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FROM DANCING BABIES TO LAW & ORDER SVU: HOW POP CULTURE CAN SHAPE SOCIETY

There’s no doubt you’re probably familiar with the two-beat theme of Law & Order, or if you’re slightly older, you might even remember the ‘Oogachaka’ dancing baby from legal show Ally McBeal.

And while an entire generation has grown up with Law &Order in one form or another, you may not have considered how that pop culture icon has also shaped our understanding of law. But it’s something Professor Jason Bainbridge is more than familiar with.

Professor Bainbridge joined the University of Canberra (UC) as Executive Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Design in August 2019. He developed his keen interest in film studies, law and popular culture completing a Law/Arts degree and PhD and these studies continue to provide an important basis for much of his research.

“A lot of my research is around popular representations of law and what they tell us about law’s functioning,” Jason says.

“I’ve looked at series like Law & Order, Perry Mason and Ally McBeal, films adapted from John Grisham novels and even comic book superheroes like Daredevil and She Hulk and how they present the superhero as an alternative justice figure.

“A big part of my research is based around analysing the importance of popular culture in our daily lives. That lovely idea that we imagine the future we want to create. I think popular culture gives us all of these avenues and opportunities to explore ideas in the safe space of fiction – ideas of different societies, different models of law and justice and different ways of being.”

More specifically, Jason has looked at how popular representations of law shape popular understandings of how law functions by thinking about law not just as a set of textual constructs, but as a more dynamic process that is shaped by broader social and cultural contexts.

From classic lawyers like Atticus Finch to modern justice figures like Detectives Benson and Stabler of Law & Order: SVU, Jason believes there is one key reason why popular culture matters so much.

“Pop culture is still very much a global common language.”

“Think of television. It used to be that if you were at a party and you didn’t have anything to talk about, you could break the ice by talking about The Simpsons because everyone would know a particular episode, whether it was the Monorail one or the Planet of the Apes musical. Nowadays, in the age of streaming and spoilers, we still open a conversation with ‘what did you watch last night?’ or ‘have you seen …?’ or ‘can you believe that happened on …?’”

Jason speaks of pop culture being a ‘global culture’ partly because of the broad reach of American pop culture and partly because popular culture is so recognisable it can become a shorthand way of representing more complex issues or ideas.

“If people are trying to highlight a particular issue they can use this pop culture currency as shorthand. The Anonymous movement’s use of the ‘Guy Fawkes’ V for Vendetta mask or dressing up as a handmaid from The Handmaid’s Tale are just two examples where pop culture iconography can be redeployed to throw a spotlight on social activism or restrictions on women’s rights.

“Once you see New York’s Sikh Captain America, for example, you start to understand how a re-appropriation of popular culture icons can really challenge basic assumptions around race and inclusion in all sorts of interesting ways. And of course, cosplaying as a character like Captain America highlights another massive shift in popular culture – the movement of superheroes from comic fan sub-culture into the mainstream. It’s an interesting time in society when our primary justice figures are costumed vigilantes who operate completely outside the legal system compared to justice figures of the past, like policemen, lawyers or even cowboys.

“Dressing up like a superhero can and has become a form of civic engagement, a safe space from which you can question the State and campaign for change. It's interesting that so much civic engagement seems to be unfolding through popular culture.”

Jason Bainbridge on stairs in Building 7

In addition to operating as a vehicle for civic engagement, the safe space of popular culture means it can also become a petrie dish for testing different ideas and approaches.

“A series like Ally McBeal was a really interesting testbed for thinking about civil rights and privacy, a safe space where you could run a morality play each week to test both the limits of law and its impacts on those who practice it, particularly women.

Law & Order has picked up that torch and run with it in a very different way, without a dancing baby for a start, in terms of having those ripped from the headlines cases and pushing them a bit further to explore the moral dimensions of what it means to prosecute and defend.

Law & Order: SVU, for example, has really brought discussions around women’s rights, what constitutes harassment and assault and the law’s difficulties in dealing with these issues into a broader public dialogue. That really didn’t happen before and in many respects the fact that the series has been running for 20 years means it has been able to maintain a conversation that draws on the latest advances in technology while taking multiple angles on the same issue.

“I’ve always maintained that popular culture doesn’t tell us how to think, it tells us what to think about and encourages us to discuss and debate what we have just engaged with. I think the open-ended nature of a lot of these law shows in particular prompt discussions which can be carried on long after individual episodes have ended.”

For new, or current students, who also have an interest in pop culture, its role in society or are looking for new ways of exploring it, Jason says it’s worth looking into the Faculty of Arts and Design course offerings, as they contain a lot of transferrable skill sets as well as vocational pathways.

“What the Faculty of Arts and Design units really offer are creative ways of thinking about problems. These are inter-disciplinary lenses, skills and tools you can use to approach problems in new and different ways. I think anyone doing a business, science, education or health degree can benefit from picking up an elective major or double degree with FAD because it will help develop their communications skills, alongside their critical thinking.

“This provides a broader scope for individual career growth and opportunities than a single discipline and I think that’s an increasingly crucial skill for building a successful career in our rapidly changing world.”

Words by Amy Stevenson. Photo by Madeleine Wood.

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