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date: 19 February 2018

Crime and Masculinity in Popular Culture

Summary and Keywords

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.

Keywords: masculinity, hegemony, film, nostalgia, identity, race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality

Theorizing Popular Culture

Critical analyses of culture and the political aspects that culture may have in reinforcing existing social inequality, and blocking forms of protest and change emerged and developed from Marxist accounts of ideology, false consciousness, and the role of hegemony in contemporary liberal capitalism (Williams, 2011). Notions of false consciousness about objective life interests and exploitation among the working class, as well as a misplaced loyalty and respect for the disruptive patterns of industrial capitalism and the colonial expansion of modern nation states, were understood as typical of the problem of ideology. The most vulgar models of ideology as the deliberate imposition of false belief systems upon exploited social classes and groups proved insufficient to explain working-class quiescence in times of instability or periods of relative affluence in the 20th century.

One notably more sophisticated account was the Frankfurt School analysis of the demagogic threads of political culture in the mid-20th century. This relied on Freudian views to explain the incorporation of bourgeois and authoritarian values in mass citizenship (Jay, 1973). New media and entertainment—pulp novels, tabloid press, radio, and cinema—as forms of mass culture were seen as everyday distractions for exploited and disempowered people, and all were implicated in this broader process of inducing cultural repression. A ubiquitous loyalty toward authoritarian or liberal leaders, uncritical belief in the virtues of private profit, and exuberant and destructive nationalism were all seen as further reflections of this pernicious effect of mass culture.

Nevertheless, widespread functionalist and even conspiratorial discussions of ideology appeared insufficient to explain the complexities of political division and new countercultural trends that were most overt in affluent late-20th-century liberal capitalism. Open social protest and new social movements that advocated for racial, gender, and sexual equality arose at this time. Critics of the mass culture thesis noted its simplicity and similarity with conservative elite accounts of cultural trends that fail to address popular culture and its multiple forms and contexts seriously. Renewed left theories of contemporary culture drew influence from continental structuralist accounts of state power and theories of ideology, language, and identity.

A more developed model for interpreting the contours and shifts in political consciousness as ideology was signaled by British researchers (Hall, Critcher, Jefferson, Clarke, & Roberts, 1978) who focused on the detailed study of transformations and patterns of consumption in working class culture. Furthermore, they revived Antonio Gramsci’s insights into struggles over culture as the terrain of a shifting and uncertain conflict between class and political rivals. This hegemonic contest to assume a leading position in definitions of the popular and national interest took place against a backdrop of postindustrial decline, the end of empire, a new assertion of gender equality, a swing toward promarket neoliberal individualism, and a divisive stress on law and order that favored higher levels of authoritarian policing, criminalization, punishment, and incarceration in response to social stress and disorder (Hall, Critcher, Jefferson, Clarke, & Roberts, 1978).

This strand of theorizing about contemporary capitalism and culture was subject to feminist criticism for its apparent downplaying of gender subordination in those aspects of traditional class cultures (e.g., worker and trade union solidarity or the community of masculine leisure pursuits such as football) that male researchers were more likely to romanticize (McRobbie, 1991). Similarly, key advocates of this new approach also acknowledged racism and postcolonial identity as divisive issues in working-class life and any popular struggle against law-and-order politics (Hall, 1996). Ultimately, even such sophisticated models of hegemonic understandings of popular culture were doubted by liberal critiques of the notion of ideological domination and by poststructuralist trends with regard to viewing culture and identity (Abercrombie, Hill, & Turner, 1980). New modes of discourse analysis stressed multiple “meaning” for cultural consumption. With regard to items of popular culture, there is never a monolithic social or political message that can be guaranteed or predicted, or any single form of audience interpretation. This approach reworked the earlier insights of American audience research to question “top-down” models of ideology and stressed a more creative relationship between product and audience, with shifting levels of desire, attraction, and identification for consumers of cultural items.

Crime, Masculinity, and Hegemony

In recent decades, criminologists have developed understandings of crime and criminality that openly and critically acknowledge the strength of the relationship between masculinity and offending (Messerschmidt, 1993; Messerschmidt & Tomsen, 2012; Messerschmidt & Tomsen, 2017). In early accounts, this link was explained as an intrinsic one. Emerging mysteriously within biological forces or continuous patterns of evolutionary psychology, the near monopoly of violence and crime was viewed as an essential component of maleness. Leading critical accounts have since emerged from a historical, social, and gendered perspective to acknowledge and also explain aspects of the nexus between masculinity and crime and its significant relationship to unequal social structures and struggles for social power. A handful of contemporary views stress the constructed and performative forms of gendered action in social interaction and cultural discourse (e.g., West & Zimmerman, 1987; Butler, 1990). But one leading model is directed toward a multilevel analysis of inequality, culture, gender relations, and power struggles within plural forms of masculinity, and this approach has more to offer an understanding of the complexity between different forms of masculinity that are depicted in popular culture and the relations between them.

With a widening influence in criminology and social sciences in general, the Connellian framework refers to masculinity as an entire social system that subordinates women (in sexual/domestic, material/income, and workforce and political/organizational spheres), that in most historical instances ultimately serves to shore up the collective power of men (Connell, 1995). This further explores relationships between distinct types of masculinity that are described as hegemonic, subordinate, and socially marginal. Thus, it may seem paradoxical that the model has proved so intellectually successful in the same decades as a harsh critique of many hegemonic analyses of contemporary culture has occurred. Yet this theory may be deployed in a way that is sufficiently antireductionist so as to avoid interpreting gender matters as mirror reflections of issues related to social class (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005). Likewise, it does not compel a constant uncovering of ideological dominance and repression in considerations of culture. What is ideally hegemonic among men is highly contested, evolving, and with no direct fit to the everyday lives of most men. As an ideal type, hegemonic masculinity is a portrait of a certain form of masculinity in tension with a range of others.

A key feature of the cultural fascination with crime and criminality is that representations of these have comprised the symbolic terrain for playing out the rivalry and struggle between masculinities and uncertainty about their status. Observers of popular culture are given a significant window into social divisions regarding appropriate forms of masculinity and what links these have to systems of power. These now include uncertainty about what is a true respected masculinity in the postindustrial period, and to what extent this involves violence and wrongdoing, domination of women, moneymaking, physical strength and endurance, courage and protectiveness, solitude, or sharing with others (Kimmel, Hearn, & Connell, 2004). This same uncertainty has been shown to critically shape the real-life decisionmaking and actions of the most politically powerful men (Messerschmidt, 2016). But in popular culture, this masculinity is more openly depicted as highly ambiguous in relation to being law-abiding or lawbreaking in complex situations of moral uncertainty and survival. Representations may take the form of a simple masculine/unmasculine opposition, or they may reflect situations that suggest the broader range of masculinities that exist in a world that is socially divided and exploitative at multiple levels. Popular depictions of crime and masculinity, as well as the attainment of masculinity by either engaging in crime or countering it, may be complex and contradictory and refer to the embodiment of multiple masculine identities and the unresolved cultural and social tensions that these entail.

Masculinity, Morality, and Law Enforcement Heroism

With echoes of the Lombrosian notion of the born criminal, the simpler cultural depictions of crime and criminality reproduce images of masculine offending that are analogous to the essentialist versions of criminological explanation of wrongdoing. In this view, male criminality has a natural aspect. It is the result of a regressive inner destructiveness that can emerge according to circumstances and offending opportunity. This is expressed most obviously in pathological people who commit extremely violent crimes (monstrous serial killers, sadistic rapists and child molesters, fanatical terrorists, etc.), who are the objects of particular fascination and loathing for their reprehensible acts, lack of guilt or remorse, an inculcation of audience fear, and a drawing of obvious moral boundaries between good and evil. The police and law enforcement officials in contest with such characters are typically either good or even heroic men who are physically strong and focused, sacrifice their own private lives, and work around the clock to save the vulnerable public from a criminal menace.

In the cases of such cultural imagery, there is a stress on the public stranger as a criminal threat that takes the focus away from such everyday offending as male confrontational violence and intimate partner and family assaults and abuse. Furthermore, notions of law enforcement bravery, sacrifice, and heroism may coalesce with conservative law-and-order ideology and support for measures to further bolster police powers and prisons. Audience reactions can vary considerably, but a crudely logical response to such depictions of pathological and unreformable offenders is support for incapacitation by long periods of high-security incarceration or even the regular use of the death penalty as a major goal of criminal justice.

Despite the apparent simplicity of most of these depictions and narratives of pathological male offending, their strong cultural appeal and the link with punitive sentiments can also be understood in how these may operate at a psychosocial level. Manichean allegorical accounts of crime and justice serve as modern-day morality tales, and are easily recognizable in cartoons, popular literature, and film and television, as these media feature contrasting images of wicked offenders and good and respectable law enforcers who eventually conquer their opponents in struggles to protect and save the general public. The audience pathway toward empathy with such law enforcement heroes, as well as the experience of punitive emotional affect in response to the capture and punishment of wrongdoers, appears to be straightforward. Yet it is the case that a process of psychic splitting in each reader or viewer can allow the alternative or dual forms of identification with characters including police and criminals on either side of the criminal justice divide. Furthermore, this splitting can foster a more subjective, male or female audience member experience and enjoyment of all actions that are violent, thrilling, and empowering to imagine (Mulvey, 1989).

The fear of amoral extreme criminals runs alongside the disavowal of undisciplined sadistic violence, as this is the very mark of a social outcast and irredeemable criminal who merits imprisonment or execution. At the same time, cultural depictions of crime and subsequent punishment serve to gratify the public desire to witness scenes of suffering among a loathed criminal minority, and in this way “just desserts” permits a more collective public satisfaction about the state infliction of mortification and misery (Hallsworth, 2004; Salter & Tomsen, 2012). There are strong parallels between this sort of audience response and the embarrassingly gleeful public display of gratification that becomes evident in many reactions to real-life events of assault and torture of a prisoner by a prison officer or another prisoner.

Prison violence is not a clearly legitimate phenomenon for inmates and those with real, direct knowledge of the nature of such attacks, arbitrary targeting, and the frequent petty motives behind settling scores within the daily humiliation and boredom of carceral life. Yet many politicians, media commentators, and members of the public find high levels of satisfaction in believing that such treatment is reserved for exceptionally loathsome individuals jailed for murders, rapes, or sexual abuse of the most vulnerable [or in Nils Christie’s (1986) term, an “ideal”] class of crime victims. Police, prison officer, or even delegated violence, in relation to the apprehension of suspects and ongoing corporeal punishment of convicted offenders, may also be thought of here as measures of what Everett Hughes notable termed “dirty work” (Hughes, 1962) as this is reflected in the hierarchical ordering of masculinities within criminal justice systems. In either real-life or cultural depictions of crime and punishment, such a dirty-work outcome may be strongly desired but also widely disavowed because of the underlying hypocrisy of these satisfactions in the violent infliction of justice.

Even the most simplistic narratives and representations of crime in popular culture, which are framed around the opposition between overtly good law enforcers and evil offenders, are open to these shifts and contradictions in identification and the different pleasure and meaning that an audience member may draw from engagement with a cultural product. Accounts of crime and offending that are badged as more sophisticated or holding an adult audience appeal begin to address the possibilities of a distinction between formal and substantive justice in society. The real world of inequality and corrupt influence and the limitations and failings of the criminal justice system become apparent.

