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Feminist Criminology and the Visual

Summary and Keywords

In response to the limitations of mainstream criminology, feminist and visual criminology offer alternative approaches to the study of crime, deviance, justice institutions, and the people implicated by them. Although feminist and visual lines of criminological inquiry have distinct foci and analytical strengths, they both illuminate disciplinary blind spots. Feminist criminology responds to criminology’s embedded gender biases, while visual criminology challenges criminology’s reliance on text and numbers. They offer approaches to redress criminology’s general lack of attention to the broader cultural dynamics that inform crime, both as a category and as a practice. Unpacking the visual through a feminist criminological lens is an emergent critical project, one that brings together and extends existing feminist and visual criminological practices. Combining feminist criminology and visual studies offers new possibilities in the areas of theory and methodology. Doing so also lends to new modes through which to query gendered power relationships embedded in the images of crime, deviance, and culture. Moreover, such an approach provides alternative lenses for illuminating the constitutive relationships between visuality, crime, and society, many of which exceed mainstream criminological framings. It brings together interdisciplinary perspectives from feminist studies and visual studies rarely engaged by mainstream criminology. Thus, a feminist visual criminology, as an extension of feminist criminology’s deconstructivist aims, has the potential to pose significant—arguably foundational—critiques of mainstream criminology.

Keywords: feminism, gender, visual, theory, methodology and methods, media, new media, digital, androcentric bias, intersectionality

Feminist criminology responds to mainstream criminology’s biases. In particular, it reveals and critiques criminology’s male-centric (or “androcentric”) predisposition—that is, its privileging of men’s experiences and perspectives in relation to empirical and theoretical knowledge produced about crime and deviance (Cain, 1990; Flavin, 2001; Simon, 1981). Criminology has historically overlooked women’s experiences and perspectives, both as victims and as perpetrators of crime. Accordingly, criminological theory is often inadequate for women, even at times overtly misogynistic (Simpson, 1989). In response, feminist criminology aims to refocus the field from its androcentric standpoint by highlighting how the study of crime, crime control, and social control are gendered in ways often disregarded by mainstream criminology (Daly & Chesney-Lind, 1988).

In a similar, albeit different vein, visual criminology is a response to the textual dominance within criminology. Specifically, it incorporates the study of images to understand crime, crime control, and social control. However, visual criminology, like visual studies more generally, is not simply the analysis of images. As pioneering visual theorist W. J. T. Mitchell (2002, p. 178) explains, “the study of the visual image is just one component of the larger field … Visual culture is the visual construction of the social, not just the social construction of vision.” In short, studies of the visual also interrogate how vision informs—and is informed by—social conditions. These relationships, both overt and discursive, are pervasive and manifest historically and culturally in the contemporary moment.

Drawing attention to the importance of the visual points to the limitations of text-based documents and statistics. Alone, they provide an incomplete picture of crime and deviance. In response, visual criminology often takes two forms: (1) it utilizes visual methods to analyze an array of issues within criminology and (2) it analyzes the visual culture of crime, crime control, and social control using a variety of methods. Both lines of visual criminological inquiry do at times converge. Moreover, visual criminology, like feminist criminology, brings attention to overlooked dimensions of crime and power relationships underpinning mainstream criminology. Although there is a rich literature on how media shapes public understandings of crime and offending (e.g., Barak, 1994; Burns & Crawford, 1999; Cohen, 1972; Cohen & Young, 1981; Dowler, Fleming, & Muzzatti, 2006; Killingbeck, 2001; Sacco, 1995), visual and feminist criminology offer distinctly different contributions. Their shared commitment to critiquing and rethinking criminological knowledge, including certain dominant understandings of crime and media, provides concepts and tools for studying the diversity of contemporary social problems linked to the visual, crime, and deviance.

Analyzing the visual through a feminist criminological lens is an emergent critical project. Although feminist criminology and visual criminology often emerge as distinct projects, there are notable examples that showcase their combined potential (e.g., Daniel, 2007; Fleetwood, 2015; Rafter & Brown, 2011; Young, 1996). Combining feminist criminology and visual studies offers new possibilities in the areas of theory and methodology as well as new modes of querying the gendered power relationships embedded in images of crime, deviance, and culture. They also serve as alternative lenses for illuminating the constitutive relationships between visuality, crime, and society, many of which exceed mainstream criminological framings. A small but growing body of existing work underscores points of methodological and theoretical points of convergence between feminist criminology and visual studies. In particular, as Eamonn Carrabine (2012, p. 463) suggests, the “remarkable visual turn in criminology” and its concern for “distinctive ethical questions posed by visual representations of harm, suffering, and violence” can prompt potentially productive synergies with feminist criminology.

Feminist and Visual Criminological Literature

In responding to the blind spots of conventional criminology, both feminist and visual criminological approaches offer alternative approaches to the study of crime, deviance, justice institutions, and the people implicated by them. They do, however, maintain distinct foci and analytical strengths. Whereas feminist criminology aims to correct embedded biases of male-centered criminology, a “visually attuned criminology” sheds light on “problems of theory, methods, ethical engagement, political reform, and social responsibilities that come with the production, representation, and analysis of images” (Brown, 2014, p. 181). Visual culture is a fruitful site to explore feminist criminological concerns, particularly as scholars have already connected it to trauma and state violence (Mirzoeff, 2006, 2011).

Feminist Criminological Approaches

The breadth of feminist criminological approaches is too long and rich to capture in an article. For decades, feminists studying crime have documented how conventional criminology has either disregarded or narrowly conceived women’s experiences in ways that reflect societal stereotypes (Chesney-Lind & Sheldon, 2004; Gelsthorpe & Morris, 1990; Simon, 1981). This observation can be traced to the origins of criminology when Cesare Lombroso characterized women as the “weaker sex” who are not as advanced as their male counterparts, as evidenced, for example, by their biologically hindered sexual desires (Rafter, 2008). Lombroso’s explanation that women are inherently weaker than men, however, is an outgrowth of patriarchal ideologies and gendered expectations of women typical of the Victorian era.

While mainstream criminology no longer promotes early biological theories of crime, feminist scholars contend that embedded male-centric values remain, despite criminology’s scientific claims of objectivity (Naffine, 1996). Although individual critiques vary, feminist criminologists bring attention to an overarching concern: that men, their experiences, as well as their perspectives of broader social relations continue to pervade criminological theory and research. This results in criminology’s “generalizability problem” (Daly & Chesney-Lind, 1988; Simpson, 1989): that is, how can criminology claim to purport general theories of crime if it fails to adequately account for women who make up half of the general population?

By providing evidence that contradicts criminology’s claims of being value neutral, feminist criminology poses important epistemological questions (Britton, 2000; Naffine, 1996). Epistemology, as distinct from methodology and methods, encompasses theories about what can and should constitute knowledge, the philosophical underpinnings of knowledge production and how to pursue knowledge (Harding, 1991). To advance criminological knowledge, feminist criminologists have documented the field’s androcentric biases, arguing that a “focus on gender goes beyond simply adding another variable to the empirical study of law and legal institutions” (Chesney-Lind & Sheldon, 2004, p. 128). Instead, feminist criminology comprehensively examines relationships between gender, crime, and deviance to correct for male-centered criminology (Cain, 1990).

In pursuing this gendered agenda, feminist criminological inquiry has expanded to include broader concerns, including questions about masculinity and offending (Messerschmidt, 1993) as well as intersectionality, which unearths and interrogates conventionally overlooked interconnections between different forms of social difference and inequality, such as race, class, gender, and sexuality (Potter, 2015; Richie, 2012). Intersectional studies of criminology provide evidence of how women’s experiences in relation to crime and deviance are far from monolithic. They address not only how distinct identities are outgrowths of “multiple social relations,” (Daly, 1997, p. 35) but also how criminal justice practices disproportionately affect multiply marginalized women and girls from impoverished communities (Chesney-Lind & Sheldon, 2004; Miller, 2008; Richie, 2012).

Feminist criminology increasingly accounts for the transnational dimension of crime and deviance, acknowledging that contemporary globalization retains postcolonial contours (Bosworth & Flavin, 2007; Cunneen, 2011). Accordingly, feminist criminologists have started adapting and revising existing feminist frameworks so as to better capture and analyze how these legacies inform the multiple inequalities that shape gendered formations of violence (Henne & Troshynski, 2013). Kate Henne and Emily Troshynski (2013) scrutinize how criminology, including its feminist traditions, retains dimensions of criminology’s imperialist roots, calling for the integration of interdisciplinary feminist transnational paradigms that focus on interlocking systems of power more broadly. In essence, this is a call to extend intersectional concerns about power, representation, violence, and inequality beyond the identities of those affected by crime.

Feminist criminology reveals two additional dimensions of conventional criminology’s standpoint: it is Occidentalist in that it disavows important forms of difference, and it is Orientalist in that it reduces marginalized groups to essentialist depictions of exotic Others (Cain, 2000). Through its endeavors to correct for these tendencies, feminist criminology has a strong tradition of reflexivity—that is, the practice of identifying and accounting for scholars’ assumptions and their influence on research practice and findings (Flavin, 2001). Feminist criminology, as Jeanne Flavin (2001, p. 273) suggests, demonstrates the value of making the critical consideration of “a multiplicity of factors” and “richer contextual analysis” the norm for criminological research “rather than the exception.” In terms of praxis, it retains a longstanding commitment to understanding how gendered discourses operate in relation to—as well as the lived experiences of—crime, violence, and victimization.

The reflexive tradition within feminist intellectual thought has the capacity to inform scholarly approaches to and understandings of “epistemology, theory, methodology, and policy” (Flavin, 2001, p. 271). It contributes to all areas of criminological knowledge production, and it is not limited to a particular methodological orientation. Feminist criminology employs an array of methodologies and methods, including qualitative, quantitative, and mixed-methods approaches. To grasp how feminist criminology engages the visual and how that engagement might inform conventional criminology first requires a better sense of visual criminological approaches.

