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INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF ORGANIZATION THEORY AND BEHAVIOR, 17 (2), 193-264 SUMMER 2014
A SYMPOSIUM ON PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION IN FILMS
Editor: Sharon Mastracci
Copyright © 2014 by Pracademics Press
INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF ORGANIZATION THEORY AND BEHAVIOR, 17 (2), 194-198 SUMMER 2014
SYMPOSIUM INTRODUCTION
Sharon Mastracci*
Examining public administration and public service through film is
not new (Borins, 2011; Chandler & Adams, 1997; Goodsell & Murray,
1995; Holzer & Slater, 1995; Kass & Catron, 1990; Kroll, 1995; Lee,
1993; Lee & Paddock, 2001; Marshall, 2012; McCurdy, 1995;
McSwite, 2002; Weilde & Schultz, 2007)—indeed, popular culture
continually produces material with which we can understand our field
anew. Government and public service prove fertile topics for
television courtroom dramas, hero stories featuring police officers
and firefighters, and films highlighting the role of the military or the
President in everything from historical dramas to alien invasions.
Films employ metaphors and symbols to tell their stories.
Metaphorical concepts allow us to understand and experience one
kind of concept or event in terms of another (Lakoff & Johnson,
1980). Metaphors substantially structure how we understand a
concept. For instance, identifying the concept “argument” as a battle
or war wholly reshapes our understanding of it compared to
identifying it as a dance. In the former, “though there is no physical
battle, there is verbal battle, and the structure of an argument—
attack, defense, counterattack—reflects this” (Lackoff & Johnson,
1980, p. 4). In the case of argument as dance, “no one wins or loses
… there is no sense of attacking or defending, gaining or losing
ground … the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to
perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way” (Lackoff &
Johnson, 1980, pp. 4-5). Likewise, the metaphorical concept
“government as hero” leads to a very different understanding than
-----------------------------* Sharon Mastracci, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor, Department of Public
Administration, University of Illinois at Chicago. Her research interests are in
human resource management, emotional labor, gender, and public
administration in popular culture.
Copyright © 2014 by Pracademics Press
SYMPOSIUM INTRODUCTION
195 does “government as hindrance”, as partisan debates over health
care, economic growth, and anything else demonstrate in stark relief.
The papers in this symposium are ambivalent about the role of
government and public service as heroic or hindrance. Pressley and
Noel’s hyper-professionalized and rationalized public servants hasten
the death of Joseph Merrick in Pomerance’s The Elephant Man.
Public servants are objectified, according to Pressley and Noel, as
performers in a carnivalesque sideshow, divorced from their intuition
and subjective selves. Justin Joyce examines the rule of law and its
implementation by formal government actors and informal actors in
the 1992 film Unforgiven, and one is left with a poor image of
government here as well. Little Bill is the sheriff of frontier town Big
Whiskey, who is “a complicated, if not exactly complicated,
representation of the law”. The sheriff proves to be corrupt and
sadistic in his execution of the law, and fails to mete out justice to the
perpetrators of crime against a prostitute: “Unforgiven narrates a
powerful tale of retributive, decidedly personal, justice being called
upon as a substitute for the failure of a conception of procedural
justice that disregards a core constituency”. Vigilante William Munny
is called upon to exact justice because government has failed to do
so.
Government fares no better in Andrea Mayo’s analysis of the
2012 film A Cabin in the Woods. The film within this film is an
archetypal horror story of five college-age kids vacationing in a cabin
in the middle of nowhere. This story is directed by scientists in a
dystopic laboratory: “Hadley, Sitterson, and the other lab workers
manipulate the cabin narrative and the behaviors of the five college
students … [who] have been drugged in various ways to shift their
behavior and bring it in line with five common horror stereotypes”.
