G-Men Heroes or Deep State Thugs: Hollywood’s Historical Representation of the FBI

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Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture




For most of the 20th century and now in the 21st century, the Federal Bureau of Investigation agent has undergone distinct changes in the way they have been depicted in films and television programs. This study uses a cultivation theory as a foundation to analyze the relationship between visual representation and social trust in the FBI. The study examined the qualifiers used by those producing material to represent the FBI as a cultivated, casual, education of the meaning of the FBI. The study used a sample of films and TV shows taken from IMdB that contained the FBI in a plot descriptor, with closer attention paid to the plot descriptions of films where the FBI plays a major role. The results indicate that the cultivated meaning changed over time, likely as the result of influence by the bureau’s longtime leader, J. Edgar Hoover. The FBI agent was often celebrated as a hero and patriot in films during the early Hoover era, viewed with paranoia in darkened shadows in the 1970s, and jeered as the foil of anti-heroes in the late 1990s and early 2000s. FBI agents are frequently used as main or supportive characters that solve crimes and dedicate their careers to seeking justice, but how the audience is meant to feel about that process often changes with the times. The FBI agent has recently gone from being viewed as an apolitical figure to one steeped in the notion of a “deep state.”