In American cinema from 1916 to 2000, two main archetypes emerge in portrayals of women seeking abortion: prima donnas and martyrs/victims. While the prima donna category faded over the course of the 20th century, study of abortion in American cinema from 2001 to 2016 shows that the victim archetype persists in many films. Women who have abortions are cast as victims in films across a variety of genres: Christian, thriller, horror, and historical. Some recent films, however, namely, Obvious Child (2014) and Grandma (2015), reject this hundred-year-old tendency to portray abortion as regrettable and tragic—especially for the women choosing it—and instead show it as a liberating experience that brings women together, breaking new ground for the depiction of abortion in American film.
This article proposes a focus on some of the arguments in the field—what is “arts behind bars”? What are some of the intentions, and why would people do it? It also signals the range of practices that are to be found—from the development of needlework in male prisons through to participatory arts projects with young people in prisons to collaborative stage shows. Artists working in criminal justice have a wide range of intentions. For a few, there might be a frisson of the danger and caged energy behind bars that is stimulating to creativity and could add something to their own creative process. The model of art for prisoners—professional artists staging a show or doing an unplugged music event in a prison—can raise the profile of prisons and punishment. However, there are a great number of projects that move towards forms of art created with and by prisoners, thereby aligning them with a long history of social and participatory arts. Theoretically, then, the arts behind bars are informed by critical pedagogies as much as the specific disciplinary approaches. This model seeks to build critical consciousness and confidence in mastery as well as induction into the discipline of learning any skill for the purposes of liberating through knowledge. In arts behind bars, the knowledge base might include literacy outcomes, but the learning is often communal, and about creative self-expression.
The practitioners of arts behind bars have two driving intentions. Either they seek to engage more people with their art form and are willing to work in a range of contexts, or they are committed to social justice and hope to use the art form towards additional aims of generating understanding and redressing some of the inequalities experienced by prisoners. It is necessary to consider what new perspectives are offered to the subject of arts in criminal justice by thinking about how wider resources, culture, and artistic paradigms affect perceptions of the value of interventions. This highlights the need for awareness of those artists who choose to work in prisons of the moral and ethical questions raised by bringing art to the system.
The term genre refers to a set of thematically or stylistically similar popular cultural texts. Courtroom narratives form both movie and television genres, and criminal trials form subgenres. Each entry in the criminal subgenres contains a criminal trial and pits a prosecutor against a defense lawyer. This article discusses the genre conventions for these characters.
Where the defense lawyer is a protagonist, the client is a co-protagonist. The client is either innocent or is being unjustly prosecuted. The defense lawyer, often presented in heroic terms, struggles to get the client acquitted (or the punishment reduced). The defense lawyer must overcome obstacles that the antagonist prosecutor places in the lawyer’s path. Defense lawyers are loners who are lacking in personal life or emotions. Perry Mason is the iconic genre defense lawyer.
Where the prosecutor is the protagonist, the crime victim (or survivors of a deceased victim) are the co-protagonists. Prosecutors are relentless, honorable, and often politically ambitious. They must struggle to overcome obstacles erected by defense lawyers. Like defense lawyers, prosecutors lack a personal life or emotions. Jack McCoy on Law & Order is the iconic genre prosecutor.
These generic conventions have become stale. Consequently, creators of pop culture products in the criminal courtroom subgenre employ genre-busting narratives that have refreshed the genre. Defense lawyers often work for clients they suspect are guilty and try to get them off through the use of technical defenses. Guilty clients deceive gullible lawyers into putting on cases with perjured testimony. If the client confesses guilt, the lawyer betrays the client to protect the public. Defense lawyers have personal lives, feelings, and emotions, and some are anti-heroes. Genre-busting prosecutors often have unpleasant personalities, and they don’t hesitate to bend ethical rules. As in the case of defense lawyers, prosecutors have inner lives and personal relationships. These genre-busters have destabilized the generic conventions and may well have established new conventions.
David Ray Papke
A large amount of American law-related popular culture is comedic. Inexpensive literature, Hollywood movies, and prime-time series routinely include images of amusing lawyers and accounts of hilarious trials. These pop cultural works entertain readers and viewers and in some instances simultaneously speak to the public’s resentment of powerful legal institutions.
