A Look at Criminology and Film
In which we dissect The Dark Knight, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and The Hunger Games using both scholarly and real-world techniques.
I don't talk about it very often on this site, but I used to study criminology as an undergraduate student. While I did begin my career in a workplace that surprisingly related closely to this field, I ultimately strayed from that path to pursue creative communications, although I'm grateful to my program for providing me with the critical and reflexive skills in order to be a purposeful communicator in the first place.
Even so, I enjoyed sharing criminological pieces I either produced for class or during leisure time on this site from time to time for educational and entertainment purposes. I haven't done that in a while, and I had this one last idea I wanted to post for old times' sake, so I'll consider this my final love letter to the past before I officially begin my master's program in September.
To preface our topic of the day, I must say that popular criminology was easily my favourite discipline in school; considering that the majority of my articles are about entertainment media, it's not at all surprising. Late Professor Nicole Rafter was the leading researcher in the discussion of popular culture's relationship with criminology, and I hope to see even more minds cover a variety of media genres, as long-form articles and video essays are becoming frequently sought-after resources not just by learners, but by the general public as well.
What's unique about pop criminology is that it studies crime and criminality through the combined lens of academia and pop culture. University courses teach you the theoretical, scientific, and empirical validity and accuracy of a given concept, while pop criminology itself relies on media platforms to reinforce its discursive approach to criminal imagery.
It's true that this method doesn't make its claims empirically accurate or theoretically valid, but we nevertheless shouldn’t ever dismiss it because it's more capable than academia of covering thematic territory. Let's face it—pop criminology captures a larger audience and greater social significance than university ever will.
Though we also shouldn't tip the scales entirely in its favour. It's important to understand the necessary bond between academia and pop culture, in that they are equal partners in defining and explaining crime, albeit their different ways of interpreting it.
More precisely, pop criminology provides a greater number of people with a worldview that covers more material that can be discussed inside the academic arena as well. For instance, the list of items in that agenda could include the philosophy about the nature between good and evil, the morally ethical stance a person might take, and the audience's identification with various characters coming into contact with the criminal justice system.
These topics reflect and shape academic and criminological theories, so academic criminology is in no way superior to pop criminology. With all this in mind, let's first take a look at a film more people have watched than have ever even cracked open an academic journal.
THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)
Over a decade after its release, Christopher Nolan's TDK is still considered the greatest superhero film of all time. For our purposes, we know a film is great when we can extract its educational significance through a little thing called symptomatic analysis.
The best way to understand this form of analysis is to think of TDK's success as a "symptom" of our culture's underlying thoughts, moral norms, and imagination. A symptomatic reading will situate a product like this film within a particular train of thought that is assumed to characterise society in a specific era.
Our culture is an ensemble of stories we tell ourselves about, well, ourselves, and this film can be understood as a Hollywood blockbuster that many North Americans view as a reflection of our post-911 environment. Popular crime films—TDK may be viewed as a comic book crime drama—will naturally reflect cultural norms and the criminal justice system in a socio-political context.
When G.W. Bush was the President of the United States, his administration countered terrorist threats. Batman (Christian Bale) is read as a fictional placeholder for the administration while the Joker (Heath Ledger) is read as a reflection of Al-Qaeda. Even the bat symbol itself could be seen as a double meaning: the W in Bush’s full name.
Batman uses physical coercion against the Joker to extract crucial information about his planned attacks, paralleling the confirmation that under Bush's administration. There was an authorization of coercive measures during the war on terror.
TDK fits in Bush’s imagination of the war on terror through necessary extralegal factors to the problems of crime and terrorism, which involves infringing on the state’s monopoly of legitimate use of force to fight evil and restore social order. The prevalence of security also underlies counterterrorism techniques used by Bush's administration. Throughout all of this, the discourse is facilitated and overlapped with Christian notions of good and evil in public service.
If looked at from such a perspective, there is no neutral or middle ground either with the state or terrorist. What complicates this idea, however, is that vigilantism is "allowed" so long as the hero can combat crime without actually revealing themselves as a vigilante. Otherwise, they will be seen as far less civilized and beyond due process and crime control, and will bring about undesirable outcomes in the eyes of the public. We need prominent figures to admire, respect, and project our fear and loathing. In other words, we, as a culture, need a hero.
TDK is said to be a polysemous narrative with multiple meanings that appeal to mass audiences. Some even go so far as to say that it’s not a politically conservative film that reflects Bush's administration, but rather a cinematic portrayal of the surveillance system's destruction—a fictional analog to explain why the war on terror is ineffective and unethical. This is evidenced by Batman's failure to elicit truthful responses from the Joker during the ticking time bomb scenario through his violent interrogation—thereby challenging Bush's administration.
Which brings us to the Joker: He’s pathological, so he might be considered a born criminal. There's a debate on whether he’s a psychopath or mentally ill because his character departs from our understanding of rationality. He doesn’t commit crime for instrumental reasons, but rather as a form of expression.
He wants to experiment with creating terror, producing emotions from people, which explains why he's read as a terrorist. He takes pleasure in committing transgressions. He just wants to watch the world burn and overtake the city. He’s a pyromaniac, and is irrational to us because he doesn’t believe in rules, but rather in chaos and unpredictability, so he can be thought of as the physical embodiment of Chaos theory.
