‘Genre’ is Not a Naughty Word

Pans Labyrinth 2

Yesterday, a friend of mine commented that she disliked my describing Rose Byrne as a “genre darling” in my Neighbors review because it confines her within a narrow field of film and the word ‘genre’ is generally derogatory. I can absolutely see where she’s coming from, but I’d like to explain why I used the description and why ‘genre’ is not a naughty word.

There’s a difference between a judgment and a descriptor. My reviews go to paper, too, so they don’t get to be as free-form as some of my other articles – I’m limited to about 700 words. Sometimes, I have to describe personalities very quickly. Rose Byrne is most often associated with ‘genre’ films; that’s how the most readers will know who I’m talking about in the fewest words. In my judgment, I hardly think Seth Rogen ought to be a “comedy mainstay,” as I described him in the review, but that’s how readers know him because that’s how he’s used. Any time I can effectively describe an actor in two words rather than list off movies, it frees up an incredible amount of space I can use to talk about the film itself. And Neighbors has an issue that demanded the space: one of the least responsible inclusions of rape I’ve ever seen on film.

My goal was to concisely describe Rogen and Byrne and Zac Efron so that an audience would immediately recognize who I was talking about. Maybe I succeeded and maybe I didn’t, but when we call Rose Byrne a ‘genre darling’ or William H. Macy and Tilda Swinton ‘indie darlings’ or John McCain and Barack Obama ‘media darlings,’ it doesn’t define them as being capable of nothing else but those specialties. It defines them as being so particularly excellent at those specialties that they stand head and shoulders above incredibly crowded fields. It is not mutually exclusive to being good at anything else and it is not meant to cage them within a particular genre.

The Martian Chronicles lead

When I say Byrne carries Rogen and the comedy, that’s a judgment. When I say she shouldn’t have played a scene in which she gets a girl drunk so she can peer pressure her into sex and physically force her into sexual contact, that’s a judgment. But saying Byrne has a history in ‘genre’ film is no different than describing Efron as a “former Disney wonderkid.” They aren’t meant to be complete definitions, but rather to get a reader on the same page as quickly as possible.

Insofar as ‘genre’ goes as a derogatory term, I grew up watching and reading almost nothing but genre. I love genre. To me, ‘genre’ is a far more appealing word than ‘drama’ or ‘literary’. Genre can do things neither of those can. Robert Heinlein is genre. Ursula K. Le Guin is genre. Gabriel Garcia Marquez and William Gibson and Margaret Atwood are genre. The Thing and Star Trek and Gravity are genre. In 1992, Star Trek: The Next Generation had consecutive episodes that argued for gay marriage rights and for the humane qualities of euthanasia. Show me one other U.S. TV show that’s willing to risk that much every week even today, let alone 22 years ago under 12 straight years of Reagan/Bush.

‘Genre’ isn’t something to be ashamed of. ‘Genre’ is what everything else secretly wants to be, cause ‘genre’ has enjoyed golden ages ‘drama’ and ‘literary’ could only dream of, and takes social stands ‘drama’ and ‘literary’ take their cues from a decade later, after ‘genre’ takes the initial risk to show that it can work.

Yojimbo cap

Samurai films and monster movies are genre. They’re how Japan chose to confront, on a nationwide scale, the guilt and shame of blindly following leaders into decades of genocide and war. Superhero movies are genre. They’re fast becoming our best venue for culture-wide dissections of privacy and military-industrial concerns in our own government. Martial arts films are genre. They’re what allowed China to stake their claim to cultural relevancy alongside Hollywood: first among their own people and, later, to the West itself. Westerns opened up Spain’s film industry the way horror movies opened up Italy’s. Magical realism brought Latin American writers to the fore. Mexican horror (through the Spanish film industry Westerns created) has become the premier translation for Mexican Catholicism’s uniquely evolved fusion of modern doctrinal religion, old-fashioned spiritual animism, and ancestor worship.

‘Genre’ can help heal countries, can call out governments, can help introduce cultures to each other, can kickstart national film industries, can translate the incredible complexities of entire religions and cultures. ‘Literary’ and ‘drama’ don’t often get to be so outspoken. In my opinion, they far too often play it safe.

So screw ‘genre’ being a derogatory term. I don’t get on board with that. ‘Genre’ is what people want to go see. ‘Genre’ is what takes risks before more accepted forms do. ‘Genre’ changes minds and elicits ideas and time and again has to make smarter, sharper arguments than more ordinary forms. So if I bother to call something ‘genre,’ what I’m really saying is, “This shit’s brave.” And if I bother to call an actor a ‘genre darling,’ what I’m really saying is, “This actor takes risks and, because of that, they do things 99% of their contemporaries can’t.”

Degas ballet 3

Samuel Beckett, Bertolt Brecht, Fritz Lang, Mary Shelley, Ray Bradbury, Georgie O’Keefe, Frida Kahlo, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola, Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas and all of Impressionism were ‘genre’ before they became so overpowering and immediate as artists and movements that they became accepted as somehow ‘dramatic’ or ‘literary’ and therefore ‘classic,’ suddenly off-limits to ‘genre.’ But the truth is none of them ever left being genre. ‘Accepted’ just caught the hell up.

‘Genre’ drags everything else forward. Everything. I will never use that word in a derogatory way, but I will absolutely keep using that word, because ‘genre’ is what I was raised on and I can’t think of any piece of art I like more than a science-fiction movie like Moon or a horror movie like Let the Right One In, a Western like Once Upon a Time in the West or a martial arts film like Police Story, a crime movie like Stray Dog or a mystery like North by Northwest. Not calling something ‘genre,’ that’s derogatory. But ‘genre’ is the future. It always was and it always will be, and there’s absolutely nothing ‘literary’ or ‘dramatic’ can ever do about it. They’ll continually play catch up to ‘genre’ for the remainder of human existence. And if that’s not a ‘genre’ ending, I don’t know what is.

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One thought on “‘Genre’ is Not a Naughty Word”

  1. I worked at a bookstore that classified fiction books as ‘genre’ (the Sci-fi/Fantasy section, the Mystery section, the Romance section, etc) and just ‘fiction’, by which it mostly meant so-called ‘serious literature’. I realized at one point that most of the ‘fiction’ titles were carried were just boring stories with no action and little plot, whereas the genre titles always had strong plots that drew the reader in. So give me genre fiction any day. Why the hell do people read John Updike or Joyce Carol Oates anyway? Their stuff is dull laborious dust.

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