Film, Punishment In
W. Miller and J.G. Golson, eds., The Social History of Crime and Punishment in America: An Encyclopedia, Sage, 2012
10 Pages Posted: 18 Aug 2013
Date Written: 2012
Cinematic images of the formal criminal law and punishment for its transgression provide insight into the web of cultural and social practices that shape and maintain boundaries between ‘criminals’ and the rest of society. The prison movie is arguably, the quintessential, but is certainly one of the most accessible modes through which we imagine, understand and construct myths about the nature of discipline in contemporary society. Consequently, this note will focus on the canonical cinematic representation of discipline: American prison movies from the early twentieth century to the mid 1950s when cinema began to be displaced by television (which took over, until fairly recently, as the dominant form through which myths and assumptions about discipline have been circulated). On one level, prison films have always revealed some of the brutalities of incarceration and elicit empathy for criminalized men and women. On another, they offer audiences a form of escapism by inviting identification with outlaws, titillation through contradictory modalities of repressed sexuality and non-normative eroticism, a rare opportunity to enact a certain kind of surveillance, and a venue through which to problematize gender roles. On another level still, they are a conduit to explore longstanding philosophical questions about the human condition. Namely, punishment, and confinement within prisons especially, work a metaphor for the social boundaries, and the danger and possibilities that emerge when they are broken irritated or even dismantled.
Keywords: law and film, prisons, criminalization
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation