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Article

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.

Article

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.

Article

From watching imported American popular culture dramas focusing on criminal justice, French television viewers have become confused as to how their own legal system really works. They have erroneous expectations of behaviours in court, like addressing judges by the wrong title, a title that comes from poor dubbing. Or they will refuse to answer questions, thinking they have Fifth Amendment protections, when they do not. They know very little of the organization of courtroom space. Since it is forbidden by law to take photographs or film trials in France, it is difficult to bring accurate court images to the public. The French produce police dramas, but very few series or made-for-television movies on justice, thus providing no alternatives for these erroneous criteria. They do, however, produce documentaries and docudramas dealing with past investigations or with timely issues such as recidivism or reintegration into society after prison. Documentaries, although pertinent, give viewers only one-shot access to the representations of justice and the legal professions they contain. The do not facilitate the acquisition over time of a legal culture. In addition to the confusion, the French have a negative image of lawyers as motivated by money and politics rather than justice. Films and French television fictions are responsible for this impression. Television news reports are short and give incomplete accounts of the law or on-going proceedings. Sometimes lawyers are interviewed in these reports, but never prosecutors or judges. Judges and prosecutors are magistrats, not lawyers. They train in different institutions from lawyers and are civil servants, so they are not as likely as lawyers to be making a lot of money, nor are they free to make public statements. The image of these professions is consequently more positive in the French imagination as portrayed in the popular culture.

Article

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.

Article

Criminal justice and its institutions are key objects of popular culture and attract extensive media attention. The portrayal of the justice system, its rules, professions, and institutions has been invigorated with the invention of new media technology. The authorities’ reaction to wrong doing has proven not less exciting to the audience than the criminal acts themselves. French sociologist Emile Durkheim emphasized that every member of society has an interest in social cohesion and wishes to see perpetrators appropriately punished. The media plays to this basic inclination. From the reactions of the justice system to crime people take clues not only for its effectiveness but the public also wants to see its basic values represented in the work of officials and their decisions. Therefore, aspects of procedural and distributive justice are picked up by popular imagination and exploited to the full by media producers. Beyond recognition that media depictions of criminal justice will follow media conventions and will therefore be distorted in systematic ways, it has to be acknowledged that those representations and the expectations they formed have become a major force in society. Political repercussions and influences on how crime is dealt with are a consequence.

Article

Stefan Machura and Michael Böhnke

Legal themes, especially those related to crime, abound in German popular culture. This article covers some of the most politically significant and popular examples from the Weimar Republic period to present times, putting them into their social and media sector context. Due to the country’s experience with totalitarian regimes, one main topic of popular culture is the political abuse of the law. Run-of-the-mill crime stories, of course, are a staple of literature and audiovisual media. Their appeal did not lessen in the age of the Internet. Due to genre and narrative conventions, mainstream media tend to shed a positive light on the institutions and personnel connected with the law. Much of German fiction is heavily influenced by the example of US films and TV series, so far that they misrepresent the German legal system. Other influences shape content as well. Economic pressures rank high among them, while overt censorship was evident during the Third Reich (1933–1945) and after partition in the German Democratic Republic (GDR; 1949–1990). Highly regarded artistic works often focus on the topic of individual guilt, while lesser productions typically draw on the sensational aspects of crime detection. The ordering hand of the judge, putting things right after a tumultuous court hearing, signifies the German TV judge show (the equivalent of Judge Judy). Measured degrees of social criticism are typical for many of the better TV productions. And, despite television’s influence, novels and plays still claim a stake in popular culture. Although US media productions dominate the international market for legal fiction, German TV shows, especially police series, became a success story as well. They project the image of the clean, unbiased, correct, and efficient police inspector. Critical films and programs aim mainly at the domestic market due to their specific issues. Nevertheless, the overall effect of German popular fiction dealing with crime and justice tends to be positive, with trust in the law being supported.