Blue Bloods Season 1 Data Overview

Thanks to Zoë Samudzi and Briana Ureña-Ravelo for feedback on parts of what follows. Deeply influential but not directly cited below are Sylvia Wynter on the idea of The Human and Che Gossett‘s years of twitter musings on humanity/animality along with decades of Black feminist abolitionist visions and critiques, especially the works of Ruth Wilson-Gilmore, Mariame Kaba and Angela Davis. Credit for anything useful below is theirs. Feedback – constructive, destructive and other – welcome.

Blue Bloods is a police drama running on CBS since 2010 with an ensemble cast structure. The show tells fictional stories of the New York Police Department and District Attorney through the point of view of a multigenerational police family as they try to (mostly) incarcerate or (less often) kill people.(1) It has single episode story lines with the occasional longer arc or recurring story element mixed in. Blue Bloods mixes elements of a police drama and procedural and centers both around the Reagan family. Its aesthetic is nostalgia for an idealized, late Jim Crow/early White Flight, suburban nuclear family, warrior caste Americana. Blue Bloods anchors episodes in family dinners where four generations of the Reagan family, all with different White American English accents even inside generations, gather every Sunday. The gatherings are  a Calvinist version of joyless Protestant heteronormativity, the family’s Catholicism notwithstanding. They affirm the bonds that keep them all dedicated to each other and the carceral state.

Blue Bloods is an artless show impossible to recommend. It offers bad writing and subpar acting yet receives high ratings. Tom Selleck’s entire range is breathing heavily through his nose and the guy married to the famous anti-vaxxer is convincing in his role only if he intends to be a guy who emotes solely by punching holes in drywall. The stories affirm the police and military as heroic institutions more explicitly than almost all other cop shows, making uniformly righteous US empire’s violent institutions.

Below are data tables that look at how frequently various things happen in the first season’s stories. Many of the categories reflect things seen in other cop shows too. Others are more unique to Blue Bloods or useful only with lots of other context. For each table I try to offer context in the surrounding annotations. Some categories that are useful in other cops shows or even different seasons of the same show are not always applicable to others so this data overview will have tables others do not and vice versa.

Season one police killings

Blue Bloods at least partially resolves seven of season one’s twenty-two episodes with the death of the person the police are pursuing. The amount of people any particular cop kills in season one is only slightly remarkable. But the totals over the whole series show that most Blue Bloods cops – specifically the main cast – have killed more people than very nearly all of the people they try to jail. They are what the title character from Dexter is just lacking the self-awareness. More troubling is how Blue Bloods normalizes police shootings as heroic outcomes as explored below the table.

Episode name/date Killed by police
Episode resolved via suspect’s death Suspect killed by
E1 “Pilot” 24 Sep 2010 1 Yes (2)
State of Florida
E2 “Samaritan” 1 Oct 2010
0 No N/A
E3 “Privilege” 8 Oct 2010
0 No
N/A
E4 “Officer Down” 15 Oct 2010
1 Yes Whole SWAT team + Danny & Jackie
E5 “What You See” 22 Oct 2010
0 No N/A
E6 “Smack Attack” 29 Oct 2010
0 No N/A
E7 “Brothers” 5 Nov 2010
0 No N/A
E8 “Chinatown” 12 Nov 2010
2 Sorta 1 by Jamie (3)          1 by Danny (4)
E9 “Re-Do” 19 Nov 2010
1 Yes Frank
E10 “After Hours” 3 Dec 2010
0 No N/A
E11 “Little Fish” 19 Jan 2011
0 No N/A
E12 “Family Ties” 26 Jan 2011
0 No N/A
E13 “Hall of Mirrors” 2 Feb 2011
0 No
N/A
E14 “My Funny Valentine” 9 Feb 2011
0 Yes Suicide
E15 “Dedication” 18 Feb 2011
1 Sorta Killed by Danny
E16 “Age of Innocence” 25 Feb 2011
0 No
N/A
E17 “Silver Star” 11 March 2011
0 No N/A
E18 “To Tell The Truth” 1 April 2011
0 No N/A
E19 “Model Behavior” 8 April 2011
0 No N/A
E20 “All That Glitters” 29 Apr 2011 0 No N/A
E21 “Cellar Boy” 6 May 2011
0 No N/A
E22 “The Blue Templar” 13 May 2011 0 Yes Suicide

The NYPD or associated agencies are involved in the deaths of the people they criminalize in over one-fifth of the season one episodes, nearly one-third if we include the two episodes where suicide resolves the story. Blue Bloods is not responsible for material world police shootings but it, like all cop shows, plays a role in (re)producing public support for police violence through discursive illustration. It offers an imaginary heroic police violence. It relies on an audience that accepts these outcomes as palatable or else it would be read as the sadistic horror it is or, possibly, the audience would be aware of their enjoyment of sadistic horror. In Weber’s description of the state as the claimant to a monopoly over legitimate violence, Blue Bloods normalizing police violence is the same as normalizing the state itself. The audience receiving these stories as heroic is part of statism; the organization of sociality around monopolies over legitimate violence.

Who do the cops pursue?

But to what end is the monopolized legitimate violence deployed? Blue Bloods produces stories that portray the U.S. carceral system as not being built around Black Captivity. It tells stories of Black Captivity largely without Black people. This is not a disavowal of Black criminality nor white innocence. It still narrates through Black criminality, at times explicitly as in the second episode “Samaritan”. Instead it relies on Black Captivity being grammatical to the viewing audience. Audiences bring the knowledge of Black Captivity and mass incarceration to the show already. It doesn’t have to be said when it is the framework through which the audience understands the concept of prisons. So when Blue Bloods represents white cops hunting white criminals as their universe, it still does so through Black Captivity.

Blue Bloods‘ first season presents a radically different picture of police violence than the material world offers. The NYPD in season one pursues predominantly white people. The table below shows the demographics.

Episode name/date Racialization of person/people the cops pursue
Episode notes
E1 “Pilot” 24 Sep 2010 White  
E2 “Samaritan” 1 Oct 2010
Black Black characters are gang members or family to them
E3 “Privilege” 8 Oct 2010
White latinx
Populist story about foreigners running amok
E4 “Officer Down” 15 Oct 2010
White One of the three is Eastern European
E5 “What You See” 22 Oct 2010
White, Arab
Story about a terror attack
E6 “Smack Attack” 29 Oct 2010
White
E7 “Brothers” 5 Nov 2010
Latinx Latinxs are drug dealers
E8 “Chinatown” 12 Nov 2010
Chinese Yellow Peril story
E9 “Re-Do” 19 Nov 2010
White
E10 “After Hours” 3 Dec 2010
White
E11 “Little Fish” 19 Jan 2011
White
E12 “Family Ties” 26 Jan 2011
White
E13 “Hall of Mirrors” 2 Feb 2011
South Asian Story with Muslims about terrorism
E14 “My Funny Valentine” 9 Feb 2011
White
E15 “Dedication” 18 Feb 2011
White Early subplot about Mexican cartels
E16 “Age of Innocence” 25 Feb 2011
White  
E17 “Silver Star” 11 March 2011
White
E18 “To Tell The Truth” 1 April 2011
White latinx
Latinxs are narcotraficantes
E19 “Model Behavior” 8 April 2011
White
E20 “All That Glitters” 29 Apr 2011 White
E21 “Cellar Boy” 6 May 2011
White
E22 “The Blue Templar” 13 May 2011 White

Blue Bloods often works to have contrasting “good” characters every time it produces a racist character type. In Arabs and Muslims in the Media Evelyn Alsultany describes a “field of meaning” beyond simple ideas of representation. She writes:

The critical cultural studies approach that I employ strategically privileges the analysis of ideological work performed by images and story lines, as opposed to reading an image as negative or positive, and therefore gets us beyond reading a positive image as if it will eliminate stereotyping. If we interpret an image as either positive or negative, then we can conclude that the problem of racial stereotyping is over because of the appearance of sympathetic images of Arabs and Muslims during the War on Terror. However, an examination in relation to its narrative context reveals how it participates in a larger field of meaning about Arabs and Muslims. The notion of a field of meaning, or an ideological field, is a means to encompass the range of acceptable ideas about the War on Terror.

Here I use this “field of meaning” to look at how Blue Bloods ties racialized subject positions to specific racist types. So in keeping with Alsultany’s focus, how often are Arabs and Muslims story lines not articulated to terrorism? As in, does Blue Bloods allow Arabs and Muslims to have meaning that is not tied to terrorism?

Blue Bloods mentions latinxs as part of the plot in five episodes. In the first, “Privilege”, the cops pursue a wealthy diplomatic family whose foreignness marks their danger as their wealth and appreciation for the ballet mark their arrogance. But this is no class critique as the Reagans themselves are wealthy and have no disdain for their own wealth. Instead it is conservative populism. The show does this again, without the xenophobia, later in season one in “Silver Star”.

The other episodes with latinxs are all tied to gangs or drug trafficking. One, “Dedication”, mentions Mexican drug cartels in passing as a possible threat to Frank. Two other episodes, “Brothers” and “To Tell the Truth” are more focused on non-Black latinx drug gangs. In three of five episodes with latinx story lines or subplots, they are international narcotraffickers or drug gangs. This is sufficient to identify a field of meaning. Season one also has a couple of episodes with white drug dealers but these do not create a field of meaning for whiteness. Instead they are deviations from whiteness’ field of meaning established by the Reagan family unit. One other episode, “My Funny Valentine”, uses a migrant latina “oh yays meester” housekeeper – who appears just once in the entire series and without any cleaning materials – as a foreign prop to further Frank’s moral authority.

Blue Bloods features Black characters in only one season one episode, “Samaritan” where the cops pursue a gang of (mostly) Black youths who are terrorizing random people on the subway and posting videos of it on “NYCTHUGZ.net”. The episode also has another Black character, the ‘samaritan’. He too is criminalized, albeit reluctantly. This is one of several episodes to explicitly endorse Stop & Frisk policies.

Both season one episodes with Muslim characters are about terrorism. “What You See” uses vaguely arabesque music throughout as menace rather than comfort and explicitly endorses racial profiling in an exchange between Danny and Jackie. Turns out the person they’re pursuing is a white woman who converted to Islam and they use this to double down on Islamophobia when Jackie says, “She’s an Islamic convert? Usually they’re the most zealous.” The second episode is “Hall of Mirrors” where a Pakastani Muslim undercover cop in a “sleeper cell” is shot and Danny has to discover if he was shot because his cover was blown or for unrelated reasons. In season one Blue Bloods has no concepts of Arabs or Muslims outside of the War on Terror’s field of meaning.

The sole episode with Chinese characters is about Chinese human traffickers that also has a Chinese dominatrix. Both play into already well established racist types.

The media in Blue Bloods

Blue Bloods shares with most cop shows – with the partial exception of The Wire – a tremendous disdain for journalism that is also not a systemic critique of the media. In Blue Bloods the media are uniformly unfair and appear in passing in most episodes as presenting some kind of danger or as misrepresenting police actions. The media are underhanded and have a vendetta against the police. Frank has to constantly put them in their place and coerce their behavior, even as he secretly dates a reporter. The media knowingly publish stories impugning Frank personally as well as the whole police department. The sole example to the contrary is when a group of media at a press conference applauds adoringly after hearing that Frank’s daughter is recovering from an attack by a serial killer.

Big Hero vs. Big Villain storytelling

Blue Bloods sometimes uses a cop show trope I’m calling Big Hero vs. Big Villain. Big Hero vs. Big Villain are story arcs where the police are less systemic violence’s agents and more individuals in contest with others. Big Hero vs. Big Villain can be done in a way that includes a systemic framework, if not critique as in The Wire‘s story lines of McNulty vs. the Barksdale Crew or Stringer Bell. Blue Bloods does not do this. Instead its Big Hero vs. Big Villain stories act as personal quests, deeply personal battles and redemption arcs for its protagonists and adds a level of illegibility to the people the NYPD pursues through making their motivations more arbitrary. Season one has two main Big Hero vs. Big Villain story arcs. The first starts in the first episode and ends in the finale with Jamie, then later the whole Reagan family, against The Blue Templar, a group of corrupt cops. It’s a recurring story throughout the season with Jamie. The second is “Re-Do” where Erin is attacked by someone she previously prosecuted, who taunts Danny as well, before Frank executes him while he’s assaulting Erin.