This often merges with an alluring but vexed depiction of law enforcement masculinity as this existed prior to the steady growth in number of women officers that has reshaped contemporary policing institutions (Prenzler & Sinclair, 2013). Fundamentally good but troubled police and detectives are confronted with a world of decline in mutual relations of male trust and a possible collapse in traditional gender relations and heterosexual male dominance. In these depictions, “good cops” appear as personally flawed or tragic, but still ultimately attractive moral figures. They are men who struggle with the undermining complications of criminal justice bureaucracy and the rule of law—including limited resources, complex rules of evidence, and the legal rights of suspects. As characters, they are frequently alienated loners whose hard drinking, personal dishevelment, lack of respect for corrupt or inept superiors, and emotionally void casual sex with attractive women all signal a form of conventional masculine appeal.

Most obviously in many mid-20th-century detective novels and the classic film noir genre, their own law enforcement masculinity sits in contrast with that of the dishonorable and venal men in law, politics, and the corporate world. The bourgeois world of ruling men appears to have lost its hegemonic claim when characterized by lack of trust between men and declining authority over women who are fully rebellious or filling the role of a dangerous seductress. The popularity of this genre and its audience appeal since its beginnings in 1940s/1950s Hollywood cinema reflect persistent but unresolved concern with postwar shifts in masculinity linked to the class divisions at the heart of liberal capitalism and anxieties about the social role of women. This narrative style and its depiction of masculinity reflects uncertainty about what is truly the dominant and most respected way of being a man. As such, this is more complex than any accounts of male law enforcement activity as victorious and celebrated and done to counter an identifiable category of despised men residing in a social underbelly of crime, vice, and gratuitous violence.

More recent film and television depictions of policing reflect the allure of streetwise masculinity, and popular culture is awash with law enforcement officers bestriding the urban terrain as “Prince(s) of the City” (Daley, 1978).1 In a certain respect, criminal culture itself can provide key stylistic devices in depictions of environments such as detective work, where an informal and relatively unsupervised entrepreneurial and rule-breaking male culture thrives (Hobbs, 1988). For example, iconic television programs such as the UKs Law and Order (1978) series show the manner in which once-hidden corrupt police practice has fed into the law enforcement mainstream via explicitly corrupt activity (Brunsdon, 2010). In highly rated productions such as The Sweeney (1975–1978) and The French Connection (1971), police work is inextricably linked to a reproduction of narratives of informal rule-breaking, as well as vigilante-style violence that is embedded in the hegemonic masculinity of an inherently debased urban milieu.

Nevertheless, it is ultimately the flawed but moral men of law enforcement that invite audience respect. These rogue males are constantly portrayed as torn between due process and street justice (Klockars, 1980). Furthermore, the screen account of a world of corruption and decay more rarely follows on the promise of this acknowledgment and does not invite a deeply critical attitude to criminal justice. It is instead a close fit with many populist views of law and order and has an uncanny similarity to the resentful occupational ideology of police organizations, stressing the underappreciated sacrifice of police in crime fighting and also seeking the further enhancement of police resources and power with limited review, discipline, and accountability. Most disturbingly, and as discussed later in this article, there are pervasive overtones of nostalgia in these and related accounts of crime and masculinity that have become especially dubious in relation to questions of race and multiculturalism in contemporary postindustrial societies.

The Divide Between Official Justice and Criminal Masculinities

Popular culture often depicts crime fighting and law enforcement as struggling but ultimately moral masculine practices. By contrast, illegitimate violence and destruction are shown as the activity of evil or amoral men who merit imprisonment or execution. Yet many portrayals of crime also move beyond any simple representations of policing and criminal justice and the circumstances and motives for criminal offending. Most importantly, these create more complex possibilities in their plot, character development, and cultural meaning by a concern with the contradictions arising from the role of criminal justice systems attempting to regulate a clear divide between different masculinities. The real distinction between official/state law enforcement and criminal/nonstate masculinities is frequently blurred and can be hard to judge in moral terms in both authoritarian and liberal democratic scenarios (Tomsen, 1996, 2008). Nevertheless, this problematic distinction is drawn upon in official and everyday support for the rule of law, which ignores the role of social inequality and disadvantage in the etiology of crime. The moral uncertainty at the core of this official/criminal border and the widespread but false political conflation between legal and social justice are full of creative possibilities for cultural depictions of crime and masculinity in popular culture.

Within criminal justice systems, the relationship between these masculinities can be best described as dialectical rather than simply as diametrically opposed. They are the terrain of struggle between such masculinities, but in this very conflict, they also simultaneously produce and reproduce them (Tomsen, 2008; Messerschmidt & Tomsen, 2012, 2017). This is a rarely noticed or acknowledged aspect of policing and criminal justice institutions, but it is regularly manifested as contradictory cultural images of law and crime. For example, less didactic representations move well beyond images of law enforcement masculinity (no matter how vexed it may be) as an ultimately moral type of identity inviting audience respect and adulation. Such accounts can address the variable link between crime and masculinity, with more emphasis on chance social circumstances and occasions of individual choice/agency. These accounts also typically have more humanized or psychologically complex protagonists, with mixed sympathetic or disturbing forms of depiction. The dichotomy between official masculinity and forms of criminal masculinity is also rendered unstable in plots, scenes, character roles, and action that may oscillate, exploring the uncertain differences between them. Official law enforcement masculinity may be associated with respectability, the rule of law, and community guarding, and yet this may be subverted from within by entrenched corruption or the abuse of power. Oppositional/criminal masculine action may be simple lawbreaking, or it might also be done in the service of a so-called good cause, such as enacting revenge on wicked or powerful wrongdoers, helping victims, or righting some miscarriage of criminal justice, and thus somewhat excusable.