The American trial and American cinema share certain epistemological tendencies. Both stake claims to an authoritative form of knowledge based on the indubitable quality of observable phenomena. And both are preoccupied with sustaining the authority that underlies the knowledge produced by visual perception. The American trial and cinematic form also increasingly share cultural space. Although the trial film (otherwise known as the courtroom drama) is as old as the medium of film, the continuing popularity of the legal drama centered on a courtroom verdict suggests more than a trend. The inherent affinities between law and film not only produce enduring and memorable stories about law and justice but help constitute a popular legal consciousness that sustains the authority of the rule of law in the United States. This article describes these affinities in more detail, tracing the common themes in trial films, the special case of trial film based on true stories, and the future of the genre in American popular culture. It concludes by reviewing the disciplinary approach to the study of law and visual popular culture.
Fakes and forgeries are topics of frequent and agitated discussion in the art world. For criminologists, this interests shifts to art fraud because of its fit with issues of non-authentic art. While fraud shares with the wider interests the need to demonstrate deception (an obvious aspect of a fake), a successful prosecution will require in addition that the defendant be shown to be dishonest (that is, that the deception is intentional), that there is harm as a consequence, and that the victim was actually deceived. Despite its popularity as a topic for discussion in the art world, actual cases of art fraud are exceptionally rare, although cases of “mistaken identity” are reasonably common (but these will often lack the deception and intentionality required of fraud). Among the reasons for art fraud being infrequently observed appear to be: (1) police are less than eager to pursue issues of fraud in art; (2) the deceptive skills required of a successful art faker are actually rarely observed or achieved; and (3) the role of the victim in art fraud is complex and often renders victims either passive or non-compliant with the justice process.
Bank robbery is an uncommon, but highly fascinating, type of crime. The media often focus on bank robberies, especially if an event was violent or involved weapons. However, data show that bank robberies are generally uneventful—rarely involving weapon fights or injured bystanders. Instead, perpetrators tend to use verbal or written commands to obtain their money. Movies and video games depict the unusual bank robberies, which are violent and deadly because they are exciting and action-filled, which appeals to the public. Although generally a misrepresentation of empirical reality, media depictions can highlight criminological theory in action and bring to light issues around impulsivity, thrill-seeking, brain development, group behavior, and the behavioral consequences of social strains.
Internet and telecommunications, ubiquitous sensing devices, and advances in data storage and analytic capacities have heralded the age of Big Data, where the volume, velocity, and variety of data not only promise new opportunities for the harvesting of information, but also threaten to overload existing resources for making sense of this information. The use of Big Data technology for criminal justice and crime control is a relatively new development. Big Data technology has overlapped with criminology in two main areas: (a) Big Data is used as a type of data in criminological research, and (b) Big Data analytics is employed as a predictive tool to guide criminal justice decisions and strategies. Much of the debate about Big Data in criminology is concerned with legitimacy, including privacy, accountability, transparency, and fairness.
Big Data is often made accessible through data visualization. Big Data visualization is a performance that simultaneously masks the power of commercial and governmental surveillance and renders information political. The production of visuality operates in an economy of attention. In crime control enterprises, future uncertainties can be masked by affective triggers that create an atmosphere of risk and suspicion. There have also been efforts to mobilize data to expose harms and injustices and garner support for resistance. While Big Data and visuality can perform affective modulation in the race for attention, the impact of data visualization is not always predictable. By removing the visibility of real people or events and by aestheticizing representations of tragedies, data visualization may achieve further distancing and deadening of conscience in situations where graphic photographic images might at least garner initial emotional impact.
Arthur Holland Michel
As we find ourselves bearing witness—even in our own backyards—to what is increasingly being referred to as the “drone revolution,” it might be a good time to turn our attention back in time and figure out how, exactly, we got here.
The large-scale use of drones for national defense and law enforcement is a relatively recent development, but unmanned aerial surveillance draws from a doctrine that is as old as flight itself. Though the fundamental logic of aerial surveillance has remained the same—to put an eye in the sky so that one may look down upon one’s enemies—the technology has evolved dramatically over this period, driving shifts in aerial surveillance theory and practice. New technologies enable new techniques that, in turn, inspire new ways of thinking about how to spy from the sky, and produce new experiences for those being watched. Our present drone revolution, which has itself driven what is being called the “intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) revolution,” is the result of this process played out over an entire century.