More often than Big Hero vs. Big Villain, Blue Bloods in season one offers ‘the personal is the carceral’ where one of the Reagans has a deep personal connection with either someone injured or someone they’re criminalizing. It’s another version of desystemizing police with personal moral arcs instead of instead of procedural ones. In “Officer Down” all the Reagans are personally invested in finding someone who killed another cop because someone killed their cop family member Joe. Danny is outraged on behalf of a dead ex-marine because he too was a marine in “Silver Star”. Former neighbors are both the killers and killed in “Cellar Boy”. Peruvian narcotraffickers kidnap Linda to coerce false testimony from Danny in “To Tell the Truth”. Most other episodes also serve as examples. The writers are not necessarily invested in desystemizing the police by doing this. It is also a heavy-handed story crutch to get the audience to care about characters and story arcs otherwise too shallow and dull to intrigue or invest.

Heroic portrayals of torture and police brutality

Blue Bloods regularly portrays torture as heroic. It is heroic in either how the heroes do the torturing or torture is a successful tactic towards saving the day. Blue Bloods is not alone in regularly portraying torture as effective and ethical. NCIS, the various CSI shows, The Shield, The Wire and many others also do. It is so common in cop shows that it must be either convincing or have an already convinced audience. If it did not, much like the above police killings, the audience would receive it as the sadistic horror it is. But Blue Bloods is slightly uncommon in that it lionizes torture as a central part of two characters (Danny, Henry).

We are introduced to Danny in the pilot where he, while trying to locate a kidnapped child, drowns in a toilet and beats someone to extract information. In “Officer Down” he takes someone to an abandoned field and puts a gun to his head to extract information. His brutality is so well known that someone from the Department of Homeland Security comments to Frank in “What You See” that having someone like Danny on a case is a good thing, in context referring to his predilection for violence. Danny’s partner Jackie too engages in police brutality but this is Danny’s defining characteristic and in the Blue Bloods universe he’s carrying on a family tradition started by his grandfather Henry, who was also a former police commissioner and whose slapper he carries with him and uses to beat people as in the episode “Brothers”. Unintentionally, Blue Bloods offers police brutality and torture as a fundamental part of policing in this way, showing that no matter what else changes, police brutality will always be a part of policing.

The Ticking Time Bomb

Blue Bloods makes a fairly modest use of the ticking time bomb as a story prop in season one. They create a certain sense of urgency in most episodes but only in a few – “Pilot”, “What You See”, “Re-Do” and “To Tell The Truth” – does Blue Bloods necessitate extraordinary measures to avert pending catastrophe. While doing this in four out of twenty-two episodes is quite a lot compared to classic procedural shows, it is less common than many shows from early years of the U.S. War on Terror that preceded it like Criminal Minds and NCIS. That Blue Bloods doesn’t rely on the ticking time bomb prop further damns how often it uses police brutality and resolves stories by killing those it criminalizes. There is less at stake in canon, yet the violence is not lessened.

State Rape

Blue Bloods regularly uses rape, specifically the threat of it, as a coercive tool. In “Privilege” Danny tells a detainee who mocks his pay that “I’m compensated in other ways, like when I get to see the look of love in a meat wrangler’s eye that they made some spoiled rich kid his new celly”. Danny waxes about this even when not threatening a detainee as in “Age of Innocence” when Jackie says, “This guy’s gonna miss hid maid in Rikers” and Danny responds with “He may end up being somebody’s maid in Rikers.” Beyond fantasizing rape as a coercive tool of the state, this naturalizes assault as a feminine condition. These threatened assaults are also the legitimate violence the state monopolizes.

Other cop show tropes

Blue Bloods invokes other cop show tropes but does so only in single episodes or for just moments in single episodes leaving insufficient data to cover its representations of transgender people, sex workers and more. These will be covered in later overviews of the whole series. In season one none are remarkable in a good way. Feedback appreciated. Thanks for reading.

 

 

(1) I say “or kill” due to Blue Bloods frequently resolving storylines by killing the suspect. This occurs far too often to consider it anything other than an expected outcome for the showrunners.

(2) Delayed death as the person is extradited to Florida to face the death penalty.

(3) Jamie chases a man into traffic who dies after being struck by a car.

(4) Danny shoots an armed man who is silent after he falls. Unclear if he dies.

Criminal Minds Season 2 Data Overview

Previous Criminal Minds data overviews: Season 1

This post collects data on how often various things happen during season two of the CBS police procedural and drama Criminal Minds. You can find a broader overview and context for the below data categories in the season one write-up linked above.

Season two police killings

Criminal Minds resolves ten of season two’s twenty-three episodes with the death of the person or persons they are pursuing. Derek Morgan killed three people by himself in season two and was one of three (along with Prentiss and Hotchner) to fatally shoot another. Morgan has killed five people over the first two seasons, Hotchner two (plus one non-fatal shooting), Greenaway two and Reid two. The only main cast members who have not killed people through two seasons are Jason Gideon, JJ and Penelope Garcia – the latter two of which are rarely or never in a position to have contact with the people the BAU pursues.

Episode name/date Body count Episode resolved via suspect’s death Suspect killed by
E1 “The Fisher King pt.2” 20 Sep 2006 1 Yes Suicide
E2 “P911” 27 Sep 2006 0 No N/A
E3 “The Perfect Storm” 4 Oct 2006 3 No Local cop
E4 “Psychodrama” 11 Oct 2006 2 No N/A
E5 “Aftermath” 18 Oct 2006 1 Yes Greenaway
E6 “The Boogeyman” 25 Oct 2006 2 No N/A
E7 “North Mammon” 1 Nov 2006 1 No N/A
E8 “Empty Planet” 8 Nov 2006 3 No N/A
E9 “The Last Word” 15 Nov 2006 5 No N/A
E10 “Lessons Learned” 22 Nov 2006 10 Yes 2 by Morgan / 2 by SWAT team
E11 “Sex, Birth, Death” 29 Nov 2006 3 No N/A
E12 “Profiler, Profiled” 13 Dec 2007 1 No N/A
E13 “No Way Out” 17 Jan 2007 3 No N/A
E14 “The Big Game” 4 Feb 2007 6 N/A N/A
E15 “Revelations” 7 Feb 2007 3 Yes Reid
E16 “Fear and Loathing” 14 Feb 2007 4 No N/A
E17 “Distress” 21 Feb 2007 4 Yes Unnamed police sniper
E18 “Jones” 28 Feb 2007 3 No N/A
E19 “Ashes and Dust” 21 Mar 2007 9 Yes N/A
E20 “Honor Among Thieves” 11 Apr 2007 3 Yes Russian mob
E21 “Open Season” 2 May 2007 7 Yes 1 by Morgan / 1 by intended victim
E22 “Legacy” 9 May 2007 2 Yes Morgan, Prentiss & Hotchner
E23 “No Way Out pt.2” 16 May 2007 3 Yes Suicide

Criminal Minds in season two pursues all white people except for episodes: “Fear and Loathing” – Black male, “Profiler, Profiled” – Black male, and “Lessons Learned” – several Arab and Black Muslim men. Season two stills portrays Black Captivity largely without Black people. It is explicit about it in episodes like “Profiler, Profiled” where it takes tremendous intervention in order to steer Black youth from criminality and where we first dive into Morgan’s background and meet a large group of violent Black men that comprise both his peers and authority figures. “Distress” too does this where Hotchner imagines exceptional difficulty finding someone in Houston’s Fifth Ward. “We’re looking for a homicidal serial criminal in an neighborhood populated by criminals. The challenge will be separating him from the rest.” But as noted in the season one overview, Criminal Minds finds Black criminality as much in audience grammar as in explicit dialogue.

“Aftermath” is an outlier in the police shootings category as Greenaway murders someone and Hotchner and a couple of others do not approve. Importantly, neither Gideon nor Hotchner pursues accountability for Greenaway despite knowing the murder was unjustified.

The media in Criminal Minds

Criminal Minds season two focuses a little less on journalism – in canon this means accountability – being a malicious force but it is still present in nearly every episode.

Big Hero vs. Big Villain storytelling

Criminal Minds regularly uses a cop show trope I’m calling Big Hero vs. Big Villain. Big Hero vs. Big Villain are story arcs where the police are less systemic violence’s agents and more individuals in contest with others styled more after a superhero with a personal rogue’s gallery.

Episode name/date Big Hero
Big Villain
Notes
E1 “The Fisher King pt.2” 20 Sep 2006 Whole BAU Randall Garner aka The Fisher King
Dies via suicide bombing
E10 “Lessons Learned” 22 Nov 2006 Gideon Jind Allah Gideon must outwit to avoid mass casualties
E13 “No Way Out” 17 Jan 2007 Gideon Frank Frank has super elaborate plans
E14 “The Big Game” 4 Feb 2007 Reid Hankel Hankel kidnaps Reid
E15 “Revelations” 7 Feb 2007 Reid Hankel Reid kills Hankel
E23 “No Way Out pt.2” 16 May 2007 Gideon Frank Frank kills people close to Gideon

Six of season two’s twenty-three episodes are entirely or feature elements of Big Hero vs. Big Villain story arcs. A seventh, “Profiler, Profiled”, could be included too and “Lesson’s Learned” could be excluded..

The season opening episode concludes a Big Hero vs. Big Villain story arc from season one. Randall Garner compiled extensive personal dossiers on the entire BAU through conversations with Reid’s mother while they both lived in the same psychiatric facility. Leaving aside the silliness and the ableist premise of hyperviolent crazy supervillains, Garner frames one BAU agent (Greenaway) while seducing another (Garcia) and creating mythologies around the rest. This is a story of individual personalities in contest, not agents of systemic violence pursuing their violent ends. The system is absent and the episode serves only to start Elle Greenaway on her way out of the BAU.

Episode thirteen introduces Frank for the first part of a nonsequential two episode story where he faces off against Gideon. As with Greenaway in “The Fisher King”, Gideon’s battle with Frank lays the groundwork for his exit from the BAU early in season three. Frank in “No Way Out pt.2” kills Gideon’s love interest and someone Gideon helped save during “The Fisher King pt.2”. In Reid’s two episode story arc against Tobias Hankell, Hankell kidnaps Reid and one of Hankell’s three personalities gets Reid addicted to dilaudid. Both Frank vs. Gideon and Hankell vs. Reid position BAU members as the targets and victims of the people the very people they pursue.

Heroic portrayals of torture

Episode name Torturer Does it succeed?
E2 “P911”
Morgan Yes
E4 “Psychodrama” Hotchner Yes
E10 “Lessons Learned”
CIA No

Criminal Minds has three clear heroic torture narratives in season two. Morgan slams someone’s head against a car while the man is surrounded by armed FBI agents in “P911”. Hotchner arranges do have pain medication denied to someone he shot in “Psychodrama”. In both examples the goal of the torture is simply pain. Neither Morgan nor Hotchner is trying to extract information so their torture is successful in that they cause the pain they sought. In the third example the CIA is torturing Jind Allah and Gideon stops them not because he is opposed, but to position himself as an alternative in a Good Cop/Bad Cop performance. Gideon even requests the torture briefly continue. The CIA’s torture happens to be unsuccessful but it is not a significant ethical problem in canon.

Season two ableist storytelling

Season two only amplifies Criminal Minds‘ ableist premise described in season one’s write up and there’s little to add here although Gideon briefly moves towards eugenics in describing Frank as having a biological inclination towards killing. Some episodes pathologize people in severe psychological crisis like “Distress” (US ex-soldier with PTSD from murdering Somalis lives inside a murderous flashback), “Psychodrama” (Bank robber in drug induced psychosis forces others to engage in incestuous and oedipal violence) and the Tobias Hankell episodes (Man with disassociative identities kids naps Reid).