Visual Criminological Approaches

As Keith Hayward (2010) notes, the embrace of the visual is a natural extension of the cultural turn in criminology. Accordingly, many visual criminological approaches build from and extend cultural criminological framings (Hayward, 2010, p. 3), which situate “crime, criminality, and control squarely in the context of cultural dynamics.” Specifically, cultural criminologists view crime and crime control agencies as socially constructed through the creation of “collective meaning and collective identity,” becoming steeped in symbolism and power (Ferrell, Hayward, & Young, 2008, pp. 1–2). This trajectory reflects visual studies’ longstanding commitment to the political critique of images, a tradition shaped primarily by two core strands of intellectual thought: the foundational work of Mitchell (1986) and U.K.-based cultural theorists, such as Stuart Hall and Raymond Williams.

The visual is not simply a representation of the real; rather, it is a mode of engaging representation, which is an integral aspect of contemporary social worlds. The image and the real are interconnected, arguably inseparable (Ferrell & Van de Voorde, 2010). Crime is no exception, particularly as images of crime and crime control proliferate and are tacitly understood as the realities of crime (Young, 1996). While the literature on crime and media acknowledges this relationship, a goal of visual criminology is to question the ways in which this relationship is created. For instance, Hayward (2010, p. 5) argues that the studying of images enables the interrogation of how crime is framed and understood, how power is conveyed, and how images “can be used as both a tool of control and resistance.” In essence, the visual captures important processes, ideological contestations, and political maneuvers that go overlooked if criminologists fail to interrogate representations and their power.

Following suit, visual criminologists seek to better understand the nature and impact of how crime and punishment are represented visually, with a focus on how the political and cultural economies underpinning the visual can reflect and contribute to norms and perceptions of crime and deviance. The visual thus serves as a lens through which to observe constitutive relationships between law and social control. As highlighted in the May 2014 special issue of Theoretical Criminology, studies on visual culture and iconography within criminology range from carceral studies (Brown, 2014; Schept, 2014) to banned images in public spaces (Young, 2014) and media representations of crime, punishment, and violence (Wakeman, 2014). Collectively, the articles in the special issue call for new theories and methods that account for the visual and its political dimensions; the issue also highlights interdisciplinary links between criminology and other fields of inquiry to develop more nuanced understandings of the visual (Rafter, 2014).

How and what different actors can see depends very much on their social position. Tyler Wall and Travis Linnemann’s (2014) analysis of debates over body-worn police cameras serves as a clear example: the public’s desire for transparency through images of officer-involved violence is in direct tension with officers’ desire to maintain a protected position beyond the camera’s gaze. Their analysis opens avenues for observing and theorizing tensions between officers, photographers, filmmakers, and the public regarding control over recordings of violence and the limits of the image (Jackson, 2015). As John Jackson (2015, p. 6) makes clear, “there is far too much that the camera (like ‘the naked eye’) doesn’t or can’t capture—that lies just beyond its rectangular frame or what transpired before the camera was turned on.” Unseen moments, what visual theorist Nicholas Mirzoeff (2006) refers to as the invisible or hidden, are essential for understanding power relations informing visual culture.

A number of criminological works concerned with representations and cultures of crime demonstrate how visual methods can be used to get at deeper theoretical understandings of relationships between crime, social conditions, and punishment (e.g., Kane, 2009; Morrison, 2010). Criminologists tend to draw from visual methods developed in the humanities and other social sciences (e.g., Rose, 2012) to study the criminal justice system (e.g., Lynch, 2000, 2002, 2004) and the various ways images reflect and inform societal understandings of crime and punishment (e.g., Dowler, 2002; Rapping, 2003).

Particular methods include semiology, researcher-created images, and critical analyses of existing images and visuals. Rita Shah (2015) uses photo documentation and semiology to analyze how the look, feel, and location of a parole office impact relationships between parolee and parole agent. Stephanie Kane’s (2009) ethnographic work elucidates how stencil graffiti in public waterscapes articulate artistic dissent and how the semiotics of such graffiti disrupts representations of state power. Other scholars look at criminological cases in which existing images are central. For example, studies of the mug shot industry consider how mug shot websites are themselves spectacles (Lageson, 2014): they make public—and open to ridicule and stigma—those who are arrested on a daily basis without concern for guilt, innocence, or privacy. As such, these analyses bring attention to the affective and political nature of the images as well as the long-term effect of these images being public. Cécile Van de Voorde (2012) uses photo-elicitation—that is, using photographs as a tool for eliciting narratives from respondents—within larger ethnographic projects studying the intersection of crime, protest, and immigration. In so doing, Van de Voorde (2012) outlines a set of methods for analyzing the broader carceral logics that Brown (2014) describes as increasingly visible in settings beyond criminal justice institutions.

There are growing numbers of visual essays that present and analyze research findings (Hoffman, 2015). They draw on the power of images and other signifiers “to generate a scientifically informed whole” rather than rely solely on textual contextualization (Pauwels, 2012, para. 3.5). Visual essays in criminology have addressed, among other topics, social disorganization and rural communities (Tunnell, 2006), the problem of dumping and littering (Tunnell, 2004), and graffiti (Alvelos, 2004; Kane, 2009). Others explore how images enable incarcerated people to maintain rare and valued forms of intimacy, attachment, and familial connection (Fleetwood, 2015).

Visual criminology is becoming an important theoretical and methodological approach in its own right. The forthcoming Routledge International Handbook of Visual Criminology is a testament to the subfield’s growth: edited by Michelle Brown and Eamonn Carrabine (2017), it is the first handbook to interrogate visual criminology, its application, and its unrealized possibilities. Moreover, it represents a collection of alternative methods for generating criminological knowledge, all of which surpass criminology’s traditionally positivistic orientation.