The unmanned aerial spying efforts of the United States military and intelligence community have a particularly long and influential history, beginning with the Union Army’s manned observation balloon corps of the Civil War. Our story begins, in earnest, with fragile and failure-prone “aerial torpedos” in the First World War and an innovative and overlooked live video transmission system from the 1930s, through the CIA’s little-known—and radically forward-thinking—Samos spy satellite program of the late 1950s and a series of extraordinarily ambitious Cold War drone programs, up to the adoption of drones over Bosnia in the 1990s. Together, these episodes show how we got the drones of today and realized the core principles that define aerial spycraft (that is, how to find and watch “the bad guys”) in the 21st century: cover as much ground as possible; process and disseminate what you collect as quickly as possible, ideally, as close as you can get to real-time; and be as persistent as possible.
The drones and high-resolution aerial cameras that are finding their way into the tool-kits of police departments will bring these principles along with them. Even if the growing number of law enforcement officers now using this technology aren’t fully aware of the long legacy of aerial surveillance that they are joining, the influence of this formative history of surveillance on their aerial crime-fighting operations is evident. Just as aerial surveillance transformed the battlefield, it will have a similarly profound effect on the experience and tactics of those operating the cameras, as well as, crucially, those individuals being watched by them. By grasping this history, we can better understand not only why and how drones are being used to fight crime, but also what to expect when every police department in the country owns an eye in the sky.
In contemporary society, “closure” refers to “end to a traumatic event or an emotional process” (Berns, 2011, pp. 18–19)—and, in the more specific context of capital punishment, controversy over what, if anything, is needed for murder victims’ families to attain healing and finality or move forward with their lives, including the execution of their loved one’s killer. The term is highly politicized, and is used by both death penalty advocates and its opponents to build arguments in favor of their respective positions. Closure has been indelibly linked to both capital punishment and media institutions since the late 1990s and early 2000s. The media’s penchant for covering emotional events and its role in informing the American public and recording newsworthy events make it perfectly suited to construct, publicize, and reinforce capital punishment’s alleged therapeutic consequences. Legal and political officials also reinforce the supposed link between closure and capital punishment, asking jurors to sentence offenders to death or upholding death sentences to provide victims’ families with a chance to heal. Such assertions are also closely related to beliefs that a particular offender is defiant or lacks remorse. Surprisingly, however, the association between closure and capital punishment has only recently been subjected to empirical scrutiny. Researchers have found that victims’ families deem closure a myth and often find executions themselves unsatisfying, provided that a perpetrator does not enjoy high media visibility so that the execution has a silencing effect, as did Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh’s execution by lethal injection in 2001. Recent empirical examinations of the link between capital punishment and closure prompt a redefinition of closure through which victims’ family members learn to cope with, work through, and tell the story of a murder and its impact. This redefinition is less sensational and thus perhaps less newsworthy, which may have the salubrious effect of discouraging extensive media emphasis on executions’ closure potential. Another way to decouple closure from capital punishment is for media organizations to change their practices of covering perpetrators, such as by not continually showing images of the perpetrator and by incorporating a more extensive focus on the victims and their families. While government officials have called for the media to exercise restraint in the wake of such events as the Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11, victims’ groups are now beginning to advocate for this same goal, with much success.
Thalia Anthony and Kieran Tranter
The car and crime become entrenched in the cultural imagination with the widely circulated images of the bullet-hole-ravaged Ford V8 that Bonnie (Parker) and Clyde (Barrow) were in when they were killed by Texan and Louisianan police in 1934. This couple of outlaws (and their gang) had kept newspaper readers enthralled and appalled as they robbed, murdered, and kidnapped throughout the Midwest since 1932. The scope of their activities and their success in evading authorities, along with their crimes, which included many vehicle thefts, were facilitated by the mobility of the car. Before Bonnie and Clyde, car crime in the public consciousness comprised images of the foolish and antisocial behavior of the well-to-do car-owning elite. After Bonnie and Clyde, the famous image of their death car and the celebrity-making image of Bonnie as the archetypical gangster moll with cigar and revolver leaning over a stolen car, linked in the cultural imagination crime and cars as everyday through a visceral mix of bodies, sex, and violence.