The Ticking Time Bomb

Criminal Minds season two uses a ticking time bomb in every episode but “Aftermath”, “The Last Word”, “Profiler, Profiled” and “No Way Out pt.2” with a couple of others that are borderline. It still remains in season two a story crutch to develop urgency and justify the large numbers of police shootings and torture and to create a sense of urgency where the storytelling otherwise wouldn’t demand such investment.

Other cop show tropes

Criminal Minds season two has the first episodes to have significant Black characters beyond Derek Morgan. In one of the two, “Profiler, Profiled”, the storyline is tied to drugs and gangs as is common to cop shows. The other “Fear and Loathing” features a slight variant to another anti-Black cop show staple: the Loud and Wrong Civil Rights Activist. A third episode, “Lessons Learned”, has no Black characters beyond Morgan with dialogue but does mention they converted to Islam in jail making their narrative appearance Black criminality.

Season two introduces more prominently sex workers as targets of misogynist violence in three episodes, “The Last Word“, “Sex, Birth, Death” and “Legacy”. None of these have characters with significant agency nor is whorephobia or any misogynist violence even explored as a cause for the harm. In all episodes the FBI does not reflect on how being targeted by police makes sex workers more vulnerable to misogynist violence. Because Criminal Minds relies so little on street interviews it rarely reproduces the familiar Sex Worker Omniscient Snitch or Transwomen Sex Workers as Punchlines imaginaries so popular in Law & Order and other cop shows.

Season two brings Criminal Minds a second episode with a significant Muslim character, “Lessons Learned”. Like the only first season episode, this one is about terrorism. Through season two Criminal Minds is incapable of having Muslim characters without the stories being about terrorism.

Feedback appreciated. Thanks for reading.

Criminal Minds Season 1 Data Overview

Thanks to Zoë Samudzi and Briana Ureña-Ravelo for feedback on parts of what follows. Influential but not directly cited are Sylvia Wynter on the idea of The Human and Che Gossett‘s years of twitter musings on humanity/animality along with decades of Black feminist abolitionist visions and critiques especially the works of Ruth Wilson-Gilmore, Mariame Kaba, Angela Davis and others. Anything good below stems from their work. Please support their works whether or not you find this useful. Feedback – constructive, destructive and other – is appreciated and welcome.

Season 2

Criminal Minds is a police procedural that ran on CBS from 2005 to 2020 with an ensemble cast structure. The show tells fictional stories of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) as they try to incarcerate or kill people, usually with a strong focus on serial attacks, while also having various personal dramas.(1) It has single episode storylines with the occasional longer arc or recurring story element mixed in and spawned three spin-offs, Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior, Criminal Minds (Korean adaptation) and Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders. Below are data tables that look at how frequently various things happen in the first season’s stories. Many of the categories reflect tropes seen in other cop shows too. I will also post their data. Others are more unique or useful only with lots of other context. For example it’s not always clear how many people die in an episode. I use my best guess in cases where someone is shot or otherwise injured and no outcome is declared and whether to include people already dead prior to an episode’s start – the BAU is usually called in after a series of attacks have already occurred – as part of the body count. The total episode body count isn’t a very insightful data point so I’m not worried about its imprecision. For each table I try to offer some context in the annotations that follow. Some categories that are useful in other cops shows or even different seasons of the same show are not always applicable to others. For example, Criminal Minds in season one does not use the threat of prison rape as an interrogation tool so it is not listed below whereas in some other shows it is common.

 Season one police killings

Eight of season one’s twenty-two episodes are resolved with the death of the suspect and the suspect(s) die in three others. The amount of people killed by any particular BAU agent in season one is only slightly remarkable – assuming we already suspended disbelief about the existence of a department of gun-toting, ass-kicking, minor celebrity bureaucratic psychologists. The totals over the whole series show that most members of the BAU – specifically the main cast – have killed more people than the majority of their profiled serial killers. They are what the title character from Dexter is just lacking the self-awareness. More troubling is how Criminal Minds normalizes police shootings as heroic outcomes as explored below the table.

Episode name/date Body count Episode resolved via suspect’s death Suspect killed by
E1 “Extreme Aggressor” 22 Sep 2005 2 Yes Greenaway
E2 “Compulsion” 29 Sep 2005 3 No N/A
E3 “Won’t Get Fooled Again” 5 Oct 2005 2 No (2) N/A
E4 “Plain Sight” 12 Oct 2005 2 No N/A
E5 “Broken Mirror” 19 Oct 2005 1 No N/A
E6 “L.D.S.K.” 2 Nov 2005 2 Yes Reid
E7 “The Fox” 9 Nov 2005 4 No N/A
E8 “Natural Born Killer” 16 Nov 2005 3 No N/A
E9 “Derailed” 23 Nov 2005 1 Yes Civilian train passenger
E10 “The Popular Kids” 30 Nov 2005 2 No N/A
E11 “Blood Hungry” 14 Dec 2005 2 No N/A
E12 “What Fresh Hell?” 1 Jan 2006 1 No N/A
E13 “Poison” 18 Jan 2006 2 No (3) N/A
E14 “Riding the Lightning” 25 Jan 2006 3 Yes Executed by the state of Florida
E15 “Unfinished Business” 1 Mar 2006 1 No N/A
E16 “The Tribe” 8 Mar 2006 13 No (4) 1 by Hotchner

1 by guest star

E17 “A Real Rain” 22 Mar 2006 4 Yes Unnamed NYPD sniper
E18 “Somebody’s Watching” 29 Mar 2006 3 No N/A
E19 “Machismo” 12 Apr 2006 3 Yes Group of vigilante women
E20 “Charm and Harm” 19 Apr 2006 3 Yes Morgan
E21 “Secrets and Lies” 3 May 2006 3 Yes Unnamed CIA personnel
E22 “The Fisher King pt.1” 10 May 2006 3 No N/A

The BAU or associated agencies are involved in the deaths of the people they pursue in just under half the episodes, a nearly 50% fatality rate for those targeted. Criminal Minds is not responsible for police shootings but it, like all cop shows, plays a role in (re)producing public support for police violence through discursive illustration. It offers an imaginary heroic police violence. It relies on an audience that accepts these outcomes as palatable or else it would be illegible and read as the sadistic horror it is. In Weber’s description of the state as the claimant to a monopoly over legitimate violence, Criminal Minds normalizing police violence is the same as normalizing the state itself. The audience receiving these stories as heroic is part of statism; the organization of sociality around monopolies over legitimate violence.

But to what end is the monopolized legitimate violence deployed? Criminal Minds‘ first season presents a radically different picture of police violence than the material world offers. The BAU in season one pursues only white people but for one non-Black, non-indigenous latinx man (“Machismo”). There is also one Arab Muslim man who is partnered with a white person but not targeted by the BAU (“Secrets and Lies”), though he is detained at the end. Criminal Minds produces stories that portray the U.S. carceral system as not being built around Black Captivity. It tells stories of Black Captivity without Black people. This is not a disavowal of Black criminality nor white innocence. It still narrates through Black criminality, at times explicitly as in the seventh episode “The Fox”. Instead it relies on Black Captivity being grammatical to the viewing audience. Audiences bring the knowledge of Black Captivity and mass incarceration to the show already. It doesn’t have to be said when it is the framework through which the audience understands the concept of prisons. So when Criminal Minds represents white cops hunting white criminals as their universe, it still does so through Black Captivity.

The media in Criminal Minds

Criminal Minds shares with all cop shows – with the partial exception of The Wire – a tremendous disdain for journalism that is also not a systemic critique of the media. The series has one character, Jennifer “JJ” Jareau (A.J. Cook), whose job is media liaison. Most cop shows do not have such a character. Collecting data for those shows about how they represent journalism makes sense as I can track where they attack journalism. But Criminal Minds has a whole character whose job it is to manipulate, deceive, put in their place and express contempt for the media. Journalists are a hostile force in Criminal Minds. I can’t track it in the same way as other data points because it’s fundamental to the show and in every season one episode. There are some outliers like in “L.D.S.K.” where JJ threatens a journalist with indefinite detention “under the P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act” if he does not reveal his source or in “Unfinished Business” where JJ – offered as a sympathetic character – is continually interrupted by journalists in a hostile manner that flusters her. More common is where JJ releases false information via press releases or the team works to withhold information. In the former instance the press is a tool for the carceral state to manipulate. In the latter, an irresponsible threat to public safety. Most other cop shows show disdain for the media through painting them as unfair to cop who murder which is different than most of what Criminal Minds does. But no other cop show I know of takes time in every episode to critique the media, not even Blue Bloods which does it an awful lot.

Big Hero vs. Big Villain storytelling

Criminal Minds regularly uses a cop show trope I’m calling Big Hero vs. Big Villain. Big Hero vs. Big Villain are story arcs where the police are less systemic violence’s agents and more individuals in contest with others. Big Hero vs. Big Villain can be done in a way that includes a systemic framework, if not critique as in The Wire‘s storylines of McNulty vs. the Barksdale Crew or Stringer Bell. Criminal Minds does not do this. Instead its Big Hero vs. Big Villain stories act as personal quests, deeply personal battles and redemption arcs for its protagonists and adds a level of illegibility to the people the BAU pursues through making their motivations more arbitrary.

Episode name/date Big Hero
Big Villain
Notes
E1 “Extreme Aggressor” 22 Sep 2005 Gideon Richard Slessman Partial use. Slessman studies and mocks Gideon
E3 “Won’t Get Fooled Again” 5 Oct 2005 Gideon Adrian Bale
Gideon’s redemption story
E7 “The Fox” 9 Nov 2005 Gideon, later the whole BAU Karl Arnold, “The Fox”
Arnold reappears later in the series
E15 “Unfinished Business” 1 March 2006 Guest character Max Ryan Walter Kern A one-that-got-away redemption story
E21 “Secrets and Lies” 3 May 2006 Gideon
Bruno Hawks
Gideon redeems a fallen comrade
E22 “The Fisher King pt.1” 10 May 2006 Whole BAU
Randall Garner aka The Fisher King
Brings in personal details of each BAU member

Six of season one’s twenty-two episodes are entirely or feature elements of Big Hero vs. Big Villain story arcs. A seventh, “The Fox”, introduces Karl Arnold who will return in season five episode “Outfoxed” where he parlays with the BAU about someone they’re pursuing and delivers information to Hotchner in his Big Hero vs. Big Villain story arc with The Reaper.

The table’s first two examples introduce the BAU’s lead profiler Jason Gideon (Mandy Patinkin). We meet Gideon in episode one as a university professor and learn he stepped away from the BAU after losing several colleagues in a bombing in Boston carried out by Adrian Bale (Tim Kelleher). One person the BAU pursues in episode one has one of Gideon’s books and tells Gideon, “I’m a fan of yours” while taunting him about the consequences of Adrian Bale’s bombing. This doesn’t establish fully a Big Hero vs. Big Villain story on its own because Gideon had no idea this person existed. Yet it does firmly establish Adrian Bale as a personally important antagonist to Gideon. When Gideon outwits Bale in episode three this completes his redemption arc from traumatized ex-BAU member to being once again the lead profiler. These episodes are more expository than procedural in this respect.

Episode fifteen expands the Big Hero group beyond the active BAU and introduces Max Ryan (Geoff Pierson), a retired BAU profiler who was a mentor of sorts to Gideon and Hotchner and holds a legend status for younger members of the BAU. Someone Ryan pursued but did not find resurfaces and Ryan and the BAU have to pursue him again. In expanding Big Hero vs. Big Villain beyond the active BAU, Criminal Minds establishes that it is personal for the profilers. They are not dispensers of monopolized violence. This, along with the various conflicts the BAU has with higher-ups in the FBI, separates them from their systemic positions.

