Taunya Lovell Banks
Crime films defy precise definition. This category includes traditional courtroom films like Witness for the Prosecution (1957), detective films like Gone Girl (2014), prison films like The Shawshank Redemption (1994), comedies like My Cousin Vinny (1992) or Find Me Guilty (2006), gangster films like The Godfather series (1972, 1974, 1990), and even musicals like Chicago (2002). Thus crime films provide an almost limitless variety of plots, characters, and settings. Adopting a very broad definition of what constitutes a “crime film”, the representation of race in crime films throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries is examined.
During much of the early and mid-20th century, crime on American Main Street silver screens was largely a white phenomenon. The absence of people considered nonwhite from early crime films is unsurprising because “whiteness is positioned as the default category, the center or the assumed norm on which everything else in American society is based. Under this conception, white is often defined more through what it is not than what it is.” Racial outsiders like African and Asian Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, and other persons considered nonwhite were not featured on America’s movie screens. If they appeared at all in early crime films it was as marginal stereotypical characters.
Stereotyping, when used in film, is designed “to quickly convey information about characters and to instill in audiences expectations about characters’ actions.” During the early days of American films nonwhites were encoded with negative, often criminal, stereotypes. In silent films like Birth of a Nation (1915), for example, African American men were depicted as rapists and violent brutes. Mexicans in The Greaser’s Gauntlet (1908) and Guns and Greasers (1918) were depicted as criminals. Silent films like The Massacre (1912) and The Battle of Elderbush Gulch (1913) portrayed Native Americans as lawless savages, an image reinforced throughout the 20th century by western films. In The Cheat (1915) Japanese male immigrants were depicted as wily sexual predictors. The stereotypes attributed to ethnic Chinese were slightly different and more exaggerated. Films like The Heathen Chinese and the Sunday School Teacher (1904) and The Yellow Peril (1908) demonized Chinese immigrants as villainous predictors. In episode 13 of the film serial The Exploits of Elaine (1914) the protagonist, Pearl, “[t]rapped in a lair of Chinese devil worshipers . . . is spared rape, a fate worse than death, in favor of ritual sacrifice to an Oriental demon who demands a bride ‘blond, beautiful and not of our race’.” Although nonwhites’ conduct was criminalized in these films, the films themselves were not crime films.
Transgressive imaginations refers to the breaking of rules and taboos including, but not limited to, acts of crime and violence as they are represented in fictive texts and ethnographic research. The focus here will be on the fictive, rather than ethnographic, element. Transgression can be understood not only as exceeding boundaries or limits but as resistance, protest, and escape. Particularly apposite is the portrayal of “heroes” and “villains” in different cultural forms, and how these contribute to popular understandings.
Cultural portrayals of those who transgress societal norms are frequently stigmatizing, and label them as mad, bad, and abject. However, the analysis of transgression also entails radical democratic possibilities, whether this is through research that challenges restrictive stereotypes and normative assumptions, or the means through which those labeled “outsiders” defy their marginalization. Cultural representations of transgression are not necessarily supportive of culturally dominant or conservative positions and can instead offer new ways of imagining social identities and social change. The ways in which transgression is imagined can both construct and challenge moral boundaries.
True crime reporting was extremely popular in early modern England (ca. 1550–1800). Depending on when this literature was written, and the audience it was intended to attract, the sub-genres of true crime writing took the form of small pamphlets, broadsides, rhyming ballads designed to be sung to a familiar tune, ministers’ accounts of criminals and repentance, collections of trials, newspapers, and biographies of professional criminals. In addition to being inherently shocking and entertaining, this literature served as cautionary, religious, and morality tales that reflected on serious crime as one of the signs that English society had become ignorant, irreligious, and immoral. These tales of true crime could be used to remind a wide readership of the wages of sin, and of the role of the community, church, and state in bringing about justice for criminals and their victims. In a society that placed significant restraints on sexual, personal, and religious freedoms, and exhorted obedience, deference, hard work, sexual restraint, and abstinence from all forms of vice, true crime literature could help to restore order and balance to society. To accomplish these various goals, the authors of true crime literature were not very faithful reporters, often embellishing criminal deeds, publishing small portions of much lengthier cases, or fabricating facts as needed to fill in unknown details or to improve readers’ fear of and education about the criminal element that surrounded them. As this literature developed in the 18th century, its authors became famous for reporting about infamous criminals in semi-biographical novels, thus merging true crime literature with fiction and giving rise to another genre of crime literature by about 1800.
Vengeance or revenge has been characterized in popular culture in a range of different ways. Within theories of criminology and social psychology, its relationship to retribution has been examined along with notions of deterrence and rehabilitation. Vengeance has been prevalent within a range of various belief systems as well as in myths, legends, and sacred texts. While vengeance seems to be a feature in all cultures, its acceptance as an appropriate response has been less than clear. It has been weighed alongside a preference for forgiveness, and tensions between these two options against harm have come to the fore in more recent times.
A distinction can usefully be made between vengeance undertaken by the state and the community on the one hand, which might be termed the revenge of the legal process and that exacted by the individual or family. The vengeance theme has been a major feature of Western culture in its expression in Greek literature and theater, through classical authors like Shakespeare and Racine to the present day. There is a link to popular literature as well as the more elusive world of popular theater and its occasional forays into the revenge theme.