Those plots that concern a pattern of vigilantism that is formally illegitimate, but which becomes seemingly justified, or cases of police, criminal justice, and political corruption being opposed by those who lack state authority but have admirable motives and intentions, further play out the uncertainty between these official and criminal masculinities. Furthermore, within their own character paths, different criminal and outlaw men may be understood to have socially just motives or evolve to hold more respected masculinities. Perhaps the most successful accounts of this sort in popular culture concern prison escapes or releases for wrongly convicted or harshly punished men made vulnerable to an institutional injustice because of their own social disadvantage or official corruption or incompetence. For example, in The Shawshank Redemption (1994), the suffering and tough persistence of a falsely incarcerated central character become a tale of admirable masculine struggle and survival in a harsh, repressive prison with corrupt and repellent staff. His eventual escape from the penal system is well warranted. This suffering ends in an outside reunion with a finally released and obviously overpunished, yet also proud and stoic African American man who had reformed many decades before the end of his long jail sentence. This and similar prison films succeed by inverting many of the usual expectations about virtue and courage in criminal justice that are principally shaped in law enforcement narratives.

In more disturbing cases of film depiction, the distinction between respected and reviled masculinity is not reversed for the audience; rather, it is allowed to collapse altogether, thus throwing into doubt any certainties about how to recognize or judge upright men in relation to crime, violence, and criminal justice. Most notably, the plot of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) traces the dangerous alienation of an ex-soldier, the ambiguity of his infatuation and chivalrous intentions to rescue a teenage prostitute, and his violent criminal rage that in chance circumstances brings him public esteem and celebrity. In this way, the viewer is denied any final sense of distinction between dangerous criminal men and those with a measure of moral respectability tied to upholding the law and protection of the public from violence and harm.

Organized Crime, White Masculinity, and Cultural Nostalgia

Both these rudimentary or more sophisticated depictions of the relations between masculinity and crime and criminal justice signal how rarely there is any obvious singular meaning or message to be drawn from items of popular culture. Such artifacts may distinguish or oscillate between understandings of admirable masculinity as aligned with law enforcement or some other view of good and human morality. Thus, being an upright and an ultimately worthy male is a subject position available to a range of law enforcement and criminal characters as they develop through shifting action and plot lines. In this way, whatever is being struggled for as hegemonic among men, as well as how the struggle will be seen by an audience, can be ambiguous and blurred.

Nevertheless, in relation to predominant views of masculinity, there is also no wholly open system of meaning or completely innocent pattern of symbols in either established or new cultural genres of crime fiction, television, cinema, and a range of online material. The remainder of this article discusses a prominent variation on popular accounts of crime and masculinity that signal textual complexity, but also a politically regressive undercurrent in relation to shifts in traditional male social power and status that follow ruptured understandings of gender and sexuality and new patterns of racial and ethnic diversity in globalized urban settings. These are contemporary accounts of masculinity as this is reproduced within the criminal underworld. This depicted world may or may not closely overlap with corrupt law enforcement, but organized crime is the principal subject of interest.

For many decades, and even in the most crude “bad guy” depictions, this has been highly topical and a source of deep public fascination, no doubt in part due to how they appear to closely approximate an entire masculine subculture of violence. Viewers and critics alike are ambivalent about the frequent but also often purposeful use of violence that sits on their consciousness like a trace memory of how social order was imposed prior to the state monopoly of violence inscribed within legal norms and criminal justice in modernity. Furthermore, this viewer interest in bloodshed and horror is extended by the way in which such cultural watching allows patterns of identification and splitting that may indulge divided aspects of collective or even individual responses to criminality and violent masculinity.

The American Mafia and Urban Criminal Masculinity

The gangster film was a staple of silent-era Hollywood (Grieveson, 2005), and early examples of the genre, typified for instance by the first feature-length gangster film Regeneration (1906) and six years later by Musketeers of Pig Alley, established the American brand firmly upon organized crime as a form of mass entertainment. However, it was not until two decades later, when the United States was deeply mired in the Prohibition era, that the gangster genre really came into its own with the release of Public Enemy (1931), Little Caesar (1931), and crucially Scarface (1932)2 (Schatz, 1981, pp. 86–95). In these films, domesticity remained as a juxtaposed backdrop to the seductive perils of unlicensed upward mobility within immigrant masculine culture (Gardaphe, 2010, pp. 110–111).

American cultural products have been enormously influential upon the imaginary construction of organized crime (Rosow, 1978; Grieveson, 2005; Schatz, 1981, pp. 86–95; Saviano, 2008, pp. 244–248), shaping “an infinite hall of mirrors where images created and consumed by criminals, criminal subcultures, media institutions, and audiences bounce endlessly off the other” (Ferrell, 1999, p. 397). The glamorous social capital of the gangster provides an enduring urban narrative of masculinity that has shaped our comprehension of organized crime (Gambetta, 2009, pp. 251–274). As celebrity gangster John Gotti explained, “You got to go in there with your suits, your jewellery. Put it in their face. When people go to the circus, they don’t want to see clowns. They want to see lions and tigers, and that’s what we are” (John Gotti, cited in Hobbs, 2002). From the iconic gangster films of the Prohibition era, via The Godfather trilogy and its portrayal of embedded corporate gangster culture (Browne, 2000), the visceral criminal commerce depicted in Goodfellas and Casino, and the unsettlingly familiar domesticity and hedonistic criminality of The Sopranos (Fields, 2004), these urban parables are imbued with “the city’s language and knowledge, with its queer and dishonest skills and its terrible daring” (Warshow, 1948, p. 131).

In globalized Hollywood culture, the Italian American mafia epitomizes organized crime in the criminogenic modern city, and when aligned with semiromantic images of patriarchal families and men as solid protectors and providers, there is a match with admired forms of manhood—family guarding and breadwinning are key elements of an idealized traditional masculinity. Filmic representations of this culture are also concerned with the juxtaposition of two distinct clichés of masculinity: violent, street-based predation, and noble domestic sensitivity. A contrast to the venal narcissistic gangster is provided by the hard-working breadwinner. Reprising similar dialogue from Shane (1953), and in particular The Magnificent Seven (1960)3, this contrast is perfectly captured in A Bronx Tale (1993): “It don’t take much strength to pull a trigger, but try getting up every morning, day after day, and work for a living—let’s see him try that, then we’ll see who the real tough guy is, the working man is the tough guy, your father’s the tough guy!” Within a genre that normatively places violent men on a pedestal, such dialogue counterintuitively valorizes mundane, domestic hegemony and offers a range of virtuous masculinities for the audience or merges them together in more ambiguous examples of the breadwinning and family-protecting male lawbreaker.

The debate about mafia-related crime is often the focal point for interpretations of the relationship between transnational mass migration, social inequality, and the uneven means by which individuals and groups can attain material rewards and survival. In fact, most representations of this version of organized crime have some proximity to 20th-century accounts that studied urban crime, corruption, and violence as the flawed outcomes of an illegitimate pursuit of the American dream of success, affluence, and upward mobility (Rafter & Brown, 2011, pp. 87–100). Although “[t]he gangster represented the antithesis of the reality of the Depression by fulfilling the American Dream, even though he did so by disobeying the law” (Gates, 2006, p. 65), the reality of organized crime activity—with its destructiveness in business and civic life and the major human cost for its victims—has been a source of serious political and criminal justice concern in a range of nation-states. Nevertheless, there is an uncomfortable cultural ambivalence regarding mafia crimes that reflects this flawed relationship to the common and widely promoted life goals of affluence and success in market society.

The mixed attractiveness of this form of criminal masculinity underlies the remarkable popular success of The Godfather film trilogy (1972, 1974, and 1990), and the more recent television series The Sopranos (1999–2007). The Sopranos, loosely based upon the DeCavalcante crime family (see Schlegel, 1987; Williamson, 2015), is heavily reliant upon its depiction of hypermasculine culture, and its authenticity has been acknowledged by some real-life gangsters.

The late 20th- to early-21st-century timing of these popular depictions of the mafia is notable, and it needs some critical explanation. In the United States and a range of other liberal democratic nations, the 1960s and 1970s were characterized by a rise of antiwar and new social movement activism and a questioning of old sources of religious and political authority. In broader socioeconomic terms, this postindustrial period was also marked by the declining significance of traditional male blue-collar work in heavy industry and the further reshaping of large global cities as centers of finance, banking, tourism, and hospitality. Against this historical backdrop, everyday aggression and hypermasculine deportment, unswerving sexist views about women (McCabe & Akass, 2006, pp. 39–55), and an open contempt for homosexuality (Gibson, 2006, pp. 199–202) all seem like a striking symbolic resistance to major social change.

For viewers, the masculinity of the mafia sits in sharp contrast to these new developments. Against a historical backdrop of urban moral malaise, authority over women and generational loyalty among men are vital for collective survival: full obedience in relation to male elders surfaces as a remnant of an older hegemonic masculinity. In The Godfather, this loyalty is the bedrock of collective masculine identity, drives plot development and gives determination, courage, and moral resolve to younger characters struggling in the face of adversity. There is an uncanny similarity here with many understandings of male survival and victory as reliant on military-style obedience, discipline, and sacrifice of the sort that reputedly worked for armies in the 1940s and 1950s but tragically fell apart in the jungles of Vietnam.

In relation to elements of popular culture, it has been noted “viewers learn about ethnic groups and foreign cultures from these so-called entertainment media” and that these are “a sort of public textbook on ethnicity and foreignness” (Cortes, 1984, p. 64). There is also a significant racial dimension to the possibilities of audience identification in these portrayals. It may be the case that a “gangster hero’s conflict is rooted in his exclusion from whiteness” (Mizejewski, 2008, p. 28), but the olive-skinned and Catholic Italian/Southern European characters depicted in these films and television series are at once both alien and very recognizable to ethnically dominant groups, reinforcing orthodox ethnic hierarchies. These Italian Americans are drawn as more alluring for a mass audience by being shown as more effective criminals than African American rivals. In one early episode of The Sopranos, Tony Soprano is ambushed by two armed African American men but overpowers his would-be assassins, leaving one dead. In another episode, a young African American truck hijacker is reprimanded by one of the Soprano clan for holding his handgun sideways, “gangsta style,” and his African American companion drops his weapon, inadvertently killing the driver.4 The incompetence of these two (rare) African American characters in enacting crime has fatal consequences for a minor member of the Soprano crew and provokes a high-level dispute within the Soprano family.

Equally, a dated abhorrence of overt male homosexuality is a key feature of this dominant ordering of masculinities and reflects the fundamental importance of homosocial bonds and respect between men linked together in criminal enterprise. Later in the series, a Soprano gangster named Vito, with a crumbling heterosexual public image, is eventually forced to go on the run and is beaten to death as a “fucking disgrace” by members of a rival clan. Among the Soprano men, this outcome is treated as regrettable, but inevitable and just. The gangsters balk at fully disowning Vito for his same-sex activity until they hear that he assumed the taboo passive role in one oral sex encounter: This rather arbitrary and excessive degree of collective homophobia among the characters is at once both archaic and fascinating for viewers. Whiteness and heterosexuality are the thoroughly inscribed aspects of esteemed Soprano masculinity. Soprano’s outward pursuit of a respected middle-class suburban life as a successful small business figure with a likable wife and children also draws considerable audience empathy. His liaisons with glamorous women and his open double standards about male and female extramarital sex might also form part of a rebel male charm for many viewers.

