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Since the 1980s, the media has become increasingly interested in urban street gangs, both in the entertainment industry, such as in records, movies, and television shows, and as a newsworthy matter in journalistic media. In both cases, media tend to portray gangs in an exceptionally stereotypical fashion. Ironically, however, the images presented in the news media and in the entertainment industry are seemingly mirror opposites. In the entertainment industry, gang life is glorified in movies and music, such as gangsta rap, in which gang members appears as iconoclastic heroes that are fighting to retain their individualistic way of doing things in the face of a world that has done nothing but try to crush them. Indeed, in many ways, this stereotype is identical to the image of the romantic hero. The news media, on the other hand, tends to demonize and villify gang members in its portrayals. Typically it depicts them as purpetraitors of wanton and random act of violence who threaten the safety of the community at large. Both of these depictions seem opposed to each other, but in reality they are simply two sides of the same coin and both are used for the same purpose -- economic exploitation. By depicting gang members as iconoclastic heroes, the entertainment industry is able to stur up public interest and use the image of the gangster lifestyle to sell movies and records. On the other hand, owners of news media outlets traditionally have an economic in urban growth and development and use their reportage of gangs and gang related violence to rally support for urban development and so-called "gentrification" of inner city areas that the news depicts as being gang infested.
In his groundbreaking and important tome, Islands in the Street: Gangs and Urban American Society, Martin Sanchez-Jankowski offers a piercing and experienced analysis of life in urban street gangs, culled from more than ten years of observation in three different cities. Jankowski notes that, "the most important features of gang members was their defiant individualist character" (Jankowski 3). In his book, Jankowski argues that the basis for this is the fact that the urban ghetto provides a relatively desolate landscape in which resources are more scarce and thus competition more fierce. In this face of fierce competition, only those with supreme confidence and individual vision are fit to lead, and naturally, those who lack such qualities are more likely to follow. Jankowski's idea of the "defiant individualist character" of street gang members explains, to a large degree the aspect of glorification of street gangs in much of the media. Indeed, in this view, we can see how the street gang member becomes little more than an urban modern adaptation of Byronic hero -- like his romantic counterpart, the street gang member offers an example of a rugged individualist who strikes out on his own path in the face a system that seeks to crush him. There are several areas in which we can see how the media has presented such a face on gang membership in an urban setting. In the last ten years, for example, the media has most certainly sought to capitalize on this type of image in a variety of media, including movies, music, and television. Perhaps the most notable area in which the image of the gangster has penetrated popular culture and been successfully marketed to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars is in music.
Beginning with groups like N.W.A. And coming to a nationwide prominence with the release of Dr. Dre's album, The Chronic, which spawned a literal legion of imitators and defined a whole generation's worth of urban music. This new "gangsta rap" was also successful in creating a national prominent image of the so-called "thug lifestyle." There were of course several reasons for the success of this music. Certainly, part of it was the titillating aspect of this music -- because of its explicit content, which discussed sex, violence, and drugs in a frank and nonchalant manner, it caused an uproar among socially conservative groups across the country and frightened parents of the suburban middle class youth who were consuming the albums. In this sense, the lifestyle discussed in the music provided a moment for rebellion, where teenagers of the early nineties could finally discover a music that would frighten and annoy their baby boomer parents. At the same time, however, that romantic archetype is maintained in gangster rap and is probably what enabled the message to connect with a young suburban market in the first place. Indeed, most gangster rap songs essentially present ideas along the same sort of theme; most songs are variations of a sort of "bragging rap" in which the speaker discusses their own power and influence in terms of the crimes they have committed, the material possessions that they have acquired, and the success that they have had with women. This sort of confidence and braggadocio would clearly be appealing to a young and, particularly, an adolescent audience whose members are in the process of forming their own identities. It is easy to see how such a person undergoing a period of relative insecurity might be attracted to a character that presents such a confident and cogent persona. Aside from the confidence, the rebellious and even "dangerous" image of the character is especially appealing to an audience whose members are struggling to differentiate themselves from the crowd. That so many people would crave this individualistic message en masse is, perhaps, a curious irony of American culture.
Movies, too, deliver the same sort of romantic portrait of gang life in America. Perhaps no greater or better example exists then John Singelton's film Boyz in the Hood. Although the film seems to suggest that it is a cautionary tale of sorts, it ultimately involves itself in the worst possible type of exoticism and romanticism. In fact, we are made to identify with the main character, Trey, played by Cuba Gooding Jr., because he, like the average viewer, has been the beneficiary of a basically middle class lifestyle until he moves in with his father toward the end of high school. Here, we see the "hood" and the gang life through his eyes -- as an exotic world being viewed for the first time by a character who, despite his involvement in things later in the movie, is essentially a tourist that is just passing through. As if this tendency toward romanticizing the gang life weren't already pronounced enough, he even cast former N.W.A. gangsta rap star Ice Cube in the roll of Doughboy, a violent and angry character who represents the tortured soul of the gang member in the movie. Despite the movie's seemingly explicit warning not to identify with Ice Cube, by choosing a popular music star to portray his role, Singleton betrays the media's not very subtle infatuation with gang culture and the worship of its heroes even as he attempts to attack the prevalence of violence and gang culture in urban America. Again, as Jankowski stated earlier, these representations of gangs in the media focus on the individualistic nature of the gang member.
It is important to realize, however, that this sort of coverage of gang members is not uniformly positive. Whereas the previously discussed aspects of the media tend to focus on or at least highlight the rebellious and individualistic elements of gang life, thereby glorifying it, not all functions of the media serve to do this. Indeed, these very aspects of individualism possessed by gang members is exactly what makes them seem capable of being above the law and engaging in crime. Therefore, in a different light, they can seem deeply terrifying. Thus, their romantic image cuts both ways -- to the portion of the populace that is looking for a role-model and searching for the archetype of the rugged individual who triumph's over the larger mechanisms of "the system" that keeps all down, gang members seem like heroes who are valiantly struggling for self-determination in the face of a world that is otherwise cold and cruel. On the other hand, however, for those who are more concerned with creating a safe and stable world around them, these rugged individualists can serve as terrifying reminders of the fact that the world can be completely arbitrary in its infliction of pain and doling out of rewards. Therefore, by the same mechanism that gangs can be used as a means of inspiring romantic ideals, they can also be used to supply an almost sublime terror. Nowhere is this tendency of gangs being used to terrify the populace than on the television news.
Indeed, the first issue to qualify here is that of whether or not television news can realistically be thought of as a place wherein content is creatively constructed rather than passively reported. It might be important to consider the issue of whether or not passive reporting is even reasonably possible for human beings. At some point, choices about what to leave in…[continue]
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