girl in a scary hospital room

Steve Neale and Genre Theory

Introduction

When the British Film Institute and Steve Neale published “Genre” in 1980, they wanted to start a new conversation about the importance of genre to our understanding of film culture, especially the way cinema “functions as a social institution”. Neale argued more focus was needed on the social context behind the practices of cinema, including economic pressures and the audience’s desire to be entertained.

Focusing on the signifying processes of filmmaking, Neale also set out some key concepts to challenge and extend our understanding of genre. This article will explore his initial thoughts on genre conventions, including narrative structure and codes, cinematic signifiers, technical codes, and representation.

Genre and Semiotics

Steve Neale (1980) defined genres as “specific variations of the interplay of codes” which moved from one film to the next through a process of “repetition and difference”. This definition might seem ridiculously complex, but a little explanation will help clarify what he meant.

First, using the language of semiotics, Neale described films as a “series of signifying processes” which created “meanings and positions”. For instance, the use of costume can help locate the story in a particular social and historical context, the audience knows a character is angry if the actor delivers their lines in a violent or aggressive manner, and the use of pulsing heartbeats and eerie music in a scary film can make us cower behind a pillow in fear.

Of course, films can also encode certain ideologies and values through the representation of character, setting and plot. This is epitomised by war films which might shock the audience with their depictions of senseless violence or position us to view the conflict as a heroic battle between good and evil. You should also consider Laura Mulvey’s concept of the male gaze and the negative impact the narrow representation of gender on the big screen has on the audience’s attitude towards women.

Anyway, a film’s message is encoded through costumes, sets, dialogue, non-diegetic sound, camera shots and movement, lighting techniques, narrative structure, and many other signs. This is what Neale meant by the “interplay of codes”.

We can then try to group texts according to their combination of these codes. If you are searching for something to watch on your favourite streaming service, for example, you can expect science fiction films to have spaceships, interstellar travel, alien creatures, and dystopian futures. By contrast, horror films will include supernatural disturbances, evil powers, and gore. These are the “specific variations” of codes.

Although we mostly think about genre as the “repetition” of codes, each film will actually construct meaning through their own unique combination of signs. Some science fiction stories are set “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” while others “boldly go where no one has gone before”. This is the “difference”.

Hopefully, Neale’s definition of genre makes more sense now.

Narrative Structure

Most people are taught stories have a start, middle and an end. The protagonist’s routine is established at the start, something happens to disrupt their world and then the main conflict is resolved at the end.

Steve Neale believed “genres are modes of this narrative system”.

For example, the disruptions in westerns, gangster films and thrillers are often physical and violent. Perhaps a gunslinger needs to protect his ranch from murderous outlaws, FBI agents hunt down bank robbers, or a father with a “very particular set of skills” tries to rescue his kidnapped daughter. These violent acts are linked to debates about crime, justice, civic responsibility, and social order.

The disruptions in horror films are usually violent as well – the young victim of a terrifying curse which will soon kill their friends, the ghosts who torment the family, and demonic creatures threaten to destroy the world. These savage acts raise questions about the human condition and our inability to control our lives.

By contrast, the “process of desire” causes the disruption in musicals and melodramas. There might be images of violence, but these films focus on the emotional and social needs of the characters. A pair of star-crossed lovers long to be with each other, a protagonist tries to escape their destructive home life, or a talented singer moves to New York to find fame and fortune. The conflict is quite often between the public and private.

Poster for "West Side Story" (2021)
Poster for “West Side Story” (2021)

Finally, the disruptions in comedies are either something completely absurd or the protagonist suffers a social misfortune, such as a loss of wealth and status.

In conclusion, Neale argued we can classify films according to ““the modes in which equilibrium and disruption are articulated”.

If you are unfamiliar with equilibrium and disruption, read our guide to Tzvetan Todorov’s narrative theory for more information. You might also want to look at Thomas Schatz and his concept of genres of order and integration because it also focuses on narrative structure.

Subject (Mode of Address)

We covered the importance of cause and effect in storytelling in our introduction to causality. To summarise, filmmakers need to arrange their plot into a coherent structure that will make sense to the audience. Moments of tension should reach their inevitable conclusions and mysteries should be solved.

Neale believed we enjoy the narrative “process” and experience the “pleasure of its closure”. Car chases on the big screen are exciting, superheroes batting their arch enemies is entertaining, and following detectives as they uncover the gruesome truth is great fun.

These are the action and enigma codes which Roland Barthes said formed the chronology of a story.

Neale thought each genre had “its own system of narrative address” and we could categories films according to their use of narrative codes. For example, the mode of narrative address in detective films is suspense and we have to “make sense of a set of disparate events, signs and clues”. Thrillers also rely on hermeneutic codes, but to a lesser extent.

movie poster for Goodfellas
Goodfellas (1990)

Gangster films often create a sense of anticipation for the dramatic heist or conflict with law enforcement we know will happen later in the story. In comedies, the “mode of affect is laughter” and melodrama’s tension focuses on the characters’ desires. Finally, musicals are a balance of “narrative and spectacle”.