The major expression of revenge within mass cultural forms, however, has been in film. Initially production codes prevented revenge being shown as having a successful outcome. Since the 1970s, however, a major modern version of portraying revenge that recurs within modern cinema throughout the world has been the vigilante film. This model of vengeance operates on the notion of an individual responding to the failings of the official system of securing proportionate or effective retribution. There are particular recurring features in these films including a disruptive random unlawful event, the law taking its course, a system malfunction, a trigger to revenge, and a coda stressing the efficacy of vengeance. Along with this is a significant subgroup within the cinema of personal revenge, the rape-revenge film. There has been extensive scholarship on this type of film and its rather different elements. A distinction can be made on the basis of the nature and perceived audience between this trope and the wider world of vengeance movies.
There has been relatively limited coverage of the revenge theme in television. The changes in the forms of media provide fresh opportunities for coverage of the vengeance theme in the 21st century. The contrast between the community approach of law and that of the individual seeker after revenge are formally different, but in the end they both involve elements of vengeance.
Timothy Rowlands, Sheruni Ratnabalasuriar, and Kyle Noel
A product of the military-industrial complex, from the origins of the medium, video games have been associated with violence. As they have become increasingly popular, finding their ways into many households in the United States and around the world, video games have come under increasing scrutiny for the graphic depictions of violence and sexuality some present. An overview of the history of video games suggests this is not a recent problem. As early as 1976, there has been public outcry for regulation of the industry to prevent antisocial content from findings its way into the hands of children. While some politicians, newsmakers, and activist attorneys have stirred up moral panics in response, courts in the United States have generally remained dispassionate. Unmoved by the inconsistent research exploring the connection between video games, aggression, violence, and crime, these courts have insisted on a hands-off approach in order to avoid infringing upon freedom of speech. Nevertheless, likely unrelated to this question of transference, video games have created new venues for the commission of real criminal acts such as fraud and harassment. This points to the ways video games and the virtual worlds they sometimes present have become very real and meaningful parts of everyday life for many people.
Debate surrounding the impact of media representations on violence and crime has raged for decades and shows no sign of abating. Over the years, the targets of concern have shifted from film to comic books to television to video games, but the central questions remain the same. What is the relationship between popular media and audience emotions, attitudes, and behaviors? While media effects research covers a vast range of topics—from the study of its persuasive effects in advertising to its positive impact on emotions and behaviors—of particular interest to criminologists is the relationship between violence in popular media and real-life aggression and violence. Does media violence cause aggression and/or violence?
The study of media effects is informed by a variety of theoretical perspectives and spans many disciplines including communications and media studies, psychology, medicine, sociology, and criminology. Decades of research have amassed on the topic, yet there is no clear agreement about the impact of media or about which methodologies are most appropriate. Instead, there continues to be disagreement about whether media portrayals of violence are a serious problem and, if so, how society should respond.
Conflicting interpretations of research findings inform and shape public debate around media effects. Although there seems to be a consensus among scholars that exposure to media violence impacts aggression, there is less agreement around its potential impact on violence and criminal behavior. While a few criminologists focus on the phenomenon of copycat crimes, most rarely engage with whether media directly causes violence. Instead, they explore broader considerations of the relationship between media, popular culture, and society.
Visual criminology emerges from a call to rethink the manner in which images are reshaping the world and criminology as a project. The mobility, malleability, banality, speed, and scale of images and their distribution demand that we engage both old and new theories and methods. Visual criminologists pursue a refinement of concepts and tools as well as innovative new ones to tackle questions of crime, harm, culture, and control. Concerned with how ways of seeing are foundational to social orders, visual criminology gives close attention to the production of crime’s power and spectacle in the visual field and relies upon emergent conceptual terms and vocabularies to do so. It insists that it is no longer possible to understand crime and control separately from how they are represented. Visual criminology is born as an alternative academic space that is neither supplementary nor secondary to mainstream social science; rather, it calls us to understand the power of crime and punishment beyond the written and numeric registers of reports, studies, and research.
The concerns of visual criminology are numerous. Visual criminologists are interested in the role of vision and the visual in the historical foundations of criminology as a discipline. They push crime and media scholars to investigate more deeply the role of the image itself, beyond conventional studies of crime and media. Using a growing and sophisticated set of theories, methods, and concepts, they track how the various optics of criminology and criminal justice (defined by disciplinary, institutional, and epistemological boundaries) are produced, culminating in popular and scientific perspectives that inevitably bring certain principles, claims, and possibilities into the line of vision and omit others. They also give attention to how these optics are contested and transgressed. Focal points of this work span a variety of media and artistic modes that continue to grow at an unprecedented rate: photodocumentary, photoethnography, new and social media, interactive and social documentary, architecture, data visualizations, design, conceptual and performance art, mixed media, theater, embodiment, spatialization, surveillance and aerial/satellite/drone technology, graffiti and urban aesthetics, ruins and dark tourism, models, exhibitions, and imaginative interventions to envision crime and punishment otherwise. Even as this visual focus expands the disciplinary tools and insights of criminology, it also broadens the field’s boundaries, drawing from a rich theoretical terrain of interdisciplinary studies.
