From Hannah: Our initial episode exploring copaganda (media that reinforces police-positive narratives) covered a lot of ground, but we majorly focused on media geared toward children and families — such as Paw Patrol, Zootopia, and Artemis Fowl — and shows whose underlying premise argue that the police should serve their communities (Brooklyn Nine-Nine is perhaps the most obvious example, and there has been a lot of commentary on this show in particular recently; the show’s eighth season is currently being rewritten.) As we discussed in that episode, many of these examples do spend at least some time critiquing policing and police culture. Some use their platforms to imagine potential reforms. Even so, many of these books, shows, and films could be boiled down to a message similar to “good cops are meant to serve their community by keeping it safe.” So we can see how these pieces of media can easily slip into copaganda.
I originally said in the episode that I thought that, at times, part of the work Brooklyn Nine-Nine does is think about copaganda through its protagonist Jake Peralta, who claims that he became a cop specifically because of Die Hard. A film like the first half of Hot Fuzz also thinks critically about the role cop media plays in shaping the mindset of characters like Nick Frost’s Danny Butterman … before the movie becomes less of a parody of a buddy-cop/rogue-cop film into re-enacting that very genre in the (admittedly comedic) battle for control of Sanford. Zootopia and Artemis Fowl feature elements of the rogue-cop genre as well, but I want to transition away from the community-oriented forms of copaganda and move to a question Josh Nisley asked in response to our original call for comments on copaganda. Nisely said, “It’s not kids or cartoons but I’d like to hear some talk about the cultural role of more nuanced/ambiguous/realist cop shows like The Wire. Is it doing something substantially different or is there no such thing as an anti-cop show?”
We might think that if cops are not seen as being good cops — ignoring due process, using excessive force, just being a far less pleasant person than Jake Peralta — then surely that in and of itself is critique. But that is not necessarily the case. As The Daily Show‘s Trevor Noah recently showed through a compilation and analysis of television clips, the rogue cop trope is constantly employed by media to normalize illegal and violent behaviors.
This is definitely true, and there are certainly shows like the recent Watchmen where it is difficult to tell if the show endorses the actions of their cop protagonists or not. For years, I’ve argued that, on the whole, the 1997 film LA Confidential is an indictment of toxic masculinity and police brutality; do we believe that the police system we see in that film can be reformed? But James Ellroy, the author the novel LA Confidential (which the film was based on) views the police in an extremely favorable light. We’ve talked in past episodes about how works live and mutate beyond the intent of the author. But when we take Ellroy’s comments (and Jake Peralta’s and Danny Butterman’s) into account, we might see that critics of cop media like Trevor Noah are right — part of the appeal may come from their ability to flaunt the laws the rest of us follow. So, to return to Nisey’s question, is LA Confidential doing something substantially different than Brooklyn Nine-Nine? What are the limits of critique in media that feature cops? Does the moral character and motivations of the cop characters play into this at all?