Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy
Michelle S. Brown
Lois Presser, Harry Dahms, Maria Stehle
The continued ills of mass incarceration, combined with the more recent rash of police-caused killings of people of color, make it clear that the U.S. criminal justice system is experiencing a period of profound crisis related to policing. This dissertation aims to interrogate the cultural ideologies supporting the existing policing enterprise in the U.S. To do this, the study first examines the foundational myths that shape prevailing cultural perceptions of the police and their social role. Ethnographic content analysis methodology is then utilized to identify both the presence and the subversion of these myths and their attendant rituals in a purposive sample of 20 21st century U.S. police films. Finally, the ideological work performed by these myths and rituals in reference to state power is explored. As discussed in this dissertation, the central myth surrounding policing is the thin blue line myth, which casts police in the role of warriors who must take violent action to defend their territory against savagery and chaos. Three derivative myths that serve as its components are the myth of good and evil—which portrays police and policing as fundamentally good and justice-involved people as fundamentally evil, the myth of the beleaguered professional—which portrays policing as a highly dangerous and difficult job and cops as always victorious nonetheless, and the myth of us versus them—which portrays police, “conventional” people, and justice-involved people as three strictly separate and opposed groups in society. The logics of these myths and their attendant rituals are portrayed frequently in the study’s sample of films, ultimately reinforcing the harmful ideas of thin blue line mythology. However, these logics are also subverted in unique ways that suggest new, less oppressive ways of thinking about policing. Through critical analysis of popular cultural forms, this research uncovers the oppressive mechanisms of state power within the type of filmic representation that is often taken for granted, and it identifies potential avenues of resistance. Moreover, by incorporating the concepts of myth and ritual, which provide unique analytic insights into ideology, this dissertation contributes to undertheorized areas of criminological literature.
Szmutko, Alexandra, "Segmenting the Thin Blue Line: An Ethnographic Content Analysis of Myth and Ritual in Contemporary U.S. Police Film. " PhD diss., University of Tennessee, 2023.