Media @ McGill

Turning a critical eye on crime in the media

Submitted by Susana on


By Anna Leventhal


The Crime, Media and Culture symposium, hosted by McGill University from 18-19 May 2007, brought together an array of scholars interested in discussing criminality as a nexus of social theory and thought, rather than simply as a phenomenon of modern times and popular culture. The symposium’s goal was to draw attention to emergent forms of critical, humanistic scholarship on crime media, a body of work that examines the specifically cultural dimensions of its forms, histories and locations. Underwriting the symposium’s theme was the recognition that stories of violence and crime underpin the development of news media and entertainment forms. Presentations included a range of topics that attempted to de-familiarize and critique the ways in which criminality is constructed, framed, and perceived.

The radically divergent ways in which crime, media and culture can be approached was reflected in the symposium’s multidisciplinary and inter-locational character. While many of the participants are based at McGill’s Department of Art History and Communication Studies, other invited speakers came from such fields as English literature, sociology, criminology, and journalism. The sites of study were equally spatially and temporally diverse, with papers focusing on areas such as modern Mexico City, downtown Toronto, 1960s Queens New York, present-day New Orleans, LA and 19th-century London. Indeed, an interest in the spatialization of crime guided the approach taken by many of the presenters. Most notable in this regard was Aurora Wallace’s presentation entitled “Crime mapping and the digital city” which offered a disturbing bird’s eye view of how urban police forces invite us to visualize crime in the city.

A strong element of feminism and gender-analysis marked the conference, with papers addressing female serial killers and their portrayal in the news media (Alison Jacques’ “It hurts all over again: press coverage of Karla” and Susana Vargas Cervantes’ “The look of a serial killer: el/la mataviejitas”), female detectives (Andrea Braithwaite’s “Killer accessories: how chick dicks dress for success” and Allan Hepburn’s “Blood relations: genealogy and inheritance in British detective fiction”), and iconic female victims (Carrie Rentschler’s “Faces of victims, places of murder” on the 1964 Kitty Genovese murder). Additionally, many of the papers took into account constructions of both femininity and masculinity in media and cultural depictions of criminality. Carol Stabile, a visiting speaker from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (White victims, black villains: gender, race and crime news in US culture, Routledge 2006), described how, historically, “crime news had to perform sleights of hand that didn’t implicate white males” in criminal acts.

Gender intersected with race and class in several of the presentations. In her presentation entitled “Just desserts: the Jamaicanization of gun crime in Toronto,” Jenny Burman suggested that news media had to “animate the spectre of black criminality” in order to mobilize and justify the increased policing of people of colour in metropolitan Toronto. Thomas Heise’s presentation, “Putting the American back in Psycho: Bret Easton Ellis and the criminal class” looked at the influence of late capitalism and class margins in the construction of the novel’s “psycho-killer.” And Will Straw’s presentation on the brightly-lit almost washed out iconographies of true crime magazines of the 1960s suggested that whiteness played both a role in the racial and class codification of their depictions of rural violent crimes and an emergent design element of its print culture distinctly different from the lighting and racialization of noir films and hard-boiled fiction.

These examples highlight a selection of themes that emerged over the two-day symposium. The symposium provided a rare opportunity for humanistic scholars who work on crime media to talk with each other and an engaged, lively audience in a context specifically devoted to the theme of crime, media and culture. And it has built the opportunity for on-going conversations among the presenters and other scholars interested in examining the ways in which politics, theory, and mass culture link together in crime and criminality and its attendant media forms.

The Crime, Media and Culture symposium was supported by a strategic research grant from the Beaverbrook Fund for Media@McGill. See: Crime, Media and Public Culture