Heroic portrayals of torture

Criminal Minds regularly portrays torture as heroic. It is heroic in two respects in these stories. Either the story heroes do the torturing or torture is a successful tactic. While in later seasons Criminal Minds questions torture’s general efficacy, it does not question its ethics. Criminal Minds is not alone in regularly portraying torture as effective and ethical. NCIS, the various CSI shows, The Shield, The Wire and many others also do. It is so common in cop shows that it must be either convincing or have an already convinced audience. If it did not, much like the above police killings, the audience would receive it as the sadistic horror it is.

Episode name/date Torturer
Does it succeed?
E5 “Broken Mirror” 19 Oct 2005 Greenaway
Yes
E8 “Natural Born Killer” 16 Nov 2005 None but is suggested by others
N/A
E12 “What Fresh Hell?” 1 Jan 2006
Gideon No

Criminal Minds has three clear heroic torture narratives in season one. Elle Greenaway in “Broken Mirror” stomps on someone’s testicles in order to successfully acquire the location of someone kidnapped. Shortly after Reid asks Hotchner how Greenaway got the information and Hotchner jokes that the man will be sore. Here Criminal Minds shows torture as ethical, effective and humorous. FBI agents from another department in “Natural Born Killer” suggest torturing someone to acquire information. The BAU does not reject torture at all but offers that, because the person arrested was so horribly abused as a child, it will not be effective in this instance. The episode offers no concerns about its effectiveness otherwise nor its ethics. Jason Gideon in “What Fresh Hell” interrogates someone the BAU arrested by holding a loaded and cocked pistol to his head. Here torture does not work yet it is not questioned from an ethical perspective, only about legal risk and if it reflects poorly upon Gideon’s mental state.

Season one ableist storytelling

Much like its portrayal of the media, Criminal Minds doesn’t require a separate table on ableism in its storytelling due to its ubiquity. Criminal Minds would be better titled “Criminalized Minds”. Nearly every episode pathologizes harmful behavior as mental illness or malfunction of some sort. Just under half of season one’s episodes have all or predominantly women victims. Yet Criminal Minds does not portray this as patriarchal violence or, in any meaningful way, misogynistic. Instead it pathologizes violent misogynists as mentally ill and removes patriarchal violence entirely from the narratives. If, for example, a white male California professor harasses and gaslights exclusively Black feminists and, after having a public meltdown, notes he has severe mental illness that explains this behavior to a degree, we must accept his misogynoir as a pathology coincidental to systemic misogynoir. Yet there is no such pathology. Even if certain neuroatypicalities can explain some harmful behavior, it cannot explain why that professor only attacked Black women.(5) That is simply misogyny and anti-Blackness. So it is with Criminal Minds.

The BAU spends much of each episode identifying deviances in the people it pursues. They look for “triggers” and other identifying markers that will help them figure out what is wrong with their targets. There are very few episodes throughout the whole series that do not base their stories on pathologizing neuroatypicality. To make a table listing which episodes are ableist in premise or contain ableist elements is redundant to simply listing the episodes. The only way to do this in any coherent way would be to list those episodes where someone has a named mental illness such as with the twitchy, loud schizophrenic man in “Derailed”. To do this would establish an uncritical ability hierarchy that I have no interest in and cannot imagine useful. When I post data for Law & Order, CSI and others I will have separate tables for ableist stories and instances.

The Ticking Time Bomb

Criminal Minds relies on ticking time bomb premises in order to build a sense of urgency. The BAU doesn’t arrest people at home while they’re doing something mundane. Instead each episode is a pressing crisis which is somewhat unusual for a show so procedural heavy (though this is fairly common in NCIS and a few others). Only “Derailed”, “The Popular Kids” and “Somebody’s Watching” in season one do not have an immediate, time-sensitive crisis that saves somebody’s life.(6)

If this was just lazy storytelling it would be forgivable. But cops shows (re)produce discourse. Ticking time bombs means there is often ‘no time for that!’ and the BAU has to take exceptional measures to end crises, such as executing the people they pursue. Another cop show, 24, has such a strong discursive effect that far right U.S. Supreme Court judge Antonin Scalia invoked its ticking time bomb justifications for torture.

“Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles. … He saved hundreds of thousands of lives,” Judge Scalia said. Then, recalling Season 2, where the agent’s rough interrogation tactics saved California from a terrorist nuke, the Supreme Court judge etched a line in the sand.
“Are you going to convict Jack Bauer?” Judge Scalia challenged his fellow judges.

This is an exceptional example of cop shows having a strong discursive effect but it is less an outlier than it might first seem. In 2006 an U.S. army general met with 24‘s producers to ask them to tone down the torture. He said, “The kids see it, and say, ‘If torture is wrong, what about 24?” and suggested “they should do a show where torture backfires.” There is an immediate crisis that torture either solves or is intended to solve in each of Criminal Minds‘ season one episodes where cops torture or suggest it.

Other cop show tropes

Criminal Minds is a minor outlier to other cop shows in some respects. It excludes almost entirely Black people from season one so it cannot articulate them to stories of criminalized drugs or gangs like so many other shows do. Nor does the show offer consistent pairings of latinx people and narcotrafficking in season one. And since the show offers a Muslim character only once in season one, it isn’t clear based upon that single data point from this that Criminal Minds is incapable of having Muslim characters without a terrorism theme, an islamophobic trope discussed at length by Evelyn Alsultany in Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11. Criminal Minds does do this but it will only be evident here when I post the data for the whole series.

Feedback appreciated. Thanks for reading.

(1) I say “or kill” due to Criminal Minds frequently resolving storylines by killing the suspect. This occurs far too often to consider it anything other than an expected outcome for the showrunners.

(2) But suspect dies by suicide when cornered by the BAU

(3) But suspect dies by suicide in FBI custody

(4) Cult leader is not killed but BAU kills two cult members

(5) If the detail didn’t give it away, this happened in real life. No need to share the schmuck’s name as he’s already largely gone from public life.

(6) “The Fisher King pt.1” also has no ticking time bomb but that is only because it is a two part story arc that concludes in season two. At that point there is a ticking time bomb.

Punished to Perfection

SPOILER ALERTS for the “Ride the Lightning” episode of Criminal Minds and V for Vendetta comics and film. Many thanks to Zoé Samudzi for early feedback on the idea. Mariame Kaba, Critical Resistance, Ruth Wilson Gilmore and other Black liberation and abolitionist organizers have long described and critiqued the same ideas and credit for anything insightful in what follows is due to them even if not directly cited, although they should not be blamed for any misuses of their ideas. Please support their work. Feedback whether constructive, destructive or other is always welcomed.

 

The fourteenth episode in season one of the CBS police procedural Criminal Minds, “Riding the Lightning”, follows the FBI’s Behavioural Analysis Unit (BAU) as they interview Sarah Jean Dawes and Jacob Dawes, a white serial killer couple scheduled the following day for execution in Florida after being found guilty of killing twelve young women plus their infant son Riley. The interviews reveal that Sarah Jean was uninvolved in the killings and was a herself victim of Jacob’s abuse yet the BAU, despite finding Riley alive, doesn’t intervene against her murder by the state. The episode creates a sympathetic saint through martyrdom while punishing someone towards their perfection and it is not alone in its carceral saintmaking. It is representative of very common narratives and assumptions that brutalizing people improves them.

“Riding the Lightning” opens with BAU agent Jason Gideon (Mandy Patinkin) having a teary, appreciative smile on his face while listening to a live performance of Bach’s “Cello Suite No.1, Prelude”. It transitions into the interior of an FBI vehicle where BAU agents Gideon, Derek Morgan (Shemar Moore) and JJ (A.J. Cook) are discussing the killing carried out by married couple Sarah Jean Dawes (Jeanetta Arnette) and Jacob Dawes (Michael Massee) while the rest of the unit similarly discusses in another vehicle. A team led by Gideon interviews Sarah Jean while Hotchner (Thomas Gibson) leads Jacob’s interview.

We meet Sarah Jean when Gideon visits her cell where she is painting. Sarah Jean exudes a weary serenity, wisdom and peace that has Gideon questioning whether she killed Riley and, later, whether Riley is even dead. Jacob is her opposite. He revels in sexual violence, enjoys taunting the BAU and lasciviciously celebrates his misogynistic history.

The episode follows the BAU’s divergent interviews with Jacob and Sarah Jean. Sarah Jean is contemplative, nurturing and wise while Jacob is vicious, creepy and mocking. Through probing interviews directly against the boundaries Sarah Jean tries to enforce, the BAU figures out by using very implausible psychology that, not only did she not kill her son Riley at Jacob’s directive, but she didn’t kill him at all and the boy is alive, adopted by a rich family. Meanwhile Hotchner engages in a regressive masculinity contest with Jacob.

The episode climaxes with the BAU frantically searching for and finding the proof that Riley is alive while Jacob is executed. At the moment right before Jacob’s face is hidden from the murder viewing room, Hotchner slaps a picture of a now teenaged Riley up to the glass telling him, “You lose!” Jacob is at last not gleefully lecherous, providing for the audience a comeuppance for…someone seconds away from being executed? Morgan and Elle find Riley but Gideon orders them to back off after deciding to heed Sarah Jean’s wishes and letting the state kill her, ostensibly to prevent Riley from being contaminated by his association with his parents. Sarah Jean requests that Gideon witness her murder which he does while the warden, tears in his eyes knowing she didn’t kill her son, over a sad melody, sees to her death.

Even by the standards of pro-death penalty US cop stories, the FBI, warden, and condemned teaming up together to execute a sympathetic character consciously against the evidence is a little remarkable. Jacob’s murder, because of Hotch’s actions, intends audience pleasure. Sarah Jean’s murder/suicide bonds those not killed together, witnessing while manufacturing her martyrdom and beatification. It is their act of jointly killing her that makes them heroic and her willing walk to the electric chair that makes her a saint. It is the act of punishing her that brings her to the ethical sublime. Despite the terrible writing – Criminal Minds is always mediocre from the perspective of canon consistency and psychology but rarely is it as corny as “Riding the Lightning” – the episode is one of the more moving ones. The “heroic” death of a sympathetic character is deeply affecting. All state murder is horror yet Criminal Minds finds a way to not only make it heroic, but virtuous even in the context of executing someone who didn’t do the thing for which they’re being executed.

V for Valorus Victimizing

In both the 1982 comics series by Alan Moore and David Lloyd and 2005 film directed by James McTeigue, V for Vendetta offers another version of punishing someone to righteousness. The comics and film have some differences – for example in the comics Evey is a sex worker and in the film a tv production assistant – but in both Evey Hammond is imprisoned and tortured to heroism. “Riding the Lightning” takes place inside the Criminal Minds version of a Florida concentration camp (euphemised in US discourse as a deracialized “prison”) while Evey’s torture at the hands of V takes place in a mock concentration camp of V’s creation in a post-apocalyptic fascist London.

In both the comics (issues 6 and 7) and film, V imprisons Evey in a dark, cold cell, starves her, beats her, drowns her, gaslights her, verbally denigrates her and threatens her with execution. While jailed, he slips her written letters through a hole in the wall from another purported inmate, Valerie, telling her story of how she was captured, tortured and experimented on for being lesbian, and the beautiful parts of her life and loves prior to her time in the concentration camp. These letters shore up Evey’s resolve to not give up “the last inch” of herself even as V seeks to torture her into doing exactly that. In both versions Evey refuses to snitch at the point of death, at which point V exposes the ruse.

In both versions Evey initially responds reasonably, with rage and horror directed not at the fascist system of torture and prisons, but in V’s reproduction of it. Yet she quickly comes to embrace this as a lesson in freedom. V has tortured her in and into service to the greater good. What makes this so effective in the stories are Valerie’s letters. Concentration camp narratives are nearly always devastating and the version written by Moore and reproduced in the film is gutting. It is this affect that allows for V’s actions to be interpreted as reasonable. Without Valerie’s narration, V’s violence against Evey would seem as baldly cruel as it actually is.

This, like the Criminal Minds episode above, reproduces fascism in order to serve the greater good. In both versions reproducing fascism is simply making more of it even as both versions imagine themselves as doing so to produce justice and confront repressive violence (misogynistic killings in the Criminal Minds, state authoritarianism in V for Vendetta). They do not intend to be the same politically. Criminal Minds aspires to validate the carceral state while V for Vendetta aspires to anarchist revolution. Yet they both imagine carcerality to potentially produce justice, to manufacture better people. In the case of Criminal Minds this extends to the jailers who are the story’s surviving heroes.

After the Holocaust…

Everyday discourse naming judges as “justices”, carcerality (Black Captivity) as “the justice system”, prisons and jails as “reformatories” and more all produce the ideas that prisons serve some kind of good. So it isn’t really surprising that popular culture, even dissident narratives like V for Vendetta, reproduces this. But lots of leftist or progressive narratives also do. Anyone who has done work towards Palestinian liberation for much time has heard at least once “I can’t believe Jews could do this after the Holocaust” or some version thereof. Leaving aside the ahistorical, wrongheaded and confused timeline and conflation of “Jews” with “Israeli settler state”, this idea has the same premise as “Riding the Lightning” and V for Vendetta in brutalizing people to righteousness.

That it is surprising that a state calling itself Jewish can perpetrate the dispossession of Palestine and Palestinians in spite of the Holocaust assumes that the Nazi’s concentration camps produced something other than conformity, horror and death (and has a bizarre romanticization of ethnonationalism!). Jews – and other Nazi victims – were just people before the Holocaust. Survivors came out also as just people, if horrendously traumatized. Concentration camps cannot produce righteousness in the material world any more than they can in Criminal Minds or V for Vendetta. The same logic would ask, “How could Palestinian merchants as victims of Zionism – including mass incarceration – in Palestine exploit Black people in the US?” Israeli prisons no more make angels of Palestinians – individually or collectively – than Nazi concentration camps make angels of Jews. That is not what concentration camps are designed to do and it is true horror that they are imagined to do so.

Do you feel remorse?

The above three examples deal with three concentration camps, one real and two imagined (though one purports to reproduce a real US concentration camp). In the material world functioning of US concentration camps parole boards ask detainees summoned to plead for their freedom questions, often something like, “Do you feel your sentence fits the crime you committed?”, “Do you feel remorse for your crime?” and “What would you do different if you found yourself in a similar situation again?” In other words, “How did your time in the concentration camp make you a better person?” Black Captivity’s concentration camps are expected by parole boards to produce contemplative, remorseful people when what prisons produce is primarily violence, isolation and boredom. And if you don’t answer the questions in a way that suits the board, you can be redenied your freedom (to the very limited degree that parole is any kind of freedom). The assumptions of Criminal Minds, V for Vendetta and some progressive activists are the same as parole boards.

This is a way carceral normativity is (re)produced in normative popular culture, surprisingly large swaths of counterhegemonic discourse and by prison functionings themselves. It is the imaginary “rehabilitative” quality of concentration camps when no amount of individual transformation could ever be expected to avoid systemically produced incarceration in the first place. This is, to use Mariame Kaba’s twitter handle, “prison culture”. Thanks for reading.

Criminal Minds: “The Last Word”

(Season 2, Episode 9 | November 15 2006)

The 2006 Criminal Minds episode “The Last Word” examines the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) in pursuit of two serial killers in St. Louis, one who targets suburban white women, the other targeting working class sex workers, who are mostly white in this telling. The episode aims to contrast how these two victim groups are differently treated by the press, local police and society and how it is up to gun-slinging door-breaking ass-kicking psychologists working for FBI to right these wrongs through catching the serial killers. It fails to do so meaningfully mostly due to an inability for an institution that marginalizes a population to reflect on the violence of that marginalization.

The loving couple

The loving parents of white heterosexual normativity

The episode has three opening segments, two relevant for this essay plus the introduction of a new main cast member. The relevant two both introduce a serial killer and victim. The first is a loving white heterosexual couple and their appreciated child playing in a public park in when the wife is abducted by the Mill Creek Killer. The second opens in a dirty apartment with a young child rousting his white impoverished sex worker mom after 10pm to go to work, obviously disappointed in his mother and her, the audience is to understand, empty promises. The young child is scolding his mother. “Why didn’t you wake me up?” she asks. “Why don’t you get an alarm clock,” the child replies. She is then killed by the Hollow Man in a grimy city alley.

The sex worker and the shadowy killer

The irresponsible parent, deemed responsible only for the harm that comes to her

In discussing the Hollow Man prior to arriving in St. Louis, BAU team member JJ says, “No one even knew this guy existed until he sent this letter,” informing a local journalist he was responsible for murdering six sex workers. Team leader Agent Hotchner compares this to the coverage of the Mill Creek Killer saying, “Well he’s killed more victims but look who he’s chosen. Hundreds of victims go unnoticed because they’re social outcasts and never make the front page.” Upon arrival in St. Louis JJ meets with the local reporter the Hollow Man has been communicating with. He asks JJ:

“So did the Hollow Man shoot those prostitutes because I wrote about the Mill Creek victims?”

“He would’ve killed them anyway. But right now he’s looking for recognition, that’s why he’s contacted you. […] We’re gonna ask that you not print anything about the Hollow Man or the women he’s killed.” 

“Don’t those victims deserve just as much ink as those others victims?”

“Of course they do. But we need the shooter to keep communicating with you. And if you satisfy his need for attention he may disappear and I’m sorry we just can’t take that chance.”

Hotchner and Reid visit the sex worker murdered in the opening segment’s mother, finding her drinking, stressed, and caring for her grandchildren. She tells them, “You wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for them,” referring to the wealthy suburban victims of the Mill Creek Killer. “No one writes about prostitutes being shot, because they won’t admit they think they’re cleaning up the place.” Hotchner replies, “You’re right. Cases like your daughter’s usually go unsolved. The problem is people aren’t looking for them because they don’t know they’re missing. Part of her job was to stay below the radar.” This brings mum over to Hocthner’s side saying, “She made bad choices, but she was a good person.”

As per the series rule, the BAU catches both the killers and accountability for their misogynist violence is achieved through the carceral state.

Best I know, the episode, like most Criminal Minds episodes, is silly from an investigatory standpoint and for sure is from a psychology standpoint. As example, Reid gives a staunch defense of the pseudoscience graphology in a throwaway scene. Though silly it is reasonably well written, paced and acted with Mandy Pantinkin especially giving his usual fine performance and Jason O’Mara being good and creepy in his brief scenes as the Mill Creek Killer.

the classified ad

At one point Reid says that the bratty juvenile novel Catcher in the Rye “is a widely accepted as a love book of sociopaths”….which is true if ‘sociopath’ is naturalized with ‘white’ lol

All Criminal Minds episodes are violent in the sense they lionize the carceral state and are premised on an ableist framework of criminalizing and pathologizing neuroatypicality. In pathologizing neuratypicality it, like so much of the franchise, naturalizes the misogyny underlying the killers’ actions by leaving it entirely unspoken. That both killers target exclusively women isn’t even mentioned. It does this while imagining mentally ill people as violent actors rather than the truth of people more likely to have violence enacted upon them. Alternately put, in the Criminal Minds franchises, misogynist violence is normal and unremarkable but neauroatypicality is itself dangerous and predatory.

In “The Last Word” this has an extra level of carcerality specifically targeting sex workers. When Hotchner says, “Hundreds of victims go unnoticed because they’re social outcasts,” he offers no reflection that the FBI is an agency that does the casting out he laments. In talking to the first sex worker’s mother Hotchner says, “Cases like your daughter’s usually go unsolved. The problem is people aren’t looking for them because they don’t know they’re missing. Part of her job was to stay below the radar,” without reflecting that it is his radar she had to stay under. That his radar is appropriate and virtuous is a given in the story’s context. When her mother said, “She made some bad choices” it both affirms her criminality and shifts the blame of her marginalization from her marginalizer, the patriarchal carceral state, to her. The only evidence of “bad choices” is an unspoken understanding that the audience is supposed to bring to the table, that she was a sex worker. The audience has to already understand this in order for the dialogue to make sense. It’s another example of how shows tell us as much about the audience as they do the writers.

This theme of the outcasting institution lamenting the perils of being cast out is a defining part of Criminal Minds and most police procedurals more broadly. Throughout all three Criminal Minds shows this is usually phrased as “low-risk” or “high-risk” victims. The high-risk, in the show, are those who present a high risk for the predator, not for whom the risk is high themselves (the show sometimes reverses this because the in canon writing is mediocre). Low-risk are those who murder presents little threat to the killers. The “low risk” represents the carceral state’s marginalization of certain populations and its subjection of them to violence similar to that of the non-state predators, as with sex workers in “The Last Word”. The are low-risk for the predators because they are simply joining the violence the state and patriarchy already enact.

This gets to part of the misogyny underlying carceral feminism and sex work abolition: the patriarchal carceral state is incapable of protecting its own outcasts nor recognizing its role in that marginalization even as it can define which populations are marginalized and how that marginalization makes those populations vulnerable in the first place. This dynamic is also why the current decriminalization efforts sex workers are fighter for are so vital. Actual decriminalization means that part of sex workers’ labor would no longer be staying under Agent Hotchner’s radar, at least in the sex work aspect of their lives.

Even adjusting for those limitations the story still fails at a fundamental level. The sex workers the Hollow Man kills mostly work outdoors and mostly are very impoverished. In St. Louis like most large US cities this means they are predominantly Black. That isn’t the case “The Last Word” presents. This is similar to the 2009 episode “To Hell… and Back” that presents the working class addict and sex worker population of Detroit, a city at the time nearly 85% Black, as largely white even as the episode’s guest star is Black. And leaving out this racialized dynamic also leaves out the limits of the potential decriminalization efforts. As some Black sex workers have pointed out, while decriminalization is an unambiguous good in that it removes an entire action node of criminalization from the carceral state, it doesn’t do address how Black people are criminalized en masse no matter their job. Decriminalizing sex work does not decriminalize the Blackness of Black sex workers. Support especially @thotscholar’s work for more on this. 

In the end on the plane ride home the BAU passes around a fax of the local paper’s lead story naming all of the Hollow Man’s sex worker victims. Each team member has a quick look and makes a reflection. Here then the outcasting institution gives validation to their own work in limiting the violence against sex workers to that which they themselves carry out. It’s a clear exemplar of the Weberian state’s claim to a monopoly on legitimate violence. The state’s violence against sex workers is legitimate. The serial killer’s is not. Violence against sex workers is no problem in this story, only the perpetrator’s non-state position is. 

“The Last Word” had 16.48 million US viewers in its initial showing, around 1 in 20 of the U.S. population. It didn’t invent any of the problems it exemplifies nor narrates but, in concert with its audience and those it purports to portray, it faithfully (re)produces whorephobia and misogyny along with the franchise’s baselines of anti-Blackness and ableism.

 

 

To support abolitionist work connect with Critical Resistance, Project Nia and other abolitionist groups. To support sex work decriminalization work connect with your local SWOP chapter or other local sex worker-led organizing efforts like the Las Vegas Sex Workers Collective.

Every possible story but the true one

This essay is greatly informed by analytical and ethical frameworks developed by Christina Sharpe, Frank Wilderson, Saidiya Hartman, Fred Moten, Che Gossett and others along with Marcus Rediker’s historical research even where not directly cited though they cannot be blamed for my failings. Should you find this essay engaging please uplift their works, the directly influential ones being listed at the bottom. Special thanks to Megan Spencer for their valuable feedback on the draft and to both Megan again and Zoé Samudzi for being thought partners on the ideas while writing. I try to avoid detailing anti-Black violence yet found no way to escape implying or vaguely describing some easily imaginable and horrible scenarios so a HUGE CONTENT WARNING FOR ANTI-BLACK VIOLENCE AND AFRICAN SLAVERY is in order. Feedback whether constructive, destructive or other always welcomed.

