Humans, we are compulsive creatures.
We like to organize things into neat little piles and then put them into neat little boxes. But then we get tired. Aren’t the boxes so boring? Aren’t they unoriginal? Not realizing that it’s us who forced the things into the pile and the box. But wouldn’t it be cool if a box, just one, surprised us? And then, when we open a box, and we don’t find exactly what we expect, we get upset! “Who put this yellow thing in this box of blue things?” we exclaim, “When I buy a blue box I expect blue things!”
This is basically our relationship with genre (and incidentally, people stereotypes, which I just realized). I’ll stop with the metaphor now. It got away from me.
Wanting a story to surprise us is no new—or bad—thing. Twists and turns are storytelling devices that make for exciting, compelling experiences. What I have noticed a lot in fandom, but mostly among critics, is the desire for genre to surprise us, the call for creators to break genre conventions. To think outside the box. (I swear I didn’t plan this, but it worked perfectly for me, didn’t it?)
But the thing is, genre itself is marked by a set of expectations the audience has. And I’d like to make the point that as audiences, we don’t really want to be surprised by significant changes in genre conventions.
What even is genre?
Something I find interesting about filmmaking and film theory in general is that there is hardly a consensus on anything, and genre is no different.
Commercial genres are neatly defined as a selling point for audiences: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Romantic Comedies, Action, Horror, etc. This categorization is a bit too generalized when we get into the nitty gritty of it. Take Fantasy for example. Fantasy contains fantastical elements such as magic, monsters, and a particular mythology. You hear fantasy and the mind goes straight to Lord of the Rings. It probably puts off certain people upon hearing the name.
Now consider Game of Thrones. It has magic and dragons and zombies (few and far between, but still), but at its core and at its best moment, it is more of a political drama. Twilight contains vampires, so it counts as a fantasy, but it centers around a romantic relationship, so it’s a romance.
Then we have something like Zombieland, a horror, which is more of a comedy coming of age story with some romantic comedy sprinkled in.
We could call it genre blending, but is it?
There are scholars coming up with genre theories that say things like fantasy and sci-fi are just backdrops, that what is really important is the individual journey of your protagonist (or multiple protagonists). Writing-wise, this categorization is actually much more useful than the commercial one.
In the end, our relationship with genre as audiences is determined by expectation. And we expect to be surprised. No, not surprised. Shocked.
I’ll just go ahead and put part of the blame on Game of Thrones not just because I can, but because it makes sense. It is one of the few piece of media remaining that is so widely watched that it colors our social experience. It’s a necessary topic of conversation when it’s on. At least in my generation. And it has set expectations from us to be shocked by what we are seeing, especially on television.
But I feel like we can confuse shock with surprise, and surprise with breaking genre conventions.
Shock, surprise and genre breaking
Shock is what everyone felt when Game of Thrones killed its lead character in the second to last episode of its first season. But it was also a surprise, a well-crafted twist in storytelling. The writer built toward an outcome but distracted you from it, so that when it came, it surprised you, because you were not expecting it.
Pure shock is what Game of Thrones tries to do nowadays, killing characters left and right. They do it poorly, I think. Because at this point, who doesn’t expect that from them? Pure shock is not the same as a well-crafted surprise.
Breaking genre, on the other hand, can be a complicated thing. Do we take the conventions of commercial genre? Clearly, they are not enough to truly encapsulate all that TV and film is capable of in terms of mixing elements. Especially for writers. Sometimes writers can fall into the trap of only writing for genre conventions, and that is when we get the most clichéd of the clichés. Those films or shows we feel like we’ve seen a thousand times and they have nothing new to offer.
Meanwhile, we the audience can also fall into a trap. We tend to gravitate toward certain genres and feel very attached to them. As such, there will be those who do not tolerate their expectations not being met. Then there are those who expect their expectations to be superseded. Or whose expectations are that the material will break the mold. But do we really like it when genre is actually broken or truly mixed?
In my experience, most don’t.
Is it even possible?
Mixing storytelling elements? Yes. We see it all the time, and increasingly. That’s why the categorizations based on character journeys make more and more sense to me as time passes. But if I had to think of movies that truly surprised audiences, enough to give them whiplash, I can think of two.
Cabin in the Woods is a horror comedy parody with sci-fi and fantasy elements. It’s about a group of college students who travel to the woods for the weekend. As they travel, their personalities begin to change and fall into the common character tropes of horror movies. Simultaneously, we see a super-tech control center from which they are being watched, and it becomes clear whoever is in the center wants to control the situation. Why? For a ritual sacrifice to stop the apocalypse.
It is a weird movie. I kind of like it.
Critics, incidentally, love it too. Although professional critics’ opinions rarely coincide with the general public’s opinion, everyone I know who’s a huge nerd likes this move. Everyone I know who isn’t, hated it. My friends nearly skewered me when I made them watch it because for the first time, they told me, I had failed them in recommending a film.
Now, a film that truly gave audiences whiplash, enough for there to be a loud exclamation in the theater, was 10 Cloverfield Lane. It’s a psychological thriller, it’s horror, and it’s sci-fi. But the most crucial part of its genre breaking is that it (seemingly) pulls a 180 about 80 minutes into the film.
I would argue that it’s not actually a 180, that the twist was seeded time and time again during the course of the film. Yet still, many people talk about how nonsensical or jarring it was for them as they were exiting the theater and in the bathroom. (The best post-film conversations happen in the bathroom!) The point is, they felt betrayed by the film, which had been fulfilling their adjusted expectations up until that moment.
And that encapsulates the point I’m trying to make.
Tropes, not Genre Conventions
Let’s go back briefly to Game of Thrones and their killing of Ned Stark. What the audience expected from the show at that point, in terms of genre, was political intrigue, familial drama and yes, a little bit of magic. Killing Ned did not actually bend or break those expectations. What killing Ned broke was a trope.
Storytelling tropes are plot conventions or devices that are used in TV and film again and again and again. Clichés, basically. They are, for the most part, divorced from genre. You can “fridge” a character in a horror film just as well as an action movie. You can have the “Madonna/Whore” complex represented in just about every single type of story.
The fact that the protagonist never (really) dies in stories did not originate in fantasy so breaking that pattern does not break fantasy itself as a genre. It’s not even the first time a primary hero has died in a fantasy story. My point is, I realized most of the time I hear about this or that show being unexpected and breaking genre conventions, people actually mention storytelling tropes rather than genre elements.
Because the truth is, genre can be bent, but if it is bent out of shape, or broken, we as audiences don’t tend to celebrate it. It becomes unrecognizable when it breaks our expectations. We feel betrayed.
The hard part is that no matter how much we may wish to escape commercial influence, the way a film is marketed also colors our expectations. Crimson Peak was marketed as a horror when it is actually a romance. If we go in expecting a horror film, most of us will walk out disappointed. 10 Cloverfield Lane probably suffered from this as well.
The interesting part (for me) is that our expectations are not actually based on anything we know as ‘genre.’ Our expectations are based on our own likes and dislikes in the thematic elements and time periods we gravitate towards. It’s a subjective experience, because in the end, it’s also art.
So out with the tropes, and what even is genre?