Popular Culture Genres: Theories and Texts


Arthur Asa Berger

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  • Foundations of Popular Culture

    Series Editor: Garth S. Jowett University of Houston

    The study of popular culture has now become a widely accepted part of the modern academic curriculum. This increasing interest has spawned a great deal of important research in recent years, and the field of “cultural studies” in its many forms is now one of the most dynamic and exciting in modern academia. Each volume in the Foundations of Popular Culture series will introduce a specific issue fundamental to the study of popular culture, and the authors have been given the charge to write with clarity and precision and to examine the subject systematically. The editorial objective is to provide an important series of “building block” volumes that can stand by themselves or be used in combination to provide a thorough and accessible grounding in the field of cultural studies.

    • The Production of Culture: Media and the Urban Arts

      by Diana Crane

    • Popular Culture Genres: Theories and Texts

      by Arthur Asa Berger

    • Rock Formation: Music, Technology, and Mass Communication

      by Steve Jones

    • Cultural Criticism: A Primer of Key Concepts

      by Arthur Asa Berger

    • Advertising and Popular Culture

      by Jib Fowles

    • Sexualities and Popular Culture

      by Carl B. Holmberg


    View Copyright Page


    For Aaron and Mary Wildavsky

    Series Editor's Introduction

    The very essence of popular culture is its ability to provide its public with a sense of the familiar, while at the same time also infusing this with enough variety to ensure continued interest. All forms of popular culture walk the fine line between what the scholar John Cawelti (1971) has called “conventions” and “inventions.” The conventions ensure that the subject matter falls into a recognizable and comfortable category, while the inventions provide the surprise (which can be either in the narrative, or in the aesthetics of presentation) which differentiates this item from the many others competing for the public's attention and money. To succeed, popular culture cannot stray too far from the recognizable formula, or categories, because the audience will experience difficulty in relating to it; but it must also constantly provide an interesting variation on the theme. It is within the context of these recognizable categories, or genres, that all of popular culture is created.

    In this study, Arthur A. Berger has brought together all of the major theories relating to the nature and structure of genre. He has performed an invaluable service by explaining the significance of such important figures as Ferdinand De Saussure, Vladimir Propp, and Umberto Eco in a manner which makes the work of these philosophers accessible to readers new to the fields of popular culture studies. Also, as an aid to the reader, Berger has used a variety of figures and tables to illustrate how plot and character are structured within each genre. One of the main strengths of this book is the way in which the author develops a series of case studies of widely known texts to illustrate the various genre theories. Because the subject matter is familiar, the reader has an immediate grasp of how genre formulas work. For the student just starting in the field of popular culture studies, this book will serve as an invaluable introduction to the complex issues of narrative and structure in cultural texts.

    GarthS.Jowett Series Editor

    Figure 1.0. Formula for Romance novel. Reprinted with permission of the Wilson Quarterly.

    That orthodox political history, working by custom with written documents, would tend to use arts and artifacts primarily only as illustration (when at all), is perhaps understandable, if not altogether excusable. Yet intellectual history has made hardly more use of them.

    What accounts for so unnatural a state of affairs? Primarily, perhaps, the methodologies that art history has employed.

    Art history has defined its data and perceived relationships between these data (arts and artifacts) and society (history) in three ways: by an aesthetic line-of-progress, as cultural expression, and by social function. These methodologies have developed successfully and cumulatively: cultural expression building on aesthetic line-of-progress, social function representing a step beyond cultural expression, not its antitheses. With social function, which considers arts and artifacts not only as aesthetic objects or reflections of the spirit of their times, but also as instruments furthering the ideological foundations of society, art history has finally become the effective and prime instrument for historical research that it should always have been, revealing and analyzing those fundamental attitudes and presuppositions by which any age lives, and on which all the institutions of every society must ultimately rest.

    SOURCE: Gowans, A. (1981). Learning to See: Historical Perspectives on Modern Popular/Commercial Arts. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Popular Press.


    This book is an introduction to the study of genres—a French term that means “kind” or “class.” We are all conscious of genres even though we may never think much about the concept itself. For example, we talk about science fiction films or television situation comedies. Both of these terms, science fiction and situation comedies, are classifications that refer to kinds of films or television shows—that is, genres.

