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Genre Theory
Daniel Chandler: Conventional definitions of genres tend to be based on the notion
that they constitute particular conventions of content (such as themes or settings)
and/or form (including structure and style) which are shared by the texts which are
regarded as belonging to them.
It is easy to underplay the differences within a genre. Steve Neale declares that
'genres are instances of repetition and difference' (Neale 1980, 48). He adds that
'difference is absolutely essential to the economy of genre': mere repetition would
not attract an audience.
Texts often exhibit the conventions of more than one genre. John Hartley notes
that 'the same text can belong to different genres in different countries or times'
(O'Sullivan et al. 1994).
Traditionally, genres (particularly literary genres) tended to be
regarded as fixed forms, but contemporary theory emphasizes that
both their forms and functions are dynamic. David Buckingham
argues that 'genre is not... simply "given" by the culture: rather, it
is in a constant process of negotiation and change' (Buckingham
Daniel Chandler: Every genre positions those who participate in a text of that kind:
as interviewer or interviewee, as listener or storyteller, as a reader or a writer, as a
person interested in political matters, as someone to be instructed or as someone who
instructs; each of these positionings implies different possibilities for response and
for action. Each written text provides a 'reading position' for readers, a position
constructed by the writer for the 'ideal reader' of the text. (Kress 1988,)
Thus, embedded within texts are assumptions about the 'ideal reader', including
their attitudes towards the subject matter and often their class, age, gender and
Genre and Audience
'Uses and gratifications‘ research has identified many potential pleasures of genre,
including the following:
•One pleasure may simply be the recognition of the features of a particular genre because
of our familiarity with it. Recognition of what is likely to be important (and what is not),
derived from our knowledge of the genre, is necessary in order to follow a plot.
•Genres may offer various emotional pleasures such as empathy and escapism - a feature
which some theoretical commentaries seem to lose sight of. Aristotle, of course,
acknowledged the special emotional responses which were linked to different genres.
Deborah Knight notes that 'satisfaction is guaranteed with genre; the deferral of the
inevitable provides the additional pleasure of prolonged anticipation' (Knight 1994).
•Steve Neale argues that pleasure is derived from 'repetition and difference' (Neale
1980); there would be no pleasure without difference. We may derive pleasure from
observing how the conventions of the genre are manipulated (Abercrombie 1996). We
may also enjoy the stretching of a genre in new directions and the consequent shifting
of our expectations.
•Other pleasures can be derived from sharing our experience of a genre with others
within an 'interpretive community' which can be characterized by its familiarity with
certain genres (Daniel Chandler).
Tom Ryall (1978) – Genre provides a framework of structuring rules, in the shape of
patterns/forms/styles/structures, which act as a form of ‘supervision’ over the work of production
of filmmakers and the work of reading by the audience.
John Fiske defines genres as ‘attempts to structure some order into the wide range of texts and
meanings that circulate in our culture for the convenience of both producers and audiences.’
Steve Neale (1990) argues that Hollywood’s generic regime performs two inter-related functions:
i) to guarantee meanings and pleasures for audiences ii) to offset the considerable economic
risks of industrial film production by providing cognitive collateral against innovation and
Neale (1980)- much of the pleasure of popular cinema lies in the process of “difference
in repetition” – i.e. recognition of familiar elements and in the way those elements
might be orchestrated in an unfamiliar fashion or in the way that unfamiliar elements
might be introduced
Rick Altman argues that genres are usually defined in terms of media language
(SEMANTIC elements) and codes (in the Western, for example: guns, horses,
landscape, characters or even stars, like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood) or certain
ideologies and narratives (SYNTACTIC elements).
Can Genre be defined by audience? Is it a question of film
Neale (1990) – Genre is constituted by “specific systems of expectations and
hypothesis which spectators bring with them to the cinema and which interact
with the films themselves during the course of the viewing process.”
Jonathan Culler (1978) – generic conventions exist to establish a
contract between creator and reader so as to make certain expectations
operative, allowing compliance and deviation from the accepted modes
of intelligibility. Acts of communication are rendered intelligible only
within the context of a shared conventional framework of expression.
Ryall (1998) sees this framework provided by the generic system;
therefore, genre becomes a cognitive repository of images, sounds,
stories, characters, and expectations
To the producers of films, genre is a template for what they make.
To the distributor/promoter, genre provides assumptions about who the audience is and how
to market the films for that specific audience.
To the audience, it is a label that identifies a liked or disliked formula and provides certain
rules of engagement for the spectator in terms of anticipation of pleasure e.g. the anticipation
of what will happen in the attic scene of The Exorcist.
When genres become classic, they can exert tremendous influence: production can be come
quicker and more confident because film-makers are following tested formulae and have a
ready shorthand to work with, and actors can be filtered into genres and can be seen to have
assumed ‘star quality’ when their mannerisms, physical attributes, way of speaking and acting
fit a certain style of genre.
In turn, viewers become ‘generic spectators’ and can be said to develop generic
memory which helps the in the anticipation of events, even though the films
themselves might play on certain styles rather than follow closely a clichéd
formula. E.g. the attic scene from The Exorcist – we expect something to jump
out on the woman because all the generic conventions are in place, but in the
end, the director deflates the tension. We do not consume films as individual
entities, but in an intertextual way. Film is a post-modern medium in this way,
because movies make sense in relation to other films, not to reality.
It is the way genre films deviate from the clichéd formulae that leads to a more
interesting experience for the viewer, but fore this to work properly, the
audience must be familiar with generic conventions and style.
David Bordwell notes, 'any theme may appear in any genre' (Bordwell 1989)
‘One could... argue that no set of necessary and sufficient conditions can mark off
genres from other sorts of groupings in ways that all experts or ordinary filmgoers would find acceptable'
Theorist and Critic Rick Altman (1999) came up with a list of points he found problematic
with genre classicfication .
Genre is a useful category, because it bridges multiple concerns.
Genres are defined by the film industry and recognised by the mass audience.
Genres have clear, stable identities and borders.
Individual films belong wholly and permanently to a single genre.
Genres are transhistorical.
Genres undergo predictable development.
Genres are located in particular topic, structure and corpus.
Genre films share certain fundamental characteristic.
Genres have either a ritual or ideological function.
Genre critics are distanced from the practice of genre.