By Any Other Name: Why Genre Gatekeeping Isn't The Flex You Think It Is
Listen up, nerds: Genre is dead.
Do I have your attention? Good. Now calm down, I'm not some woke nightmare plotting the destruction of your favorite genre; rather, I'm actually a big fan of people just loving what they love. But more and more, I see a toxicity in fandom that is trying to draw these imaginary borders around different genres and subgenres that don't really make sense. The concept of genre is much more fluid, and frankly less useful in some ways, than talking about story.
Although he is not the first or the only author to do so, Christopher Booker outlined the 7 basic narrative plotlines that exist: overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, rebirth, comedy, and tragedy. This article gives more information and also presents some of the other structures that people have suggested, but the idea is that there are a limited number of story types, and that genre simply exists to help describe the imaginative details added to flesh out these plots.
Here's an example to start:
What if I told you that there was a series of media that has been around for decades that includes love triangles, affairs and deceptions, body-swaps, people coming back from the dead, evils twins, clones, stolen children, and continuous struggles for power, for mysterious artifacts, for love? It can be campy and over-the-top, but it also has its serious moments. There are sometimes explicit storylines that deal with diversity and championing a world where difference is celebrated, but it also lives this by presenting a diverse cast with different identities and experiences and motivations.
If you had to guess, would you think that this series of media is the soap opera Days of Our Lives, or the comic book series X-men? The answer is: both.
Despite the difference in genre, the medium in which it is presented, and the differences you might find in tone from episode to episode or issue to issue, these two series are telling many very similar stories: Psylocke's consciousness being dropped into the body of a ninja assassin isn't that different from Dr. Rolf using a microchip to implant Stefano Dimera's personality into Patch's body. Chanel has been torn between Allie and Johnny the way that Jean Grey has been torn between Cyclops and Wolverine. So many twins, doppelgangers, and clones: Jean Grey and Madelyn Pryor, Adrienne and Bonnie, Kristen and Susan, Cable and Stryfe, Hank McCoy and Dark Beast, Marlena and Hattie. Nightcrawler and Eric Brady both turned to the priesthood for a while to make sense of the world. Battles and schemes have all played out while searching for the M'Kraan crystal, the gem of Cyttorak, the three prisms, and the gems from the Allamainian peacock. I could go on and on.
At their core these two series are telling very similar stories. And yet, there are some people who love soap operas that would never deign to pick up a comic book, and vice versa. And I don't fault them for that: we all have preferences for the "wrapping" that our stories come in. But there is a tendency in fandoms to not only celebrate that which you love, but also to denigrate that which you don't. Further, there are some that will question your fan credentials if you aren't willing to stand with them in denigrating these other genres. There is a lot of policing and gatekeeping around fandoms - just ask basically any woman who has ever worn a shirt for her favorite heavy metal band, or someone who dares to mention that they got into Metallica after an episode of Stranger Things. For some people, it's not about just loving and enjoying something, but also a weird, almost pathological need to prove that you love it more, that you have loved it the longest, that you love it best.
And then there is the elitist, the personification of the type of gatekeeping that inspired this post. There has been a lot of media attention around HBO's adaptation of the video game series, The Last of Us. And for good reason: the show is great! But there has been a lot of very intentional focus on not using the word "zombie" in relation to the show. The showrunner apparently banned the word from set, and the stars of the show, internet daddy Pedro Pascal and non-binary icon Bella Ramsey, are very careful not to use it when talking about the show - though they will sometimes joke about the need to avoid it. And of course, in the simplest terms the show is not a zombie show: the apocalyptic event that has destroyed the world in The Last of Us is an infestation of a mutated form of cordyceps fungus that takes over the host's body. But it also very much is a zombie show.
In outlining types of horror, critic Robin Wood described the "horror of proliferation." It's a fear of an invasion, of some horde threat that isn't scary individually, but rather in its mass conversion or destruction of the population. Zombies are an example of the horror of proliferation because one zombie is a minor threat. We've all seen the movies and watched the tv shows, right? You just kill the brain and you're golden! What makes zombies scary isn't that one zombie, it's the 200 that emerge from the shadows when your overconfident ass goes out to take down that one shambling corpse, surrounds you, and now you're part of the problem you were trying to solve. The most common example of this type of horror may be the true zombie, the dead who walk on The Walking Dead, but it's also the completely alive humans in 28 Days Later who has been infected with the rage virus, and it's also the people taken over by fungus in The Last of Us. Hell, it's even all of the homicidal seagulls and pelicans in Hitchcock's The Birds. So while The Last of Us may not be a "zombie show" in the very literal interpretation of the word, it is telling the story of the horror of proliferation just like its more decomposed cousins.
So why work so hard to avoid comparisons to the undead-who-shall-not-be-named? The only real answer I can come up with is snobbery. Look, I get it: the history of video games being turned into movies or tv shows is a checkered one to say the least, and zombies generally don't have the reputation for being the most high brow of the subgenres of horror. Shambling horrors moaning for brains are easy to dismiss next to your more upmarket nihilist chefs, homicidal farmgirls, and rampaging robo-dolls that have featured in some of the quality horror released in the last year or so.
