Eight old movie posters arranged in a grid

Anthropology: Cinematic Crime and Cultural Obsession in Western Society

We live in a world saturated with images. Our visual landscape has become one of the most important avenues to create meaning and form our identities.

Crime films [are] sites within which the meanings of crime and criminality are simultaneously articulated, explored and negotiated

(Yar 2010, 77)

Cinematic crime texts often act as mirrors. They creatively entomb our values and desires into an engaging storyline that feeds back through our eyes and resonates with our being. Representations of crime in cinema, however, are particularly interesting – even paradoxical. On the one hand, we value the law and disapprove of violence in our society. We believe that crime is feared and should be prevented. Yet, we desire this violence in some respects, and crime constitutes a mainstay of popular cultureCinematic crime allows us to experience social evils without putting ourselves in harm’s way. Interestingly, many of us take pleasure in these images – but why?

Controlling the fear, solving the crime

We like to be scared, but in a controlled way. Safely tucked away on the other side of the screen, we experience crime from a distance. Paradoxically, however, our connection to characters and emotional involvement with the plot simultaneously injects us into this fictional environment. As a result, viewers can gain a sense of satisfaction and control over their fears as the narrative closes with crime resolution.

A woman leans forward toward a flat screen TV gazing intensely into it
Image Source: Huffpost.com

Crime narratives often offer storylines that speak to particular social anxieties in audiences –fears that it could be us, it could be a loved one. These cinematic representations then simplify crime and law enforcement’s chaotic and troubling complexities by assigning a simple resolution. Usually, this involves the apprehension of the criminal. Faith in the criminal justice system is thus restored to viewers, and we feel safe once again.

In this way, crime films are a form of escapism media. That is, they allow us to escape the complex realities of everyday life where crime resolution is certainly not so simple.

Blue cartoon illustration of a man climbing out of a door at the back of a head
Image Source: welldoing.org

Moral identity affirmers: reminding us of right and wrong

Most traditional crime films follow the simple character structure of a victim, a protagonist, and a criminal. With the end result usually being an apprehension of the wrongdoer, cinematic crime acts as a visual solidifier of right and wrong. This plays into our inherent desire as humans to categorise actions and behaviours to make sense of our society and solidify our identities.

Illustration of scales with ethics in the middle and 'right' and 'wrong' weighted equally on either side
Image Source: schaeferautobody.com

Stereotyping as a way of organising ‘right’ and ‘wrong’

Stereotyping is one of the most prominent ways crime films display clear categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people or actions. The reductive process involves ascribing fixed, simplified and exaggerated qualities to certain actors. Hence, they neatly fit a socially expected role. Stereotyping splits the normal and acceptable from the abnormal and unacceptable. As a result, audiences can easily distinguish between morally accepted and morally unaccepted behaviours. Unfortunately, stereotyping typically occurs when there are vast inequalities in power. Those with more power can inscribe meaning and stereotypes against subordinated or excluded groups. Importantly, this speaks volumes to the broader structures of inequality that exist in our society beyond the screen.

Exception: acceptable violence

For most of us, violence is inherently wrong, and as a society, we condemn it. But in film, violence is a cinematic staple. Notions of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ justify violence. In other words, a protagonist’s violence is seen as justice and heroism because they are the ‘good guy’ combatting the ‘bad guy’ (who is everything viewers fear). For spectators, violence perpetrated by the protagonist instils a sense of admiration and delight.

Painting of a man firing a large gun and another law enforcement man aiming a handgun at him
Image Source: birthmoviesdeath.com

The affective dimensions of cinematic text

The affective aspects of cinematic crime refer to how they make us feel; or how the body corporeally connects with the experience of watching. In crime, viewers often experience an adrenaline rush as they find themselves enthralled in a dangerous situation alongside the protagonist. Interestingly, as Bonn writes, ‘The euphoric effect of true crime on human emotions is similar to that of roller coasters or natural disasters.’

Four young adults sitting in suspense and fear on a couch while watching a movie
Image Source: bbc.co.uk

A gendered perspective on cinematic crime obsession

Despite most true crime media relishing the suffering and objectification of women, studies show that this same group of women hold a particular fascination towards true crime. Why could this be?

General appeals

Firstly, there are the general appeals of cinematic crime that were explored above:

  • A yearning to understand how people can commit such monstrous crimes (curiosity)
  • The ability to experience fear in a safe and controlled way
  • The dichotomous good guy/bad guy trope that provides people with a sense of justice, or the agency to find their own justice by playing detective. It also reinforces the power of bureaucratic institutions like the police – something (mostly white) women often rely on for protection.

