Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

The captive public: Media representations of the police and the (il)legitimacy of police power
by McNair, Ayana, Ph.D., University of Southern California, 2011, 211; 3481686
Abstract (Summary)

The contemporary media landscape is rife with images that promote policing. The abundance of media images that valorize the police and naturalize police power occupies a taken-for-granted space in today's cultural environment. [The dissertation is focused largely on “contemporary” cultural production, which the project conceives to be within the range of circa mid-twentieth century through the present.] Contemporary mainstream cultural production depictions of the police within the mainstream serve to perpetuate dominant discourse and legitimate police power. Depictions of the police within the mainstream, across media platforms, including the news, television, and the cinema, are overwhelmingly bereft of meaningful engagement with police function, as enforcers of the economic, social, and political status quo via the sanctioned use of violence. The police occupy a reified position within the culture and are continually associated with positive cultural values such as heroism and benevolence. Depictions of the police are largely celebratory and continually project an image of the police as legitimate, necessary, and ultimately aligned with the common good.

This dissertation explores the relationship between portrayals of the police within contemporary mainstream cultural production and the cultivation of popular support for policing. The focus on the contemporary mode of cultural production elucidates the perpetual nature of problematic police depictions—that celebratory, depoliticized depictions of police continue to permeate the culture is a testament to the pervasiveness of dominant discourse within the mainstream. To illustrate the ubiquity of pro-authoritarian discourse, the dissertation investigates the privileging of police perspective across three sites of cultural production: police museums, reality crime television, and police comedies.

Chapter 1 explores the function of police museums—sites dedicated to recounting police history and perpetuating pro-police narratives—in legitimating police authority. The chapter focuses on two police museums: the Los Angeles Police Historical Society (LAPHS) in northeast Los Angeles and the International Police Museum (IPM) in Huntington Park. The chapter investigates the tendency of police museums to craft narratives around policing that are markedly unproblematic and depoliticized. In addition to displaying police memorabilia such as uniforms and photographs, many police museums are housed in disciplinary spaces, complete with holding cells, weapons, shackles, and other implements of confinement and punishment. In the police's ongoing efforts to craft its own narrative and cultivate popular consent, police museums are powerful coercive tools. The chapter explores police museums within the frame of Dark Tourism, the study of visitorship to sites associated with death and atrocity, Rather than attempting to obscure police use of force, police museums emphasize implements of violence as a means of attracting visitors. Museum visitors inclined toward authoritarianism and militarism may more readily accept the police museum's pro-police narrative; museum artifacts may be read as reassurance that the state is equipped to exercise force and provide security and a sense of protection from marginalized populations coded as threats (particularly radicalized groups and the poor).

Chapter 2 explores audience responses to pro-police reality television programming, with a focus on the reality genre staple COPS (1989- present). The chapter investigates the various ways racialized audiences, populations more at risk for negative police encounters, perceive pro-police imagery, particularly salient with regard to a flagship show like COPS. The chapter employs empirical data gleaned from a series of small focus group interviews with self-identified Black viewers. The study aims to elucidate the spectatorship practices of a population marginalized both within mainstream society as well as audience research by academics. Respondents found COPS problematic; they thought race played a central role in the treatment of suspects. Respondents were skeptical of the police and did not identify with police on the show. Interviewees reported distrust of the police regardless of the race of individual cops; Black cops were still perceived as representing the interests of the state. Subjects did not see themselves as the show's target audience, and reported not being regular viewers of the show.

Chapter 3 ventures into programming not typically associated with the realm of the ideological: comedy. Comedic depictions of the police abound, yet typically escape intense scrutiny, in large part because of the seemingly innocuousness of the comedic form. The fun, light-hearted, easy-going, escapist nature of comedy renders it easily dismissible —or so it might appear. The chapter employs textual analysis of contemporary, police-centered, comedic programming. With a particular focus on television programming, e.g., Family Matters (1989–1998), Reno 911! (2003–2009), and Psych (2006– ), the chapter explores the perpetuation of dominant narratives that underlie seemingly lighthearted portrayals of police. Pro-police comedies frequently feature the police as a less threatening, affable, benevolent societal force. However, amid the laughter that police comedies generate, the police remain an ostensibly legitimate and necessary feature of society. (Abstract shortened by UMI.)

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Seiter, Ellen
Commitee: Hondagneu-Sotelo, Pierrette, James, David E.
School: University of Southern California
Department: Cinema-Television(Critical Studies)
School Location: United States -- California
Source: DAI-A 73/02, Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Criminology, Ethnic studies, Mass communications, Museum studies, Film studies
Keywords: Legitimacy, Museums, Police, Power, Race, Television
Publication Number: 3481686
ISBN: 9781267011053
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