Friday, December 6, 2013

Bonnie and Clyde: What does our collective fascination with crime say about us?

Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, sometime between 1932 and 1934.


BY KATHLEEN BATTLES
Assistant professor of communication and journalism at Oakland University



This weekend, Lifetime Television, A&E, and the History Channel will simultaneously air a two-part television “event” – a miniseries documenting the lives of infamous Depression-era American bandits, Bonnie and Clyde. Publicity for the series draws on the parallels between the their story and contemporary American culture, including our obsession with celebrity, crime, guns, and gender, race, and class relations during an era of extreme political, economic, and cultural instability.

While the series promises historical accuracy, this telling will say more about our own concerns than the lives of the criminal couple. Because, of course, our public fascination with crime always says more about us. Criminality serves as a fertile ground for exploring social, cultural, and economic norms and the stories we tell are themselves interpretive battlegrounds over the meaning of “crime.” For close to a century now, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow have been part of broader symbolic struggles that far exceed their historical existence, and even the very nature of their crimes.

During the destitute years of the Great Depression, cultural producers, citizens, and various state authorities waged battle over the symbolic meaning of the couple’s crime spree and violent death. As the giddy heyday of the 1920s gave way to the desperate years of the Depression, public fascination turned from the glamorous urban gangster to fugitive rural bandits, celebrated for their bravado, mobility, and populist attacks on the state and industry. While romance and critiques of state power suffused newspaper, magazine, and film reel accounts, radio carved a different interpretive space. By the 1930s, regional and national networks looked to capitalize on public fascination with crime, but without incurring the wrath the film industry faced for romanticizing gangster culture. Instead of telling stories about criminals, why not tell stories about police, a move that dovetailed with the PR efforts that police forces themselves were undertaking as part of their own efforts at professionalization.

In 1936, a mere two years after their violent end, the CBS radio series Gang Busters tackled the legend of Bonnie and Clyde. Correspondence, production notes, and scripts housed at the Library of Congress lay bare the aim of producer, Phillps H. Lord: arrest the promiscuous populism on display in the public’s enthusiastic consumption of bandit lore. Gang Busters would celebrate legendary Texas Ranger, Frank Hamer as the true hero of the story and portray Bonnie and Clyde to deviant psychopaths. In a dizzying reversal of populist logic, the real “guilt” for the criminal activities of the pair is laid firmly in the laps of the listeners themselves, who are admonished to roll back cumbersome legal protections like parole.

The first episode is relentless in stripping any shred of glamour and romance from the pair. In the face of all manner of historical evidence, including letters to Lord from various police authorities and the well-known evidence, Bonnie and Clyde are portrayed as calculating, ruthless killers. Are there any sparks between the pair? No. Listeners hear the description of a weak chinned, small framed, practically doltish Clyde joining forces with an aggressive, take-charge, stylish Bonnie. Gender reversal stands in as a clear sign of the pairs’ pathology. Clyde explains to Bonnie that it is easy to get away with crime as long as they flee the scene by car right away, thus circumventing the complex layers of legal jurisdiction in the U.S. He tells her to shoot first and ask questions later and not worry if she ever gets sentenced to jail; she’ll get out on parole. These are not desperate fugitives motivated by state failure. There is no hint of fear, romance, or even humanity in this “Bonnie and Clyde.”

Enter Texas lawman Frank Hamer. He is everything that Clyde Barrow is not and Bonnie Parker can never be. Tall, rugged, smart, violent only in support of the state, steeped in the lore of the sharp-shooting Texas Rangers, Hamer is the epitome of normative, heroic masculinity the show aims to bolster. While most episodes of the series work to represent the police as trained professionals beholden to an agency, these episodes drew on the lore of the Old West lone gunman sheriff to consciously replace one American romance with another. The two-part episode ends with yet another admonishment of the public for romanticizing criminality at the expense of law and order.

Splayed across newspaper pages, featured in film reels, and dramatized in true crime radio series, early twentieth-century gangsters and bandits are today joined by serial killers, mass shooters, and a new generation of gangsters in capturing our imagination and serving as a new symbolic battleground. Depression-era audiences reacted to rural banditry through populist lenses and were fascinated by Bonnie’s masculine persona and the romantic relationship between the pair. In our contemporary television era saturated with rogue cops and criminal anti-heroes, it is easy to see the appeal of Bonnie and Clyde. The official website for the pair pictures them directly staring into the camera, their faces splattered with blood. In many ways, it bears a striking resemblance to publicity shots for the Showtime series Dexter, a fictional account of a serial killer who targets serial killers.

Yet, so many of our TV anti-heroes remain men, and it is striking how much the contemporary telling already signals its attention to Bonnie’s gender crossings. The tagline on the page boldly teases that “He held the gun. She called the shots.” Both characters are smoking cigars, but Bonnie’s is significantly larger. Promotional videos emphasize the lustful, embodied, flirtatious, and romantic relationship between pair. Their romance will take center stage in this telling. In the hands of Gang Busters, Bonnie and Clyde were reduced to caricatures while their “fans” were provided a stern “What for?” Today’s fans are encouraged to identify with the pair through videos promising sex, violence, and romance. This enduring fascination with romantic desperados Bonnie and Clyde reminds us that while Hamer won the gun battle, the war over their greater symbolic value lives on.

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Kathleen Battles is author of Calling All Cars: Radio Dragnets and the Technology of Policing. She is assistant professor of communication and journalism at Oakland University.

"Calling All Cars provides the most in-depth research to date on this overlooked genre."
—Journalism History


"A highly detailed case for the parallels between 1930s broadcast radio and police radio."
Choice

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