How to teach Genre

Genre is part of the Key Concept of Language, and can be applied to all kinds of media text. Putting media texts such as film, television programmes, print media, or music into categories is useful as a way of establishing some kind of control over an amorphous mass of information. Each genre follows its own kinds of conventions - language, characteristic signs and sign systems. However, genres are fluid and not fixed and under constant renegotiation between media industry and audience through the combination of the familiar and the unexpected.

Why Genre is important

Whenever we see a media text for the first time it is like entering a new and unfamiliar world- all the characters, locations and events are new to us and everything about itwould seem unfamiliar and therefore alarming if it weren’t for the factthat we could recognise the Genre and spot the conventions- we feel at homein this strange world.

For this reason, ratherthan just looking at what genre conventions are present in a media text (the easiest way of studying genre) it is actually much more interesting to think about what goes on in our heads when we encounter a genre piece: the effect these genre conventions have on us as an audience and how much we are allowed to feel comfortable and secure in the conventions of the genre. A text can use the conventions to make us feel at home, or confuse us by deviating from them.

A famous example of this messing around with genre expectations is a film called The Wild Bunch made in 1969. At the start of the movie it seems in some ways to be atypical example of the Western Genre. As a member of the audience you feel comfortable within the Genre because you see all of the conventional ingredients - the hats, the guns the horses and so on. However, this sense of security and comfort soon goes: as the film opens a group of soldiers enter a village and we see some bandits aiming their guns at them. Because we are used to the genre we know what to expect- it is clear that the soldiers will turn out to be the heroes of the film and the bandits the villains. We might even already be anticipating the end of the film when the bandits are finally killed in a climactic shoot out. Unfortunately all of this is completely wrong- the soldiers are in fact bandits in disguise and the bandits are working for the police- the genre has been turned on its head.

Now think about how this affects our enjoyment of the film. As it starts, we are enjoying the way it fits our expectations of a western, but as things become unfamiliar, we enjoy even more the unexpectedness of the genre being messed around with. We actually enjoy our Knowledge of Genre but at the same time we enjoy seeing the rules broken as long as the film-maker doesn’t go too far.

If you’ve seen Pulp Fiction you can think about in the same way. As members of the audience we feel at home because we have seen many gangster films in the past but we also enjoy the script which makes the characters talk like no gangsterswe’ve ever heard before- the situations are stock ones for the genre, but the dialogue is from a very different kind of film.

All of this worksbecause we have become a sophisticated audience that can cope with seeing the conventions of one genre messed around with and even mixed with those ofanother Genre. This is something that puts us ahead of the audiences of thepast: we have simply seen many more films and television programmes than anyone in the history of the media and therefore expect genre categories tobe messed around with.

In summary- Genre offers audiences a structure- However, rebellious we think we are, we still like some level of organisation in the media texts that we enjoy. Genre offers us this- we feel secure in our knowledge of the workings of the genre.

In fact there are a number of ways that we can enjoy genre- we like the anticipation of waiting for the predictable features. You may complain, for example, that Neighbours is so obvious, but in fact one of the reasons that the series is so popularis that regular viewers enjoy seeing their Genre expectations fulfilled. Many people feel that watching shows such as this turn you into couch potatoes- unthinking morons who just let the images from the television runthrough you like a drug, but in fact the way that you wait for certain genre moments and predict elements appearing requires quite a degree of involvement and thought on your part. At the same time as we enjoy this predictability, we also like it when the producers of the media text surprise us. This can be gentle as in the case of a sit-com which mixes regular features of the genre with new variations each week. It can also bemore extreme as in the case of Pulp Fiction which almost destroys our notions of what a gangster film should be like.
List three examples that you can think of of media texts where your expectations of the genre are subverted.
Do audiences actually create genre
There is quite a powerful argument that audiences actually have a major role in the creationof genre in the sense that our bums on seats are the principal reason why any film gets made in the first place. Think about how this idea works- if a film is produced that re-invents a genre that we, the audience, had grown tired of (Scream, Gladiator, Saving Private Ryan), it only has a chance of reviving the genre if we actually end up liking it. Similarly within an existing genre, innovations in individual films only affect the genre as a whole if they are accepted by the audience.