 

The 2018 box office hit The Meg proved that the shark attack film remains a staple of the nature horror genre. The Meg has already a sequel in development and spawned a knockoff in the same year, Megalodon. These focus on groups of people under threat from one or many charcharocles megalodon sharks, a species extinct for over two million years that grew to over fifty feet long. Others in the genre look at contemporary species like great white and bull sharks, lab-created super genius sharks, sharks in unexpected places like the under sand or in Australian supermarkets, shark-cephalopod hybrids, sharks using storms to migrate and hunt, sharks from beyond the grave and more. It seems just about every possible and a great many more impossible stories of sharks eating people has been told in nature horror, except for the one time that people were regularly, dependably, for a long period eaten by sharks: the Middle Passage.

Most shark species cannot kill people and almost all those that can never think to try as we great apes largely do not register as prey items, not to mention that sharks struggle a bit to hunt where all people are very nearly all the time, outside of the water. The small number that do sometimes bite people largely do so while being harassed or out of curiosity (a light biting is a ‘what’s this?’ investigatory technique – though this can still be fatal). The even smaller number that on rare occasions attack intending to prey largely mistake people for more familiar mammals like seals or bite while attempting to procure something attached to a diver as with the catch on a spearfisher’s string. A couple of species are both capable of killing people and also generalist predators that likely register people as potential prey. Only three shark species are confirmed to account for more than ten total human fatalities, the great white, tiger and bull. A fourth, the oceanic whitetip, likely accounts for many fatal attacks in remote, open waters unlikely to be recorded.

Despite the rarity of attacks, sharks occupy a primary location in colonial productions of nature horror – a genre positing a perpetual threat to “man” from an Othered animal or vegetal being, think: animal attack movies or a less comedic Little Shop of Horrors. Sharks are imposing beings and larger species are capable of tremendous power and rending of flesh in the course of their feeding. And given that people do travel over or swim in waters where sharks live or frequent, let’s call these human-infested waters, the very rare human-as-calories tragedy is bound to happen. The potential for horror here is visceral and obvious. Val Plumwood’s essay “On Being Prey” reflects upon her experience surviving a predatory attack by a saltwater crocodile in the north of the Australian settler colony. She describes it as “an experience beyond words of total terror”. The idea of being killed and eaten, or being killed by being eaten, is necessarily horror. This would be the case even if colonialism did not create “a masculinist monster myth” of order being synonymous with human dominance, a “master narrative” of control over and distance from ecological systems, a counterposition of humanity-animality.

Yet for all the horror of the idea of being prey, there is a total lack of malignance in that fate even as many nature horror stories project ideas of diabolical intent upon attacking animals. They were hungry and there you were or, they were wary of your intrusion and you intruded. It’s not a malignant calculus any more than some chameleon has some grudge against some grasshopper. The violence is strictly mis/opportunistic and the individual creatures involved are incidental, just the right combination of lucky/unlucky that defines predator/prey encounters. This is not the case in the Middle Passage. Humans as shark prey in the Middle Passage has purposeful intent from the terroristic to the punitive to the arbitrary. The horror is malignant not by the sharks’ actions, but in how slavers made captive Africans into shark food. Think Jaws combined with Saw combined with Hannibal and you’re in the ballpark, albeit far less horrifying than the actual details which I recommend against investigating for traumatic reasons but also ethical ones around the drive to consume and reproduce anti-Black violence.

During the Middle Passage, slavers fed murdered and living Africans to sharks as a convenient disposal of murdered remains and troublesome persons, to terrify living captives against escape or suicide overboard, to punish captives involved in insurrections and more. Slavers describe all of that in their contemporary narratives as well as Africans escaping ships to unknown fates including repatriation and liberation as well as death by shark. Slavers murdered at least two million Africans during the Middle Passage and discarded nearly all into the Atlantic. Sharks did not consume all these souls, but they consumed many. If sharks consumed just 1,000 of those dead or living – I found no estimates, reliable or otherwise, but 1,000 is at least a factor of ten below a wildly conservative guess if their frequency in slaver narratives is representative – that would still be nearly 20% higher than all combined fatal and non-fatal shark bites/attacks in the Florida Museum global database hosted by the University of Florida that tracks shark attacks since 1582, and 85% higher than the total verified fatal shark attacks. By any measure, the Middle Passage accounts for the overwhelming preponderance of cases of people being consumed by sharks. The percentage, though unknown in detail, is sufficient to say that it is the the “normal” way sharks eat people with all other examples being statistically peripheral. (This if my readings of shark ecology are correct in concluding that most historical ocean-going ships travel too fast for sharks to pursue longer than briefly or are otherwise not attractive to sharks leaving lesser probabilities for shark predation in the event of shipwreck, even incorrectly assuming a historically and geographically flat population density of sharks per square kilometer and oceanic shipwreck distribution).

The Meg, it’s knock-off Megalodon and its pending sequel, 2002’s Shark Attack 3: Megalodon and an earlier Megalodon from the same year, 2012’s Jurassic Shark, 2009’s Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus or any of the Mega Shark franchise, 2011’s Super Shark and the 2001 Antonio Sabato Jr. vehicle Shark Hunter account for ten of the feature length films about an extinct shark hunting people, a species that never once encountered any great ape in its millions of years of existence. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. Sci-fi doesn’t have to have much sci in it to be a fun or good story. Over ten impossible megalodon films but not one involving the predominant political geography of material world consumption of people by sharks. Why are our imaginary universes so rarely grounded in material violences like the Middle Passage? This isn’t just the sci-fi shark attack stories like The Meg, Sharknado and 2-Headed Shark Attack.

I earlier argued that nearly all shark attack films are sci-fi in that sharks are not, as a rule, capable of consuming as much food as they do in shark attack movies. An adult great white is not plausibly likely to eat hundreds of pounds of people in two days like in The Shallows, much less in minutes as with Jaws 2. But even in those films portrayed as real-world like Jaws, I’m aware of none that take place in or reference the only historical geography where shark attacks on people were common and predictable. There are films like Frenzy and Open Water with divers and boaters marooned in remote areas in the face of hungry sharks but none of actual marronage from both slavers and their accompanying sharks. This has always been the case in film and tv but not always in other mediums.

 

Petition of the Sharks of Africa

Petition picture from the University of Virginia website

Scottish abolitionist and radical James Tytler produced in 1792 an early modern fantastic fiction work in his “The PETITION of the SHARKS of Africa” addressed “To the Right Honourable the Lords Spiritual and Temporal of Great Britain, in Parliament Assembled”. In the petition, sharks collectively beg Parliament to not heed the demands of abolitionists as it will deprive a “numerous body” in “a very flourishing situation” of “many a delicious meal” of “large quantities of their most favourite food” over “the specious plea of humanity” that is abolitionism. Abolitionists made much out of the horror of slavers feeding captive Africans to sharks.

Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhoon coming on

JWM Turner 1840 painting: Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhoon coming on. Picture from Wikipedia

J.W.M. Turner’s 1840 oil on canvas Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On (also called The Slave Ship) horrifically foregrounds a slave ship rollicking in heavy seas with sharks setting upon “the dead and dying” Africans-made-into-commodities thrown overboard. There are other pamphlets, poems, paintings, media accounts and more.

Yet fantastic fiction canon bibliographies do not mention Tytler’s text. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston that displays Turner’s painting describes it as “a striking example of the artist’s fascination with violence both human and elemental” but does not mention the sharks in the painting, no matter that the foreground dominates the canvas. It goes beyond this. The Florida Museum worldwide historical shark attack database linked above does not, as best I can determine, account for a single Middle Passage attack. The Wikipedia pages for “Shark Attack” and the various geographical “List of fatal unprovoked shark attacks” pages do not mention the Middle Passage nor any of the documented African murders and deaths by shark during it. I could not access the entirety of every Discovery Channel Shark Week production but from what I could access or review through secondary sources, the Middle Passage is absent from its documentary coverage as well as that of Blue Planet and other NatGeo, Nature, Nova, BBC and other wildlife documentaries about or featuring sharks. Much like shark attack cinema, every possible and impossible shark attack story can be told except for the ones that comprise the vast preponderance. Why should this be?

Marcus Rediker writes about tall ships in perfect analogy to shark attack cinema in his 2008 article in Atlantic Studies, “History from below the water line: Sharks and the Atlantic slave trade”.

Recently I have been studying one kind of tall ship: the slave ship. During this time I discovered the limit of the romance [with tall ships]. It extends to all tall ships except the most important one. The slave ship is so far from romantic that we cannot bear to look at it, even though it was one of the two main institutions of modern slavery. The other, the plantation, has been studied intensively, but slave ships hardly at all. The rich historical literature has much to say about the origins, time, scale, flows, and profits, but little to say about the vessel that made it possible, even though the slave ship was the mechanism for history’s greatest forced migration, for an entire phase of globalization, an instrument of “commercial revolution” and the making of plantations, empires, capitalism, industrialization. If Europe, Africa, and Americas are haunted by the legacies of race, class, and slavery, the slaver is the ghost ship of our modern consciousness.

Rediker was writing prior to Christina Sharpe’s monumental 2016 volume In the Wake: On Blackness and Being and the research and work it inspires along with some preceding work but his point remains largely true. In Fred Moten’s phrasing, the Middle Passage is “the interpellative event of modernity in general.” It establishes ways of meanings through which we understand the world. The answer to the above questions about investigating every possible and impossible scenario in shark attack movies except for the main one is in Moten’s phrasing. The Middle Passage and African Slavery are frames of reference through which we experience the contemporary world. Settler colonialism destroys the Native world to build the anti-Black one and in this building creates ways of meaning, frames of reference, interpellations, discourses, normativity. As the “interpellative event” the Middle Passage is what creates the world in which shark attack movies are imagined. The narrative gap between the world that creates shark attack movies and the world they purport to portray lies in the difficulty of finding, or thinking to look for, a frame of reference with which to observe our frame of reference.

The 2007 sensationalist documentary Sharks on Trial opens asserting that “sharks terrify us” and “trigger our deepest primeval fears”. “Primeval” in this context is weirdly appropriate in how it suggests the Middle Passage as the “interpellative event of modernity in general,” how it is world building. Some colonizing empires, geographies or proto-states had earlier descriptions or cultural and linguistic representations of sharks but lost them during the Medieval period. José Castro writes that “Large sharks were known to the Greeks and Romans, and references to large sharks of the Mediterranean are found in the writings of classical writers from Aristotle to Aelian,” but that “Large sharks are conspicuously absent from the medieval bestiaries that described the then known fauna as well as some imaginary animals.” The word shark enters the English and Spanish languages through the Middle Passage. Rediker writes that “the English shark thus seems to have entered the English language through the talk of slave-trade sailors, who may have picked up and adapted the word ‘xoc,’ […] from the Maya in the Caribbean.” Castro notes the “Spanish borrowed the word tiburón from the Carib[s].” Understanding the Middle Passage as modernity’s “interpellative event” means sharks are part of creating the modern world, a synonym for the anti-Black one, making consciousness of them “primeval” indeed.

Works like Thomas Peschak’s 2013 text from University of Chicago Press, Sharks and People: Exploring Our Relationship with the Most Feared Fish in the Sea studiously ignore the medieval pre/proto-European break in shark knowledge instead asserting that “Historians have traced fear of sharks back to ancient times, as far back as the the civilizations of Greece and Rome.” Leaving aside the glaring absence of Kru, Polynesian and other non-European coastal and seafaring populations’ shark narratives — including those from the populations from which colonizers took words for sharks — filling in an appropriately blank spot to draw an ahistorical lineage obscures the Middle Passage’s founding role in colonial understandings of the shark as horror fodder. Peschak’s book is geared toward the noble goal of shark conservation while dedicating just one-half of one paragraph amongst 286 pages to the Middle Passage, the only modern period were there was anything close to parity in the numbers of people eaten by sharks and sharks eaten by people. As opposed to today when sharks comprise roughly 99.9999958% of the annual deaths in fatal human-shark encounters and humans around .0000042%, primarily through capitalist enclosure of seascapes and commodification of sealife for rents and profits. Anti-Blackness, this formation of a humanity-animality binary with Black people positioned as, in Frank Wilderson’s terms, commodifiable sites of accumulation and locations for gratuitous violence, provides the grammar for the mass shark slaughters, for making monsters of sharks, that Peschak and others so justly campaign against. Leaving the Middle Passage out of this narrative reduces the legibility of what creates both anti-Blackness and mass shark slaughters through capitalist fishing.

