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DEPARTMENT OF SOCIOLOGY. Popular Culture and Crime: Portrayal of Hollywood Gangsters and Asian Stereotypes. SOCI8011: Crime and the Media Lecture 10 Dr. L. Cho, PhD E-mail: Lifcho@hku.hk. What is Popular Culture. Amusement that occupies a society’s leisure time

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popular culture and crime portrayal of hollywood gangsters and asian stereotypes


Popular Culture and Crime:Portrayal of Hollywood Gangsters and Asian Stereotypes

SOCI8011: Crime and the Media

Lecture 10

Dr. L. Cho, PhD

E-mail: Lifcho@hku.hk

what is popular culture
What is Popular Culture
  • Amusement that occupies a society’s leisure time
  • Reflects interests, manners and tastes of mainstream society
  • Fads, fashions in dress and speech, styles of interaction
  • Culture for mass consumption
created and maintained through mass media
Created and Maintained through Mass Media
  • Popular culture and mass media have a symbiotic relationship
  • Tight collaboration
  • In movies, TV, radio, fiction, poetry, new media, advertising, comic books
popular culture as entertainment
Popular Culture as Entertainment
  • Pleasurable escape
  • Transport us from everyday situation
  • See something we otherwise would not see
  • Experience something we normally would not experience
  • Not necessarily for knowledge or enlightenment
popular culture as voyeurism
Popular Culture as Voyeurism
  • Infotainment - news as entertainment
  • A kind of voyeurism
  • Voyeurism: Spying on people’s lives in their most intimate situations
  • For example: “To Catch a Predator”
popular culture and crime
Popular Culture and Crime
  • Recently been of interest since 1990s
  • Two main areas of research:
  • Entertainment – detective novels, movies, video games,
  • News – popular journalism produced as entertainment
  • “Info-tainment” (celebrity gossip, lifestyle, human interest, “sex- money-power” trinity)
  • TV cop shows (“Cops”, “America’s Most Wanted”, “Unsolved Mysteries, “American Detective”, “Top Cops”)
  • As opposed to serious journalism: research, fact checking, serving the “public interest”
popular cops shows
Popular “COPS” Shows
  • Distant rare events
  • Lives of people caught in extreme circumstances
  • Bizarre crimes
  • Spectacular events
  • Extraordinary events
  • Interesting and fascinating but seldom realistic or relevant
  • Often is different from our reality
  • Works to gain and keep our interest
cops bad boys bad boys what you gonna do when they come for you
“COPS”: “Bad Boys, Bad Boys, What You Gonna Do When They Come for You…”
  • US documentary TV series
  • One of longest running TV programme
  • Premiered 1989
  • Began season 22 in September 2009
  • Followed officers in 140 different cities in US, HK, London, Soviet Union
  • Episodes 22 minutes
  • Follows police officers during patrols and police activities
study on cops
Study on “Cops”
  • 42 episodes
  • Units of analysis: 135 criminal short scene/incident
  • 3-4 per show

Source: Mahoney and Westervelt (1998)

crimes on cops vs official crime stats
Crimes on “Cops” vs Official Crime Stats

Uniform Crime Reports (US Dept of Justic 1995)

racial characteristics
Racial Characteristics
  • Nonwhites rarely portrayed as criminals in fictional TV shows
  • In “Cops”, nonwhites are criminal suspects nearly 50% of the time
  • Not so different from real crime stats
  • Dominant Portrayal: White cops do battle against non-white criminals
previous studies and cops study
Previous Studies and “Cops” Study

Previous Studies

Cops Study

“Cops” presented as “factual”

Broadcasted frequently (7 episodes aired weekly in some community)

