What is Genre? - Definition & Types

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  • 0:01 Understanding Genre
  • 0:37 Types of Genres
  • 0:55 Importance of Genre
  • 1:35 Evolution of Genre
  • 3:11 Blending of Genres
  • 4:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Ann Casano

Ann has taught university level Film classes and has a Master's Degree in Cinema Studies.

Expert Contributor
Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

Genre is a French word that means sort or style. It is often used to classify different types of art. In this lesson, we will define genre, learn why it's important and look at how genres evolve over time.

Understanding Genre

You tell your friend that you're going to the movies. The first question that he or she may ask you is, 'What kind of movie is it?' If you tell him or her that it's a comedy, drama, horror or Western, your friend will immediately know exactly what kind of experience you'll both have over the next couple of hours.

Genre is used to group various types of art according to a predictable range of features and expectations. So if you go into a bookstore and buy a fantasy novel, you'll be expecting to read about an imaginary place with fairy tale elements, such as wizards with supernatural powers and magic and not a non-fiction account of the Vietnam War.

Types of Genres

Genres can be found in all forms of art. Musical genres include rap, rock, country, metal and jazz. Literary genres include suspense, mystery, epic, romance, non-fiction and poetry. In fact, everything from painting to sculpture to television to radio can be placed into distinct genres.

The Importance of Genre

So why do we feel the need to group things into neat little categories? Well, there is something that draws us as spectators, readers and art lovers to the familiar. For example, filmgoers take great comfort in pretty much knowing where the story will take them. In Westerns, the good guys wear white and the bad guys wear black. In a romantic comedy, the guy will eventually get the girl after they have a big fight and he wins her back, while the underdog will exceed all expectations and beat his bigger and stronger opponent in a sports drama. As pattern-seeking humans, our goal is to establish order out of chaos and we can't always have control in our everyday lives, so we seek control in our entertainment and art.

The Evolution of Genre

The most successful genres adapt to society and culture. For example, in the 1920s and 1930s, Hollywood musicals were by far the most popular films, where hard work and perseverance always led to a happy ending. One of the most popular films to celebrate both the difficulty and triumph of show business was Busby Berkeley's '42nd Street' in 1933. At the end of the film, the Broadway show depicted in the movie is a smash success and all of the character's hard work and sweat pays off and leads to overwhelming audience approval. Two of Berkeley's most popular film stars were Fred Astaire and Ginger Roberts. Their iconic 1935 film 'Top Hat' brought a screwball-comedy element to the musical genre. The film, of course, ends with the couple happily dancing off into the sunset together.

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Additional Activities

Genre - Research and Writing

Further Research

1. In the lesson, you learned about hybrid works that mix or blend genres. Read the play Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. This play has been categorized by some scholars as "tragicomedy" blending elements of comedy while presenting some serious dramatic situations. It can also be further categorized by the stylistic genre of absurdist drama. As you read through the play, find scenes or sections of dialogue that you might define as either comedic or tragic. Look up the term "absurdist" and think about what defines this play in that category.

2. Within the larger format category of poetry, there are two types of poems: narrative and lyric. Sonnets are lyric poems, while ballads are narrative. Research the two types and find examples of each. What is the difference between narrative and lyric? Which do you prefer and why?

3. Watch a film that falls in a genre you normally don't choose to watch. Perhaps you like action films and seldom see romantic comedies. Or maybe you like documentaries and think of fantasy films as frivolous. Determine to sit through the entire film in a genre you usually avoid. Why do you think some people enjoy this genre of film? Try to list the basic characteristics that place the film in a specific genre.

Writing Projects

1. Using poster paper, try making a chart of literary genres. Start with the two broad categories of fiction and nonfiction, keeping in mind that some genre like memoirs fall under the hybrid category of creative nonfiction. Then under these large categories list as many formats as you can. Finally, fill in narrow specific genre labels like those you learned about in the lesson: westerns, romances, detective fiction, and so forth.

2. A genre will change and evolve over time. Read about the history and evolution of a genre like the novel or the dramatic tragedy. Write an essay discussing three examples of the genre you choose, illustrating how that genre has changed. This project will be easier if you choose a genre that has existed for a good while rather than a more recently created genre.

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