Although feminist and visual criminology tend to question different aspects of mainstream criminology, both illuminate disciplinary blind spots. Accordingly, feminist and visual criminology enable the exploration of power dynamics shaping crime and criminological knowledge, and their intersections present potentially new synergies for investigation.

Established Areas of Visual Feminist Criminological Analysis

A feminist visual criminology, as an extension of feminist criminology, can pose significant—arguably foundational—critiques of mainstream criminology. These challenges, although each is distinctly different, share the following common elements: they bring attention to overlooked tensions around the framing of crime, how mainstream criminology narrows the methods by which to understand crime, and how mainstream criminology privileges some views of crime over others. Gender is a core consideration; however, it is not the only one. Many analyses center on the structures by which crime is created, such as the media, changes in technology, existing inequalities, and the academic discipline of criminology itself.

For example, in Imagining Crime, Young (1996) explores the discipline’s “enigmatic relationship” with crime. Crime, she argues, is not so much tangible as it is understood through discourse, shaped through “the written and the pictorial: the linguistic turns and tricks, the framing and editing devices in and through which crime becomes a topic, obtains and retains its place in discourse” (Young, 1996, p. 16). Despite criminologists’ attempts to categorize and analyze crime, they can never really know it, because crime is not so much tangible as it is “imagined.” The visual is at the heart of this definition of crime: it is “mediated as text; the text can therefore be read as crime. The text provides the scene of the crime. Crime’s images are thus the seen of the crime” (Young, 1996, p. 16). And, these images are essential to public imaginings of crime. Criminology, despite its intellectual purchase on explaining crime, can thus only engage crime through these representative forms. As a result, the discipline is premised upon a myth that it can know crime when, for the most part, it cannot.

A central area of contemporary feminist criminological inquiry that orients around the visual is the study of relationships between crime, media, and patriarchal norms. Feminist scholars working at these intersections analyze how mediated narrations contribute to gendered understandings of crime and punishment, particularly in relation to how women are portrayed in the media as both victims and offenders. Lynn Chancer (2014), synthesizing several studies, argues the media articulates patriarchal messages, reminding women to follow gendered expectations in order to avoid becoming victims of (male) crime. However, they are not the only gendered messages in the media. In their analysis of the film Thelma & Louise, Nicole Rafter and Michelle Brown (2011) show how the main characters—at once victims and offenders of violence—break gender norms and expectations. As a result, the movie is criticized for including “dangerous caricatures of women engaging in masculine violence in order to be taken seriously” and as “degrading to men,” but also praised for challenging patriarchal aspects of the criminal justice system (Rafter & Brown, 2011, p. 164).

Drew Humphries’s (2009) anthology, Women, Violence and Media, illustrates interconnections between media portrayals of violence, particularly violence against women, the process of manufacturing media, and patriarchal social beliefs about women. Media depictions, in turn, can influence how the audience views female victims and offenders. For instance, Dawn Cecil (2007) finds that reality-based television programs create sensationalized representations of women behind bars, thereby stigmatizing these women further. Other studies find that gendered media portrayals can impact sentencing, such as Scott Phillips, Laura Potter Haas, and James Coverdill’s (2011) analysis of how media portrayals of female murder victims actually increases the likelihood of the death penalty being imposed. In sum, the media contributes powerful representations of women, both victims and offenders, that can obscure and influence their lived experiences.

Changes in technology have expanded what constitutes “media.” This development poses new opportunities and challenges for criminologists. According to feminist geographer Gillian Rose (2015), a pressing concern for studying the visual is its relationship to the digital, particularly as the two are increasingly intertwined in everyday life. Her proposal to merge visual research methods and digital cultural studies remains largely unrealized in feminist criminology, but there are feminist analyses of how the digital contributes to lived experiences of crime and violence. They include studies of how social media can affect criminal cases and instances of victimization (Milivojevic & McGovern, 2014) as well as how digital communications can contribute to gender-based violence (Henry & Powell, 2015). Rather than render the digital as solely a space of domination, Michael Salter (2013) argues that digital spaces, including the representations they enable, can also facilitate counter-publics that challenge hegemonic understandings of sexual assault. Moreover, these online practices can influence narratives conveyed through other media outlets, legal actions, and court proceedings.

The limited forays into contemporary relationships between the visual and the digital point to larger questions for feminist and visual criminological analyses. Conceptually, what frameworks help to explain how the visual permeates everyday life? How does visuality inform gendered beliefs and practices related to crime and deviance? Methodologically, what tools assist in capturing how the visual, including what appears invisible, operates in different criminological contexts? If criminology does not provide the appropriate tools for feminist visual criminological studies, what fields can? Taken together, these questions reflect expressed worries regarding feminist criminology’s shortcomings, particularly, as Frances Heidensohn (2012, p. 128) writes, its limited innovation in terms of theory, the significant gaps in terms of the issues it studies, and the continued criminological tendency to add gender as a “token acknowledgement.”