Gender-specific appeals

Then, there are the more gender-specific reasons that speak to the position of women in society beyond the screen:

  • Cinematic crime makes women feel equipped to handle similar situations. It acts as a learning opportunity so viewers can learn from victims’ mistakes. However, this is problematic because it assumes there was a ‘mistake’ made by the woman in the first place. As a result, this directs responsibility for the murder or attack away from the perpetrator
  • There is an understanding of what to avoid, red flags to look out for, and what to do if attacked
  • Some women may feel empowered to protect themselves after watching true crime stories.
Illustration of a woman relaxing on a couch pointing a remote at the TV screen. Her shadow shows the remote as a gun and the screen drips with blood
Image Source: Tara Jacoby for Observer

Problems with the gendered nature of cinematic crime

Importantly, however, there are problematic elements in cinematic crime. Ultimately, true crime representations are made to profit (exploitation cinema). Attacks against women by men are bundled into entertainment packages and sold. In other words, the murder and abuse of real women (as in true crime genres) is used to profit. Unfortunately, this leads to limited discussions around systemic social issues that led to such violent crimes in the first place.

These points were all raised in @soalihaofficial’s podcast (episode 8).

Crime as culture

Much of what we label as criminal behaviour stems from subcultural behaviour. In other words, as a society, we collectively organise our lives around shared networks of meaning to define what is deviant and what is normal. Therefore, crime is a product of socio-cultural contexts and relationships.

Put differently, the meaning of crime resides not in the raw data of crime rates and arrest records. Rather, it arises out of a contested process of cultural interpretation and representational negotiation.

Cinematic crime exposes how we understand what violence and crime is, and how it functions in our society.

Representations of shifting cultural norms

As aforementioned, film encapsulates society’s fears and presents debates about law enforcement and justice. Film mirrors our cultural landscape. Therefore, as cultural norms have shifted over time, so too have cinematic representations of crime and justice.

The 1980s gave rise to representations of cinematic justice powered by muscle and weapons. The vast majority of detective films centred around hegemonically masculine heroes and subordinate women often in care-taker roles (e.g. The Untouchables 1987). 

Film poster for 'The Untouchables' movie shows four men dressed in suits and hats holding guns
Image Source: flixwatch.co

Today, however, science and brainpower appear to be dominating forces. And there are more powerful female leads in detective roles. Killing Eve (a female-led production with powerful female protagonists and antagonists) is an excellent example of this. Nevertheless, it is still common today for women to occupy subordinate roles or roles that would not ‘make sense’ without the male lead or storyline.

Killing Eve movie poster shows two women draped in flowing red cloth
Image Source: spoilertv.com

The female body on-screen: The femme fatale

The Femme Fatale – a cinematic staple of the thriller genre – is an embodiment of gendered anxieties and power dynamics around the 1940s. She represents post-war qualms that women, having contributed massively to the war effort, would move into ‘men’s work’ and abandon the domestic sphere.

Roughly translating to ‘disastrous woman’, this female archetype symbolises danger and mystery; she serves as an obstacle for the male protagonist to overcome. The femme fatale represents social anxieties around the ‘dangerous’ female who is no complicit in the social expectations of womanhood in Western society.

Black and white image of a femme fatale pointing a gun in cinematic crime, her green eyes and red lips are highlighted
Image Source: bbc.com

Critical crime films as catalysts for real change

While some crime films reproduce traditional notions of crime (the white masculine hero who achieves justice), other cinematic representations challenge these hegemonic ideals. These films, known as ‘critical films‘, tend to be much less popular with audiences. Often, we seek pleasure in watching crime films, trusting they will offer comfort in the criminal justice system. But conventionally, critical films tend to highlight all that is wrong with how we perceive and manage crime. So they don’t provide the same comfortable pleasure as traditional crime films. Nonetheless, these alterative stories can help challenge stereotypes and change opinion.

Challenging dominant representations: The Wire

Frame from The Wire TV show depicts four young men gathered around an old orange couch
Michael B. Jordan, Tray Chaney, Larry Gilliard Jr, and J. D. Williams in season one of The Wire. Image Source: HBO

The Wire is an American crime drama series set in the drug-infested streets of West Baltimore. At first glance, the TV show is about drug users and attempts to police them. But beneath the surface-level image, The Wire is a huge social commentary medium where complex questions of race and the problems with law enforcement are elucidated.

The Wire challenges dominant regimes of representation with their stereotype-challenging characters. The main protagonist, Omar Little, is both black and gay. His identity throughout the show offers a story about social diversity that challenges the compulsory mode of heterosexuality and whiteness that still seems to dominate much of the standard TV repertoire.

