Car Crimes and Cultural Imagination
- Oxford University Press
- Publication Type:
- Oxford Research Encyclopedia: Criminology and Criminal Justice, 2016, pp. 1 - 26
- Issue Date:
The car and crime become entrenched in the cultural imagination with the widely circulated images of the bullet-hole-ravaged Ford V8 that Bonnie (Parker) and Clyde (Barrow) were in when they were killed by Texan and Louisianan police in 1934. This couple of outlaws (and their gang) had kept newspaper readers enthralled and appalled as they robbed, murdered, and kidnapped throughout the Midwest since 1932. The scope of their activities and their success in evading authorities, along with their crimes, which included many vehicle thefts, were facilitated by the mobility of the car. Before Bonnie and Clyde, car crime in the public consciousness comprised images of the foolish and antisocial behavior of the well-to-do car-owning elite. After Bonnie and Clyde, the famous image of their death car and the celebrity-making image of Bonnie as the archetypical gangster moll with cigar and revolver leaning over a stolen car, linked in the cultural imagination crime and cars as everyday through a visceral mix of bodies, sex, and violence. In particular, the visceral imaginings of car crime after Bonnie and Clyde separated into four locations. All involved, to certain degree, bodies, sex, and violence, but distinct contexts and meanings can be identified. The first location is the imaging of car crime itself; of risky use of the car—speeding, dangerous driving, racing, drink driving—actions evidenced by carnage on the roads. There have emerged two frames for this location. The first is the serious and deadly context of the usually male driver fueled by “combustion masculinity” taking irresponsible risks with bloody consequences. The second is the humorous, over-the-top risky, subversive, and illegal car-based activities, a frame tapped into by television shows like Top Gear (Klein, 2002–2015) and Bush Mechanics (Batty, 2001) and manifest in the car chase trope. The second location is the car as a crime scene. From JFK’s assassination in a Lincoln convertible, to the car as site of sexual assault, to the illicit imaginings of the goings-on in a VW microbus, the car is a place in which crimes happen. The car is seen as constructing an internal geography in which crimes occur. The third location has the car as a facilitator of criminal activity. In the road buddy narrative from On the Road (Kerouac, 1957) to Thelma & Louise (Scott, 1991) the car becomes the outlaw’s mechanical horse facilitating a crime spree and evading arrest. At the fourth location, the car became imaged as property, the car as a crime object. From Gone in 60 Seconds (Sena, 2000) to the advertisements of the vehicle insurance industry, the car became conceived as vulnerable property, the target of theft. While distinguishable, each location is not segmented in the cultural imagination, but, as role-played by gamers in the Grand Theft Auto computer game series, cross and coexist. Now well into its second century, the car, notwithstanding contemporary transformations, nurtures a vivid imagining of its culture gone wrong.
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