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date: 01 December 2020

Folk Heroes and Folk Devils: The Janus Face of the Robber in Popular Culturelocked

  • Simon HallsworthSimon HallsworthArts, Business and Applied Social Science, University of Suffolk

Summary

In this study of how the street robber has been positioned in popular culture, two starkly opposite views are presented on how this figure has been represented: namely, as folk devil and as folk hero. This relatively low-level criminal is involved in criminal activity that delivers low rewards and that is largely inflicted on other poor people. As a result, this robber is on the one hand represented as evil incarnate, a folk devil imagined as posing an existential threat to society and its values. On the other hand, the robber can be positioned as an audacious folk hero, a champion of the downtrodden. This positioning is explored by tracing the changing characterization of the robber over time: notably, the heroic representation of the outlaw in medieval culture, the myths that surrounded the highwaymen of the 18th century, and a more demonic representation by the 19th century, a representation that continues to the present day. While it is no longer possible to conceive of robbers today as folk heroes, many attributes of the heroic robber are still celebrated in popular culture in detective fiction and in RAP music.

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