G-men, Hoover's FBI in American popular culture
“Calling the Police! Calling the G-Men! Calling all Americans to War on the Underworld” was the sign-on of the first radio program to portray the agents of the FBI as action heroes. Thus began the remarkable collaboration between the government agency and the merchants of popular culture that was to continue for over forty years.
In G-Men Richard Gid Powers explores the cultural forces that permitted the rise and fostered the fall of the nation’s secret police as national heroes. He examines popular attitudes toward crime from the standpoint of functionalist (Durkheimian) theory and surveys the FBI’s image in popular entertainment from the thirties to the recent “Today’s FBI” as a vicarious ritual of national solidarity to explain the popularity of the action detective formula. Soundly based on extensive research and interviews, the book provides an account of how the FBI and the mass entertainment industry were able to transform the bureau and its biggest cases into popular mythology.
Hoover and his FBI became national heroes through identification with the action detective hero of crime entertainment. Hoover’s popular culture role made him and his bureau sacrosanct symbols of national pride and unity, but in turn made it very difficult for them to do anything that would not conform to the public’s preconceptions about action heroes. Powers shows that the dynamics of popular culture are integral to an explanation of the collapse of the bureau’s reputation following Hoover’s death. Had Hoover and the popularizers of the FBI not attempted to turn the popular culture G-Man into an embodiment of traditional American virtues, the illegal activities that came to light following Hoover’s death would have been excused as inconsequential in the larger context of a hard-boiled “War on the Underworld.”
G-Men examines a classic case of the manipulation of popular culture for political power. Seldom in American culture has such manipulation been so successful. As Powers states: “At the same time Hoover was casting his shadow over American public life his G-Men were the stars of movies, radio adventures, comics, pulp magazines, television series, even bubble gum cards.” But he finds that Hoover—far from controlling his own destiny and the power of the agency he had built—was created, shaped, and then destroyed by the dynamics of popular culture and the public expectations it generated.
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