In particular, the visceral imaginings of car crime after Bonnie and Clyde separated into four locations. All involved, to certain degree, bodies, sex, and violence, but distinct contexts and meanings can be identified. The first location is the imaging of car crime itself; of risky use of the car—speeding, dangerous driving, racing, drink driving—actions evidenced by carnage on the roads. There have emerged two frames for this location. The first is the serious and deadly context of the usually male driver fueled by “combustion masculinity” taking irresponsible risks with bloody consequences. The second is the humorous, over-the-top risky, subversive, and illegal car-based activities, a frame tapped into by television shows like Top Gear (Klein, 2002–2015) and Bush Mechanics (Batty, 2001) and manifest in the car chase trope. The second location is the car as a crime scene. From JFK’s assassination in a Lincoln convertible, to the car as site of sexual assault, to the illicit imaginings of the goings-on in a VW microbus, the car is a place in which crimes happen. The car is seen as constructing an internal geography in which crimes occur. The third location has the car as a facilitator of criminal activity. In the road buddy narrative from On the Road (Kerouac, 1957) to Thelma & Louise (Scott, 1991) the car becomes the outlaw’s mechanical horse facilitating a crime spree and evading arrest. At the fourth location, the car became imaged as property, the car as a crime object. From Gone in 60 Seconds (Sena, 2000) to the advertisements of the vehicle insurance industry, the car became conceived as vulnerable property, the target of theft. While distinguishable, each location is not segmented in the cultural imagination, but, as role-played by gamers in the Grand Theft Auto computer game series, cross and coexist. Now well into its second century, the car, notwithstanding contemporary transformations, nurtures a vivid imagining of its culture gone wrong.
Karen J. Terry
Media attention on child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church led to awareness of a serious social problem and increased the levels of disclosure of abuse. The three “emergencies of clerical sexual abuse in the media” occurred in 1985, 1993, and 2002 (Maniscalco, 2005). The catalyst for the media coverage was high-profile clergy offenders with multiple victims and in 2002 also included the claims of cover-ups by high-ranking cardinals in the United States.
Most victims of clergy sexual abuse disclosed their abuse decades after the abuse occurred, and the increased rates of disclosure coincided with the three periods of increased reporting in the media. Though the constant reporting in the media led to some misconceptions about CSA generally and CSA within the Catholic Church, it also led to policy changes in how the church responded to allegations of abuse and aimed to prevent future acts of abuse.
Lisa A. Kort-Butler
Content analysis is considered both a quantitative and a qualitative research method. The overarching goal of much of the research using this method is to demonstrate and understand how crime, deviance, and social control are represented in the media and popular culture. Unlike surveys of public opinions about crime issues, which seek to know what people think or feel about crime, content analysis of media and popular culture aims to reveal a culture’s story about crime. Unlike research that examines how individuals’ patterns of media consumption shape their attitudes about crime and control, content analysis appraises the meaning and messages within the media sources themselves. Media and popular culture sources are viewed as repositories of cultural knowledge, which capture past and present ideas about crime, while creating and reinforcing a culture’s shared understanding about crime.
In content analysis, media and popular culture portrayals of crime issues are the primary sources of data. These portrayals include a range of sources, such as newspapers, movies, television programs, advertisements, comic books, novels, video games, and Internet content. Depending on their research questions, researchers draw samples from their selected sources, usually with additional selection boundaries, such as timeframe, genre, and topic (e.g., movies about gangs released from 1960 to 1990).
There are two primary approaches to conducting content analysis. In quantitative forms of content analysis, researchers code and count the occurrence of elements designated by the researcher prior to the study (e.g., the number of times a violent act occurs). In qualitative forms of content analysis, the researchers focus on the narrative, using an open-ended protocol to record information. The approaches are complementary, as each reveals unique yet overlapping concepts crucial to understanding how the media and popular culture produce and reproduce ideas about crime.
