Date of Award

January 2012

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Criminal Justice

First Advisor

Michael Meyer


The purpose of this qualitative study is to explore the portrayals of street gangs as presented by a select sample of Hollywood films from 1960 to 2009. Using the theoretical framework of social constructionism and cinematic realism, a content analysis of 25 `street gang' films was conducted to (a) determine the comparability of depictions of street gangs in Hollywood films with those characteristics of defining a street gang in the law enforcement and academic literature, (b) identify emergent themes and patterns, including changes over time, and (c) address the representations of realism in the portrayal of street gangs as depicted in films. The films used in the research were selected from a combination of three media sources: (1) references and discussions made about `street gang' films from the literature, (2) media news reports on gang-related films, and (3) the online categorical lists of `street gang' films created by Internet Movie Database (IMDb) and All Movie Guide (AMG).

Based on the analysis of street gangs portrayed in Hollywood films, `reel' street gangs resemble many of the characteristics that define `real' street gangs as suggested by law enforcement officials and the academic literature. In addition, the emergent patterns and themes analyzed from the portrayal of `street gangs' over a 50 year time-period reveal significant findings that provide a deeper understanding of the relationship between gangs and the media. First, there are changes in the portrayal of race/ethnicity since 1960. Second, street gangs are portrayed as both perpetrators and victims of violence and crime. Third, the producer/directors/writers employed efforts to create an `authentic' or `realistic' portrayal of street gangs. Lastly, the majority of the `street gang' films analyzed in this study were in fact not about street gangs per se but rather used the film's portrayal of street gangs as a vehicle to tell a broader and more compelling story concerning other universal themes.

The findings lead to a rich understanding of social constructionism and the

representations of street gangs in popular film. The implications of this research go beyond the official and academic portrayals of street gangs and to larger sociological implications of how street gangs are constructed in the media and the interpretations of those social constructions.