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Punishment in Popular Culture, edited by Charles J. Ogletree, Jr. and Austin Sarat is a compilation of essays that describe ways in which popular culture reflects trends, changes and punishment in the criminal justice system. Punishment as such is obviously at the forefront of discussion as incarceration becomes the most critical way in which offenders are punished. The book is divided into three parts, the Popularity of Punishment, Popular Culture’s Critique of Punishment and Impact of Punishment in Popular Culture.
Part one consists of two essays. The first takes a look at backlash films, popular in the 1970s through the 1990s, in which there was a rebirth of traditional cultural authority in the wake of the Cold War and the Vietnam War. Men such as Chuck Norris, Clint Eastwood and Sylvester Stallone were cast to show how traditional masculinity could recast power and legitimacy in a time when the U.S experienced a crisis due to defeat and increasingly liberal values. The author demonstrates that these movies had a powerful impact on how Americans negotiated the post-war era and changing cultural values. The second essay depicts the television reality series, Locked Up Abroad, and describes how viewers are taught to believe that American prisons are much more humane in comparison to other nations (even though the author remarks on how inconsistent the presented material actually is). The show therefore provides readers with the belief that American prisons are, despite their punitive approaches, better equipped at serving justice. Both essays eloquently portray the ways in which popular culture and the criminal justice system influence and feed off each other in a way that both impacts and shapes popular opinion but also various laws.
Part two displays ways in which critiques of the criminal justice system are presented through popular culture. The first essay discusses spaces inside of prisons that are beyond the public eye, revealing oppression and violence, borrowing from when chain gangs were used as cheap labor to increase the economic growth of prisons. Not only was justice served in terms of sending offenders to prison, but prison officials and guards took it upon themselves to serve out what they deemed was justice and to simultaneously use prisoners for cheap labor. Essay number two uses the popular television series the Wire to discuss the notion of how punishment is often tied to political gains rather than focusing on just punishment and rehabilitation. Instead, the focus on punishment and tough on crime policies has lead to overly harsh sentences (such as the three strikes law) in which portions of the population are sacrificed in order to uphold the notion that officials are committed to curbing crime no matter the consequence. The notoriously criticized war on drugs comes under attack in the Wire.The final essay in part two discusses three movies, The Shawshank Redemption, American History X and Oz to further elaborate on the notion of harsh punishment and punitive approaches instead of rehabilitation. Prison therefore becomes not only a way to contain inmates after the legal aspects of a crime has been decided on, but various forms of punishment are continuously imposed throughout the prison term, by guards and other prisoners alike.
Finally, part three is slightly different from the first two parts in that it focuses not only on movies and television shows, but it also adds the element of pictures or images in the analysis, discussing the role of spectators in movies where the death penalty is imposed, in images depicting violence and punishment, and in the role of images (such as pictures of alleged offenders, and crime scenes) used in trials of the innocent. These three essays discuss various elements of spectatorship but agree that the role of spectatorship is important. For example, in the first essay the authors conclude that spectatorship provides three central motifs; that the viewers are part of an audience, that they are often brought “backstage” to witness intimate details of the killing, and that they shift the position of the viewer in order to walk in the shoes of those about to be executed. The second essay describes how popular culture through its numerous reality shows depicting violence and torture has assisted in creating a culture in which we are both horrified by, yet take pleasure in viewing such images. The last essay concludes that popular culture especially shows such as CSI, influences the ways in which crimes are solved and offenders prosecuted, directly relating to how images are being used. In fact, in many wrongful convictions, various images have been of great importance, yet have been gravely misleading, resulting in innocent men and women being incarcerated.
Punishment in Popular Culture is an interesting read, focusing on the topic of punishment, yet doing so from different perspectives, using various forms of media while depicting links between popular culture and the criminal justice system. As such, the essays describe how popular culture shapes and impacts rules and regulations, as well as popular opinion, and how popular culture is shaped by existing laws and by changes in regulations. The target audience are those studying law, criminal justice, political science, and numerous other disciplines relating to crime, punishment, popular culture, race and ethnicity, and of course the history of film. The book is not only for scholars and students, but for anyone interested in the links between punishment, the criminal justice system and popular culture.
© 2015 Hennie Weiss
Hennie Weiss has a Master´s degree in Sociology from California State University, Sacramento. Her academic interests include women’s studies, gender, sexuality and feminism.