Emergent Directions of Feminist Visual Criminology

Reflections on the future directions of feminist criminology offer guidance in terms of its interdisciplinary possibilities, particularly as contemporary problems require new theoretical frameworks (Henne & Troshynski, 2013). Feminist visual criminology can be thought of in these interdisciplinary terms: as an emergent domain of investigation that exceeds the traditional boundaries of criminology. Unlike the origins of feminist criminology, which responded explicitly to the limitations of its patriarchal parent discipline, analyses that bridge feminist and visual criminological concerns are diverse in aims and epistemological orientation. Given that there are many schools of feminist thought, the possibilities are wide-ranging and diverse. Feminist criminological approaches to the visual may, in turn, come to look quite different—and perhaps should. Emerging areas of study are quite diverse and include engagement with visual culture, new media, and praxis.

Feminist Engagements with Crime, Deviance, and Visual Culture

Existing feminist criminological scholarship that engages with visual representations convey important analytical insight. They clarify connections between data points and highlight the application of theoretical frameworks in ways that feminist and visual criminology cannot do alone. Underexplored areas of feminist visual analysis remain, however. Specifically, feminist criminologists have yet to engage with interdisciplinary debates about the scope of the visual, and technological advances may require adapting existing methods, theory, and praxis. This section accounts for feminist criminology’s contributions as well as its notable silences.

Scholars of the visual draw important distinctions between vision (what we physically see) and visuality (how we see). As Mirzoeff (2006) notes, visuality takes many forms, including what we are allowed to see, how we interpret what we see (past and present), and how the invisible or hidden complicates visuality. Louise Amoore’s (2007) analysis of images related to the U.S. war on terror explicitly connects these concerns: drawing on Judith Butler’s suggestion that the notion of the Other can be undone by the touch of others, Amoore distinguishes between how such images are intended to be seen (that is, as a call to be vigilant towards suspicious, possibly terrorist, activities, thus turning sight into foresight) and how seeing them differently can subvert dominant political messages. In contrast, as Alexa Dodge’s (2016) work attests, how viewers “read” images can also be harmful in ways that extend victimization. Dodge (2016) documents cases where images of sexual assaults and rapes are shared on social media and “read” as evidence of victims’ culpability rather than as evidence of a crime. As these studies show, visuality shapes not only how one thinks about crime but also embedded power dynamics that aid the constitution of crime.

Scholars who scrutinize the aesthetics of violence provide additional insight into the interplay between visuality, images, and meanings attributed to acts of violence being portrayed. Notable among them is James Pugliese’s (2007) analysis of how sexually explicit images of U.S. torture carried out in Abu Ghraib prison reflect violence-as-spectacle, that is, “not the collection of images” themselves, but “the social relation of people that is mediated by images” (Debord, 1987, p. 2). The images, explains Pugliese (2007), are part of a shadow archive, which contributes to a broader imaginary terrain that normalizes imperialistic violence and Arab dehumanization. In the case of Abu Ghraib, the acts of torture positioned Arab captives as passively receptive to anal penetration, a “marking [that] is, in turn, overcoded by Orientalist fantasies designed to render the Arab male a ‘woman’” (Pugliese, 2007, p. 269). In a different vein, Ryan Ashley Caldwell (2012) analyzes the photographs in relation to the court-martialing, specifically the two female soldiers implicated. According to Caldwell (2012), both the performances of torture and the punishment for those acts maintain embedded gendered messages. In particular, torture reifies the masculine and heteronormative culture of the U.S. military, while the trial condemned the female soldiers for participating in that culture. Taken together, the analyses demonstrate the multiple registers of gendered violence.

Integrating feminist visual frameworks with criminological analyses promises other theoretical innovations. The adaptation of feminist psychoanalysis, a mainstay of visual studies, is one example. For instance, the application of Laura Mulvey’s concept of the male gaze spans a number of fields but has had relatively little impact within feminist criminology. According to Mulvey (1975, p. 17), cinematic productions adopt a male heterosexual vantage point that renders women’s bodies as the “(passive) raw material for the (active) male gaze.” Women become objectified through the consumption of their images, their looked-at-ness being an accepted source of pleasure. Practices of watching, as well as being watched, reinforce patriarchal relations.

Criminologists have employed feminist psychoanalysis, and the male gaze in particular, to explain different aspects of crime. Male expressions of vulnerability, according to Sarah Moore and Simon Breeze (2012), center on spaces in which they are in the unfamiliar position of being subject to the male gaze. When men felt they were in this depowered position, a position usually occupied by women, they voiced concerns about being threatened by crime or violence. Young (1996), too, draws upon feminist psychoanalysis to build her central thesis about criminology’s enigmatic relationship with crime. The act of crime, she writes, like “Woman[,] cannot be seen. Yet, like a ubiquitous ghost, she haunts the images we believe in” (Phelan, 1993, cited in Young, 1996, p. 27). In short, no real Woman (or crime) emerges, only an imagined notion of one.

Conceptual issues opened up by feminist visual criminology mark a scholarly departure from mainstream criminology and an opportunity to rethink traditional feminist paradigms. The advent of queer criminology as a growing subfield attests to how queer theory can inform criminology. As illustrated by a special issue of Critical Criminology (2014), queering criminology aids in not only reconsidering the field’s overall failure to account for LGBTQI+ experiences of crime and victimization, but also in destabilizing taken-for-granted identity-based categories, mainstream theories, and common methodological approaches (Ball, Buist, & Woods, 2014). A queer criminology can elide with and disrupt feminist criminology. These potentially productive contestations can prompt reconsidering relationships between sex, gender, and sexuality; accepted feminist concepts, praxis, and paradigms; and the multi-faceted nature of oppression.