Tony Soprano maintains most of the outward qualities of a tough and ruthless mafia boss. Nevertheless, his flawed narcissism and consuming self-interest are made apparent to viewers in scenes that include a series of disturbing consultations with a psychoanalyst. These traits ultimately limit his ability to care for, protect, and control others in a full traditional manner and are the key to his final downfall. It is this fatal character flaw that generates an ending sense of moral justification about his final isolation and fall, rather than his many loathsome acts as a violent criminal. Disloyalty to the friends that he betrays signals an ultimate failure within the outlaw moral code. This includes his final betrayal and elimination of his closest criminal lieutenant in a later episode: his nephew Christopher’s drug use and unpredictability turn him into a liability that gets dealt with by killing him.

In The Sopranos, this personal self-interest is also depicted as a matter that besets others and it is seen to erode levels of mutual trust between key characters. Tony Soprano has fragile bonds with his sister and a love-hate relationship with his mother. In some episodes, his own mother and his uncle are contemplating killing him and installing a new group leader, and similarly, he contemplates revenge on them. There is an inexorable breakdown here of the closer traditional bonds that characterized the migrant history of struggle (Gardaphe, 1996). This theme overlaps with the contemporary problem of fragile family relations in a period of accelerating social change.

Presumably, many viewers can recognize and identify with the ways that seeking education, cultural sophistication, and legitimate professional jobs can incline children to seek partners from outside their ethnic group and disavow the backwardness of their parents and old paternal authority. This is a social issue that draws keen viewer interest, but it has a sharpened meaning here. The breakdown of family authority is a further fatal blow to the masculinity, obedience, and mutual loyalty that are vital to a collective criminal enterprise like the mafia. Given this, it is unsurprising that in the ambiguous final episode of this series, Tony, while enjoying what had become a rare evening of domestic harmony with his wife and children, may have been killed by an assassin, and as a consequence, the criminal “family” that he headed may itself also be destroyed. In contrast with this decline in real masculine authority, in the historically earlier settings of The Godfather, there is an absolute respect for patriarchal tradition, embodied by an all-powerful male elder. This was the moral basis of ongoing group survival and enduring masculine dominance in a volatile contemporary setting.

“True Crime” in the United Kingdom

Across the Atlantic, there have been cultural developments that bear similarity to these nostalgic American depictions of organized crime and also harken back to an imagined time of greater social respect and honor embodied in forms of male criminality. When the mafia is depicted as a relic of older, migrant, working-class masculinity in contemporary multiracial New York, their criminality at once both typifies and inserts some degree of order into the crowded, amoral city that rose to become a global financial capital. The British focus is often with London, as the city with a much longer history that included political rule of a global empire, but also is well known for its gritty and impoverished areas in East and South London. There is a core concern with the struggles for domination of these areas and associated criminal rackets by rival groups of hard men. Once loathed and formerly white but now multiracial, urban working-class neighborhoods are reconfigured as the filmic and literary territory for enacting an aggressive masculinity that is retrospectively depicted as intriguing or to be admired.

Until the early 1990s, there was a limited wider cultural interest in organized crime in the United Kingdom. Although the period from the immediate postwar era until the late 1960s had nurtured some remarkable high-profile cases, this iconic era had been half forgotten until the BBC broadcast the series The Underworld (1994). Coinciding with The Krays (1990), a feature film on the criminal Kray twins, Reg and Ron, and the recent release from prison of some of the characters involved in 1950s and 1960s underworld, a cast of gangsters, robbers, pimps, and dealers were introduced to a receptive public. A further key aspect of this new marketplace was the account of crime and masculinity offered by a spate of highly successful magazines aimed at young men: “lads mags,” such as FHM, Zoo, and Loaded. Old-school gangsters of the 1960s were adopted by these publications and subsequently were featured in a range of cultural products that explore and celebrate the hypermasculinity inherent in urban criminal gang life.

The success of these magazines was rapidly followed by the production of popular films such as Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), Essex Boys (2000), and The Business (2005), that explored and celebrated aspects of urban criminal gang life. At a time when young men were faced with the realities of their declining role in postindustrial society, these symbols of a mythical era of unambiguous male culture, with their smartly conservative suits, hand-stitched argot, and artfully understated descriptions of violence, provided touchstones of traditional masculinity that apparently were unavailable in their everyday lives. The many biographies that followed detailed the exploits of then late-middle-aged villains, and Fred Foreman and Tony Lambrianou even were featured in an advertisement for the upmarket shirt manufacturers Thomas Pink. Frankie Fraser (whose first conviction was in 1939) coauthored a number of books, made regular appearances on television shows and documentaries, acted as a gangster in a British feature film, conducted guided tours of “gangland London,” and toured the country as a one-man show (Hobbs, 2014).

However, by far the most notable criminal career reinternment of this era was that of London’s Kray twins. Their lives have been the subject of three commercial films (The Krays, 1990; The Rise of the Krays, 2015; and Legend, 2015), as well as numerous television and literary representations. In the postwar years, they were raised locally in the East End—a predominantly white, working-class neighborhood that suffered constant class stigma. The criminal careers of the Krays were embedded in the harsh, chaotic post–World War II world of a war-ravaged East London that had changed little since Dickens’s day (Hobbs, 1988). It was the Krays’ ability to mix elements of iconic masculine style—the postwar black marketer, newly affluent teenage delinquent, and 1930s Hollywood gangster (Pearson, 1973, p. 71; Read & Morton, 1991, pp. 92–93)—into a package bonded by traditional working-class community and solidarity that created their curious legacy, which in turn has proved to be proved to be a nostalgic comfort blanket in romanticized accounts of the criminal past for the public, the media, and even the police (Hobbs, 2013).

