CRIME AND PUNISHMENT IN THE MEDIA
"It's simply a fantasy to amuse myself" (Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment)
Clearly, a vast array of movies, TV series, shows, cartoons, magazines, and comic books fall into imprecise genres of the so-called crime film. One could even make the case that Westerns, spy movies, and pirate movies are crime films since they represent the eternal fight between good guys and bad guys or heroes and villains. It is perhaps futile to try to classify them into genres. Far better might be to assign them weights in terms of how "gritty" they are. After all, who can match the gritty fortitude and determination of someone like Batman, The Punisher, or James Bond. In the secondary merchandising market, it's always the grittiest hero who sells the most dolls, buttons, T-shirts, and paraphernalia. Icons in the making -- that's what crime and punishment in the media is all about. One doesn't have to be much of a social critic to notice that our cultures are heavily driven by icons and memes of crime and punishment. We live in an age when superheroes overshadow the regular heroes. Why do we need this bloated image of crime and punishment? There are several reasons.
The number one reason is catharsis. Catharsis is a word meaning release from repressed emotion, frustration, stress, tension, or unconscious conflict. In the field of dramatic arts (poetics), the way it works is to take a character and run them through one extreme emotional state to another. For example, the hero in a story falls in love and is incredibly happy, but then the love interest turns sour or ends in some way, and then our hero goes through unbearable sorrow. The plot doesn't matter. What matters is the juxtaposition or switch from one extreme emotion to another, and whether the audience can identify with the character. Note that playwrights and dramatists often give their characters not only a "soft side" but an everyday occupation or pastime that the audience can relate to. Everybody needs to get away from their humdrum, boring life once in awhile. So, why not take one of society's most boring, grubby, mundane, and administrative functions -- crime and justice -- and dress it up a little? In fact, dress it up a whole lot. Add a bunch of emotional swings, fantasy, fiction, and semi-believable characters. Make the whole crime-fighting world and the criminal underworld seem like mysterious, secret places full of fascination and intrigue.
CLASSIC MOTIFS AND GENRES IN CRIME DRAMA
Love, danger, and death are central motifs in crime drama. In the literary genre known as "crime fiction," the rule is to make it difficult for the reader or viewer to tell what the criminal's motives are, as well as make it somewhat confusing as to when the story actually starts and ends. Thus, crime drama is ready-made for sequels (TV series, movies). Society is literally inundated with a variety of these. Motifs vary by specific sub-genre, as follows:
detective -- investigation of a crime, often murder, where there are numerous plot twists as the story progresses, and a hero always emerges, often the detective, who has brilliantly solved some complex puzzle that the reader/viewer has also been lured into trying to solve (e.g., Sherlock Holmes movies).
whodunit -- a more complex, plot-driven variety of a detective story where the reader/viewer is provided clues as to the identity of the perpetrator, but the final identity of the real perpetrator is not revealed until the end (e.g. Agatha Christie novels).
mystery -- an investigator, usually an amateur sleuth, attempts to solve a crime, often a "perfect crime" by collecting clues or clever deduction, and often enlisting the aid of a partner or team, often involving members of the opposite sex, and often involving surprising, often horrifying, plot twists (e.g., Alfred Hitchcock, Scooby Doo).
howcatchem -- also called an inverted detective story where the identity of the perpetrator is somewhat revealed early on, and the story then details how the detective solved puzzles along the way, and all that usually remains at the end is the true motive (e.g., Diagnosis: Murder; Monk); a well-known variety called the locked room mystery always makes everybody think "The Butler did it."
police procedural -- a complex murder mystery, often involving military men (e.g., The General's Daughter), different government agencies (e.g., The Siege), or the activities of a single police agency, as an investigation ensues of a single or multiple series of crimes, and the way forensics or other procedures are carried out is portrayed in semi-documentary fashion (e.g., Dragnet, Joseph Wambaugh).
hard-boiled -- gritty drama where the hero, often a detective, is tough, hardboiled, or hardened by their almost-daily confrontations with danger, violence, and sex, and sometimes has a cocky, flippant, or cool attitude (e.g., Sam Spade, Mickey Spillane, Philip Marlowe); when the protagonist is a victim, suspect, or perpetrator, this is called the "noir" (dark) variety.
legal thriller -- crusading lawyers are portrayed as fighting valiantly for the innocence of their client and/or up against a corrupt government, and the system of justice itself seems like its own character (e.g., The Pelican Brief, The Firm).
courtroom drama -- portrays the moral dilemmas that lawyers face while staging dramatic build-up to oral arguments in court, and often involves complex cases, such as insanity or con games, rarely seen in real life (e.g., Perry Mason, Law and Order); comedic varieties usually add a sexual element of some sort (e.g., Ally McBeal, Boston Legal).
caper stories -- a gang of offbeat characters are assembled for a big heist or swindle, and many of the characters frolic (or caper) along the way in humorous or adventurous fashion resulting in the reader or viewer guessing whether they can pull the crime off or not (e.g., The Sting, Ocean's Eleven).