But quality isn't inherently determined by genre. It's found in the quality of the story, in the ability to create situations and characters that make us feel things. Yes, Romero's zombie classic Night of the Living Dead (1968) featured plenty of reanimated ghouls ready to consume the living, but it also featured a powerful performance by the black protagonist, played by Duane Jones, and his fate at the end of the film had an undercurrent of social commentary about race relations at the time. It used the dead to say something about the living.
The Last of Us also inspired this post because of an interaction that I had with a friend on Facebook. I have been watching the show slowly; it's extremely well done, but it's also very bleak, and I prefer to watch an episode and then take a little while to absorb it while enjoying lighter entertainments. Because of this, I was behind the curve in seeing the third episode, "A Long, Long Time." When I did, I was blown away with how beautifully they were able to tell a queer love story in the middle of an actual apocalypse. I posted a somewhat troll-baiting comment that "a tv show based on a video game did a better job telling a queer love story than Billy Eichner."
Now, obviously I myself was playing with the expectation that media derived from video games won't be any good (see also: Rampage), and I'm willing to admit that my distaste for Billy Eichner's Bros isn't universally supported. But I thought it was interesting that these two properties both attempted to tell a queer love story, and the one that did it much more successfully isn't the one you would probably expect.
A friend piped up in the comments and we had a little light-hearted back and forth, but he said something that I've been percolating over ever since, and it helped drive me to write this piece. He said, "...seriously though, they're not comparable. Completely different genres!" But...so? Genre is certainly going to drive some decisions about the tone of the material, the trappings of setting and conflict, but telling a love story within the framework of a horror genre piece isn't really any different than telling it in any other genre. It's about showing characters in relation to one another and how that relationship changes and progresses throughout their time. If genre had any effect, it should have given Bros the advantage: they had all of the schmaltzy trappings of the rom-com to help build up Billy Eichner and his beautiful beau, like putting training wheels on a bike. The Last of Us had an antisocial survivalist living through a mushroom-based pandemic and accidentally catching a boyfriend in a hole (literally, just a covered pit in his yard), and still managed to create a truly touching portrait of a queer relationship in one episode. It felt real, there were stakes, and they were both part of the genre story happening around them while also feeling human and real in a way that transcended the details of the narrative.
And as a side note, I've seen some rumblings about people trying to argue that the episode played into the tired "kill your gays" trope, and I have to say that this couldn't be further from the truth. The point of the trope is that the queer characters need to be punished for their queerness. Bill and Frank (beautifully played by Nick Offerman and Murray Bartless respectively) do choose to commit suicide in the episode's final act, but this is not the self-hating suicide of the lesbian schoolteacher in Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour. Frank is dying and wants to control the circumstances of his death; Bill, in trying to find meaning in the middle of an apocalypse, found Frank. They decide to leave the world on their own terms, together. In a world filled with early, violent death, it's a beautiful moment that celebrates their love and their queerness rather than negating it.
I'm all for a lively debate about our favorite things - I was an English major, and tearing apart media products and discussing their various triumphs and failings ad nauseum is literally what we do! I love hearing about why someone loves the thing that they love. Passion is contagious. I also love hearing about why they hate something, as long as the things they hate are about the thing itself and not just, "I hate this because it's not that!" When I was teaching writing while in grad school, I would tell students that it's fine to think that a text we were reading sucks - but you'd better be able to "describe the suck." What don't you like about it. Comparisons are fine, and they help build up context for what it is that you personally like and value in a text, but what's the point of comparing two texts if the point is just, "I like this one, and that one is different so it's bad"?
That's why I've never minded remakes. "But it's never going to be the original!" Ummm...good? Because if we learned anything from the almost frame-for-frame remake of Psycho (1998), it's that a remake should give us something new, something different, something fresh. It needs to find the core of that original property and find a way to present it in a way that has something new to offer. I don't know why people are so upset by that.
Take the remake of Carrie (2013). I prefer the original, but there are things that I think the remake does really well. I think that Piper Laurie was the better version of Mrs. White, but that doesn't mean that Julianne Moore doesn't have some great moments. Further, enjoying Moore's performance doesn't do anything to the original. It's not like we're going to take the two movies, put them in a cage, and make them fight it out, Thunderdome style! Liking the remake doesn't make the original any less of a classic. And if you like the remake more than the original, that doesn't do anything to my enjoyment or experience of either film. We can debate the respective merits of our faves (and sometimes talking about the thing is almost as fun as the thing itself!), but we don't have to prove our fandom "street cred" by simply denigrating other properties. Remember: it's ok to think something sucks as long as you can describe the suck.
Maybe if we loosened up a little bit about genres and what certain unnamed, undead creatures can or can't do to further a narrative, and instead focused on the quality of storytelling, we might all discover some amazing new stories to delight and entertain us. There's no prize for being the person who does the most gatekeeping around a favorite property, and isn't it better to have more people who love the thing you love to be able to talk with and share your appreciation? That's the real flex.
Unless it's Bros. Gawd, that movie is trash.
I don't actually hate the movie Bros as much as it seems in this article - I'm a bit of a troll. If anything, I hated the completely unhinged "You've never seen gay love on screen like this before" publicity campaign that accompanied it. Not only did it come off as self-righteous, it also ignored...basically the entire history of queer representation in film? And of all the possible people to complain about a lack of representation, to have it be a cis white gay was definitely not the move. But that's a story for another time...