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The Role of Gender in the Thin Blue Line, Essay Example

Pages: 7

Words: 1929

Essay

Gender plays an important role in Errol Morris’ documentary The Thin Blue Line. (1988). Although the film’s more obvious themes are based in the miscarriages of justice evident in the investigation, trial, and conviction of  Randall Dale Adams, a closer look at the content of the film reveals that Morris has dealt with the issue of gender as well as justice, particularly in the way in which stereotypes of gender interact with the criminal justice system.  Although the story that forms the focal point for the film is set in Texas, the film actively attempts to articulate a universal message. This does not mean that the setting of the film is insignificant, it simply means that the film is not in any way directed “against” Texas or the Dallas criminal justice system. Instead, the film is directed at larger themes, and one of those themes is that way in which gender identification operated in Texas during the 1970’s. The theme of the film includes the observation the women were devalued by the criminal justice system despite the facts, whereas men were given preferred treatment. In fact, women are looked down upon and men looked up to as more superior,even though many of the men depicted i9n the film were also highly unreliable.

The first woman who appears in the documentary is Tersa Turko , the female officer and partner to Robert Wood, the slain officer. She fired shots at the shooter’s fleeing car.  Morris is sure to point out that Turko was one of the first female officers assigned to the patrol district where the shooting happened. On the night of the shooting, Turko was reportedly sitting in the car during the fatal traffic stop, sipping on  malted milk-shake. After her partner was shot, she reacted by shooting at the escaping car rather than radioing for an ambulance

One of the commenting detectives notes in the film that “she empties her pistol at the fleeing suspect [when] procedure would tell you to grab the radio and call for an ambulance […]  at that time she’s just so torn down…how do we hold her responsible?” (Thin, 1988; 12:24).  The implication in the way that Tersa Turko is characterized in the film is that she was incompetent and unreliable.  In fact, the film implies that she may have been partially responsible for he partner’s death in that she failed to follow police procedure by summoning medical aid.

Tersa Turko must also be considered in direct relation to the film’s title. As a woman, she stands as an exception to the strictly male brotherhood that is implied by the film’s title.The term “Thin Blue Line” refers to  a quote from the Prosecuting attorney Doug Mulder, who stated that law enforcement existed as “the thin blue line that separates the public from anarchy.” (Thin, 1988). The judge in the case, Don Metcalfe, admitted that the  phrase moved him very profoundly on an emotional level. Therefore, three very important ideas about masculinity are implied merely by the title of the film: one, that there is an  organization of “blue” which is, of course, the law enforcement community; two, that it is a heroic duty to protect civilized society from dangerous law-breakers. The portrayal of Tersa Turko subtly reinforces the stereotypes implied in the film’s title, which implies that men are ore innately more competent than women.

The second woman who is profiled in the film is Edith James, an attorney who worked on behalf of Adams. She admits in her first interview segment of the film that gender-based stereotypes impacted the public’s view of the case. Specifically in regard to her asserting that Adams was innocent. She remarks in the film that “a lot of people believe, you know, a woman lawyer — she’s stupid enough to believe anything she’s told” (Thin, 1988, 33:11).  This same idea is reinforced when James tells a story about the way she was treated by the Prosecutors during the pre-trial.  James told the judges that Randal was innocent, but because she was telling the people what they didn’t want to hear she was given less credence that unreliable witnesses such as Harris.

One interesting quote from the movie comes from James who states that when she inquired about the fact that David Harris, who was the prosecution’s star witness, was the person who had the pistol who killed the officer, who also drove the car that was used to escape the murder, and who was the person who led police to the bulk of the evidence in the case against Adams. She was told “Well, ho-hum, we don’t feel that was in Vidor, Texas. Our people just are not that… we’re not that keen on ruining a young man’s life.” (Thin, 1988, 38:31) This shows that James was not taken seriously as an attorney. James goes on to comment that the motivation to convict a man and not a boy was  a strong influence on the corruption of the case.  Adams himself stated that he knew the Prosecutors were disinterested in justice and only wanted blood. He remarks “You have a D.A., he doesn’t talk about when they convict you or how they convict you, he’s talking about how he’s going to kill you.” (Thin, 1988, 110:06). The subversion of justice that was being done is clearly shown by James. One of the most subtle aspects of Morris’ theme is that the same incompetence that was associated with Tersa Turko were also associated with  Edith James, simply on the basis of her being female. This shows an influence of gender on the way that the criminal justice operates.