Just as shark attack cinema is colonial cultural production, the Middle Passage sharks are a part of a colonial ecology. Their desires were for a mix of shade from the hot tropical sun and the convenient food that often accompanies large, slow moving, floating objects, but slavers deployed those impulses as part of a terror regime. Rediker quotes one source saying

the master of a Guinea-ship, finding a rage for suicide among his slaves, from a notion the unhappy creatures had, that after death they should be restored again to their families, friends, and country; to convince them at least some disgrace should attend them here, he immediately ordered one of their dead bodies to be tied by the heels to a rope, and so let down into the sea; and, though it was drawn up again with great swiftness, yet in that short space, sharks had bit off all but the feet.

Other sources narrate kidnapped Africans being fed alive to sharks for the same purpose of terrorizing others. Sharks then, formed the exterior perimeter of The Hold and were purposefully recruited for that function. Redicker quoting again, “Our way to entice [sharks] was by Towing overboard a dead Negro which they would follow till they had eaten him up.” For colonizers the origins of shark chumming was not to catch sharks but to attract them as predators for the purpose of horror, for the purpose of a living fence.

Christina Sharpe writes, “The belly of the ship births blackness.” The slave ship’s Hold is the indigenous geography of Blackness including it’s construct of Black Captivity. The Hold’s geography of Black Captivity intended totalization. If The Hold is where Blackness is born, sharks are its birth attendants. One slave ship passenger wrote, per Rediker, “we caught plenty of fish almost every day, especially Sharks, which wee salted, & preserv’d for ye Negroes.” He continued, “They are good victuals, if well dress’d, tho’ some won’t eat them, because they feed upon men; ye Negroes fed very heartily upon them.” Thinking again of Plumwood’s “experience beyond words of total terror” at being crocodile prey, escape overboard from The Hold is exactly this yet compounded with Black Captivity. Death and/or consumption by shark may not offer any freedom from The Hold but could mean being very literally fed back into it or nourishing one’s former captors, mediated by sharks. One’s physical being put to work after biological death is a level of totalitarian control difficult to approach. While the sharks themselves offer no malevolence, they are mediators for slavers’ cruelties, desires and hungers. Almost all shark attack movies aspire towards horror but none approach this, not in topic nor terror. Not even those that make out sharks as illegible monsters, as ‘here be dragons’.

Despite everything written above, I’m neither interested in nor calling for movies or stories about sharks eating captive Black people in horror cinema and television. Social media, cinema, TV and carceral systems are already chock full of Black death and pain intended for consumption, often under the ruse of “wokeness”. It’s part of the continual construction and production of anti-Blackness. Inside of anti-Blackness there is no revolutionary potential in this kind of production of cinematic Black death. But grounding our imaginary universes inside material violences does not necessitate reproducing them. Part of cinematic horror, including nature horror, is the relief that comes with the end of the horror affect, as when someone is finally rescued from or kills an attacking shark. In shark attack movies this can mean sharks as secondary terror elements in Middle Passage revolt, survival or escape stories. Or even sharks as intentional allies in vanquishing slavers – an inversion of The Hold as a location of Black captivity, instead its wanton destruction becoming what Wilderson describes as “gratuitous freedom” – and so many more possibilities. This second example where the cruel sharks of nature horror can similarly plot in hypothetical Middle Passage stories applies equally to antecedents of other fictional aquatic beings like Ariel from The Little Mermaid and Madison from Splash, Aquaman and Namor in comics and others. Where, in their universes, were their ancestors during the Middle Passage? Like the imaginary villainous sharks of nature horror with their bottomless stomachs, their peoples necessarily encountered the Black Atlantic during the Middle Passage. What happened next?

jaws

A shark prop supposed to be a great white reduces the settler population by one. Screencap from Jaws (1975)

Instead of shark attack cinema reproducing anti-Black normativity through examining every possible story but the true one, it can offer different reference points for meaning. Instead of anti-Blackness being the frame through which the story is told, a different positionality can be the frame that breaks The Hold. A Black liberation shark attack story does not the revolution make, to be egregiously obvious. But each contribution towards ways of meaning not premised upon anti-Blackness creates a new potential hegemony, a new lens through which we engage the world and, in that, a partial end to the present world. It also turns upside down existing shark attack cinema, reframing colonizers being “victimized” by sharks as not horror. Sharks, following “the ghost ship of our modern consciousness” are the heroes haunting the settlers. I don’t want to overstate the potential individual enterprises like what a single shark attack movie against The Hold could do. But it’s hard to imagine action for real change without talking about things. And cinema is one form of conversation. And the nature horror genre can be part of that conversation when it stops giving us every possible story but the true one. Thanks for reading.

 

Works providing the basis for this essay

Saidiya Hartman Scenes of Subjection

Saidiya Hartman & Frank Wilderson “The Position of the Unthought”

Frank Wilderson Red, White and Black

Fred Moten Stolen Life

Jared Sexton “Unbearable Blackness”

Christina Sharpe In the Wake

Marcus Rediker “History from below the water line: Sharks and the Atlantic slave trade”

Val Plumwood “On Being Prey”

Thanos as Malthus

KINDA SORTA SPOILERS FOR AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR FOLLOW

 

 

 

The new blockbuster hit Avengers: Infinity War has as it’s major plot conflict an attempt by the Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy and others to prevent the Titan Thanos from collecting all six of the Infinity Stones, mounting them in the gauntlet and using the collected power to end half of all life in the universe. I read this as Thanos taking a very specifically Malthusian anti-demos approach.

Thanos, in the film, is motivated by events from his home moon of Titan where a crisis of resource exploitation came about (the how is not clear). Thanos offer a solution of reducing the potential pool of exploiters but was rejected. Implied in the film is that the continuation of the overexploitation makes Titan a lifeless, desert world in the end.

This is the current trajectory of Earth in the material world, though this isn’t generally explored in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) that Infinity War is part of. So using Earth as an example, apart from the local geographies were humans first evolved, when humans first arrived in a new geography they exterminated through overhunting or elimination of competitors some of the other megafauna. But this isn’t the same as ecosystem collapse. As example, after humans first arrived on Turtle Island they killed (or otherwise rendered extinct) several large animals but attained a sort of harmony over time by and large. This is the same path that happened in Australia and elsewhere. Capitalism created the overexploitation when it reimagined the ecology not as a place of being but as an exploitable resource. Infinity War naturalizes capitalist this growth-by-any-means throughout the universe as though the “Infinity War” is caused by a class one brought by the capitalist enclosure of the universe.

But in the material world it is capitalist accumulation that produces environmental collapse and resource scarcity. The overwhelming majority of the population, largely delineated by the lines created by colonialism and African Slavery, not only has nothing to do with the cause of the overexploitation, but are similarly victimized by it. Thanos’s understanding is not this though. His is a very capitalist interpretation of demographic danger as if the very fact of population produces danger. Thanos imagines overpopulation as a thing since overproduction and overconsumption cannot be imagined inside capitalism as capital is incapable of self-reflection. His solution then, is to end half of all life to bring “balance” to the universe. Were Thanos focused on overconsumption instead of overpopulation, he would find solutions to the “problem” short of culling the herd.

For example, if the full Infinity Gauntlet can end all life through physical erasure, it certainly could create matter too and produce what is lacked. Or instead of “half”, Thanos could use it to kill the exploiters, the CEOs and what have you. But Thanos can’t imagine this. Instead he designs that half the beings in the universe must die to avoid the fate of his home world. The culling is very much a Malthusian solution of cruel social engineering. The filmmakers give Thanos the libertarian gloss of fake egalitarianism by insisting all the powerful and disimpowered alike will face this culling. But what does this have to do with consumption of resources? If capitalist overconsumption is the norm throughout the MCU then a numerically small percentage of each planet’s population controls the resources. Thanos’ numerically random cull will disproportionately affect the majority, again delineated by the lines of colonialism and African slavery, who are not responsible for this overconsumption, further concentrating power in the hands of the elites who brought on the crisis.

Thanos’s solution is not the only evidence of his Malthusian demographic take. The definition of “life” as exemplified by the cull points to this as well. We see part of the cull in a lush Wakandan forest but no trees or other plants are seen to die, only humans and humanoid-ish beings. So if the definition isn’t literally “life”, then it is some kind of colonial definition of animality that picks what/who is a qualified life and who/what is an exploitable resource less-than-life (which should’ve but didn’t spare a specific Avenger so Thanos must not have read Wynter and Wilderson lol!). Taken as the product of MCU storylines to date, a Malthusian “positive” effect the film describes as inevitable. In one of the concluding lines, Benedryl Slumberpatch’s character appears to be recruited to Thanos’ POV, suggesting an inevitability to the Malthusian culling.

All this is well and good but if Thanos is Malthus, what potential does that open up for the Avengers? It’s kinda silly to imagine that Tony Stark is anything but an arms dealer and Steve Rodgers is anything but an imperial super-grunt but being forced to take an anti-Malthusian position allows for the possibility of anti-colonial positioning. Expecting this from the MCU is silly but it’s something to aspire towards.

Casting a Spell of Settler Normativity

doctor_strange_ver2

The 2016 film Dr. Strange is a paradigmatic example of how the settler society naturalizes settler colonialism in the imaginary universes it produces. The film studiously avoids political discussion so the coloniality is only implied, albeit quite heavily. Folks who followed Dr. Strange’s production will remember problems in the film’s production related to both the orientalist narrative and whitewashing of the cast . But this is not where the film’s racism ends. As noted previously on this blog, the US settler society produces imaginary universes that share it’s premise of indigenous removal. The Marvel universe is no different than the material universe in this regard. The United States destroys the native world through constructing the anti-Black one.

We learn towards the end of Dr. Strange that there are three “sanctums” operated by the Masters of the Mystic Arts. One is in Hong Kong and the second in London. Neither of these are obvious historical choices for a mythology supposedly stemming from the Tibetan plateau. But both have had human populations for several thousand years. So let’s chalk it up to drift. The third is in New York City. Why should this be? Why would this ancient sect set up shop in such a young city? How long has it been there? Were/are the sorcerers settlers? Did native Masters of the Mystic Arts prior to European colonization operate the sanctum? No matter how we answer these questions they exemplify settler normativity, how the destruction of the native world and construction of the anti-Black one is naturalized in settler discourse.

If the Masters of the Mystic Arts set up the sanctum as part of colonization then “defending the planet” from extradimensional threats means defending the settler’s world, defending a colonial cosmology; the destruction of the native cosmos is already including in their very settlerness. If they were there before colonization, why did they not defend the native cosmos from settler invasion? From what little we’ve seen there is no question of ability. Through making portals they could’ve simply rerouted ships back towards their own lands or to Antarctica or beneath the ocean surface, all that before considering their superiority in potential violence. Dr. Strange’s cosmos explores neither of these because it cannot. To explore either one is to question the premise of the settler cosmos. Instead it goes unasked. Like all basic questions of settler colonialism, it is simply naturalized in discourse at a level below the observable because it is the frame through which observations are made. The comics offer a little more information on this but it’s really more of the same, naturalizing indigenous removal in the narrative as a natural progression from native to settler. The dispossession of natives is as fundamental to settler imaginary universes, including the settler fantastic, as it is to the material settler colony. This also shows yet again the limits of improved representation alone. The question of settler normativity is structural, not representative and basic changes to the Marvel universe are required to address this spell of settler normativity.

