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Friday, 3 January 2014

Genre Studies: The African-American Situation Comedy, Part 4

Analysing Genres

Genres, as a concept, are important in terms of media production. Producers rely on current or already established genre formulas in order to reduce the risk of producing texts, audiences do not wish to consume. If people enjoy watching TV programmes of one genre, the networks/station will continue to produce and develop more and more similar programmes to meet audience demands.  

In film and television studies, genres are recognizable for their recurring iconography, codes and conventions, as well as plot-lines, story-lines. Henceforth, Genre studies falls into the category of typo- logical studies of media. For Jane Stokes, typo-logical studies is classifying content according to specific types, be it genre, auteur or star' (Stokes, 121). 

Jason Mittel once said that many genres scholars have noted that there is no actual set criteria for defining genres. Genres are defined by setting (Westerns, Science Fiction), actions (crime shows), audience effect (sitcoms), narrative (dramas) (173). I'd dispute this claim by insisting that some genres, such as sitcoms, are defined through a number of genre conventions. Likewise, its settings/location (the plot's setting), character actions, audience effect (sitcoms purpose is to make people laugh and smile) and narrative. As opposed to just one criteria, which is audience effect. 

The medium of television works, in order to shape our own social realities by evoking and visually presenting these images and ideas on air. We then decide whether or not to accept them or reject them completely. 

In accordance to Mittel, in the chapter A Cultural Approach to Television Genre Theory, there are 3 ways to analyse genres: definitional, interpretative and historical (176). Definitional means illustrating or explaining what the conventions and features the genre encompasses. Interpretative is interpreting the text and the genre and what ideas, concepts it conveys and evokes to the reader or viewer. Historical explores the origins of the genre & its initial development up to its present-day form. Each of these approaches utilize textual analysis.

Binary Oppositions & Its Usefulness In Evaluating Sitcom Ideas & Approaches

In sitcoms, it is all too easy to simplify character positions, because they are fictional characters, not real-life ones. Therefore, these can't be deemed 'realistic' (Bignell, 100)
If they were realistic, then they wouldn't be and can't be compared to each other because otherwise, they'd be too similar and alas, there wouldn't be much else to talk about. Sitcom characters are created for the purpose of demonstrating and displaying the differences in character traits, behaviourisms & attitudes, within their own social context or setting. And in addition towards their fellow characters on the show. Particularly during situations arising out of conflict & disagreement. The concept of binary oppositions allows for oppositions, comparisons of people and other themes to be made. 

Binary oppositions highlight the narrative structures found in the genres of many television programmes and movies (Orlebar, Bignell, 101). 

A thorough reading of sitcoms in textual analysis focuses on the relationship between binary oppositions such as male/female, young/old, rich/poor, optimistic/pessimistic. It often tends to be the case where one opposition, or idea in relation to a particular context, is perceived to be superior than the other and vice-versa (Understanding Binary Oppositions). 

In most multi-camera sitcoms, these shows and characters all operate in terms of binary opposites and connections. Sitcom characters vary in degree, personality, looks, social status, age etc and because of these social categories, these qualities are compared and contrasted with each other. These oppositions and connections act as a series of opposing values and ideas/concepts, which identify the key elements and themes addressed in television multi -camera sitcoms. The humour in sitcoms is mostly derived from these binary values and ideas within the characters by aligning or putting them next to one another (Orlebar, Bignell,101). 

It is only through their ideas and values meeting together in the middle that distinctions are made between the 2 oppositions. 

Below is an example of how to apply Vladimir Propp's Binary Oppositions model when analysing heroes and villains in fairy tale movies. 

As an illustration, in A Different World, we have Dwayne Wade and Whitley Gilbert: their binarisms would be male/female, geek/beauty, ditzy, city guy/country girl. Another example would be Bourgeois/adventurous, upper-class/working-class & serious/fun-loving, as exemplified by Carlton Banks & Will Smith in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Braxton and Jamie King in The Jamie Foxx Show.  

Will Smith - The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (NBC, 1990-1996) 

The Jamie Foxx Show (Warner Bros Network, 1996 - 2001)

TV sitcoms work in shaping our own media experiences by means of watching people behave in different ways in the context of comedy, humour and plot & narration. Like other forms of mass entertainment and media genres, sitcoms tell stories through its own set of conventions & ways towards its audience. 

(continued in part 5....)


  • Communication, Cultural and Media Studies: The Key Concepts, John Hartley, Routledge, 2011
  • Media Studies: The Essential Resource, Sarah Casey Benyahia, Abigail Gardner, Phillip Rayner and Peter Wall, Routledge, 2013 
  • An Introduction to Television Studies, 3rd Edition, Jonathan Bignell, Routledge, 2012 
  • The Television Handbook (Media Practice), Jeremy Orlebar, Jonathan Bignell, Routledge, 2011 
  • How To Do Media and Cultural Studies 2nd Edition, Jane Stokes, Sage, 2012
  • The Television Studies Reader, ed. Robert Clyde Allen, Annette Hill, Routledge, 2003 
  • Understanding Binary Oppositions

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