This same dynamic is shown, but in a different way, in the depiction of the next woman who appears in the film. this woman is Emily Miller, one of the Prosecution’s three “surprise” witnesses. This woman is depicted, by Morris, as being highly unstable and possibly delusional. At one point during her interview, Miller remarks that “when I was a kid I used to want to be a detective all the time because I used to watch all the detective shows on TV […] I wanted to be a wife of a detective or be a detective […]  I’m always looking because I never know what might come up.” (Thin, 1988, 48:51). The main impression that the viewer has of Emily Miller is that she is absolutely unreliable and likely insane. This shows a third instance where the presupposition that women are incompetent or irrational plays into the theme of the film.

The characterization of Emily Miller is rounded out by the response interview with Mrs. Bayes. In this interview, the idea of the Prosecution using bogus witnesses is furthered.  The way that the running theme of the “incompetence” of women is shown in this segment is through the film’s depiction of the Prosecution’s response to Mrs. Bayes. When Bayes casts dispersions on the reliability of Emily Miller and the other surprise witnesses,  the Prosecution responded with a smear campaign. They labeled her as a “nosy busybody”  who should “keep her big nose to herself” (Thin, 1988, 1;12:25). This shows that the Prosecution was intent on using gender stereotypes and sexism against any woman who stood against their case. Morris is trying to show that women and the social perspective of femininity played a crucial role in the Adams case, even if this fact is not apparent on the surface level of the events.

In fact it is not too much of a stretch to suggest that men were simply given more authority than women in the case. For most viewers of the film, the closing interview  with Harris provides some of the most frightening and haunting content. this is due to the fact that Harris admits that Adams was innocent of the crime. He confesses that Adams having no home of his own was the only reason he was ever sent to prison: “That might be the only, total reason why he’s where he’s at today.” (Thin, 1988, 139:40). However, the viewer also knows that Harris was likely the man who actually committed the crime.

One key witness for the Prosecution was a man known as Dr. Death. The fact that this witness was deemed credible by the Prosecution and jury was a reflection of how men were seen as more reliable and authoritative than women. Dr. Death was the Prosecution’s psychiatrist, Dr. James Grigson. The reason that he was known as Dr. Death was because he always testified to the fact that the person on trial was capable of knowing right from wrong and was therefore eligible for the death penalty.  The tests that Dr. Death gave to Adams were very basic and included him repeating a specific drawing and responding to a series of common sayings. On the basis of these tests and questions, the doctor was supposedly able to identify that Adams posed a continuing threat to scoiety adn that he might kill again. Although the results of the tests and the responses that Adams made to the questions were not shown to the jury in Adams’ trial, Dr. Death’s testimony weighed significantly on the jury’s perception of Adams. Part of Dr. Death’s authority rested on his being a highly educated male, even though he was an unreliable witness.

Similarly, Harris himself was a star witness for the Prosecution . The film shows clearly that he was an unreliable witness. At one point during the film, one of Harris’ old friends actually states in so many words that he does not belive that Harris had any conscience. He said of Harris “He didn’t have a conscience. You know, if I do something bad, you know, it kind if gets to me. I feel, you know, ‘Shucks, I shouldn’t have done that. I feel bad about it.’ It didn’t bother him.” (Thin, 1988, 35:20). The fact that the Prosecution relied so heavily on the testimony and evidence that was offered by Harris contrasts sharply with way that Edith James was treated in regards to the case.

Morris is not condemning men or masculine ideals in his film, he is simply allowing the viewer to see that these ideals often have negative connotations and direct negative results in practice.  The inverse of these ideals is that they disempower women and cast doubts on their competence and reliability. Because the theme of the film is justice and the way that justice is corrupted and perverted it is crucial to understand that the element of gender and the  stereotyping of women played a multitude of roles in the case. Also of interest to note is that, the final women who is mentioned in the film is a women who David Harris attempted to abduct  at gunpoint. in doing so, Harris murdered the woman’s boyfriend. In fact, Harris blamed the boyfriend for the killing. According to Sam Kittrell, Harris believed that he killed the boyfriend in self-defense. Kittrell states that “ David thought that the one that was really at fault that night was the guy that got killed. He said, “That guy’s crazy. He came after me with a gun.” (Thin, 1988, 135:40) For this crime, Harris was eventually given the death penalty. By adding this story at the end of the film, Morris makes a final comment on the objectification of women.  The result of his examination of the role of gender in the case is that women are used in various means but always at the service of men throughout the process and evens associated with crime and its prosecution.

Reference

Morris, Erol. The Thin Blue Line. Miramax Films, 1988.

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