Rebecca Lock’s (2003) work demonstrates the utility of queer theory for feminist explanations of deviance in relation to the visual, using representations of female athletes accused of using performance-enhancing drugs. Her work exposes the common slippage in which “masculinity is read as lesbianism in sport. Lesbianism is read as an aesthetic that matches the offensive aesthetic of masculinized female dopers” (Lock, 2003, p. 408). The commendation of doping, as popularly embodied by visibly masculine women, is thus co-constituted by the disdain for a transgressive female body, that is, a non-heterosexually feminine woman that is undesirable to the male heterosexual gaze. In so doing, her analysis unearths why these bodies appear “unnatural” and become targets for criminalistic condemnation: because they embody aesthetics that defy (Western) heteronormative norms.

The normative claims asserted through aesthetics are important to scholarship on visual culture, particularly in relation to crime and deviance. The racialized implications of visual culture linked to crime and law enforcement are especially profound, yet often overlooked by conventional criminology. For example, Jonathan Finn (2009) traces how 19th-century experiments with photography maintained a clear preoccupation with racial difference, which directly contributed to categories used to defend racial hierarchies and legalized strategies of racial social control. Racial anxieties and state-sanctioned violence are inextricably linked within the histories of visual culture across many nations. Their interplay, according to David Marriott (2007) and Katherine McKittrick (2006), “haunts” modern visual cultures, perpetuating them in different forms. In her landmark analysis of British imperialism, Imperial Leather, Anne McClintock (1995) traces how visual economies communicated raced, classed, and gendered ideologies that supported empire-building. This work provides a model for analyzing how the visual is central to understanding postcoloniality and its earlier iterations.

Intersectional relationships also haunt the techniques employed to justify criminalistic imaginings. These practices, argues Alan Sekula (1986), reflect an institutionalized “physiognomic gauge,” legitimated by an archive that, alongside imaginary and pseudo-scientific justifications, eschews different bodies as Other. As he explains, the “law-abiding body—a body that was either bourgeois or subject to dominion” recognized “its own acquisitive and aggressive impulses unchecked, and sought to reassure itself”; one way to accomplish this “was the invention of a criminal who was organically distinct from the bourgeois: a biotype” (Sekula, 1986, pp. 15–16). In fact, as Nicole Rafter (2008) details in relation to the foundations of criminology, biological explanations of criminality are inextricably linked to visual practices and judgments. Although not rooted in biological theories, media and other new modes of visualization, particularly images of embodied Others, still inform tacit knowledge of crime, law, and order by continuing legacies of naturalizing difference. In sum, the feminist criminological analysis of the visual would be remiss to limit its focus to gender alone, as interlocking oppressions forged contemporary visual culture.

Feminist Criminological Engagements with New Media

Analysis of the visual increasingly looks beyond still images. The digital enables interactive platforms through which to engage and theorize how visuality shapes subjects of criminological study. Public Secrets, a multimedia project by Sharon Daniel (2007), exemplifies a feminist approach that provides insight into the prison industrial complex. Through a digital interface, the project brings together textual and audio narratives, ambient sounds, and moving visual representations, but not realistic images of prisons or people occupying them. Voices of incarcerated women—voices rarely heard in public or mainstream criminological discourses—guide users through what Daniel (2007) describes as the “shifting borders between inside and outside, incarceration and freedom, oppression and resistance, despair, and hope.” Public Secrets enables the user to “see” (and hear) aspects of the criminal justice system often hidden from general view. In sum, as a feminist project, it brings some transparency to a largely opaque institution, even though the viewer does not see images of the actual women who narrate the secrets.

Video games, as illustrated by Kishonna Gray (2014), provide windows in constructions and experiences of punishment, violence, and justice. Gray’s (2014) study on the exclusion of female video gamers, particularly gamers of color, from online communities and the prevalence of racist and sexist violence within gaming culture highlight the need to better conceptualize how “real” and virtual worlds are not necessarily distinct spheres, nor is the violence enacted within and across them. Analyses of the connections between video games, hegemonic masculinity, and U.S. military culture reiterate this point (e.g., Power, 2007).

Interactive documentaries (i-Docs) such as Prison Valley (Dufrense & Brault, 2010)—which has its own smartphone app—merge the documentary style with the interactive abilities of digital information and communication technologies. In Prison Valley, the audience can view a documentary film with built-in “pauses” at various points so viewers can explore certain areas in depth by clicking on representations of artifacts and people. In addition, they can comment on and discuss the documentary with other viewers. Thus, i-Docs allow users to engage somewhere they usually may not be able to in “real” life, enabling an alternative imagining of criminal justice institutions that is distinctly different from common media portrayals. Documentaries using traditional media also facilitate in-depth analysis of criminological concerns, even though they do not provide the same user experiences. Notable instances include a feminist narration of conditions that enable the prison industrial complex and how the prison abolition movement resists them (e.g., Visions of Abolition; Chea, Granadino, & Shigematsu, 2011) and a reflection on how documenting domestic violence can create ethical conundrums of the researcher/photographer, bringing forth complicated questions about maintaining distance between researcher and participant and scholar-activism more generally (e.g., Photographing Domestic Violence; redfitz, 2015).