The term “copycat crime” implies that the root of a crime can be found in exposure to a live model or media content concerning a prior crime. The four basic components of a copycat crime are a “generator crime” (a media portrayal of a crime or a real-world crime that is the precursor of a subsequent crime), “criminogenic models” (media content or real-world offenders that portray a subsequently copied crime), “copycat criminal” (an individual who commits a crime after being influenced by criminogenic media content, live models, or a combination of the two), and “copycat crime” (a crime whose occurrence or form is influenced by prior exposure to media content and/or live criminal models). The linked crimes are seen as sharing a unique criminogenic dynamic with the first crime serving as a generator for later copycat crimes with substantial elements of the first crime present in the second. The premise of copycat crime is that exposure to a generator crime is the linking mechanism and that the removal of the exposure would eliminate the occurrence or form of the subsequent copycat crime.
There is no theory of copycat crime, but there are four theoretical perspectives that are pertinent. Under the first perspective, imitation has been examined as a general human behavior within biology and psychology. The second perspective, social contagion, studies imitation in collective groups with a focus on the life cycle of crime waves. The third perspective is the study of the diffusion of social innovations and focuses on the factors that encourage adoption of a new, socially accepted and advocated behavior. In diffusion research, criminal behaviors have not been a major consideration. The final theoretical perspective is social learning theory, which focuses on how humans learn new behaviors in social settings. Despite the attention of these four research streams, research on copycat crime has not been extensive. One reason for the deficiency is the difficulty in identifying copycat crimes. Whereas other crimes are relatively straightforward to quantify and are routinely tallied in official law enforcement statistics, copycat crimes are not counted in any systematic way.
Copycat crime has traditionally been conceived within an emphasis on direct exposure to live person-to-person models. The media as a source of crime models has historically been downplayed. As the media evolved in the 20th century the study of mediated copycat crime models ascended so that the dominant contemporary view of copycat crime is that of media-sourced transmissions. Copycat crimes are today linked to literature, movies, television shows, music, video games, and print and television news, but despite concern and a large number of studies of violent media’s relationship to social aggression, the rigorous study of copycat crime has lagged. At this time, copycat effects are felt to be relatively rare and are most likely to appear in at-risk individuals predisposed to crime and in preexisting criminal populations. The effect of the media is thought to be more qualitative (affecting criminal behavior) than quantitative (affecting the number of criminals). Whether copycat crime effects influence any particular individual depends on the interaction of the content of a particular media product (its characterizations of crime and criminals), the individual’s predispositions toward crime (personal criminal history, family, and environmental factors), and the media’s social context (preexisting cultural norms toward crime, crime opportunities, and nature of the mass media). The most likely individual to be a copycat offender is hypothesized to be a socially isolated but criminally confident offender who is exposed to multiple live criminal models and has immersed themselves in criminogenic media.
The dead body has a history of being a source of fascination for the living, with ancient narratives relating to mysterious corpse powers that have fed into how the dead are portrayed and consumed by society. Corpses are graphically visible within the 21st-century West (namely America and Europe) in not only news coverage of natural disasters, war, and human-inflicted trauma but also, most prominently, popular culture. Popular culture will be interpreted here to refer to the ideas, attitudes, images, and texts within the mainstream of a given culture (specifically Western) from the 20th century onward that reflect products and activities that are aimed at the taste of the general masses of people. It is often considered “low culture” or unsophisticated, as it is synonymous with consumer culture and mass consumption; however, it can offer a space where new meanings can be made and explored by subverting or overturning taken-for-granted ideas. The manifestations of popular culture are varied, but the main focus here will be on film and television, which are largely unavoidable and visually vivid as a form of entertainment. Consuming the corpse within popular culture is dominated by portrayals of corpse parts via organ transplant mythology, the undead (zombies and vampires in fantasy and horror genres), and the authentic dead (fake corpses played by actors or mannequins most often used in crime procedurals and detective fiction are part of the forensic science process). Viewing death within the fictional context of the undead and forensics has made the corpse, particularly the opened and violated corpse, into an acceptable entertainment commodity. Accusations have been made that these dead bodies within forensics-based television shows and films border on pornographic in that they seek to be shocking and deviant while meeting the expectation to be entertained by violated, wounded bodies. However, we are no longer shocked. We are acclimatized, and the undead and the authentic dead within forensic science in popular culture have been central in this process. Death and the dead are safe when consumed through popular culture, which provides us with a softening lens. Popular culture portrayals particularly of forensic science enable distance between the dead and the consuming viewer. It is a point of safety from which to explore death and human mortality.
