Pop Culture’s Obsession With the Justice System

At any given time, a score of crime dramas are airing on television; from forensic science shows taking viewers inside the lab to traditional cop shows where ‘good guys’ chase ‘bad guys’ and solve crimes. The bestseller list routinely features crime thrillers, mysteries, and entries in related genres where, again, the focus is usually on telling the story from the point of view of the people in control in the justice system. Judges, attorneys, police officers, prison wardens.

Consumers of pop culture have an enduring fascination with the criminal justice system, but they’re interested in a particular perspective presented in the media they consume, that of the very traditional ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ narrative. We rarely see pop culture presenting situations from the view of criminals; it’s one of the things that makes shows like Breaking Bad stand out so much, because they’re flipping the traditional paradigm. Viewers start to feel sympathetic for the people committing crimes, rather than rooting for them to be caught.

While some entries in the genre do explore some ethical issues like individual cases of wrongful accusation and conviction, or people profiled because of their race, these are typically presented as aberrations. Accidents that happened to good people trying to do their jobs right. They are not addressed as systemic issues that pervade the entire system, and viewers aren’t meant to view them as such. Instead, the heroes of the piece get to uncover the wrongs done and right them, thereby once again presenting themselves as good people. They may have made mistakes or witnessed others making mistakes, but they put them right.

This presents a very rosy view of what happens within the justice system, a place where apparently things are very clearcut and crisp. Bad people commit crimes, good people catch them, and this is the end of the story. Viewers learn not just to root unreservedly for law enforcement, but also specifically to view people in power as trustworthy, to think of people like police officers overall as good, helpful people who will keep them safe from things that go bump in the night. These power structures are viewed not just sympathetically but warmly.

So warmly, in fact, that in morally ambiguous or not-so-ambiguous situations, viewers may be spurred to condone or support behaviour that they would normally find appalling. It is not that uncommon, for example, to see police on crime dramas overstepping boundaries; shaking suspects up, say, sometimes even physically assaulting them. Time is pressing, they assure viewers and other members of the team, and if slapping some scumbag around will get the information they need to save a life, it’s worth it. Set aside the fact that the scumbag hasn’t been duly processed through the legal system, hasn’t been convicted of anything. Viewers secretly cheer when the muscular police officer slams the interrogation table to terrorize the suspect, withholds water and food and bathroom breaks.

This is, of course, very much a white view of law enforcement. For viewers of colour and nonwhite viewers, the genre is a constant reminder of the messaging used to maintain positions of power and authority in society. It is a reminder that many white people think the systemic violence in the system is happenstance, something that just happens in random instances and isn’t linked with larger social problems. It is also a reminder that many white people think of law enforcement as safe, reliable, and trustworthy, are confident that when they pick up the phone to call for help, someone will come. That if they are arrested as suspects, they will likely receive decent treatment.

Depicting the justice system in this way reinforces the social attitudes of white viewers about the role of the justice system in their lives, making it very hard for them to challenge this dominant narrative. The pop culture that surrounds them tells them that the justice system is largely fair, reasonable, and safe, that people in positions of power do the right thing, and that they can count on those people to help them and treat them fairly when they need assistance or are suspected of criminal activity. They believe the same extends to everyone else who interacts with the system. The genre does very little to challenge dominant narratives about the justice system.

And it means that when those same pop culture consumers read an article about a real world crime, a suspect, a trial, they assume that the information as presented is correct and that the case is being handled appropriately. When they read allegations of abuse in detention centers, they think it’s probably ‘not that bad’ and that it might have helped officers ‘get valuable information’ so it was morally justified, even if not a particularly nice thing to do. They believe that the justice system has checks and balances on itself and that innocent people go free, while people who convict crimes are brought to justice. They have no reason not to believe the information presented about the circumstances of crimes, detentions, and trials, because it correlates with their pop culture knowledge of the justice system.

When this information is challenged, when people bring up inconsistencies in evidence or problems with a case or even the simple fact that racism plays a huge role in how people are treated within the justice system, these concerns are dismissed. They do not fit the narrative, and must be ignored, because otherwise people might be forced to overthrow an entire paradigm that they’ve been relying on for entertainment on prime time. It’s why people continue to believe that death row prisoners are guilty, even in the face of overwhelming evidence, because to do otherwise is to admit that the entire system is deeply wrong and broken, and that actually, the justice system is not a very just place at all. It’s why people reject accusations of police brutality, or don’t find the racial disparities in prison populations peculiar and worthy of closer inspection.

And people wonder why so many law enforcement agencies are happy to cooperate with creators of pop culture.