Genre’s “Evolution” Myth

Nick is sick and tired of these monday-to-friday recyclings of stale theory by these monkey-fighting think-pieces.

“This may be obvious, but is it true?”

So demands my favorite line in Tag Gallagher’s veritable molotov cocktail of genre criticism, “Shoot-Out At the Genre Corral”. An early inspiration for my own academic work seeking to shape a comprehensive theory of genre, this essay remains at least as relevant today as when it was published three decades ago. Gallagher’s aim was to question the very foundations of film genre theory: in particular the belief, widely shared amongst prominent scholars, that genres individually “evolved” in some biological way, eventually peaking at some perfect expression of the form and subsequently degenerating into mere parody or worse. Supposedly thus, genres were birthed, lived, came of glorious age, and then inevitably descended into dottage and death.

A particularly important observation Gallagher made in service of that argument was:

“It is a curious testament to the continued vitality of the western [as a genre] that Warshow back in 1954 found differences between early-1950s and pre-war westerns almost identical to those which critics like Schatz and company detect a quarter-century later between westerns of the 1970s and early 1950s. Perhaps older westerns, like olden times, will always strike the modern mind as less complex, less amoral, and above all less vivid— particularly when the modern mind feels it unnecessary to examine the past in any detail.”

An epic takedown ensues from this point onwards in Gallagher’s essay (which I encourage you to check out for yourself), but the notion of generic evolution has remained remarkably persistent in the critical imagination–despite continuing and compelling evidence to the contrary. While I might have groaned audibly in frustration upon encountering Jen Chaney’s article “Rise of the Neo Rom-Com” in my Feb 20-Mar 5* New York Magazine last week, and its tag “Romantic comedies didn’t die. They evolved,” I wasn’t really surprised either. I followed it up to its longer version on Vulture.com: a significantly more sophisticated take than its truncated print version, but still squarely in the ranks that Gallagher was targeting.

It’s a deeply amusing irony, that just as there has been constancy of flux in genre films throughout the decades, so has there been constancy in the specious argument that there is identifiably some sort of thru-line in this flux, a traceable narrative of “evolution”. Sometimes in isolation, critics even invent this idea anew, congratulating themselves for it, but while it may be “obvious,” it still doesn’t follow, looking at the historical record, that it be true.

In the historical span of film and television, “genre” has been a concept existing simultaneously as a theoretical construct for theorists/critics, and a commercial one for studios. One group is concerned about grouping like things for further study, and the other, a formula for repeated box office success. In her NYM/Vulture piece, Chaney seems to be leaning more closely to the commercial conceptulization of genre, despite her assertion of evolution or rebirth, but I remain unconvinced by her argument that the cinematic rom-com has been reborn in televison series and more cynical filmic incarnations, insisting:

“If you choose any of the major rom-com tropes, you can find examples of films and TV shows from the past five years that have flipped it on its head while simultaneously flipping the bird at traditional ideas about romance.”

She has her cake and eats it too with regard to the films, acknowledging that this genre has been declared “dead” and “reborn” at other times in the past, yet arguing that the new filmic exemplars have in some way been “liberated” from their historical strictures in comparison to the early aughts when it comes to portraying sexuality. This is a deeply ahistorical notion if one is familiar with certain Classical Hollywood rom-coms, which not only broke the rules of their day, but presented what would be considered radical content by some these days as well. (I implore you to seek out Some Like it Hot (Wilder, 1959), and Design For Living (Lubitsch, 1933), which explore queerness, gender ambiguity, and polyamory, and were made within the studio system.)

As for the declaration that rom-coms have been reborn in television, I must absolutely take exception from a narratological perspective. The presence of familiar “tropes” do not a “genre” text make–not on their own. The secret about genre is that it’s a squishy and elusive subject, despite superficial appearances of being a handy organizational system in which to file things. In my own scholarly work, I have (after working through many models I had to discard) sought to define genre as a mode or process of storytelling: a way of assembling familiar components into new things that will be pleasing to an audience that simultaneously desires familiarity (the overall generic category) and surprise (this iteration). And television storytelling is serial in nature–a large, open, extended text. The two “traditional” filmic genre categories I can think of that are least suited to the dilation of television narrative time are the noir and the rom-com. It’s the compressed time-span of the rom-com feature that simultaneously woos and strains credibility–heightened, magical connection between characters that doesn’t drag out and does resolve within a couple hours. Master of None (2016-), which Chaney cites as an example of the new televisual rom-com, is a great show and I love it, but its debut season was a comedy with a romance plot, and not a romantic comedy. These distinctions admittedly sound arbitrary, but if you view individual genres as I do: confined sandboxes that have predictable rules of engagement, it’s fair. The entire structure of Master wasn’t playing according to rom-com rules, but instead operating as a comedy narrative with some recognizable rom-com tropes present.

Genre, even as a concept, may seem at first glance to be “obvious,” but we are, all of us, the better for continually questioning if what we’re sure we know about it is “true.”

*I’m behind on my reading, OK?

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