From Abar to Black Panther: Witnessing the superheroism of Black storytelling

Guest post from Briana Ureña Ravelo.

 

 

Abar broadsheet

Broadsheet for Abar: The First Black Superman

To gear up for my Black Panther weekend starting today, I have been watching movies from the Marvel Comics Universe and the movie Abar: The First Black Superman (rereleased on video in 1990 as In Your Face), a 1977 Blaxploitation film credited as the first Black superhero movie. It is the story of a young poor Black organizer, Abar, part of a Black Panthers-reminiscent group of hip young militants called the Black Front of Unity, and an affluent Doctor Kinkade, on the brink of a secret scientific development, and his family newly located to a white neighborhood not to happy about the prospect of a Black family moving in. In fact, one woman, furious at the prospect of the illusion of a pure white community being destroyed, explodes and threatens the family with arson, assault and mobilization of the community against them.

Now to be sure, it is a low-budget Blaxploitation film of the corniest kind. In this review I won’t be touching upon the technicality or quality of the acting, writing, plot or action, because honestly it would end there, it’s all so embarrassingly shoddy and amateurish. Granted, there are moments wherein the poor quality adds to the comedic or narrative affect. One such moment is when the titular character Abar literally rides in on the side of a garbage truck to Dr. Kinkade’s rescue while funky 70s action music plays in the background, fights two white men who are assaulting Dr, Kinkade and throws them in the garbage, enlisting his garbage truck driving-accomplices to clean up the Kinkades’ yard and throws the trash on top of the discarded men, one of whom’s leg is sticking akimbo.

BFU

The Black Front of Unity arriving to take out the white trash

The dialogue, however bad it is, also yet has many gems. One is a conversation between Abar and Dr. Kinkade wherein Abar castigates Kinkade for being affluent, bourgeoisie and white-aspiring, accusing him of no longer caring for the poor Black people he comes from and that Abar fights for. Dr. Kinkade dismisses him and his “ghetto-preaching” and says he thinks change comes from the Black voting block. Abar then says that actually doesn’t do much to achieve change because it doesn’t guarantee good politicians of any background and the ones in office currently, Black and white, weren’t changing anything. Why would the more do it? Essentially, Abar was telling Dr. Kinkade to shove his liberal sensibilities up his ass, wake up and see the desperation felt in the hoods Kinkade wished to avoid for the sake of upward mobility and, instead, use his affluence to help and move back to the hood.

The film is filled with many such class critiques of the position that Dr. Kinkade and others like him have as an affluent Black people and their clear disgust and disdain for poor and working class Black people, their affluence named by Abar and others in his crew as being stolen from poor Black folks. Dr. Kinkade is painted as a traitor to other more marginalized ghetto folks, albeit a sympathetic one only trying to do what’s best for his family and help Black people in the long run. Narratives of Black sacrifice and and martyrdom abound and dance between honest tellings and Black pain porn.

kinkade in the lab

Dr. Kinkade in the lab looking for the missing piece needed for his superhero potion

An Afrofuturistic showcasing of scientific advancement as the key to lead Black people to a brighter liberated future lies in Dr. Kinkade’s experimentations that lead Abar to develop super powers and fight the ills that plague the Black community. Dr. Kinkade and Abar fight amongst each other and within themselves about tactics and perspectives and sacrifice. Does acting respectable, obeying the law and voting for change work best? Or does the impoverished demanding freedom and taking justice in their own hands from the bottom down by any means necessary lead to true change? Dr Kinkade’s lab has a poster of Martin Luther King, Jr. looming in the back and he and Abar have multiple conversations and exchanges about his method and legacy and their thoughts and struggles with it. Abar names that he doesn’t want to be a supernatural hero, perfect. He just wants suffering to stop but to still be flawed, passionate, human.

The white neighbors are apathetic and sneering at best and overtly racist, abusive, murderous (seriously they all have guns and bombs and try their best to take this family out and succeed in killing Doctor Kinkade’s son), self-interested, cruel. The politicians, including the Black ones, want no trouble and clearly lay out a plan to use the law and pay-offs to strong arm the family out. Police murder then plant a gun on black man they shot without reason.

Abar and Kinkade, before Abar's suit wearing stars

Abar and Dr. Kinkade before Abar starts wearing suits

At the end of the movie after he discovers Dr. Kinkade’s experimentations and drinks the potion that makes him superman, Abar, who was the cool militant voice of the film, strangely enough becomes a Black Respectability Politicking Jiminy Cricket in a suit with the ability to walk around and hypnotize dark skin poor Black people to stop pimping, partying, gambling, gangbanging, drinking and robbing each other. Even though he spent the whole moving decrying the respectability of Dr. Kinkade, he inevitably becomes an image of respectability himself. He does at one point magic away a clearly wordly pastor’s fancy car away and instead make him ride a horse and buggy, and turn the fancy meals of upper class Black people belittling the state of poor Black people into maggots and worms. There’s many moments where the story is super sympathetic towards the wildly savage and violent white people constantly attacking the Black characters, but Abar and his militancy shines through at the end when he enacts Exodus-style vengeance on the racist white people of the town via plagues.

It’s cliche, but infuriating to say that it shows that not much has changed, both in the frustration that is still facing the same challenges Black people over 40 years ago faced but also in really powerful and rooting sense that we are still telling and navigating Blackness, oppression, and heroism in the face of it through media. Overall, I was struck at how many parallels, good, bad and complicated, that could be made between this movie and existing depictions and narratives in Black media today, and in political struggles of this day as well.

Aside from just good ol’ blatant racism, part of the reticence from white people towards Black superheroes and storylines is racialized anti-Black perceptions of Blackness as burdensome. That is, Blackness does not easily allow anyone, Black, white or otherwise, one to fully escape and suspend belief to immerse oneself in an alternate universe that doesn’t in that universe deal and touch upon the realities of Blackness in one way or another. Whiteness, socialized as the default blank slate, can escape all definitions and under white supremacy fully embody everyone. In tandem it does not believe Blackness can be relatable to anyone who isn’t Black nor allow Black people to abandon the constraints of this world to experience and immerse themselves in comic book and movie world either. You have to, in one way or another, face, embrace, illustrate, grapple or full on put paint the town red with Blackness if you feature Black people in your story line. Abar does it poorly and heavy-handedly, with many missteps along the way, but there are still really good moments that feel current and relatable because it is dealing with Blackness in a superhero film where the problem is oppression and the supernatural element’s goal is to liberate Black people.

It shows that this alleged narrative burden of Blackness — of always being perceived through that lens — is not alleviated by trying to shirk it and be “colorblind”. Instead, by rejecting the notion that it is a burden in the first place, and embracing Black history and narrative traditions and using them creatively in a superhero film, it expands other people’s racist narrow scope of what Black storytelling can look like in that genre while rejecting Eurocentrism and “apolitical” whiteness as the norm. If being “colorblind” and assimilating doesn’t work as political, social and cultural policy why would it work on a narrative level? Abar deals with the realities of Black life and politics in the late seventies while playing the golem. Dr Kinkade, broken by overwork and the loss of his family, reflects and broods quietly with Abar on his porch about Martin Luther King, Jr. and his fear for their people. He says that while nonviolence is a noble goal, a “strong positive force” is needed to “counteract the evil of violence.” That strong positive force is his superman concoction he convinces Abar to drink and use for the good of his people.

And so our best media-literature, comics and film-has always worked to exemplify and describe, elevate and illuminate, grapple and claim, what and how to handle and depict Blackness, the Black experience and Black people. Do you talk about Black struggles and risk only showcasing torture porn stories of suffering, poverty, exploitation, rape, slavery, gang violence and drugs, or do you try to dance around it or skip it entire and accidentally fall into white-washing and sanitizing the Black experience? Do you tell white/European stories but with Black people in them (Idris as Heimdall in Thor) or do you actually try to depict and showcase a Black/African story? Should a white person write and direct that or should they always be Black? How do you do all of this creatively while dealing with real life pushback and racism towards your artistic choices?

I’m excited for Black Panther as it has established the goal to meet these challenge head on by being as Black as possible with as many hands on deck to tell those stories well and with complexity and power. While it is still a major movie in a white industry and a white comic book universe written by a white man (and debuting just before the Black Panther party did), many Black Panther comic runs have been in its more recently history have been written by Black writers, the director and screenplay writer of the movie are Black, and most of it’s cast is Black, unambiguously so. The soundtrack, designs, inspirations, politics are all very intentionally Black and decolonial.

Again, aside from the fact that it is technically poor film, Abar falls flat in many ways, like in its depictions of how to challenge and face white supremacy, oppression and exploitation, medical experimentation and and consent/autonomy, the typical misogynoirist erasure and usage of Black women and girls as objects in a larger storyline dominated yet by men, classism and respectability. I’ll be looking out for these same things and more when I see Black Panther. But the industry, political landscape and discourse has progressed and grown and changed a lot since Abar first was made and came out. Movies like Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok follow in a much more current manifestation of the tradition that centers Black struggle, culture realities in an alternative universe so as to both give an Afrocentric spin to popular and beloved mediums, archetypes and stories and also to tell decolonial tales with a futuristic edge that showcases powerful and illustrious worlds that are not empty of Blackness but full of it as examples for us in the real world. We use these pieces of fiction to describe, reveal, tell and connect with our true selves, display what our deepest struggles, loves, and desires and lead us as people into more brilliant and creative futures. So as a lover of stories, an organizer and an Afro-Latina woman, I can’t wait to see what Black Panther has in store for us.

 

 

Marvel History is Whitewash

CW: Racist comics imagery

 

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In the expectation that Black Panther lives up to the immense talent of the cast and promise of the incredible Ryan Coogler’s aesthetics and politics, here’s a little more historical context on how deep runs anti-Black imagery in Marvel. Timely Comics, which later becomes Marvel Comics, first had a Black “character” in the Young Allies comic in 1941. Young Allies depicted a group of young “patriots” who first joined Captain America (who was also in his original iteration, this is part of his story too) in beating up Nazis and was soon spun off into a comic of its own. The most prominent Young Ally was Bucky Barnes, Captain America’s longtime sidekick, brought to the screen in the 2014 film Captain America: Winter Soldier and 2016’s Captain America: Civil War.

 

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The character (caricature really) was named, not joking, Whitewash Jones and he was portrayed as per the images included throughout. There’s not much point in discussing the images themselves for the purposes of this post. Suffice to say they are exactly what they appear to be. This is the imagery of Blackness that was the point of departure for future Marvel depictions.

 

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It’s true that Black characters in mainstream and indie comics are no longer drawn like this. But before writing this off as an image of a bygone era, it was just in 2015 that Avengers: Age of Ultron portrayed a heroic plunder of African resources by white capitalists.

 

 
In this clip we see Captain America and Tony Stark worried after they find out Ultron has sought out arms dealer Ulysses Klaue. They learn that Klaue has been branded with the word “thief” in Wakandan and Stark says, “If this guy got out of Wakanda with some of their trade goods…” Cap replies, “I thought your father said he got the last of it.”
 
Stark’s father was an arms trader just like Tony and Klaue. What this exchange implies very clearly was if the elder Stark’s plunder of Wakandan natural resources, specifically vibranium, had been complete then the threat posed by Ultron would be dramatically lower. So while the representative imagery of Blackness has changed in the Marvel universe we still see a structural imagery premised on colonial power and plundering Africa as a fundamental “good”.


I’ve written before about the colonial present in comics. This structural description of the present is why Whitewash Jones is relevant when we look at Captain America’s portrayal. It’s part of Captain America’s history and representative changes, while vital and 89723465897623458761348756234875% necessary, do not inhere structural changes in the universes portrayed, much less in the material universe producing the portrayals. This is the universe into which Black Panther is coming and what it will have triumphed against if it fulfills it’s incredible promise.