espionage -- spy stories are sometimes combined with science-fiction, comedy, or horror, but almost always have an "evil genius" who is bent on world domination, and the focus is on characters with marginal relationships to the rest of society but manage to live glamorous lives anyway (e.g., James Bond)
psychological suspense -- also called the psychological thriller, the focus is on characters who must resolve some conflict, like amnesia or brainwashing, in their own minds and in their own way, and the story is often accompanied by a back-story or flashbacks, while both physical and mental challenges are faced by the protagonist (e.g., Bourne Conspiracy, Homeland).
gangsters or gangs -- also called a mob film and going back to the era of silent cinema, the purpose of a gangster film is to get a disillusioned audience to identify with a charismatic anti-hero, usually by telling the story of a quick rise and quick fall from fame and fortune, along with themes of how cruel society and life can be (e.g., The Godfather).
women in crime -- sexual victimization is usually portrayed, resulting in a play-off between an image of the sex criminal as normal, be it woman or man, and an image of them as deviant monster (e.g., Thelma and Louise, Monster); a somewhat rare sub-type portrays the woman as superhero (e.g., Wonder Woman).
parody or spoof -- bungling criminals, often escapees or parolees, as well as crime-fighters or ex-crime fighters, plot some plan but go through numerous humorous ordeals before they can complete their plan (e.g., Disorganized Crime, Police Squad).
comics or cartoons -- a superhero crime-fighter, often from another universe (e.g., Superman), an unusual background (e.g., Batman), or driven to vigilante extremes (e.g., the Punisher) suffers the foolishness of near-constant criminal activity by observance from afar, often in the form of a secret identity, until it is time to don a colorful costume and bring super-powers to bear on the local crime problem.
chain gang -- an innocent or lovable character is subjected to the most brutal prison conditions imaginable (e.g., I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, Cool Hand Luke).
prison -- numerous sub-types exist, but some common themes are escape plots (e.g., Shawshank Redemption), prisoners of war (e.g, Bridge Over the River Kwai), gang activities in prison (e.g, Penitentiary), situations where the toughest prisoners are forced to fight one another using martial arts (e.g, Forced to Fight), and the frequently lurid women in prison piece (e.g., Caged Heat).
THE ALLEGORY OF THE PRISON FILM
An allegory is a story with hidden meaning, usually moral or political, where the characters or events supposedly signify some truth or generalization about human existence. Nowhere are allegories more present in the crime film genre than in the media's coverage of prisons. This is not surprising, since criminal justice scholars have, for years, argued that prisons are kind of like "mini-societies" that reflect or metaphorize society as a whole. As Nellis & Hale (1982:6) have observed, "no other type of crime film claims such impressive credentials in its bid for genre status." More people can name prison films than any other kind of crime film (Mason 2006). But, what people think they are about is wrong. People think they tell a tale about the indomitable human spirit overcoming tough conditions thru individual perseverance. However, that tale could be told using any setting. What makes the prison environment so useful to the media (other than the cost savings associated with limited building of sets) is the metaphor of mass society.
It's no accident that prison films first became popular during the Great Depression. Back then, they were a metaphor for the disempowerment, injustice, and isolation felt by the masses during these tough economic times. Today, they signify the struggle against a highly-ordered, repetitive, restricted, or regimented society. Prison movies always focus on the overburdening rules and regulations. They are ready-made for portrayal of a boring, mundane, and monotonous existence. Escape from the machine; riot against the machine; distrust authority; get over or game the system -- these are the hidden messages inside a prison film. All prison film plots follow this formula under the guise of voyeuristic fascination with violence, identification with a rebellious hero, a psychotic anti-hero, and "good guy" (usually wrongfully convicted good guy) attempts at rehabilitation or making things right. The rest of the prison setting might just as well be a cardboard cut-out, and most importantly of all, the movie industry continually endorses the view that penal reform is impossible (Jewkes 2011).
Futuristic prison movies follow a similar formula where sadistic and corrupt employees (often accompanied by robots), working for faceless corporations, create the most dehumanizing environment possible. Welcome to Hollywood's notion of technocorrections. Prison reform is not only impossible; it gets worse. It's almost as if the media has an agenda to avoid educating the public about the true nature and shape of corrections. By implication, crime must be getting worse. In fact, if prison movies are any indication, the whole of humanity is getting worse.
Jewkes, Y. (2011). Media and crime. Beverly Hills, CA:
Mason, P. (Ed.) (2006). Captured by the Media: Prison discourse in popular culture. Cullompton: Willan
Mawby, R. (2002). Policing images. Cullompton, UK: Willan.
Nellis, M. & Hale, C. (Eds.) (1982). The prison film. London: RAP.
O'Connor, T. (2002). Criminal justice on the net, 2e. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Rafter, N. (2007). "Crime, Film, and Criminology: Recent Sex Crime Movies." Theoretical Criminology 11(3): 403-420.
Robinson, M. (2011). Media Coverage of Crime and Criminal Justice. Durham: Carolina Univ. Press.
Last updated: Sept. 30, 2011
Not an official webpage of APSU, copyright restrictions apply, see Megalinks in Criminal Justice
O'Connor, T. (2011). "Crime and Punishment in the Media," MegaLinks in Criminal Justice. Retrieved from http://www.drtomoconnor.com/4230/4230lect07.htm accessed on Sept. 30, 2011.