrench what is desirable, happy and good. They continuously trivialise the risks and dangers of living in a time of crisis. Pessimism might do us some good here.

Ira Solomatina is a researcher, lecturer and writer whose interest lies in the intersection of globalisation, gender and fashion.

  1. Vladimir Propp, ‘Study of the folktale: structure and history,’ Dispositio 1, no. 3, 1976, pp. 277–292. 

  2. Giuseppe Tateo, ‘Viktor Shklovsky, Bronislaw Malinowski, and the Invention of a Narrative Device,’ HAU journal of ethnographic theory 10, no. 3, pp. 813–827, 2020. 

  3. Examples abound; for some instances see products by brands LoveShea, Inner Sense, abeautifulworld, Rituals. 

  4. Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness, Duke University Press, 2010. 

  5. https://www.vogue.com/article/bella-hadid-cover-april-2022 

  6. https://www.vogue.com/article/dua-lipa-cover-june-july-2022
    and https://www.vogue.com/slideshow/collina-strada-small-business-spotlight 

  7. Rosalind Gill and Shani Orgad, ‘The Confidence Cult(ure),’ Australian feminist studies 30, no. 86, pp. 324–344, 2015. 

  8. Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism, Duke University Press, 2011.