In fact, the audience are the force that makes a genre change- it would be much easier for film companies to keep churning out identical genre products, but we resist it and falling ticket returns force change on the studios. On the other hand, audience’s unwillingness to buy outside recognised genres could stifle creativity on the part of film-makers.

Think about how all of this has affected the recent history of the horror genre. During the seventies a number of new and original films such as The Exorcist the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and in particular, Halloween, became hugely popular with audiences. The film companies responded by making loads of cheap cash-inimitations of these films such as the Friday the 13th series.
As time went by, audiences gradually became bored by the unoriginality of these films and the filmmakers were forced to innovate at first by including ever increasing levels of violence.

Audiences again reacted by losing a taste for the genre particularly as some of them began to worry about links between film violence and crime. As a result, for much of the late eighties and early nineties the genre disappeared from mainstream high profile studio production. Where horror did appear it was in films of other genres which interested the audience more- Science Fiction (the Alien series) and the thriller (The Silence of the Lambs.)

Finally in the midnineties as many of the existing genres which were popular with the public were becoming increasingly expensive, the studios decided it was time to give the cheap genre of horror another push. To do this however, they had to reinvent the genre taking into account the reasons why audiences had not liked it in the first place- lack of originality and too much violence.Their answer was Scream, which gave horror a new start by toning down the violence and involving the audience’s criticisms of the unoriginality in the jokes of the film.

Reading through this highly simplified account, you will have seen the way the studios and the audience work together as being a symbiotic relationship. We respond with pleasure to certain innovations in the genre and indifference to others and the industry timidly adapts itself to our interests.

Why do Filmmakers like Genre?
If audiences are so sophisticated now that they can appreciate much more than simple genre pieces and force the studios to work outside the apparent restrictions of genres, why should the film makers bother with it at all. The main reason is because it is easy:

1. It’s easy tomarket- When you are actually watching a film you have the time and concentration to see a genre’s conventions being destroyed but a filmposter or a trailer needs to be clear and so it is easiest for them to work simply around the genre.

2. It’s easier tomake- if you have someone who has done the special effects on Terminator then the easiest thing in the world for him/her is to go on the make lots of other films which use exactly the same kind of special effects. If you are adirector who makes action films it is easy to make more action films- if you try something new it is much more likely that it will fail- Stephen Spielberg for a long time made only action films and has only once made a comedy (1941) which flopped. He has also only once made a romance (Always)which also flopped!

3. It’s easier to get a guaranteed audience. If you have seen a film and enjoyed it, you are likely to want to see other films that are similar and this makes genre films very attractive to film-makers. There are plenty of very violent gangster films that have only succeeded to any extent at all because people going to see them thought they would be a bit like Resevoir Dogs. When the magazine Viz came out and invented a genre all of its own there immediately appeared lots of other copycat magazines which had a guaranteed audience until people realised how dreadful they were.

4. It’s easier tochoose and market your star. As much as films are sold through their Genre, they also are sold by the stars who appear in them- but this often works with the Genre because stars often have generic associations which help us to enjoy the film. In other words when we see a star in a film we ar econstantly reminded of all the similar films we have seen that star in.

by Steve Baker

Key Questions

Looking at media genre means looking at:

Genre. To which genre does the text belong?

Conventions. What are the major generic conventions within the text?

Iconography. What are the major iconographic features of the text?

Themes. What are the major generic themes of the text?

Characters. To what extent are the characters generically determined?

Expectations. To what extent are the audience’s generic expectations of the text fulfilled or cheated by the text?

Does the text conform to the characteristics of the genre, or does it treat them playfully or ironically?

Stars. Does the text feature a star, a director, a writer etc. who is strongly associated with the genre? What meanings and associations do they have?

Source: 2003 Center for Media Literacy Literacy for the 21st Century / Orientation & Overview

Source: Buckingham, David: Questioning the Media: A Guide for Students.