G-men, Hoover's FBI in American popular culture

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Southern Illinois University Press, Nov 1, 1983 - History - 356 pages

“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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Dick Tracy
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About the author (1983)

Richard Gid Powers is in the American Studies Department at the College of Staten Island. He has edited six volumes of the Gregg Press series of science fiction and is editor of Popular Culture Interna­tional. In a commentary on Powers’ article, “J. Edgar Hoover and the Detective Hero” published in the Washington Post in 1976, Nich­olas von Hoffman wrote: “Powers is the first one to document the man’s (Hoover’s) invasion of popular mythology by melding himself and the bureau to fiction.”