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Criminology goes to the Movies: Review by Steve Hall

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Rafter, N. & Brown, M. (2011) Criminology Goes to the Movies: Crime, Theory and Popular Culture. New York: New York University Press. 227 pp.

In this book Rafter and Brown rise to the challenge of making criminological theory accessible, interesting and relevant by taking it to the movies. For a long time now, cinema has been residing at the heart popular culture, representing the world and exerting a heavy influence on the construction of meaning. This immediately strikes the reader as a bright idea for enhancing the often difficult task of teaching criminological theory, but, via the medium of cinema, it also complements cultural criminology’s traditional mode of thinking by bringing popular culture into criminology and setting it up as a field of study.  What makes the book interesting is, firstly, the crossover between the traditional practice of bringing the movies into criminology and the more original attempt to take criminological theory to the movies, and, secondly, the emphasis it places on the fact that ‘out there’ in popular culture itself is an ongoing form of informal criminological theorizing expedited by the relationship between various movies and their audiences. 

All this is well served by the way the book is organized. A crisp and clear introduction is followed by ten chapters in which selected criminological theories are applied to well-known movies. The order is roughly chronological, following the traditional linear means of arranging the 20th century theoretical canon. Each chapter consists of a brief description of the theory’s main tenets followed its application to a movie to produce a basic analysis, followed by brief discussions of other movies and concluding remarks. The book’s conclusion is very short, bowing out with a reminder of the authors’ principal claim; when people go to the movies they are actually engaging in an informal mode of theoretical criminology by using the representations supplied as intellectual tools. So, there is no reason why this type of informal theorizing cannot be invited into the formal domain as both an aid to and an object of study. Doing things this way also helps to build bridges between criminology, cultural studies and media studies. However, this project is already under way in the form of cultural criminology, so the authors’ claim that their work ‘expands criminology’s boundaries’ is perhaps a little too ambitious, but it certainly presents us with a novel way of approaching the subject. 

However, does this rather good idea actually work? The writing is clear and accessible, and the bright and breezy style, even if it does tend to gloss over what is often regarded as unavoidable depth and difficulty, will certainly appeal to both FE and first-year HE students, and possibly second-year students approaching either criminological theory or cultural criminology for the first time. Although many of the movies are quite old, and therefore not representative of popular culture today, the themes they address are timeless. I have no doubt that the approach laid out in the book will help students to get a firmer hold on introductory criminological theory and cultural criminology. There is no doubt that the book is an excellent study aid, suitable for a number of standard criminology modules.

On the other hand, because the book does its job as a study aid so well, compromises had to be made in the actual analyses themselves, which means that it does on some levels misfire as an intellectual exercise in its own right. Criminological theory tends to be linear and compartmentalized in its arrangement. The book follows this type of organization, and, because no attempt at integration or crossover is made, it doesn’t so much ‘take criminology to the movies’ as take various singular perspectives to various individual movies. This gives one the impression of standing outside a cinema as a procession of elderly and rather uncompromising criminological theorists, who have never spoken to each other, come out one by one to say briefly what they thought about the movies they have just watched. Most of the theories and theorists that feature in the book are rather dated; there is no discussion of recent advances, both innovative and integrative, made in criminological theory.

These very brief, demarcated analyses also suffer from being squeezed into small spaces, and at times seem clichéd and mismatched. For instance, the choice of biological determinism in the analysis of James Whales’s camp rendition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein feels uncomfortable. The original Creature represented the resentful and volatile human victims of industrial capitalism’s failed Promethean project – “I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend” – and the story was an allegory based in the Romantic tradition that Shelley shared with the likes of William Blake. The Creature was aware of its monstrous form and misdeeds and sought equality, love and redemption. Rafter and Brown do acknowledge that the ‘criminal brain’ device in the movie was not part of the original story, but they seem to run shy of a deeper political analysis of why Whale and his screenwriters reduced Shelley’s complex and politically charged message to a simple ‘scientific mistake’, thus shutting out politics and ushering in bio-criminology as a wholly inappropriate analytical tool.