Government orchestrates a social engineering plan darker than the
darkest Libertarian survivalist nightmares. Mayo’s operating
metaphorical concept is government-as-laboratory and Hadley and
Sitterson representing public administrators simply following the
rules. Justice is served only when two surviving college students
break free from the experiment in which they find themselves and
end the cycle. All of humanity perishes as a result. Extending this
theme of happy endings, Smith-Walter and Sharif examine thirteen
apocalyptic films featuring zombies and/or plagues for their
depictions of government as legitimate authority and source of safety
196
MASTRACCI and salvation versus government as helpless and ineffectual, even
corrupt. Smith-Walter and Sharif conclude that public servants are
not treated as a monolithic whole, but rather, local officials are
differentiated from “far-off national officials”. The former are “more
frequently presented as capable and responsive individuals who, in
addition to their public duties, have a vested interest in addressing
the problems of the community … national government officials … are
often portrayed as incapable, subject to corruption, and abusive of
power”. The depiction of government also depends upon the
condition of civil society on which the film focuses. The authors
categorize the subject films into one of three types: Before the fall of
government and society, during the struggle to maintain social order,
or post-apocalypse. Only in the first phase are public servants
entrusted with saving humanity, but that trust is tenuous at best. In
the symposium’s final paper, I contrast two Gotham City public
servants in the contemporary The Dark Knight trilogy. Commissioner
Gordon is a flawed, rule-bending and pragmatic public servant, while
Harvey Dent is established as the honorable, by-the-book,
uncompromising and idealistic district attorney. In the end, the flawed
Gordon keeps his job while the principled Dent becomes the
murderous villain Two Face: “The trilogy’s ultimate message about
heroic public servants is that the flawed character succeeds. The
artificially-constructed flawless hero … is a sham.”
Taken together, these five papers do not characterize government
and public service in unambiguously positive terms. Ralph Hummel
(1991) asserts that if a story resonates, it is valid. And a story will
resonate if it is familiar to the viewer/listener: Stories “inspire a trust
in being able to move back and forth between one’s own experienced
world and the world represented by story-tellers … the unfamiliar can
become familiar because it can be assigned to structural categories
already mutually understood between two subjects, belonging to
different worlds” (1991, p. 37). The films examined in this symposium
have resonated with audiences in various ways, and include an
Academy Award winner (Unforgiven), box office blockbusters (The
Dark Knight trilogy), and a cult classic (Night of the Living Dead).
Perhaps the most positive depiction of government and public service
is found in the oldest of these films: Night of the Living Dead (1968).
Have our views of government darkened since those days? Perhaps
future work could address this question and continue this endlessly
interesting and fruitful research agenda.
SYMPOSIUM INTRODUCTION
197 ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
Many thanks to the authors for their excellent work and many
more thanks to Art Sementelli, without whose support this symposium
could not have happened.
REFERENCES
Borins, S. (2011). Governing Fables: Learning from Public Sector
Narratives. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.
Chandler, R. & Adams, G.B. (1997). “Let’s Go to the Movies! Using
Film to Illustrate Basic Concepts in Public Administration.” Public
Voices, 3(1): 9-26.
Goodsell, C.T. & Murray, N. (1995). “Prologue: Building New Bridges.”
In C.T. Goodsell & N. Murray (Eds.). Public Administration
Illuminated and Inspired by the Arts (pp. 3-24). Westport, CT:
Praeger.
Holzer, M. & Slater, L.G. (1995). “Insights into Bureaucracy from Film:
Visualizing Stereotypes.” In C.T. Goodsell & N. Murray (Eds.),
Public Administration Illuminated and Inspired by the Arts. (pp.
75-90). Westport, CT: Praeger.
Hummell, R.P. (1991). “Stories Managers Tell: Why They Are as Valid
as Science.” Public Administration Review, 51(1): 31-41.
Kass, H.D. & Catron, B., (Eds.) (1990). Images and Identities in Public
Administration. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.
Lackoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors We Live by. Chicago, IL:
University of Chicago Press.
Larkin, J. (1993). “The Movies: The Good, the Bad and the Public.”
Public Voices, 1(1): 93-98.
Lee, M. (2000). “Bureaucrat Bashing in the Galactic Service: George
Lucas and Public Administration.” Public Voices, 4(1): 23-30.
Lee, M. & Paddock, S. (2001). “Strange but true Tales from
Hollywood: The Bureaucrat as Movie Hero.” Public Administration
and Management: An Interactive Journal, 6(4): 166-194.
198
MASTRACCI Marshall, G. (2012). “Applying Film to Public Administration.” Paper
Presented at the Western Political Science Association Meeting,
Portland, Oregon.
McCurdy, H.E. (1995). Public policy and popular imagination. In C.T.
Goodsell & N. Murray (Eds.), Public Administration Illuminated
and Inspired by the Arts (pp. 177-188) Westport, CT: Praeger.
McSwite, O.C. (2002). “Narrative in Literature, Film, Video, and
Painting: Theoretical and Practical Considerations of their
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Wielde, B.A. & Schultz, D. (2007). “Wonks and Warriors: Depictions of
Government Professionals in Popular Film.” Public Voices, 9(1):
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