He doesn’t care how he applies his makeup, so the disorderly fashion symbolises his messiness that he wants to impose on the world. He’s highly aware of the social construction of labelling, in that he can build up better criminals through terror and discipline.
In spite of his status as a vigilante, Batman, compared to the Joker, believes in the rules. So we see the thematic relationship between method, how we know, and knowledge, what we know, rooted in standpoint theory, whereby what we know depends on where we stand in the world to observe it.
Fictional narratives like the one presented to us in TDK can provide us with different standpoints in a single run. These are the various experiences and perspectives we're able to grasp the world through, through the eyes of each individual character. Academic criminology, needless to say, can’t accomplish this on its own.
It can even be supplemented with cultural criminology and criminological aesthetics, which entail emotional and cultural experiences and knowledge. They can be thought of as a reservoir or database for images about crime and criminology.
Our culture embodies products like crime films that offer knowledge about people and crime, and it takes the form of fragments instead of the big picture and organises them in our heads as schemas. This is fragmentary information that we assemble in our heads and use to organise our knowledge and recollections about the social world in terms of themes and subjects.
These are certainly helpful tools when analysing other interpretations of the same or similar topics, and TDK is neither the first nor last film to be publicly scrutinised under a microscope as a pop-cultural product that speaks directly to people's' experiences and imaginations of Al-Qaeda terrorism.
THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS (2002)
The second part of my favourite trilogy of all time, Peter Jackson's The Two Towers can also be symptomatically analysed for its relation to our culture's underlying ideologies.
The title refers back to J.R.R Tolkien’s novel of the same name. In 2002, this title hit cultural nerves in Americans who interpreted it as a reference to the Twin Towers in a post-911 world.
Prior to the film’s release, there was a petition that appeared online to rename the film as something less morally repugnant. Signed by 4,000 people, the petition highlighted the heightened cultural sensitivity that characterised the post-911 filmmaking environment. Films and even animated series like Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters made before 911, for example, were digitally altered and had elements edited out so as to not hit cultural nerves, regardless of how subtle the connections were.
Aside from that, there is a prevalence of the binary logic of representation. Tolkien was a devout Christian, and the kind of imagery he conveyed in his stories wasn't all that different from what G.W. Bush employed in his speeches after 911. You had your morally good side with characters like Gandalf (Ian McKellen) represented by light, and your morally evil side with Sauron (Sala Baker) and Saruman's (Christopher Lee) orcs—although, for the sake of argument, we'll focus on the orcs here, represented by darkness.
Pop culture can intersect with politics and can work to the certain advantages of politicians. Likewise, pop cultural products can make intangible, abstract concepts visible for mass audiences.
By putting a face to "evil," films help classify people into groups of “us vs. them.” This visible delineation can facilitate state security practices, whether in fiction or the real world.
In The Two Towers' example, the orcs are depicted as ugly creatures due to their charred skin and black blood, while Gandalf is quite literally donned entirely in white—he even has a white horse. Jackson took abstract concepts of good and evil and converted them into visual images through a binary colour coding of white versus black. Some critics have, understandably, accused Jackson of producing racist imagery this way. I would hope it's not the case, but I can't deny the observation.
Let's not forget though that the construction of imagery doesn't stop at binary logic. If we broaden Rafter’s definition of criminology and let it include victims, it additionally constructs images of our ideal victims. We can contemplate Professor Alison Young’s discussion of aforementioned criminological aesthetics to comprehend how spectators interpret images.
To interpret something, she maintains that we need identification. But how do we identify with, as, or against the law? How do audiences identify with, as, or against certain kinds of victims?
This idea of identification with, as, or against victims has consequences due to the kind of assistance—or lack thereof—we provide victims; for instance, when males are victims of sexual crimes because pop culture has typically portrayed them as tough, invulnerable, and heroic.
Films help us imagine victims and especially help us imagine them in a certain way. This impacts our hierarchy of victims because our cultural ability to create victims impacts our ability to identify with them.
The last film of our discussion for today was an earlier example of not just this, but of unnecessarily questioning casting choices in general.
THE HUNGER GAMES (2012)
Directed by Gary Ross and based on Suzanne Collins' novel, the film is a proxy through which we can tap into people’s mental images of victims.
Many people who took to Twitter at the time felt their movie experience was ruined because the movie visibly diverged from their imagination of The Hunger Games—and their image of Rue (Amandla Stenberg). They observed that someone like a younger Dakota Fanning would've been better suited to the role, as she fitted Collins' original description of the character—when really, she's their image of an ideal victim.
Victims are people we can love and see as a part of our lives; thus, what they're saying in those types of tweets is that they can withhold sympathy from certain victims because they can't identify with them since they don't live up to their ideal image of a victim. If we're to interpret these moviegoers' criticisms as racist, then simple colour coding has once again been mapped onto the notions of good and evil, with white being good and black being evil.
These are the kinds of methods that determine people's responses to victims: who they find deserving, non-deserving, and in doing so, deny assistance and victimhood, and instead engage in victim blaming. I want to conclude by saying that it's imperative we truly examine our priorities; or if that's not possible, choose our words carefully when expressing our concerns about how our culture is translated into fiction, because unless a story is context-specific, taking opportunities to influence diverse storytelling is more important than honouring the source material when something's an adaptation to begin with.
*With files from lecture notes provided by professor Anita Lam of York University