There can be no doubt that criminology has taken something of a visual turn, as evidenced by increasing numbers of articles, conference panels, edited volumes, monographs, and seminar series that support visual research within criminology and related fields (Brown, 2014; Carrabine, 2012; Brown & Carrabine, 2016; Lippens et al., 2013). This development has come with important calls for both direct, empirical engagement with images, as well as new methodological approaches that mobilize images for a “politically charged analysis” (Hayward, 2010, p. 3). While visual criminology, as it has come to be known, has taken up the importance of the image, the issue of representation, and the photograph, it has been slower to engage on the terrain of visuality, a concept that can sometimes slip into shorthand for the realm of the visual, but which means something more closely resembling an authorized view of society and history (Mirzoeff, 2011a). Visuality is the production, representation, and naturalization of state power that at once fabricates order and, in doing so, organizes the available vocabularies for describing and challenging it. Visuality is a mechanism by which the quotidian violence underwriting authority is made illegible and unseeable. a process that relies on knowledge production for legitimacy and consent.
It is here, at the intersections of visuality’s naturalization of the everyday violence of law and its naturalization of an authorized constellation of ideas and terms from which to draw meaning about the world, that the role of criminology must be considered. As a science of crime and punishment, criminology is both subordinate to the terms and ideologies of the state and continually reproduces and reifies those terms by providing the gloss of scientific objectivity. Criminology is largely managerial and reformist, a discipline dependent on the state as much for grant monies and evaluation projects as for the very normative terms of study—crime, law, punishment—that underwrite its very existence and relevance.
Yet, the relationship between criminology and visuality is not one of wholehearted subservience and hegemony. Even as the discipline should be understood as an important intellectual prosthetic in the state’s fabrication of social order through technologies of illumination, capture, and mapping, visuality is never complete and criminology is not uniform. Indeed, criminology has an established if uneven lineage of radical interventions into the common sense of state violence. The question remains open as to the role criminology might play in enacting counter-visuality, an intellectual and political project aimed at inscribing in the social body the capacities to render such violence legible.
It is often stated that it is not possible to completely understand genocide: its horror and suffering defy complete representation. For those not immediately affected by the horror, representations of genocide through photography and film are often the primary form through which genocide is encountered. It is possible to discern two key questions underpinning scholarship that engages with representations of genocide in photography and film: First, to what extent can photos and film document and thereby provide evidence of genocide? One version of this question is linked to that of examining “truths” about genocide—whether genocide occurred and understanding its intricacies. Another leads to questions about the role of photography as evidence and its limits in providing “truths.” The second central question in the scholarship concerns the role that photos and film hold in bearing witness to genocide. Here, the scholarship tends to be framed not so much a question as an impetus to “never forget” or “never again.”
During the Khmer Rouge genocide, somewhere between 1.5 and 2.25 million people were killed. While most killings do not meet the legal elements of genocide, the event is nevertheless colloquially known as genocide. Among the most known photographs from the period are the photographs taken at the security center S-21. Today, they stand as representative of the victims of the Khmer Rouge and have appeared at genocide museums, research archives, institutions of art, and as illustrations for various legal claims. The debates that have accompanied these appearances are illustrative of the debates on images of genocide more generally, focusing on, for example, limits of representation, the appropriate place for such photographs. and claims of voyeurism. Numerous films have been made about the Khmer Rouge period, some of which have been major commercial successes, others have been independent documentaries. Films such as The Killing Fields and The Missing Picture can be seen as bearing witness to the genocide, whereas documentaries such as S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine pose intricate questions about responsibility. Finally, it is noteworthy to pay attention to the way film appears within criminal proceedings, as this sheds light on the different understandings of evidence when the task is to bear witness and assign responsibility.
How do we account for the place that the Nuremberg trials have come to occupy in American popular memory, culture, and discourse? For some observers, the Nuremberg trials, conducted at the end of World War II, represent an exemplary, and thus to be celebrated, first effort to establish international norms of conduct between nations in the wake of unimaginable atrocity. Rather than exercising arbitrary or indiscriminate retribution, the war’s victors turned to law for redress against Germany and in the process laid the foundation for a normative framework that might subsequently be employed to adjudicate global conflict. Little appreciated in such legal-centric accounts of the impact of the trials or explanations of their lasting importance is the role of visual texts in the proceedings and, more specifically, the prosecution’s use of concentration camp liberation footage to provide evidence of Nazi criminality. In the context of the trials, these texts established a certain regime of truth, fortified a particular moral position, and fixed as self-evident Nazi lawlessness. Significantly, they have since come to securely anchor what people believe animated the trials’ legal arguments and thus what the trials were about. To understand, therefore, the place that the Nuremberg trials have come to occupy in popular memory, culture, and discourse, one must consider how the prosecution incorporated and used visual texts and how these texts then helped shape not only popular renderings of the postwar proceedings but an enduring belief in the magically transformative nature of law to counter (Nazi) evil and reestablish humanity’s common bonds.