    On the Importance of Genres

    A given work, such as The Terminator or Cheers (and in the language of criticism we call them “texts”) is distinctive in its own right, but it also shares certain conventions with other texts of the same genre or class. We expect certain things to happen in a science fiction film or situation comedy because we all learn the conventions of the genre as a result of watching films and television programs, reading novels, and listening to the radio. Radio stations are often genre specific; some play only country western music, others are all news, others play only soft rock, though some stations are mixed.

    The study of genres is now becoming increasingly interesting to scholars who study popular culture and the mass media. There is a reason for this. We want to know how the conventions of different genres affect the creation and production of texts and the audiences of these texts. Do certain genres have social and political implications of significance? How do genres evolve? And why do some genres (such as the western) die out?

    Texts and Contexts

    Writing about texts (specific television shows, novels, films, etc.) without dealing with their genres is often too narrow, too focused. But writing about genres without dealing with texts that exemplify these genres is too abstract, too general. We have to deal with texts in the context of their genres to make sense of the texts themselves and the genres that shape these texts.

    This book strikes a balance between the two extremes by dealing with genre theory in the first part of the book and with the analysis of classic or perhaps a better term would be representative texts from some of the most important genres in the second half of the book. In this section, devoted to representative texts from five important genres, I have analyzed the following works:

    • The Maltese Falcon (tough guy detective)
    • Murder on the Orient Express (classic detective)
    • Dr. No (spy story)
    • War of the Worlds (science fiction) and
    • Frankenstein (horror)

    I consider science fiction and horror to be separate genres; some critics do not. I explain the reasons for my decision in my chapter on War of the Worlds. All of these texts, incidently, are novels that have been made into films—and War of the Worlds was also made into a historic radio dramatization.

    This book discusses theories relevant to understanding genres by a number of important theorists such as Vladimir Propp, Umberto Egco, Yuri Lotman, M. M. Bakhtin, John Cawelti, Ferdinand de Saussure, Sigmund Freud, and Claude Lévi-Strauss. A great number of people have written about genres, even though there are not a large number of books devoted entirely to the subject. I also offer some notions about genres and their relation to fairy tales (which I see as a kind of prototypical genre), the kinds of heroes and heroines one finds in the different genres, and the uses and gratifications audiences obtain from the different genres, among other things.

    These notions are, in some cases, speculative and should be taken as hypothetical or exploratory. This study contains an element of Freudian thought in certain places, especially in the discussions of the Oedipus complex and its relation to plot. Semiotics, the study of signs and signification, is also used, as are a number of other disciplines and techniques of analysis.

    Genres, Texts, and Media

    Genre studies are important because they provide us with insights about what texts are (or should be) like, how they are created, and how they function for audiences. Genres shape our expectations of what films, television shows, or videos we will be seeing or what the radio stations or songs we will be listening to will be like. Genres are also important because they enable us to talk about the relationship of texts to other texts in terms of form as well as content. The concept of intertextuality, discussed in some detail in this book, suggests that texts are often related to one another on the content level. That is, they borrow (sometimes inadvertently) from one another. But genre theory adds that texts are often related to one another on a different level, that of form—or formula.

    Before the development of genre theory we were more or less limited to discussing texts, such as a spy novel like Dr. No and then relating these texts to the mass media, society, and culture. We might, in the case of Dr. No, compare and contrast the novel and the film that was made from it. There was a gigantic leap we had to make, from a specific text to the mass media. Now, with the recognition of the importance of genres, we have an intermediary step—one that enlarges and enhances our understanding of the way texts function and of the way that texts relate to one another, the media, and society.

    In the past, it could be argued, we have dealt with genres in a more or less cursory manner, mentioning genres here and there in books of criticism, but not devoting the sustained analysis of genres, in general, that they warrant. On the other hand, we have also produced a number of works on specific genres and dealt with genre theory in passing, so to speak, in these books. In recent years, fortunately, we have become more interested in genre theory and have been investigating it on a more sustained basis.