Depicts crime in distant places

Show travels around, make it seem like crime could happen anywhere

  • Non-fictional (news) images have greater impact than fictional ones (TV drama)
  • More a message/theme is repeated, the more influential it becomes
  • Closer the crime is to home, more it may generate fear among viewers
  • “Cops” show violent crime is more common than property crime
  • Crimes by business and affluent not shown
  • Battle between white officers and non-white offenders
  • Ends in arrest 75% of the time
  • Format sets limitations
  • Crimes in the streets
  • NOT crimes in the suites (white collar)
  • Footages edited together (50-60 hours edited down to 22 minutes)
  • Facts are selected and shaped to fit TV entertainment
  • Non-whites heavily portrayed as law breakers
  • Negative racial stereotypes
  • Oversimplification and uncritical image of black males as criminals
  • Greater influence on audience perception and fear
  • Whites disproportionately shown as victims of serious crime
  • Making whites more concern about crime as social problem
  • Not significant factor in producing personal fear of crime
  • May be significant in shaping general view of crime and increasing social concern over crime as a serious social problem
construction of the unusual
Popular entertainment

Allows escapes from reality

Popular news

Provides filter and snippets of abnormal events of the world

Construction of the Unusual
critique of popular culture
Critique of Popular Culture
  • Entertaining and pleasurable
  • However, people forget or don’t realize it is an extract of reality
  • Recast and marketed for mass consumption
popular culture a constructed image of reality
Popular Culture: a Constructed Image of Reality
  • A specific, narrow slice of reality is reshaped for mass consumption
  • Though recognized as unrealistic, continued exposure over long term could influence our view of reality
social construction of reality
Social Construction of Reality
  • Direct personal experience – direct world knowledge, powerful influence
  • Symbolic Reality – acquired socially and collectively. Events you didn’t witness but believe occurred. Facts you didn’t personally connect but believe to be true.
social construction of reality19
Social Construction of Reality
  • Experienced reality and symbolic reality mixed together
  • Constructed reality perceived as real world
  • Reality is subjective, differs from person to person
  • People with similar backgrounds often see the world similarly due to sharing same symbolic reality and experienced reality
media is main distributor of knowledge
Media is Main Distributor of Knowledge
  • Media information not blindly accepted
  • Part of social construction of reality competition
social construction of reality competition
Social Construction of Reality Competition
  • Competition involves claims and claimsmakers (promoters, activists, professional experts, spokespersons)
  • Claims: descriptions or explanations regarding the extent and nature of a phenomenon
  • Competition to have their particular construction of reality accepted
claimsmakers shape of view of the problem
Claimsmakers Shape of View of the Problem
  • Statements and claims are promoted as facts about the world
  • Claimsmakers not just draw attention to particular social condition
  • They shape our sense of what the problem is
competing constructions of crime and justice frames
Competing Constructions of Crime and Justice “Frames”



Swift and increase severity of punishment “get tough!”

Address “root cause” create jobs, reduce poverty

Recreate traditional communities

  • Faulty Criminal Justice: Lack of “law and order”
  • Blocked Opportunities (economics): inequality, unemployment, poverty, lack of education
  • Social breakdown: family community breakdown

