Genres are essential to how we navigate the world of entertainment. They frame our expectations and prepare us for narrative possibilities and probabilities. For example, in film, once we know we are watching a Hollywood musical, we can expect a whimsical, fantastical journey that will end in some form of happiness. Conversely, once we are aware that we are watching a horror movie, we wait in tension for the protagonists to experience various forms of terror and probably death. Genres give us maps of the entertainment world, and genres allow us to map this world.
What happens when our familiar genres no longer serve as reliable guides? What happens when an ontological break exists between traditional genres and the “real” contemporary world? According to scholar Lauren Berlant, the “waning of genre” is central to understanding storytelling in the contemporary world. In Cruel Optimism, Berlant reads the contemporary as an era in which familiar genres wither. Traditional genres such as realism, melodrama, and comedy become anachronistic in making sense of and organizing contemporary life.
As Berlant argues, familiar genres have dissolved in entertainment because the every day in the real world is no longer a predictable, repeatable, knowable form. Rather, the contemporary every day has become defined by a prolonged, seemingly unending crisis—or multiple, intersectional crises. Berlant writes, “across diverse geopolitical and biopolitical locations, the present moment increasingly imposes itself on consciousness as a moment in extended crisis, with one happening piling on another”. The present moment feels like and is experienced as an unceasing accumulation of crises without reprieve.
And yet, as Berlant writes, new genres can and do emerge within this all-consuming period of crises. Berlant’s meditation on genres is a generative entry into Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s brilliant 2022 film, Everything, Everywhere All at Once, which was nominated for 11 Oscar awards, including Best Picture.
Everything Everywhere All At Once is about the crisis of genres and the possibility of new, progressive genres developing.
Exemplifying Berlant’s historicization of the contemporary, Everything, Everywhere All at Once‘s opening 30 minutes details a prolonged series of accumulating, everyday crises without respite. The story centers on Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) and her deteriorating life. Everything around Evelyn is failing. Her marriage to Waymond (Ke Hut Quan) is dissolving, her relationship with her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) is disintegrating, and her efforts to maintain and manage her laundromat are on the brink of collapse.
When Everything, Everywhere All at Once opens, we see Evelyn at her desk, which is covered in heaps of bills. The film’s initial crisis is that Evelyn’s laundromat is being audited by the IRS, which has already placed a lien on the business. This financial crisis is compounded by the everyday crises Evelyn and her family navigate to maintain the laundromat. In the film’s opening minutes, we watch Evelyn race around the laundromat, attending to broken machines, complaining customers, and the chaos that threatens from all sides.
In conjunction with these capitalist crises, Evelyn is besieged by familial crises. In the opening act, we learn that Waymond carries divorce papers to serve his wife. However, Waymond can’t find a moment of peace to serve these papers because Evelyn is always distressed, trying desperately to manage her overwhelming, crisis-laden life.
On top of this, Evelyn is losing her daughter. Evelyn cannot accept that her daughter is not conforming to the normative genres of gender and sexuality. In Everything, Everywhere All at Once‘s first act, Evelyn consistently critiques her daughter’s gendered, sexual identity, from lambasting her daughter’s weight, derogatorily calling her “fat”, to refusing to fully embrace that her daughter is in a loving, queer relationship with Becky Sregor (Tallie Medel), a character who, like Joy, refuses normative identity genres (Becky is queer and mixed-race). In the film’s opening act, crises abound and multiply.
Yet as Everything Everywhere All At Once importantly foregrounds, the protracted crises of the contemporary do not affect everyone equally. Social conditions such as race, gender, sexuality, and capitalism distribute crises unevenly. For example, contemporary capitalism (frequently periodized as neoliberalism) may be a condition of pervasive precarity for the working-class majority, but different working-class communities experience different degrees of precarity and different forms of class-based violence.
The film recognizes, for example, how capitalism is inextricable from race and racism. Capitalism, in other words, must always be understood as racial capitalism (Cheng, Robinson). Evelyn and Waymond are immigrants from China, and their experiences owning and maintaining a small business are not equivalent to that of white business owners. As Evelyn observes, for example, the IRS is targeting Chinese-owned businesses. The Wang business being singled out by the IRS for extensive auditing is part of a larger structure of racism. Such structural racism is compounded by the everyday racism that the couple endures. When, for example, Evelyn and Waymond meet with an IRS agent (played by Jamie Lee Curtis), the agent exhorts that they should bring their American-born daughter to the meetings so that she can “translate”. The agent assumes that English spoken as a second (or third or fourth) language is deficient and defective.
In Everything, Everywhere All at Once‘s opening act, every genre that once defined Evelyn, a business owner, a wife, and a mother, is on the verge of collapse. In the film’s conceit, this world—the world Mark Fisher brilliantly theorizes as “capitalist realism”— is but one of many possible worlds, one of infinite worlds.
Evelyn learns that another world is not just possible but actual. After roughly 30 minutes, Everything Everywhere All At Once transforms from a small, quiet film about familiar tropes of the immigrant experience, intergenerational conflicts, and the tension between tradition and modernity—familiar A24 and Sundance genres. It breaks out of this confining genre and becomes a film about genre-hopping. Evelyn learns that her life within racial, hetero-patriarchal capitalism is only one permutation and that multiple universes co-exist. Within each universe, different versions and variations of Evelyn exist. Ironically and tellingly, in Everything Everywhere All At Once‘s opening genre, the genre of racial, hetero-patriarchal capitalism, Evelyn is recognized as the worst version of her multiple potential selves.