The performance arts serve as yet another feminist criminological mode of engaging the visual. For example, the one-woman ethnographic play Doin’ Time: Through the Visiting Glass, performed by scholar and dramaturge Ashley Lucas, provides an in-depth look into how incarceration impacts families and their relationships. Jodie Michelle Lawston and Ashley Lucas’s (2011) edited collection, Razor Wire Women, brings together the work of scholars, artists, activists, and prisoners—titles that are not mutually exclusive—to investigate women’s lives and lived experiences inside prisons. These kinds of performances, and the dialogues they facilitate, create a space where the relationship between the corporeal and the visual are explicit, an endeavor that Young (2014) suggests is important for visual criminology.

Calls for the development of alternative approaches within visual studies point to the challenges of conceptualizing and analyzing contemporary modes of seeing, being seen, and assessing what can be seeable—all of which are directly relevant, yet unexplored, by feminist criminology. Technological advances enable the observation of phenomena and things the naked eye cannot otherwise see. Scientific design yields new forms of cognitive and bodily imaging, virtual engagement, geographic mapping, lighting, and movement. A diversification and expansion of institutionalized gazes accompanies these developments, many of which shape crime control, security, and policing practices. They include the deployment of video and digital surveillance (Koskela, 2000; Wallace, 2009); biometric tools, such as fingerprinting, DNA analysis, and facial recognition (Magnet, 2011; body imaging, such as x-ray and millimeter wave screening (Magnet & Rodgers, 2012); forensic evidence visualization and analysis techniques (Haldar, 2013); and geo-coding software and tracking (Wallace, 2009). To borrow a term coined by Hille Koskela (2000), “the gaze without eyes” is a mainstay of contemporary life. With it comes a number of tools that mediate and alter sight, the analysis of which could challenge and extend gendered analyses of the gaze.

The expansion of visualization devices contributes to what Rachel Hall (2007) refers to as an overarching “aesthetics of transparency” that entails extensive surveillance practices, many of which come to disproportionately affect non-Western and feminine bodies. In a post-9/11 world, the Western desire to make bodies transparent, particularly those of Muslim—or presumed-Muslim—individuals, is manifest in a variety of disclosure strategies, such as Orientalist moves to unveil or see beneath women wearing the burqa or niqab, as well as rules that compel travelers to pose for x-ray scanners that generate images of their naked bodies under the guise of security (Magnet & Rodgers, 2012). In addition, as evidenced by analyses of U.S. drone strikes, visualizations directly inform combat tactics and contribute to new ways of dehumanizing citizens in other parts of the world (Wall & Monahan, 2011). The distance enabled by transmitting images of faraway targets facilitates continued warfare; deaths of innocents are more readily relabeled as akin to enemy combatants. Perhaps more importantly, as Tyler Wall and Torin Monahan (2011) state, these mobilizations of the image reorient techniques of neutralization, reframing potential acts of crime or terrorism as justified war-related violence.

The technological integrations changing fields of visuality inevitably impact how different actors see crime, as well as how they respond to and anticipate it. Applications for personal use, such as Google mapping software and crime-tracking smartphone apps, as well as larger software projects, such as the Risk Terrain Modeling software developed at Rutgers University (2012) to assist with predictive policing practices, are just a few examples. For Aurora Wallace (2009), these technologies aid in reimagining crime’s relationship to geographic space, casting illegal activities as a wider visual space. However, as Allen Feldman (2005) writes, this is not limited to geography or crime. Instead, he suggests, social practices of in/visibility reflect what he calls an “actuarial gaze,” which yield “zones of visual editing, structural invisibility, and cordon sanitaire” that cumulatively result “in the deceasing capacity of surveilled, stigmatized, and vulnerable groups, classified as risk-bearers, to make visible their social suffering, shrinking life-chances and human rights claims in the global public sphere” (Feldman, 2005, p. 213). These broader cultural shifts, constitutively linked to the visual, point to the importance of the reflexive traditions of feminist and critical visual analyses: the stakes of conventional criminology becoming complicit in the proliferation of such technological advances without critically reflecting on the broader implications threaten to undermine democratic engagement.

Feminist Criminological Praxis and the Visual

Questions of praxis, which encompass ethics and pedagogy in addition to research, foreground feminist criminological engagement with the visual. Visual studies, as Brown (2014, p. 193) acknowledges, employs a wide analytical frame and a number of techniques, including “social and cultural imaginaries; visual hierarchies, economies, and ocular logics; trending images, conceptual maps, and data visualizations; all in order to foreground the visual frames and optics by which we see … and do not see.” This “expansive and emergent vocabulary,” she contends, “allows us to explore and articulate in a more nuanced manner the stakes of seeing and understanding our subject, ourselves, and our commitments in a plurality of ways” (Brown, 2014, p. 194). Prompting a reconsideration of the researcher’s relationships to her objects of inquiry enables an extension of feminist criminology’s reflexive tradition.