The omission of the possibility that the moviemakers might have distorted the story for ideological motives reveals early in the book an underlying liberal-pluralist narrative, but today’s numerous radical analysts of cinema – for instance Fredric Jameson or Slavoj Žižek – are now placing libidinal drive, ideology and subjectivity rather than choice and agency at the centre of cultural studies. Rafter and Brown argue that criminological theories could be useful in the study of culture and media. However, it would be rather difficult to imagine such sophisticated thinkers salivating at the prospect of using creaky old criminological theories provided by the likes of Sutherland or Sampson and Laub, but far easier to imagine the reverse, i.e. criminological theory renewing itself as it draws upon these new wells of ideas and modifies them for its own purposes.

Other chapters are to some extent more convincing. It is certainly possible to imagine that Psycho can help us to explore multiple emotional current and countercurrents, and that Strain Theory and Institutional Anomie Theory can be brought alive by movies such as Traffic and Falling Down. However, the book again treads on shaky ground as the authors claim that Mystic River and Goodfellas lend themselves to subcultural theories; the violent leading characters could be possibly more convincingly depicted as unrefined versions of mainstream neoliberal culture. The chapters on labeling theory, conflict theory and Marxism are fairly straightforward and a little more convincing, but, again, ideology, hegemony, libido, subjectivity and the possibility of cultural incorporation – all now back with a vengeance in current modes of radical thought – are not discussed.

Rafter and Brown are unerringly correct that critical criminology is once more becoming relevant again as global capitalism dominates our lives, but the book would have been stronger had they identified and discussed some of the developments in radical thought upon which a renewed critical criminology could draw, and used today’s rapidly revitalizing critical criminology in an analysis of selected movies, perhaps in a final chapter to bring the whole thing up to date.

The chapter on feminist criminology states quite clearly that feminism has no grand theories to explain crime and instead highlights a ‘multiplicity of gendered experiences’, yet the movie – Thelma and Louise – and the analysis chosen are firmly grounded in an (anti-)patriarchal narrative that is as grand as it gets, replete with timeless stereotypes; most men are sexist beasts, domesticity is a cage, gender is an individual-cultural accomplishment, the ‘patriarchy’ is a combined force concentrated in the state and so on. No challenges to this well-worn narrative are discussed. In the current epoch of neoliberal dominance, deficit reduction and austerity, powerful conservative women are influential voices in the assaults on working people, some of whom, cast out with their children into neoliberalism’s jobless and homeless margins, would give their right arms to be back in the ‘cage’ of paid work and domesticity. A similar problem appears in the chapter on City of God. Here there is no mention of neoliberal restructuring, global drug markets and the problems of the permanently disrupted post-political, post-moral vortices that have appeared in Latin America. The authors choose to explain criminality by means of life-course theory, as if informal controls operate in a politico-economic vacuum. In today’s rather dismal yet volatile political and socioeconomic contexts, the narratives employed in these two chapters seem rather dated.

Overall, this book is an excellent teaching aid, but the lack of contemporary theoretical integration and synthesis, and the absence of new perspectives emerging from current movements in social theory, philosophy and cultural studies and now being incorporated by today’s criminological theorists, suggests that the authors’ ambition of providing either specialists in the field of popular culture or advanced students with theoretical perspectives for analyzing crime movies might be a little premature. The authors have chosen theories from an era when criminology had not even begun to break out of its subordinate position as an importer discipline. Consequently, at the moment, any attempt to return ideas to their place of origin will be rather like selling used coals to Newcastle. The book does its job and introduces students to some very basic applications of selected criminological theories, but it fails to warn them that this is just a scratch on the surface and there is much, much more.


Steve Hall is Professor of Criminology at the Social Futures Institute, Teesside University, UK

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