In leaving behind the dominant genre of capitalist realism, Evelyn enters the multiverse, a genre that has become familiar and popular in the opening decades of the 21st century due, in large part, to superhero films and television shows, including Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018), Avengers: Endgame (2019), WandaVision (2021), Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2021), and The Flash (2023).
In Everything Everywhere All At Once, however, the multiverse is not a genre but a metaphor that invites audiences to think about the complexities and politics of genres. As the film understands, genres are not just modes of generally classifying movies, television, books, and art. Genre, in other words, is not just an aesthetic category. Rather, genres are also modes of organizing everyday life and everyday identities.
As Everything Everywhere All At Once powerfully dramatizes, one of the most powerful genres organizing everyday life is capitalism. In an early scene, we learn that Evelyn has many aspirations and identities. During the IRS audit, Evelyn claims multiple identities—a novelist, chef, teacher, singing coach, and a Watsu technician. However, as the IRS agent makes explicit, in this world—the world of capitalist realism—you are only allowed one identity, and that identity is how one earns money. Everything else, all other identity claims, are reduced to and dismissed as “hobbies”. In the audit—a capitalist genre—claiming multiple identities, the IRS agent informs, is a form of “fraud”. In capitalist realism, one’s identity is reduced to one’s capitalist-imposed identity. In this sense, capitalist identity is a genre of containment, containing the possibilities and potentialities of workers everywhere.
Capitalism imposes reductive, damaging genres onto people and communities. Everything Everywhere All At Once dramatizes this insight on multiple levels, from the plot to its casting. In the title roles of Evelyn and Waymond Wang, directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (collectively called the Daniels) cast Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan, Asian American actors whose opportunities in Hollywood were severely limited due to the genre each actor was placed within. In a moving interview with GQ, Yeoh explains how when she read the script for Everything Everywhere All At Once, she cried. Yeoh shares in between tears, “This is something I’ve been waiting for a long time that’s going to give me the opportunity to show my fans, my family, my audience what I’m capable of. To be funny. To be real. To be sad. Finally, somebody understood that I can do all these things.” For decades, Yeoh was typecast as a martial arts and action star. While many actors are typecast, Yeoh, like her counterpart Quan, was typecast because of her race. She was placed, in other words, into a racialized genre.
Quan was a child actor in the 1980s blockbusters The Goonies and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, playing an Asian sidekick in the latter. However, despite the tremendous success of both films and Quan’s experience working with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, the actor soon couldn’t find work in Hollywood. While many child actors struggle to maintain success in Hollywood, it’s difficult to ignore the specter of racism in Quan’s abortive career. Before the Daniels gave Quan the opportunity to play the complex, layered character of Waymond, Quan had not acted in a film for 38 years. This long absence is not because Quan couldn’t act. In fact, Quan’s performance as Waymond, like Yeoh’s performance as Evelyn, was nominated by the Oscars for an acting award. Hollywood’s narrow gaze saw both Yeoh and Quan as “Asian”, and this racialized genre prevented these actors from realizing their full potential. In the case of Quan, this racialized genre prevented him from even the opportunity to act in Hollywood for the preponderance of his adult life.
Genres can be oppressive. Genres can be forms of violence.
In Cruel Optimism, Berlant details how the waning of genres can be disorienting, but such dissolutions can also be, as Everything Everywhere All At Once dramatizes, liberating.
In the film, Evelyn, Waymond, and Joy learn that they are not stuck in the seemingly reified genre of capitalist realism. Rather, they each have the power to genre hop, to leap from and into different realities. The characters leap into different genres, from a variation of Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000) to a variation of Pixar’s Raatatouille (2007). In genre hopping, these characters live out different possibilities and perform different identities.
Genre hopping proves a form of genre queering. In queering aesthetic genres, Everything Everywhere All At Once also queers identity genres and queers genres that organize the every day, from capitalism to racism.
Everything Everywhere All At Once is a profound meditation on genres and the possibility of escaping the trap of genres. This theme is perhaps most explicit when considered in terms of gender and sexuality. As stated earlier, Evelyn belittles her daughter throughout the film’s opening act because Joy does not conform to the normative genre of gender and sexuality. Evelyn reprimands her daughter for her body size, and she disapproves of her daughter’s sexuality.
Analogously, Evelyn’s father (James Hong) disapproves of Evelyn’s marriage to Waymond because the latter fails to conform to norms of masculinity. Multiple characters in the Wang family disown and abuse other family members due to their failures to assimilate into normative genres of gender and sexuality. However, these genres fade throughout Everything Everywhere All At Once, and when they do, something new, raw, and powerful emerges: love.
In a film that leaps from genre to genre, from reality to reality, Everything Everywhere All At Once surprisingly becomes a profound—and profoundly moving—meditation on love. Evelyn learns to see her husband and daughter beyond traditional and normative genres. As the film suggests, to critique and see beyond dominant genres is a vital form of love. In fact, Everything Everywhere All At Once implies that love can be defined as a genreless form of seeing.
While genres may be important to help us map and navigate the world, they can also be forms of containment and violence. In Cruel Optimism, Berlant charts new, emerging genres taking shape in the contemporary. Everything Everywhere All At Once suggests something surprising: to be genreless—to resist knowable, containing, and commodifiable forms—is an important, progressive aesthetics.
Berlant, Lauren. Cruel Optimism. Duke University Press. 2011.
Cheng, Wendy. “Strategic Orientalism: Racial Capitalism and the Problem of ‘Asianness'”. African Identities 11:2 (2013).
Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Zero Books. 2009.
Robinson, Cedric J. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. University of North Carolina Press. 2000.