Bent Genres in the Cultural Cycle of the Genre Convention

Curator's Note

Genres are always changing, and we can see this by looking at the cultural cycle of the genre convention. Yet recent cultural developments have urged this process of change to accelerate, creating hybrid or “bent” genres that we see everywhere today. Genres are socially constructed concepts that are always under negotiation in a given culture. Conventions are elements in a genre that viewers come to expect, such as character types, narrative structures, concepts, settings, themes, or other elements. To keep a genre culturally relevant, fresh, and engaging, new elements must be introduced that we can call inventions. For instance, in 1898, H. G. Wells came up with a brand-new idea in his book The War of the Worlds: aliens invading Earth. At the time, this had never been done before, and this invention breathed new life into the incipient science fiction genre. Due to its popularity, this invention was imitated with degrees of variation by many other texts over the following decades to become a convention of the genre. However, in recent decades, this idea has become overused and has become a cliché, or a worn-out convention that no longer has a sense of cultural relevance or originality anymore.

Genres must continually introduce new inventions into their mix to stay relevant, but these conventions lose their potency over time, many of them being discarded for a time and replaced by other inventions that typically are elements borrowed from other genres, media, or even academic or popular discourse. Today, we are seeing more of these “bent” genres as aesthetic texts are trying to change with the turbulent social developments of the past few decades. For instance, in the romance genre, we have seen the birth of hybrids, such as zombie-romantic-comedy films (the zom-rom-com) like Andrew Currie’s Fido (2006) or the romantic fantasy drama film like Your Name. (Shinkai, 2016). These new genre infusions inject invention into the romance genre, pushing the genre in new directions. While not all of these bent genre experiments will lead to success, imitation, and conventionality, they create ways the genre can still captivate their audience, discuss recent social issues, and forge new thematic directions that avoid clichés.

Yet, in the end, this cultural cycle of the convention and the change this creates in genres is nothing new. Genres are always changing. If you need proof, just watch Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and compare it to Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead (2004) or Fleischer’s Zombieland (2009). While they are all definitely zombie films, so much has changed over the years. Even the zombies themselves have turned from lumbering ghouls to quick moving predators, and these changes have real representational meaning that reflect the concerns of their times. While change is an inherent feature of all genres, the acceleration of these changes and the prevalence of bent genres in the past two decades is a symptom of the rapid changes in American and world culture, and something that clearly needs more research. From #MeToo to Black Lives Matters to cancel culture to the realities of quarantine life, things are moving fast, our outlooks are changing, and genres are doing all they can to keep up.

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