If narrative is “a means of organising and articulating process”, it is quite interesting to define genres according to their combinations of action and enigma codes.

Technical Codes

Neale suggested genre should also refer to “the matters of expression” and “the codes specific to cinema”, such as camera angles and movement, editing styles, lighting, CGI and special fx, diegetic sound, music, costumes, sets, and other aspects of filmmaking. Each of these technical codes can help convey the preferred reading to the audience. Inevitably, some signifiers also become closely associated with particular genres.

Consider the use of chiaroscuro in “The Big Sleep” (1946):

Bogart hides in the shadows
Humphrey Bogart in “The Big Sleep” (1946)

The intense contrast between the darkness of the room and the light on Humphrey Bogart’s face reinforces the uneasy tone of the scene. It also connotes the moral ambiguity of the hard-drinking character.

This lighting technique is a defining feature of film noir. Horror films also use high contrast to scare the audience, especially when there is a monster or demon lurking in the shadows.

It is no surprise audiences expect science fiction films to contain amazing special effects and fantastic computer-generated imagery (CGI) because the genre has always pushed the boundaries of what is possible. If you would like to know more about science fiction and innovative, this Screen Rant article about the 10 Sci-Fi Visual Effects That Changed Movies Forever is a quick read.

Neale noted widescreen technology enabled directors to capture the spectacle of chariot races, gladiatorial combats, and huge armies. Watch this scene from “Cleopatra” (1963):

Elizabeth Taylor’s entrance would not be so impressive and god-like if it was projected with a smaller frame size.

Finally, Hollywood musicals used lots of crane shots to capture the spectacular dance routines, “all the resources of the costume and make-up department are mobilised” to “frighten and terrify” the audience watching horror films, and fight sequences in action films are full of kinetic edits and quick-moving camerawork.

In this way, technical codes can also contribute to the establishment of a genre.

Realism

The question of realism is another approach we can take to develop our understanding of genre.

Neale said gangster films and war films “tend to be judged according to strict canons of realism”. Audiences and critics expect costumes and props to be accurate but also allow for more dramatic codes of speech and behaviour. In epic films, we almost demand Roman gladiators speak with a British accent and their fight sequences are choreographed to classical music which didn’t exist in that time period.

The “mode of authenticity” is different for fantasy and horror because those films create their own worlds and rules, often with an incredible level of detail and “rigorous conventionalism” which inspires dedicated fandoms. Gothic horror deals with psychological disturbances so the story is usually encoded with a more poetic tone.

By contrast, comedy “above all depends on an awareness that it is fictional”. Although the situations might be familiar to the audience, we know the scenes are an exaggerated version of reality.

Gender and Genre

Neale raised the issue of gender and sexuality at the end of the booklet because the “mechanisms and processes involved” in the representation of masculinity and femininity were only beginning to be “adequately examined” by social scientists. He mentioned the film industry’s marketing of westerns and war films towards a ‘male’ audience and defining melodramas and musicals as ‘female’ films.

In classical Hollywood cinema, men were always active participants in the narrative, even in melodramas and musicals. However, women were only included in westerns and war films as a “function of their relationship to men”.

Neale also referred to the fact most of the monsters in horror films seemed to be defined as ‘male’ because “the objects of their desire are almost exclusively women”.

To what extent do you think the imbalance of power still exists in modern storytelling?

Social Context

Neale was keen to emphasise the economic and cultural contexts behind cinema practices.

If you enjoy watching a film and appreciate its narrative and style, you will want to repeat that experience. Audiences enjoy going to the cinema to see horror films because they offer an exciting sort of terror, superhero films are full of wonderous spectacle that leave fans demanding more, and comedies have the power to make us laugh.

Neale suggested “pleasure lies in both the repetition of the signifiers and the fundamental differences” because genre provides the audience with a “coherent and systematic set of expectations”. Barthes (1973) thought cultural texts offered a “comfortable practice of reading”.

Also, do you ever feel a sense of satisfaction when you recognise the codes and conventions?

Critics might evaluate films in terms of their aesthetic and technical accomplishments, but production companies need to maximise their profits. It’s showbusiness. If a narrative was commercially successful, such as a western, the Hollywood studios would try to meet our demand for a similar experience and repeat the formula. Henry Jenkins called this standardisation of filmmaking formatting.

Genre is an effective marketing strategy because you are appealing to an audience which already exists; it is very difficult to advertise a new product without being able to anchor the consumer’s expectations by referring to previous experiences.

Finally. production companies might try to save some money by using and reusing “plant and personnel”. Have a look at Robby the Robot – the “hardest working robot in Hollywood”.

Genre is an economic necessity.

Final Thoughts

Although genres appear to be “clearly defined systems”, Neale argued it is impossible to reduce them to general statements – gangster films are not just stories about organised crime and westerns are more than the American frontier setting. He wanted to to “construct film as a coherent discipline that could be introduced to schools”. Hopefully, this article has helped continue the conversation.

Barthes, Roland (1973) “The Pleasure of the Text”.
Neale, Steve (1980): “Genre”.

Further Reading

Thanks for reading!