    A Historical View of the Study of Genres

    Genre studies can be said to have started with Aristotle (384–322 B.C.) and his book on poetics. The first sentence of De Poetica (Poetics) suggests the importance of genres.

    Our subject being Poetry, I propose to speak not only of the art in general but also of its species and their respective capacities.… Epic poetry and Tragedy, as also Comedy … are all, viewed as a whole, modes of imitation.

    Aristotle is interested in the various kinds of poems (and plays) and suggests that these are tragedy, epic poetry, and comedy.

    Comedy, he adds, is “an imitations of men worse than average” (in terms of being ridiculous, that is) while tragedy is “essentially an imitation not of persons but of action and life, of happiness and misery.” Aristotle's distinctions between comedy and tragedy and epic show that he was classifying works according to certain things they had in common. It is this notion, that individual works—films, television programs, novels, and other kinds of artistic creations—may be distinctive in certain respects but are related to other works—that is the subject of the first part of this book.

    Speculation about genres and their importance is not confined to those who study the popular arts and mass media. Literary theorists have also been interested in the nature of genre for many years. Northrop Frye, a Canadian professor, wrote Anatomy of Criticism in 1957, an influential book that deals with genres and literature.

    For our purposes, however, we can say that in the United States, the study of genres in the mass media started gaining momentum about forty years ago. Robert Warshow published a book of previously written essays. The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre and Other Aspects of Popular Culture, that contained two important chapters—one on gangster films and the other on westerns (and, of interest also, an essay on horror comics) that might be recognized as genre criticism. The book appeared in 1962, but the essay on gangster films originally appeared in 1948 and the essay on westerns appeared in 1954.

    In 1970, Jim Kitses published Horizons West, an important book on “Authorship within the Western.” The first chapter, “Authorship and Genre: Notes on the Western” explicitly raises the problem of an “American tradition” and its impact on three important directors of westerns. Kitses wanted to avoid focusing on directors (auteurs) and “the cult of personality.” As he writes:

    In place of the reactionary notion that Hollywood directors function like the charismatic heroes of their films, I have wanted to advance the idea of an American tradition, of which the western seems to me an admirable and central model.

    In this chapter Kitses offers a chart listing oppositions between the individual and the community, nature and culture, and the West and the East that, he suggests, are found in westerns.

    The publication of John Cawelti's The Six-Gun Mystique in 1971 was a major event in genre criticism. In this book (which I discuss in some detail in my chapters on genre theory) Cawelti used a number of different perspectives to make sense of the western—psychoanalytic theory, Marxist theory, and historical analysis, among others. This brief book is concerned primarily with the western but it also has implications for all kinds of genre studies and the relation of genres and formulas.

    In 1974, Stuart M. Kaminsky, a professor of film at Northwestern University, published American Film Genres: Approaches to a Critical Theory of Popular Film. This book had chapters on topics such as westerns (which it compared with Samurai films), gangster films, horror films, science fiction films, comedies, and the work of two important “Genre Directors”—Donald Siegal and John Ford.

    About this time, in 1976, I published The TV-Guided American, which was a study of a number of important television shows of that period. In the book I selected programs that were representative of the various genres, to which I alluded in the Introduction:

    Strictly speaking, it is not television per se, as a medium, but certain kinds of programs, sports programs, advertisements, situation comedies, space operas, detective and crime adventures, westerns, a whole world (or wasteland) of all kinds of different programs that we subsume under the general term “television.” (p. 9)

    In the book I chose programs that I considered to be interesting and representative of the major genres—to analyze. The book also has two chapters that deal with English television, but these chapters are not focused on genres.

    Stuart Kaminsky followed up his book on film genres with a book on television genres. American Television Genres, published in 1986 (with Jeffrey H. Mahan and a number of other collaborators), is somewhat different in structure from the film book. American Television Genres is concerned with genres, but it uses a number of different methodologies of interpretation in dealing with genres: historical and structural approaches, psychological approaches, and sociological and anthropological approaches are covered. There are chapters that use the ideas of thinkers such as Northrop Frye, Carl Jung, Erik Erikson, and Sigmund Freud.

