A Genre Study of Prosecutors and Criminal Defense Lawyers in American Movies and Television
- Michael AsimowMichael AsimowDepartment of Law, Stanford University
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.