The Effect of Film on Society

Throughout this project I have explored the reality of female criminality in the US by breaking down the demographics of those who are involved in the criminal justice system and exploring the many gendered ways these women become involved in the system. I have also looked at how criminal women are presented through American films, in order to establish whether films present accurate portrayals of criminal women. By and large I have found that films do not accurately present criminal women, their crimes, methods, motivations, repercussions and all-round experiences.


Why does this matter?


I believe, and have explored scholarly work that supports the argument, that films can influence how people think and act. I have collected two key pieces of work that explore the relationship between films and people’s beliefs and behavior. A lot of this work is rooted in psychology, which is not where my expertise lies. However, the arguments and conclusions put forward by these works help support my point that my project matters because of the way American films present criminal women, silences and overshadows the reality of female criminality. As a result, I argue that this could lead to people to believe that women only commit certain crimes, in certain ways, for certain reasons. Furthermore, if these women are  presented as the ‘evil’ force of the films, and ‘rightly’ suffer negative consequences because of their criminality, it may lead viewers to believe that, generally, women who commit crime are evil and do deserve their punishment.

Franklin Fearing was a physiological psychologist who often focused on communications and media. His 1947 article “Influence of the Movies on Attitudes and Behavior”[1] explores the relationship between movies and human behavior. Broadly, Fearing’s argument is that motion pictures allow the individual to cognize – respond, think, perceive – their world. Fearing’s ultimate conclusion is that each individual who watches a film, comes to the film with their own needs, experiences, understandings and backgrounds. As a result, the individual’s response to the film is crafted through their attempt to structure and understand their own world. My project has not taken into account who is watching the films I included in my dataset, and therefore cannot speak on what the needs, experiences, understandings and backgrounds of the people who watch these films are. However, I can hazard a guess that if viewers have no experience or interaction with incarcerated women, then the way criminal women are portrayed in these films help viewers craft their understanding of real criminal women. As well as these viewers not having interactions or experiences with real criminal women, they may also be unaware of the silently increasing population of women in the US criminal justice system. As a result, the marginalized position many of these fictional criminal women hold in American films may fool viewers into believing that real female criminals are limited in number and do not make up a growing population of the criminal justice system. If these films do have this affect on viewers, then it completely silences and overlooks the lives and experiences of real criminal women and the ways in which they become involved with the system.

Sheena Rogers is a psychologist and film theorist whose work went deeper than Fearing’s by exploring the relationship between film and reality.[2] In her work “Through Alice’s Glass: The Creation and Perception of Other Worlds in Movies, Pictures, and Virtual Reality,” Rogers discuses the view that people who watch films are aware that there is a difference between “the experience of a motion picture … [and] the experience of the real world.”[3] This view works on the fact that when we watch a film, we ‘know’ it isn’t real because we are watching it through a screen, but we aware that we are being presented with images of the real world around us. Rogers argues instead in favor of her ‘ecological’ approach which claims that films are a medium for the viewer to explore the world around us. She argues that the “filmmaker is auteur of information”[4] and “the viewer is an active explorer”[5] who learns about the world that the filmmaker presents to them. Rogers argues that filmmakers curate information about the real world around us and, through the experience of film, the viewer can learn and experience this real world. Therefore, according to Rogers argument, if films present inaccurate portrayals of criminal women, then viewers will experience this inaccurate portrayal as if it were an accurate presentation of the real world.

I am not a psychologist, so I cannot give too much weight to the arguments of these scholars, or knowingly argue in favor of them in relation to my work. However, it seems clear to me – from the literature and some common sense – that if we are presented with a specific image of a person repeatedly, then it is likely we soon start to believe that the way this person is presented is accurate. This is even more true for people that we would not normally interact with. It reasonable to argue that most ordinary people who have no involvement with the criminal justice system, are more likely to interact with a fictional female criminal, than a real one. I cannot argue that Hollywood’s presentation of the femme fatale has brainwashed filmgoers into thinking women’s prisons and jails are filled with rich, white, husband murderers and insurance fraudsters who look like Barbara Stanwyck or Sharon Stone. However, my project does show that the presentation of the femme fatale is not an accurate presentation of real criminal women, and thus Hollywood does distort the reality of female criminality. I hope this page gives my readers some food for thought when it comes to how the criminal justice system, in general, is presented to us on screen.


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[1] Franklin Fearing, “Influence of the Movies on Attitudes and Behavior,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 254 (1947): 70–79.

[2] Sheena Rogers, “Through Alice’s Glass: The Creation and Perception of Other Worlds in Movies, Pictures, and Virtual Reality,” in Moving Image Theory: Ecological Considerations (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2007.).

[3] Joseph D. Anderson, Barbara Fisher Anderson, and David Bordwell, Moving Image Theory: Ecological Considerations (Carbondale, UNITED STATES: Southern Illinois University Press, 2007), 215.

[4] Rogers, “Through Alice’s Glass,” 223.

[5] Anderson, Anderson, and Bordwell, Moving Image Theory, 215.