This article brings together scholarship on crime and celebrity in media culture to offer an overview on the works that engage with their intersection points. Focusing on Anglo-American media culture in particular, it offers a useful overview of the field of celebrity studies and to the notable scholars that are sharpening their focus to include media discourses of notoriety and infamy. The text also includes approaches from film and television studies, cultural studies, and cultural criminology. After establishing an introduction to the place of notoriety within the context of celebrity studies, there follows a detailed, though not exhaustive, taxonomy of different types of notoriety (Infamous Crime, Celebrity Criminal, Criminal Celebrity, Celebrity Victim, Victimized Celebrity, Victims of Celebrity, and Celebrity Expert). This taxonomy draws on the work of media scholars studying fame and provides a vocabulary for theorizing and contextualizing the place of crime and transgression within contemporary media culture.
With the taxonomy of notoriety in place, the remainder of the article considers two significant cultural practices of criminalized celebrity: the first is the forensic framing of criminality, transgression, and violence made possible by the figure of the Celebrity Expert. Such experts provide a containment system for the atavism of the criminal act by offering rational explanations and analytical tools. In the hands of the Celebrity Expert, the sensationalism of the true crime story is tempered by discourses of scientific rationalism. This process is often problematic because forensic accounts of crime must balance the tension between telling sensational stories of (often sexualized) violence and offering reassurance that justice can be realized through systems of scientific procedure. The second practice is generally considered more contentious: the industries of crime tourism and collection, dubbed murderabilia. Fans of true crime are invited to take part in “Ripper walks” through Whitechapel or Black Dahlia–themed bus tours through Los Angeles. The murderabilia trade proves that crime is indeed a lucrative business, and that celebrity fandom is not a practice limited to the admiration of film stars or musicians. The article concludes with a consideration of the serial killer, a highly mediated figure around which all of the debates and discourses of crime and celebrity circulates.
Stephen Tomsen and Dick Hobbs
A focus on masculinity and crime has been an ongoing feature of popular culture, ranging from early pulp fiction, cartoons, popular music, commercial film and television, and contemporary forms of gaming and online media. In sociology and cultural studies, the search for unequivocal examples of ideological repression has been thrown into doubt by accounts that seek out nuanced readings of cultural depictions and that have reworked evidence from audience research to question ideology as an uncontested absorption of ruling ideas. The creative relationship between producer and audience, with shifting meanings for consumers of culture, means a hesitation about whether cultural items can be read as holding a single inner meaning. A consideration of these cultural forms shows that simpler depictions of crime and criminal justice as a terrain of symbolic struggle between rival masculinities contrast morally repellent offenders from law enforcement heroes who enact justice and guard society. Yet cultural accounts of crime often offer more ambiguous scenarios that are difficult for viewers to judge, and opportunities for viewers to identify with acts of violence and lawbreaking that play on the wider tensions between official state-based and outlaw “protest” masculinities in the criminal justice system.
The presence of crime in the visual media is a phenomenon shared throughout the world. In Brazil there is also a great level of consumption of it. The Brazilian production of media about crimes is deeply rooted in the social context that has emerged from intense social, political, and economic transformations that have taken place in the country since the second half of the 20th century. The depiction of crime in Brazilian visual media is based on three different genres: (1) television series, (2) films, and (3) police journalism. They deal with critical issues about the rule of law in Brazilian society such as violence, inequality, police corruption, failures of the criminal justice system, and the demands for public policies to improve it. Despite this common ground, the genres reveal different political and ideological views about the rule of law in Brazil. Productions centered on the plane of fiction (television and film) are more critical about the criminal justice system in Brazil, especially in relation to the performance of its police forces. Brazilian police journalism is the opposite. The style reinforces a view of the problem of crime founded from the viewpoint of problematic people rather than problematic structures. Finally, the media coverage of crime is an important field to help understand the different views in the public agenda about the criminal justice system’s reform in Brazil.
