G is for Genre

| March 30, 2014

I was browsing through Netflix this weekend and couldn’t help but realize how dependent I was on the categories of movies/ tv shows to determine what it was I was planning to watch. Genres provide us with a schema for understanding artistic work. They allow us to categorize similar stories and styles, setting up a type of immediate expectation of what the experience will be. By simply identifying one aspect of an artistic work—its genre—we set up the framework for the aesthetic experience that will follow. It often is comforting to know that we can expect happy endings for Romantic Comedies, a heart-racing thrill from an Action film, or puzzling events to try to crack in a Mystery. However, sorting based on genre can also limit us. I may completely overlook a funny film that is primarily classified as a Mystery if I feel like I need to search through Comedies to appease my current mood and taste in a film.

It also gets messy when certain stories don’t fit into just one particular genre.

A few years back, when I first tried to talk to my mom about the early-2000s show, Firefly, she seemed completely confused. “It’s SO GOOD. It’s a… Space Western,” I had told her, receiving only a confused look. I realized that I lacked the proper vocabulary to describe what the show is, because it doesn’t fit neatly into any one particular genre. It is undoubtedly a work of Science Fiction—taking place 500 years in the future, in an alternate star system, and often on a spaceship itself. However, it has aesthetics of a classic Western—taking place after a Civil War, featuring smugglers (dressed it Western attire) armed with pistols alongside laser guns, and even has saloons and horses.

When we think of Sci Fi, we tend to think of clean, plastic, and robotic—all pristine technology. When you take that primary aesthetic experience of Sci Fi and turn it on its head—by including elements related to American westward expansion—it gets a lot more confusing. By that right, it also gets a lot more exciting. Blending traditional Western and Sci Fi narratives together creates a unique and, in this case, quality experience that is hard to find elsewhere. (Although Cowboys and Aliens tried a few years black to blend similar genres, I can’t say it was exactly as successful as Whedon’s story.)

People like the neat, pre-packaged boxes that classifying works in genre can provide. However, as with Firefly and its follow-up feature film, Serenity, it can limit the ways in which we talk about or experience pieces that don’t fit into such tidy categories.