Boxers, street fighters, and rejectors of military service, the Krays nurtured an antiauthoritarian masculinity that was amplified by the commodification of their violent street reputations via extorting money from bars and clubs, and after moving upmarket into London’s West End, by providing “security” for illegal gambling clubs (Pearson, 1973, pp. 124–125). The Twins slavishly mimicked the style and sartorial swagger of the classic stable of screen gangsters, Edward G Robinson, James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and particularly George Raft (Pearson, 1973, p. 71. Read & Morton, 1991, pp. 92–93). In a mid-1960s article for the Sunday Times, Francis Wyndham wrote, “To be with the Twins is to enter the atmosphere (laconic, lavish, dangerous) of an early Bogart movie” (Pearson, 2001, p. 109). Pearson also reports that “when Ron (Kray) started shaving as a teenager he copied his Mafia hero Al Capone, and like a true Hollywood gangster had the local Italian barber come each morning to the house to shave him” (Pearson, 2010, p. 288). The allure of American gangster style to British male audiences indicates that it is the stylistic signifiers of Americanness (suits, cars, mob speak, geographical locations) that attract men to these depictions of criminal life (Lacey, 2002, p. 99).

The Krays also established themselves as fashionable and generous hosts in an East End fiefdom where criminals, film stars, and the aristocracy partied against the allegedly classless backdrop of “swinging London” (Pim, 2016), and Ron’s membership in London’s homosexual underground (Pearson, 2001, pp. 73–102), as the political classes distanced themselves from the possibility of a scandal that threatened both the government and its imminent successors (Pearson, 2010, pp. 100–137). As a result, the Twins were left free to commit murder and mayhem.

The violence of the Krays had a criminal purpose, enhancing fear and reputation in both deliberate and unintended ways. Cultural accounts often present a clear distinction between instrumental and noninstrumental violence, but particularly in the enacted environment of organized crime, there are individuals who are remarkable among their peers for a commitment to violence that is neither bounded by legal or cultural convention nor restrained by commercial instrumentality.

In the case of the Krays, the ability of professional criminals to transcend the rationality that is often afforded to violent criminal entrepreneurship (Katz, 1988, pp. 181–185) includes two murders committed as apparently noninstrumental responses to personal affronts (Lambrianou, 1992, pp. 7–17, Pearson, 1973, pp. 201–252). This irrational behavior eventually doomed the Kray gang, but also served to intensify the brothers’ reputations and enhance their market value. In what became a show trial for the decade, in 1969, the Kray “firm” collapsed when, with a few notable exceptions, their compatriots gave evidence against the Twins, who were sentenced to life imprisonment. Ron was certified a paranoid schizophrenic in 1979 and served out his sentence heavily medicated. He died of a massive heart attack, having spent the last 20 years of his life in Broadmoor Hospital (Hobbs, 1995). In 2000, Reg was diagnosed with bladder cancer, and he was released in August on compassionate parole only weeks before his death that October (Hobbs, 2000).

The major film depictions of the Krays share an underlying tendency to romanticize their criminal lives. However, there are subtle differences between these. The first major film treatment, The Krays (1990), put strong emphasis on the twins’ relationship to local community and the peculiar protective bond that developed between the twins and their mother. These positive attributes were in the end outweighed by Ron’s sadism and perversion. In the most recent film, The Rise of the Krays (2015), there was less concern with localism and its loyalties and a strong depiction of their business ambition and efforts to cut the global links in organized crime. Nevertheless, a growing brotherly clash of wills and the serious mental health flaws in the egoism and paranoia of Ron were put on full and destructive display.

In these accounts, it was the true madness and homosexuality of one brother that fatally flawed the Twins’ legitimate long-running masculine claim on holding power and protecting tradition. For the moral world of the 1960s, Ron’s open homosexuality was scandalous but hard to classify as feminine, given his obvious aggression and dominant relations with young male sex partners. In fact, this sexual practice seems very close to merely doing out of prison what is a common form of carceral male sexual dominance. Nevertheless, this homosexuality was also seen to create a sense of sensitivity to insults and paranoia that inevitably become too undermining in the criminal underworld, resulting in sibling discord, criminal informing, and destructive clashes between gangs that breached an established but newly unstable masculine criminal code of mutual respect.

The downfall of the Krays and the breakup of their working-class criminal masculine privilege are at once disavowed in these films, but also present themselves as sources of ongoing interest for viewers. Unresolved class tensions echo through a cinematic and television focus on occasions of social and sexual mixing in the lives of the Krays—shown as if the mythical class unity that built an empire can be relived as shared drunken revelry and sexual liaison in the red-light clubs of Soho. Furthermore, the Krays are usually presented as successful, self-made, working-class businessmen encompassing “the Hustle: wit, mental toughness, the impulse to autonomy, and an extreme materialism” (Robson, 1997, p. 14), and as Pearson (2001, p. 231) explains, “long before they died , the Twins were already as firmly part of criminal mythology as Bill Sykes, Dick Turpin, and Jack the Ripper.”

As actual historical figures, the Krays should not be mistaken for their depiction in popular culture. Nevertheless, romantic masculine nostalgia was a continuous key aspect of their own self-presentation, and that became ubiquitous in ongoing press, literary, and film accounts of their characters. The Krays brazenly cultivated an aggressive sense of dread mixed with the symbols of an imagined traditional masculinity and token gestures toward a protective guarding of their social circle and community. They serve as ever-popular but unlikely cultural symbols of a supposed once-dominant white masculinity that was tough, aggressive, and lawbreaking, but respected. The potent mixture of money, violence, sex, madness, and nostalgia that characterized the life of the Kray twins has ensured that they will not be forgotten. Despite all evidence to the contrary, the overwhelming premise that runs like a thread through Kray-themed media is that of safer, predictable days, when white, working-class, tough guys in sharp suits ruled their territory by hard but fair means. Particularly during their long incarceration, the Krays morphed into icons of a brief golden age of the postwar era, epitomizing a particular brand of photogenic, proletarian, masculine hegemony (Hobbs, 2013, pp. 58–88).