Source: Surette 2007

media as the playing field
Media as the Playing Field
  • Each construction demands different policy course
  • Winning dominant construction directs public policy
  • Claimsmakers compete for media attention
  • Media tends to favor the dramatic, those sponsored by powerful groups, established cultural themes
  • Media as claims filter
  • Difficult for those outside popular cultural mainstream to access media
three dominant social construction of reality engines
Three Dominant Social Construction of Reality Engines
  • Info engine #1: Personal experience and significant others
  • Info engine #2: Popular culture: distributed through mass media, including popular news and entertainment
  • Info engine #3: Other social institutions. A symbiotic relationship with media – rely on each other for info and to make their info credible and heard
myth creation of gangsters
Myth Creation of Gangsters
  • What role does popular culture/entertainment industry/Hollywood play?
  • Myths associated with particular types of criminals like the gangster?
classic criminal types in hollywood film gangster
Classic Criminal Types in Hollywood Film: Gangster
  • Viewers often end up siding with them
  • Hoping they will not get caught
  • Yet we know they will mostly likely pay for their sins at the end
  • Why is this?
classic criminal types in hollywood film gangster28
Classic Criminal Types in Hollywood Film: Gangster
  • Where does the gangster image come from?
  • Why are we attracted and repulsed by the gangster image?
  • Why do film stereotypes persist even when they are debunked?
history of hollywood gangster films
History of Hollywood Gangster Films
  • Dark side of American Dream
  • Illegal quest for wealth, fame, happiness
  • Prohibition (1920-1933) – the banning of Alcohol
  • Great Depression (1929 – 1945)
  • Crime and bootlegging out of poverty
history of hollywood gangster films30
History of Hollywood Gangster Films
  • Film audiences have an ongoing fascination with evil
  • Simultaneously repellant and irresistibly attractive
  • Gangsters became romantic heroes in popular imagination
backstage behaviour surette 1998
Backstage Behaviour (Surette 1998)
  • Most crimes are secretive, private, hidden
  • More serious the crime, more backstage, more novel the portrayal
  • New places, activities, perspectives
  • Glimpse of rare and bizarre acts
  • Coupled with discussions of justice, morality, society
  • Provides escapism and expose – rich sources for entertainment media
media s construction of reality
Media’s Construction of Reality
  • Things few of us experience directly
  • Being arrested, going to jail, being a criminal defendant, sentenced to prison
  • Media images plays important role
  • Mass media provide the majority of information public receivesabout crime (Graber)
media construction of reality
Media Construction of Reality

Media is not value neutral

Media rooted in ideological beliefs

Media also must be understood in its social, political and organizational context

Film Industry: entertainment and making a profit

gangsters in american mythology
Gangsters in American Mythology:
  • From rural bandits to urban gangsters
  • Process of myth construction and acceptance
  • Process of stereotyping
the other
The “Other”
  • Depicted as ethnic in order that the audience will want to despise
  • Jet Li in Mel Gibson’s Lethal Weapon
ethnicity and gangster
Ethnicity and Gangster
  • Black mafia (Black Caesar 1973) black urban youth in gangs (Boyz N the Hood 1991)
  • Cuban and South American Mobster (Scarface 1983)
  • Jewish gangster (Once Upon a Time in America 1984)(Lansky 1999)
  • Italian organized crime (Goodfellas 1990)(Donnie Brasco 1997)
  • Chinese mafia (Year of the Dragon 1985)(Shanghai Triad 1995)
  • Little Odessa (1994) Ukrainian enclave in Brooklyn NY, ethnicity and problem of adjusting to life in American covered
  • Russian and Eastern Europeans the new mafia of choice
asian stereotypes in american film history
Asian Stereotypes in American Film History
  • Early films: majority cast in small, non-speaking roles as servants, laundry man, shopkeeper
  • Movies centered on Asian person were played by Caucasians
  • The practice of making white actors look Asian was called “yellowface.”

Source: http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/43815/asian_stereotypes_in_film_history_pg2.html?cat=40

stereotypes of asians
Stereotypes of Asians

Asian Female

Asian Males

“Charlie Chan” (nerdy, unattractive, emasculate, mysterious man, possessing awesome powers of deduction. At the same time, deferential to white, non-threatening, Asian domestic servants were commonly called Charlie- as in “Good boy, Charlie”)

Yellow Peril (menacing, predatory, lusting after white women >>> kungfu kicking, ruthless type)

  • Dragon Lady (Dominatrix, conniving, tricky)
  • Lotus Blossom/China Girl (Exotic, submissive, meek and ready to serve a man’s every need)
in sum
In Sum
  • Films present a world of crime and justice not found in reality
  • Fragmented images provides distorted reflection of crime and crime control
  • Over emphasize individualism and personal justice as appropriate solution to crime
  • Rehabilitation and social reform are belittled (Surette 1998)
in sum40
In Sum
  • Stereotyping of Asians in Hollywood films crowds out competing constructions that may more accurate portray Asians