Reflexivity—at least as typically thought of in relation to constructing textual narratives based on qualitative research—may not be adequate when engaging and analyzing the visual. As scholars using visual methods note, capturing images complicates issues related to anonymity, confidentiality, consent, and overt versus covert methods (Davidov, 2004; Pauwels, 2008). Using existing images from the Internet can also blur the line between public and private domains, making traditional ethical standards an incomplete source for guidance (Markham, 2006). However, as feminists of color have long argued, privacy is not a clear-cut right or sphere of social activity; rather it is a relational privilege that not everyone can enjoy. By heeding these and other feminist insights, feminist criminologists, armed with a tradition of reflexive praxis and recognition of interlocking systems of power, are well positioned to advance a more radical reflexive approach.

In addition to researcher reflexivity, cultural studies scholars have called for further interrogation of viewing practices, not simply visual artifacts (Bal, 2003; Mirzoeff, 2011). Mirzoeff (2011) argues that accounting for the difference and disparities among onlookers should be central to analyses of meaning, particularly how diverse gazes become instilled through visual encounters—be they informed by sexuality, gender, political economy, discipline, postcoloniality, or intersections between them. This extends Young’s (2014, p. 161) point that visual criminology should “avoid the pitfalls of an object-centered approach to the image” by moving toward a criminological aesthetics that scrutinizes the constitutive relationships shaping the visual as they crystallize around the encounter between the viewer and the image. Moreover, there are ethical dimensions to critical viewing practices and visual analysis. Writing in relation to human rights discourse, Wendy Hesford (2011) explains that even well-intended messages can maintain imbalanced power dynamics. Specifically, she focuses on the relationships between the spectacles of human rights violations and the audience of presumed human rights bearers who witness them through mediated and visual modes. According to Hesford (2011, p. 46), in addition to considering how the visual communicates messages about crime, atrocity, and violence, many of which are gendered, there is an obligation to “call into question the normative frameworks that govern subject formation and the scenes of suffering.” Feminist visual criminological approaches, then, are in a unique position to engage with critical viewing practices and adjoining questions of how visuality and ethics overlap.

In addition to ethics, visual pedagogy offers ways for criminologists to advance feminist analyses of crime. Drawing from critical pedagogy, visual pedagogy scrutinizes the way audiovisuals and graphics contribute to knowledge production (Goldfarb, 2002). Doing so allows for a critique of the visual and how it informs political and social transformation. It also brings a critical focus on how images can serve as pedagogical tools and on new technologies meant to “streamline and cross-cut” educational delivery (Goldfarb, 2002, p. 6). In many ways, the goals of visual pedagogy align with those of feminist pedagogy. Both seek to question taken-for-granted “truths,” how they are fashioned, and how they become reproduced in educational settings. As Rafter and Brown (2011, p. ix) note, connecting criminological theories to film analysis provides meaningful ways for students to relate to and “visualize the theories in action.” Similarly, Elizabeth Jenkins (1992, p. 341) argues that documentary films can help students develop “sophisticated techniques for questioning what they are shown and told about gender issues and stereotypes in the administration of justice.” A visual feminist pedagogy thus enables reconsidering tacit beliefs about crime, crime control, and crime prevention, while helping students develop critical skills for engaging the visual in the everyday life.

The ethical and pedagogical dimensions of praxis point to longstanding feminist concerns regarding essentialism. Essentialism, in the traditional feminist sense, renders gendered differences as innate, the outgrowth of inherent or biological traits. Feminist anti-essentialist praxis aims to counteract these tacit assumptions. With regard to studies of visual culture, Mieke Bal (2003, p. 19) cautions that scholars “must seriously engage both terms in their negativity: ‘visual’ as ‘impure’—synesthetic, discursive and pragmatic; and ‘culture’ as shifting, differential, located between ‘zones of culture’ and performed in practices of power and resistance.” In other words, researchers should be attuned to the risks of privileging what can be seen and rendering culture as static or even monolithic. These concerns become compounded when considered in relation to the objects of feminist criminological analysis, which are etched and shaped by interconnected patriarchal, heteronormative, and postcolonial power relationships. Already marginalized bodies can appear hypervisible (Fleetwood, 2011), rendered deviant or criminalistic, while privileged bodies can go unseen because they benefit from structures that shape the frames through which we see crime. Privilege—by design—may fall outside the frame, but it nonetheless influences visual planes, conditioning what and how bodies can be seen.

Bal (2003, p. 22) calls for an anti-essentialist visual cultural studies that deconstructs the “master narratives that are presented as natural, universal, true, and inevitable, and dislodge them so that alternative narratives can become visible” and aims to “understand some of the motivations of visual essentialism, which promotes the look of the knower (Foucault) while keeping it invisible.” Recognizing that conventional criminology fails to reflexively interrogate its role in creating essentialist views towards gender, crime, and crime control, feminist criminologists employ a number of analytical “checks,” among them intersectionality, that highlight the importance of contextual conditions. They help to “make sure that we do not speak for those who cannot speak or ask others to share our agenda while they wait for their own” (Grillo, 1995, p. 30). As this article shows, there are several feminist and critical approaches to the visual that share feminist criminology’s anti-essentialist commitments. Using these approaches can bolster its ability to unveil interlocking oppressions and their bearing on crime, deviance, and violence.

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