The airwaves globally are filled with cop stories. Why? It’s possible to present a compelling “whodunnit” without involving the police. Intrepid journalists, nosy neighbours, amateur detectives, private eyes, or concerned friends and family seeking answers can all play the role of investigators. The tension and opportunities for dramatic effect may even be greater, because there’s no backup to call. They’ll likely be mostly on their own when they face down danger. Also, wouldn’t audiences relate more to heroes whose lives mirror theirs more closely? There’s something besides dramatic license at work in the decision to center cops in entertainment. Cop shows perform well in the ratings. They’re reliable. They’re familiar. They seem to provide comfort. People want to watch them. They’re also propaganda that inures viewers to police violence and abuse.
Having a gun pulled on you is a violent, traumatic experience. Think about how casually cops on TV and in movies do it, how automatic it is, how a suspect’s visible fear or anxiety is nearly always framed as guilt. Think about the way the extreme violence of someone shoving a loaded gun in another person’s face is shrugged off. Think about the way we’ve been conditioned to accept the built-in assumption that being placed in fear for your life from someone it’s impossible to defend yourself against just gets brushed aside if the cops decide to spare you and go on with their day. That hopeless moment is erased from the story. So are the fascist undercurrents. There’s no accountability, no responsibility placed on the person holding the gun and terrifying someone else. The terror is solely the frightened individual’s to control. Cops routinely escalate violence, and entertainment trains us to accept this.
Besides the casual violence in copaganda, there are the cut corners — all the moaning about warrants, and evidence, and those pesky rights citizens have that get in the way. Officers who abide by the rules are mocked, derided, and ostracized. The loose cannons are framed as anti-heroes standing up to a bureaucracy, when, as presented, they’re unable to think critically or solve problems, they cause chaos and upheaval, and they’re emotionally volatile and immature. They never think things through, and the people who do are painted as having sticks up their asses. It can be fun to watch, but it normalizes the notion that a “good cop” is untethered from the rules that should protect the people they’re policing. All the damage they cause along the way never really matters. If the sometimes deadly harm they cause is ever addressed, it all reflects back to them and their battle with their inner demons. The devastated people they leave in their wake are props to aid their personal growth (which almost never really happens).
I make these criticisms as someone who has been a fan of the copaganda genre and its international iterations. When I discovered Scandinoir, I devoured Forbrydelsen (The Killing), and pulled an all-nighter, because I had to know who killed Nanna Birk Larsen. In a later season, when I got to an episode with faulty subtitles, I convinced myself I’d learned Danish well enough to follow (I hadn’t). I’m currently watching the David Lynchian French Netflix drama, Zone Blanche, about a struggling, polluted town plagued by frequent murders that is surrounded by a sinister forest that seems to be fighting back against the environmental damage. It’s very good. But there are those same concerning elements: the gendarmerie break the rules and violate their obligations to the townspeople. The sheriff routinely goes off the beaten track. People get hurt. Badly.
As a fan, I believe the way these stories are told needs to change. Perhaps they shouldn’t be told at all, if it’s going to be done irresponsibly. One of the lessons of the ascendancy of Donald Trump is that entertainment matters. It is consumed, in part, as reliable information. It shapes culture and society. Absent The Apprentice selling Trump as a tough, successful businessman instead of a bankruptcy mill, I don’t think he makes it onto the ballot. Police doing as they please and abusing their power has been normalized in entertainment all over the world. Too many people accept cops running roughshod over people, who should comply or die, as par for the course. This is dangerous.
“Abolish the police” is a radical statement in many quarters. It scares people, who have been conditioned to believe there is no alternative. How can society solve problems stemming from antisocial behavior without the police? What does accountability look like without prison cells? What even is the “crime” we’re fighting? I would love to see these and similar questions addressed thoughtfully in entertainment, speculative and otherwise, and would appreciate any recommendations. I’m divesting from copaganda in search of new narratives.
Originally published on my Patreon.