Understanding Law Through Popular Culture

Popular culture is the common taste of common people with reference to books, movies, songs, television, music, sports, other cultural artefacts etc. The elitist preference does not come into the picture here. Law is now the source of plots, the heart of dramatic twists and the ultimate resolution for a distorted storyline.

Douglas J. Goodman in Law and Popular Culture[1] gives three approaches to draw a relationship between law and popular culture: semiotic, transmission and institutional.

A semiotic way to deal with popular culture can uncover parts of its structure that might be disregarded by progressively conventional techniques and the individuals who adopt this strategy are keen on investigating the multiple meaning that the culture has to offer. But this approach accumulates a lot of alternate purposes other than one true meaning.

The initial phase in this methodology is to isolate the interpretation of the popular cultural work from its maker’s intention. This has led to the “death of the author” which translates that the author’s intents are no longer seen as the way to understanding the content’s importance. Once freed from the grapple of its maker’s aim, the content can yield a variety of implications and meanings to those who interpret. Semioticians presume that individuals are charmed into texts that gives them some chance to oppose the given definition.

Thus, they stress the opposite political connotations that can be found in the piece. Semiotics is also often employed in teaching law as the assessment is intended to uncover alternative meanings that will open up opportunities for an optional political order. By and large, the point isn’t only to build such a political order, however, to give a critical angle from which the norm can be questioned and tested. Popular culture texts are utilized to “enliven” legal facts, to explain the law’s dramatic impacts on individuals’ lives, to uncover the law’s hidden procedures, and to exhibit the law’s ethical dimension. The advantage of a semiotic way to deal with law and popular culture gives many of the same benefits as the study of law and literature.[2]

Secondly, the transmission model adopts Laswell’s (1948) five-part model, which is presented in the popular culture concept makes one question who are sourcing the messages about the law in popular culture, what constitutes the contents of it, what media is used to broadcast the news, who is at receiving end of them and what is the impression on their opinion of the law. At the point when the transmission strategy is applied, there are two potential ways that it could go, manipulation and reflection.

A significant part of the research utilizing the transmission methods has concentrated on the use of media to mislead and manipulate the audience. Instead of taking a gander at the “proliferation of meaning” or the transmission of a message, the third methodology revolves around the concerned institutional structures.

It is intriguing to know that the success or the failure of the transmission model can be accredited to the institutional attributes of profit-making organizations and corporations. Both law and popular culture are created and propagated by institutions. It is only in this methodology one can recognize the immense effect that law has on popular culture.[3]

When it comes to the law, popular culture has been a medium in either simplifying it or criticizing it. There have been exceptional works of movies and T.V shows like 12 Angry men (1957), Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) (book adaptation), Double Jeopardy (1999), Suits (2011-19), and many more with both fictional and real-life aspects to it.

One such is Erin Brockovich (2000), an American movie directed by Steven Soderbergh. Although dramatized, the film is a real-life depiction of Erin Brockovich, a legal clerk who was instrumental in building a case that had the largest settlement ever paid in the history of U.S.A. Julia Roberts plays the character of Erin in the movie.

The concept of law that is dealt with here is Mass Torts where harm/damage is done to a large section of the society. It is further divided into categories of single-event occurrences (explosion, accidents), serial injuries or creeping disasters (developing adverse effects over time making it difficult to identify the root cause) and the third is of Toxic damage which is what had happened in this case. The inspiration is the case of Erin Brockovich, Anderson et al v. Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E), 1993.[4]

Here, there was contamination of drinking water in Hinkley, Southern Californian town. This was because of the use of carcinogenic (cancer-causing) chemical compound, Chromium-6 as a corrosion inhibitor in their cooling system. The contaminated water leaked to the aquifer serving Hinkley’s needs. Erin played a key role in bringing the 634 plaintiffs on board and also in establishing PG&E’s corporate office had knowledge of the illegal dumping by their Hinkley plant. This case was settled in a private arbitration with an amount of $333M for damages.

The firm that she worked for received 40% from which she was given a bonus of $2.5M. The movie showed a happy ending but in reality, many victims died before 1996, when the settlement happened, and some of them weren’t even included. PG&E had spent up to $750M for remediation and still were unable to contain the polluted water. Thus, Hinkley is said to be a ghost town now. Even though the movie sugar-coated harsh consequences and some truth, it was justified concerning portraying the concept of Mass Torts.

Indian movies and shows have had their fair share of contribution in understanding the legal regime of the country with works like No One Killed Jessica (2011) based on the murder of Jessica Lal[5], Delhi Crime (2019) based on the Nirbhaya rape case[6], Talvar (2015) based on the 2008 Noida double murder incident and a few more titles like Article 15 (2019), Pink (2016), bringing in socio-legal perspectives as well.

Popular culture may not be accurate as the law, might sometime misrepresent the law, might be used to convey the wrong perspective of justice. However, it would still be the most effective form in putting it out to the people because people have come a long way from glorifying vigilantes to believing that lawyers are the people who really get the work done.


[1] Douglas J. Goodman,  Approaches to Law and Popular Culture from Law & Social Inquiry, vol. 31, no. 3, 2006, 757–784 on  JSTOR, (July 25, 2020, 8:52 PM) http://www.jstor.org/stable/4092725

[2] Ibid  

[3] Douglas J. Goodman,  Approaches to Law and Popular Culture from Law & Social Inquiry, vol. 31, no. 3, 2006, 757–784 on  JSTOR, (July 25, 2020, 9:14 PM) http://www.jstor.org/stable/4092725

[4]  Anderson et al V. Pacific Gas & Electric, No. BCV- 00822 (settlement July 2, 1996)

[5] Manu Sharma V. State for NCT of Delhi (2010) 6 SCC 1

[6] Mukesh V. State for NCT of Delhi (2017) 6 SCC 1

Krishnasree S from NMIMS, Mumbai

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: