Why are we all so obsessed with genre?


Genre is far more pivotal in our lives than we give it credit for. It is not just a useful tool to help us select a film on Netflix, or to assess which book we will like best in Waterstones, it is an innate aspect of human nature.

We use the categorising element of genre in order to problem solve. But if our brains already make these decisions for us, why with all the hip-hip lovers, period drama addicts and arty farty expressionist fanatics, are we so obsessed with genre?

When choice is large, as it can be with literature, film, and music, we utilise genre as a logical tool to narrow down our options; an aspect of Amos Tversky’s Prospect Theory coined ‘the Isolation Effect’ or ‘eliminating alternatives’. Genre is a double-edged sword and whilst it may seem to protect us, it can have negative repercussions without us even knowing.

Humans, being skilfully aware of their likes and dislikes, makes the role of genre a simple one and its simplicity is what makes it so successful. Genre keeps us safe from things we don’t want to see or experience, and it opens us up to those which we do. The mythical genre logic tool in our brain works in exactly the same capacity as our common sense. In the same way the voice in our heads prevents us from walking out into traffic or stroking the neighbours angry dog, the brain shelters us from genres that we fear and maybe even more sinister, the fear of the unknown.

The gothic defining an epoch

One way we can think about drama is casting our minds back to the Victorian era. From stone turreted libraries to Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey the Victorian period is synonymous with the darkness and restrained seductiveness of the Gothic – but why?

Beginning in the 1700s, the Gothic allowed something other genres failed to deliver to a watchful Victorian audience – liberation. In a world governed by conformism, repressed desires and rigidity, the Gothic granted escapism. The public could revel in the debauchery of Dorian Gray whilst sat by the fire in their straight laced homes. Yet more importantly, the Gothic allowed the reader to indulge in hedonism with the knowledge that justice would be served by the end to ease their guilty conscious.

A century on we are still searching for this escapism, whilst maybe through different channels, but a global pandemic and Boris Johnson’s clumsiness is surely enough for any of us to want to transport ourselves to another world.

Enter: the contemporary tropes

In contemporary society, we can compare this phenomenon to that of the horror film. The endless premieres of hauntings, zombies and doomsdays allow the modern audience the same kind of catharsis. When the credits begin to roll and our hearts stop palpitating, we are comforted by the subconscious thought of thank goodness this isn’t happening to me and our lives look brighter in comparison. Our own, sometimes rather dismal life is affirmed as a relief from what could have been.

In contrast we engage with other genres such as comedy or romance for the safety of the ‘happy ending’. When life seems in despair, we need affirmation that good things happen to good people and the predictability of these genres will provide that. We have seen them all before; the buddy film, the body switching, the love triangle. Despite this repetitive nature,  we all still rush to put on Freaky Friday or Step Brothers whenever we are needing a virtual hug.

Of course, watching psychological thrillers and foreign film can just be too energy zapping after a long day, but as a result of our modern, busy lives avoiding certain genres has become habitual. The genre ‘safety net’ has become commonplace and fewer and fewer people are watching films that push them outside their comfort zone and challenges any filmic tropes or unpredictability.

This predictability of audiences means that epicentres like Hollywood choose to invest in certain types of film that guarantee high revenue but rarely challenge the conventional. Whilst this not only discourages creative innovation, it means funding and the accessibility of arthouse cinema is suffering more than ever.

With the exponential growth of streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime that algorithmically knows your preferences and places films into clearly labelled genre boxes, finding something different has become near inexistent. Without even a passing thought, Netflix knows you like rom-coms or police dramas and as such it filters other genres into the bin.

Why it’s really ‘recommended’

Anyone noticed the same thing on their music streaming sites? YouTube always ‘recommends’ something of a very similar ilk to what you have searched for in the first place. A search for the Arctic Monkeys will bring up more Indie Rock such as The Neighbourhood and Oasis, opening up a common stream of audio. We are entangled within our own personal safety webs. Limiting our exposure to other music genres may seem sensible, why would you want to be incessantly shown jazz or disco when you like rap? The answer is it is a far more complex question than that.

When we pigeonhole ourselves to rap music, for example by attending rap events, watching interviews of rap celebrities and engaging with the socio-political ideologies that are connected to rap music on social media; our phone data is pinged around streaming platforms as an aggressive ping pong ball. Whilst this isn’t necessarily bad, it only exposes that individual to the connoted opinions of one small proportion of society. As a consequence, it makes connecting with others who have different interests more difficult. You only have to watch The Great Hack once to shed some accurate data light on Brexit. And if you haven’t seen it, do.

Meet your new genre

The issue with modern society and the development of technology means that the brain no longer manually eliminates alternatives, a computer somewhere far away is making that decision for us. 

As our streaming services learn to ‘know us better’ they start to shield us and manipulate our choices. This is all coinciding with a world where people are becoming increasingly polarised and isolated from one another. As a result, we meet up with people in real life less and find compatible communities online, therefore, gaining less varied perspectives and tastes. Whilst meeting other people online who like garage music or Asian cinema are not bad things at all, it does mean we do not give ourselves the opportunity to like anything else that we may equally enjoy.

When we decide to watch or listen to something different, the algorithm becomes confused and starts to know you a little less. It means we reclaim the right to eliminate alternatives for ourselves and who knows, maybe you will surprise yourself.

Artwork courtesy of Isabel Armitage