As noted by Wakeman, The Wire:

‘plays a role in ideological construction/maintenance, while also existing as a space through which hegemony is challenged and meaning contested.

Caution with critical films

While subverting stereotypes on screen hold significant value for equal social progression in real life, we must be careful. Challenging dominant modes of representation visually on screen can satisfy our desire for them to be seen. In an almost tokenistic way, we can settle with this being enough without continuing to challenge the conditions under which such characters become subversive in the first place. In other words, destabilising stereotypes is an intricate undertaking; it is a constant contradictory process that should not cease at the screening of a film.

Sadly, there remains a privileged paradox in modern cinema. While many non-white actors are barred from particular roles, white actors are relatively unrestricted. They can move ‘horizontally’ into even those roles racially defined as black, Asian, Native American.

The serial killer: an embodiment of social anxieties and fears

Strangely, Western society holds an immense cultural fascination towards serial killers. Media interest and an insatiable consumer appetite sustains this fascination. These seemingly non-human humans have captivated our imaginations so vividly that they have become an integral part of our consumerist landscape. For instance, ‘Murderabilia’ is a thriving business where objects associated with murders are sold for profit. There are countless dramatised documentary films on Netflix that glamorise the serial killer’s life. Although most of us have never been confronted by a serial killer, these murderous humans are magnetically drawn into our everyday lives by our intense cultural obsession.

A plastic bag containing a lock of Charles Manson's dark hair
Image Source: Andy Kahan via Rollingstone.com

But why are we so obsessed? Is it the idea of the monster? The human that is not like us? The unexplainable?

In serial killer films, we know that the monster we spectate is supposed to look normal – they are human, just like us. But this is one of the things that scare us. Are we really so different? What stops us from acting outside social laws? If they can do it, why can’t we? Therefore, the serial killer is a complex bundle of social fears and anxieties that stem from a potential detachment from society and a loss of control.

Netflix Ad for the Ted Bundy Tapes shows a close up of Bundy's face with half of it smiling and the other half gazing intensely
Image Source: feminisminindia.com

Monster (2002)

Monster, directed by Patty Jenkins, is a film about serial killer Aileen Wuornos. Wuornos, a former street prostitute, is depicted as a troubled, socially abandoned, sympathetic woman with humane qualities. Many of her killings started out as self-defence against sexual assault. Throughout the film, as Wuornos’ mental health problems and life hardships are shared with viewers, our connection to the serial killer deepens. As a result, we start to see her as just a normal person who endured great suffering. The audiences’ fear is that perhaps, they aren’t so dissimilar.

Close-up shot of Charlize Theron playing notorious serial killer Aileen Wuornos with a sad expression and tears on her face
Aileen Wuornos (played by Charlize Theron) in the film Monster (2002) / Image Source: @Cinemartistry (Twitter)

White-collar crimes in cinema

White-collar crimes in film are not represented in the same way that more violent, murderous crimes are. Corporate crimes are driven largely by financial incentives and are not considered ‘violent’ – although this brings into question how we define violence. Is being scammed of all your money violent? Or just unfair?

Cinematic crime and popular culture afford less space for corporate crimes. This raises questions about spectatorship; that is, what kinds of crimes do we seek and find pleasure in? What kinds of crimes are considered ‘newsworthy?’ Are we more interested in reading about gruesome murders than corporate fraud or tax havens?

Why white-collar crime is pleasurable for us to watch

White-collar crimes emit an admiration and glorification of money, luxury and expenditure. We take pleasure in watching people revel in money; watching them live the dream with a sense of excitement. For instance, in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), fraudster Jordan Belfort’s lavish, drug-filled existence and expensive lifestyle is romanticised. Does this glorify this type of crime? These corporate crime films also embed criticisms about the unequal playing field of the ‘American Dream’.

Leonardo DiCaprio playing notorious stockbroker Jordan Belfort, throwing money off the side of a building
Paramount Pictures via abc.net.au

Significance in anthropology: cinematic crime mirrors or subverts our cultural norms

There is much to be said about why we remain obsessed with true crime and serial killers on-screen yet keep our distance in real life. Do we desire to be close to violence purely for excitement? Or do neatly solved crimes lure us in because they resolve our doubts about the incompetency of our existing justice systems? Ultimately, cinematic crime on-screen reflects our cultural norms, anxieties and fears, and pleasures and desires. Cinema offers a glimpse into how a society understands itself. In different cultures outside the Western norm, there are diverse reasons as to why viewers are drawn to cinematic crime. Certainly, this is a rich area for criminological, anthropological and sociological research.

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