    A recent book by Tim Bywater and Thomas Sobchack, An Introduction to Film Criticism: Major Critical Approaches to Narrative Film, appeared in 1989. It contained an excellent chapter on genre criticism that has a brief summary of its development as well as some interesting philosophical questions about this form of criticism. For example, they point out that critics tend to assume that genres exist and do not as a rule spend too much energy justifying their assumption. They write that

    essentially the problem is the question of which came first, the chicken or the egg. One has to select a group of films prior to identifying them as a genre; however, the very selection is shaped by a definition of the genre supposedly not yet arrived at What makes a critic talk about musicals as a group is some prior notion of what a musical is.

    Initial attempts to identify genres emphasized the obvious similarities among films: themes, configurations of action (private-eye's pursuit of truth), subject matter (cowboys), objects and costumes (machine guns and dapper suits in films about the underworld). It is therefore not surprising that the largest body of generic criticism has been about film groups with the most viable characteristics: the western, the gangster film, the hard-boiled detective film, and the traditional horror film. These genres take place in specific settings and in certain time-frames, they have clearly identifiable plots, conventions and characters, and the are full of visually obvious and repeatedly used objects, the latter becoming iconic (the white hat on the good cowboy) in their ability to convey thematic and dramatic information beyond their material function and presence in a single film. (p. 90)

    Bywater and Sobchack raise an important philosophical question about the nature of classification and reality—one that is dealt with in Chapter 1.

    The last item in this brief (and selective) bibliographical survey of genre criticism is Leah R. Vande Berg and Lawrence A. Wenner's anthology, Television Criticism: Approaches and Applications (1991). Although this book is not exclusively devoted to genre criticism, a considerable number of the essays in the book make use of genre theory. This suggests that genre criticism is now seen as an established and important method of criticism, a technique that must be taken into consideration whenever a text is interpreted.

    I hope that in writing a book that deals with both genre theory and with the analysis of significant texts in five of the most important genres, Popular Culture Genres: Theories and Texts will provide useful insights about genres and their importance for media analysts and critics. I also hope that the analysis of significant texts that I have done will help readers gain some insights about how they can make their own analyses of specific texts and relate these texts to their genres, to the mass media, to society and culture.


    This book is part of a series of studies of popular culture edited by Garth Jowett, and I would like to thank him for his encouragement and for the many useful suggestions he made about the manuscript. It has benefitted greatly from the careful reading he gave it in a preliminary version. I also am grateful to Ann West, my editor at Sage Publications, for her support on this project and on a number of others, as well. Since she came to Sage Publications, my fortunes have improved considerably.

    I appreciate permission granted by the Wilson Quarterly to use the chart, “Formula for Romance Novels;” permission granted by Larry Tritten to use his clever chart, “The Country Western Song Plot Formulator,” and his extremely witty chart “Make Your Own James Bond Movie.”

    I also was aided by the efforts of many scholars, writers, and philosophers—from Aristotle to Umberto Eco—whose works on genres and related concerns are used in the book. Critics of my work usually fall into two camps. One camp argues my work is “far out and ridiculous” and the other camp argues that “everyone knows this stuff already.” Whether Popular Culture Genres is one or the other, both, or somewhere in between, is something readers will have to decide for themselves.

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    Name Index

    About the Author

    Arthur Asa Berger is Professor of Broadcast Communication Arts at San Francisco State University, where he has taught since 1965. He has written extensively on popular culture, the mass media, and related concerns. Among his books are Media Analysis Techniques, Agitpop: Political Culture and Communication Theory, Seeing Is Believing, and Media USA.

    Berger had a Fulbright to Italy in 1963 and taught at the University of Milan. He has lectured extensively on media and popular culture—in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland as a guest of the Nordic Institute of Folklore; in Greece, Lebanon, and Turkey in 1973 and in Brazil in 1987 for the United States Information Agency; and in Germany, France, the People's Republic of China, and England at the request of various universities and institutions. He is a film and television review editor for Society magazine, editor of a series of reprints, “Classics in Communications” for Transaction Books, and a consulting editor for Humor magazine. He has appeared on 20/20 and the Today show, and appears frequently on various local television and radio stations in the San Francisco area. Popular Culture Genres is Berger's twentieth book and fourth book for Sage Publications.

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