Popular culture has always displayed a fascination with topics of criminological significance. Crime, deviance, and the agencies of their control have long been a staple concern of multiple entertainment industries, and nowhere is this more pronounced than in television. From classic serialized “whodunits,” to the countless police procedurals, right up to CSI and other investigative shows, the notions of good and bad, law and order, justice and retribution (to name but a few) have never been far away from television screens across the globe. However, in recent years, the quality—along with the availability—of television shows has undergone something of a transformation. From the somewhat kitsch roots of the genre, TV crime dramas such as The Sopranos, The Wire, and Boardwalk Empire are now widely recognized as existing at the very high end of cultural significance. Put simply, these shows and others like them have moved on—they currently demonstrate a standard of production and artistic merit that their forerunners simply could not.
There are good reasons why the television medium transformation occurred how and when it did, yet they are not of great concern here. What does matter is the fact that, as the standard of TV crime dramas has improved, so too has the level of attention they have received from criminologists, sociologists, and other cultural theorists interested in crime and deviance. The evolution of criminology’s relationship with media representations has—just like the representations themselves—moved at an increased pace of late. The case has been made by some scholars that the days in which representations could be understood as existing somehow separately from peoples’ social worlds are now long gone; that the line between representation and reality is now irrecoverably blurred. As such, and crucially here, this has come to mean that representations can—and indeed should—be treated as sites of knowledge and meaning in and of themselves. That is, some crime dramas are now better understood as examples of social science fiction than they are as mere television shows.
The results of these concomitant developments in both the standard of broadcast television and the attention it receives from criminologists have been significant for the broader field of cultural criminology. This is primarily the case because of the ways in which the study of crime dramas can free criminology from some of its intellectual constraints. That is, the study of crime dramas as social science fiction can take intellectual inquiries in directions that—for any one of a multitude of reasons—other forms of criminological investigation do not (or cannot) go. This is not to say that representations constitute a strictly alternative understanding of crime per se (and it is certainly not to say that they constitute a superior one), but rather that they should be understood as offering complementary knowledge of criminological subjects; and moreover, and importantly here, they have the realistic capacity to reshape and redirect on-going criminological debates in new and innovative ways.
Frankie Y. Bailey
The commonly accepted definition of crime fiction is a work in which crime is central to the plot. The roots of crime fiction are traceable to the earliest human narratives, including the Greek and Roman myths and the biblical tale of Cain and Abel. Sensational accounts of real-life crimes and criminals in gallows confessions, broadsides, and pamphlets also contributed to the development of crime fiction. Historically, crime fiction has evolved parallel to political and criminal justice systems.
Many authors have explored the nature of crime and punishment in literary works. For example, Susan Glaspell, playwright, novelist, and actress, was inspired by a real-life murder trial she covered as a journalist. In her 1916 play, “Trifles” and in a 1917 short story, “A Jury of Her Peers,” Glaspell offered a feminist critique of gender relations in a domestic setting.
However, as a genre, crime fiction has “literary formulas” that distinguish these works from other genres such as romance and adventure. Within the genre, subgenres such as traditional/classic, PI, and police procedural novels have plots, characters, and settings that are recognizable to readers. As a genre, crime fiction has both provided source material for theater, radio, films, television and, now, social media, and, been influenced by these media.
One of the enduring questions about crime fiction is why readers enjoy sitting down with a book that is often about murder, sometimes graphically depicted. Critic and writer Edmund Wilson described detective fiction as an addiction to which readers succumb. However, he saw reading mysteries as a minor vice that “ranks somewhere between crossword puzzles and smoking.” He heard claims by readers about “well-written mysteries” as “like the reasons that the alcoholic can always produce for a drink”.
When academics attempt to understand and interpret the texts of crime fiction, they draw on a variety of theoretical perspectives (see discussion under Research). In recent decades, mystery reviewers, writers, and readers have used social media, particularly websites and blogs, to share their own perspectives. One question of interest is the influence such non-academic discussion of crime fiction has on the perceptions of readers and on writers engaged in the process of creation.
Currently, both publishers and authors are dealing with the challenges and opportunities of a changing marketplace. Self-publishing (now known as “independent publishing”) has allowed writers to by-pass traditional publishing. At the same time, the lack of diversity in the publishing industry has drawn increasing scrutiny.