The Ambiguous Meanings of Crime and Masculinity in Popular Culture

This article has discussed the expansion of cultural depictions of crime and masculinity in contemporary popular culture (particularly in film and television), using key contemporary examples from the United States and the United Kingdom. It reflects on a series of cinematic and television depictions of masculinity and crime that have a particular focus on the significance of the mafia and organized crime in urban, postindustrial settings. Cultural accounts of crime, policing, and criminal justice are focal points for representations of contemporary forms of masculinity. Yet despite a general tendency to valorize hegemonic ideals of self-reliant individual masculinity, these mostly do not offer obvious messages that conflate a dominant model of manhood with legal conformity, and they may allow for very mixed audience reactions.

Critical readings of masculinity in culture emerged in the late 20th century under the influence of feminism, critical masculinities, and also queer perspectives. At the same time, social observers and researchers have learned to be skeptical of approaches to understanding popular culture that find obvious evidence of ideological domination in the service of an overarching repressive social order. They instead favor approaches that allow a consideration of contradiction, irony, uncertainty, and shifting meaning regarding character definition, viewer identification, and audience creation. Many true-crime cultural depictions can problematically refer to innate animalistic criminality in a way that encourages law-and-order populism and a reactionary cynicism about ostensibly soft systems of criminal justice punishment. However, even these more simply structured narratives can explore wrongful convictions, corruption, and systemic injustice in policing and the law. In depictions of violent crime, gang life, policing, and detective work, as well as the worlds of hypermasculine prisons, many accounts offer complex lines of action between official state and protest masculinity—they shift and overlap in ways that create drama and intrigue.

The prominence of competitive sports and their significance in global culture rest on their masculine appeal and central concern with male power alongside their very contradictoriness with relation to their everyday meanings with regard to gender, class, and race (Messner, 1995). In a similar way, depictions of crime and masculinity in popular culture are part of an uncertain system of meaning that signals ambiguous aspects of male collective desire, social anxiety, and identification. Popular culture is a domain of sharp depictions and contested meanings and interpretations of crime as an attractive but also reviled activity that is associated with masculinities that may be rebellious and criminal or conformist and lawful. It is also a site where a broad range of taboo and criminal acts can be witnessed, enjoyed, and then finally morally disavowed by many. Understanding this can offer cultural critics an insight into the very commonplace public ambivalence about crime and punishment in contemporary society: the reverse side of the pleasure of viewing images of crime is the volatile and often punitive emotional dimension of populist notions of doing wrong and doing punishment.

A key part of the cultural fascination of gangsters is that although they seem exotic and somehow separate from the everyday world, they also regularly carry out violence of a more mundane nature relating to everyday masculine sensitivity regarding insults and honor. Intimate partner femicides due to perceived disloyalty or male-on-male fatal confrontations over petty insults make up most homicides in much of the world. In film and literature representations of organized crime culture, we experience this violence as genre-based action.

In different scenes of The Sopranos, for instance, one gangster shoots a young male bakery assistant in the foot for being slow and rude in serving him, and another senior member of the crew beats his girlfriend to death as a result of an argument during which she insults his masculinity. Similarly, viewers of the Kray films are entertained by Ron’s murderous revenge on a gang rival who publically insults his sexuality and Reggie’s crude and quick use of corporal discipline in scenes where his young wife asserts herself and questions his authority in a volatile and unhappy marriage. Despite their interest to a watching audience, these have a disturbing closeness to the everyday forms of male violence that are due to a widespread brittle sense of loyalty and honor in sexual relations and common interaction with others. Depictions of sudden, unrestrained, and violent male overreaction to petty slights and disrespect fascinate viewers, given that these criminal characters have license to behave on screen in a way that most men can only do vicariously.

If judged by their readers, audience numbers, or level of commercial success, it is the case that many of the public view and enjoy crime dramas that play out and symbolically resolve real-world uncertainty of what a respected masculinity comprises of and how it can be perceived. Bearing in mind the critique of notions of hegemony attained via dominant ideology, researchers and critics can avoid simple readings of hegemonic masculinity as an obvious or given character type that bolsters cultural repression, and still also critically unpack the uncertain, gender-progressive, and seemingly more retrograde cultural signals that characterize contemporary depictions of masculinity and crime.

As this discussion of the representations of the mafia and organized crime in popular culture exemplifies, ongoing themes of crime and justice nostalgia also often pervade representations of crime and masculinity in postindustrial conditions, and these reflect unresolved tensions about the historical present and anxiety with regard to the likely future social position and identity of men. Such accounts do not offer simple repressive narratives and clear-cut images of respected masculinity; instead, they show open moments of struggle and moral uncertainty. Nevertheless, these representations also refer to more fixed understandings of whiteness, heterosexuality, and class belonging, with an undercurrent of cultural longing for an imagined time of traditional masculine honor, paternal respect, and more stable gender, sexual, and racial order.

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(1.) The feature film of Prince of the City, produced by Sidney Lumet (1981), is probably the most eminent and authentic of what quickly became a somewhat hackneyed rogue cop genre.

(2.) In an update of this Prohibition classic, both Brian de Palma’s 1983 film and its novelization of the same year (Monette, 1983) feature a lead character who is no longer Italian, but a Cuban refugee, and drugs has replaced alcohol as the crucial commodity (Saviano, 2008, pp. 244–248).

(3.) For a comparison of the Western and gangster film genres, see Warshow (1954).

(4.) For an interesting comment on the manner in which film depictions of firearms use affect actual gun violence, see Saviano (2008, pp. 251–253).