Everyone loves a good crime story. Most of the world’s most enduring stories relate to criminals, renegades and assorted rogues and their notorious exploits. But what is it that makes these figures so appealing? What is it about the brigand that captures the imagination? Why is it always the outlaws that sell the story and never the victims or the forces of the law?
This fascination with crime seems to be deeply ingrained across cultures and languages and places. Perhaps it comes down to a fixation on rules and order and what happens when the established rule of law is challenged. In the bible there is an attempt to explain such problematic behaviour with Eve and Adam eating the forbidden fruit whereupon they procure the knowledge of good and evil and introduce sin to the world and thereafter we are told the story of Cain slaying his brother Abel among other morality tales to educate the masses about morality. While this attempts to explain the existence of lawlessness, they’re not exactly historical accounts. Even as late as the middle ages myths were being created to portray outlaws and rogues rather than referring to specific real world instances. Robin Hood is of course the archetype of the noble rogue who opposes corruption and protects the little guy. Debate still rages around whether he was real or not, but it is likely that the stories were at least inspired by actual criminals. To us as enthusiasts of the bushranger stories it is a familiar premise that a band of outlaws who reside in a forest robbing travellers and disrespecting the forces of law and order become heroes to the underdog by dispensing the proceeds of their crimes among their supporters. To reduce the notion down in such a way really highlights how outlaws like the Kelly and Clarke gangs were able to remain at large as long as they did – though the actions weren’t exactly altruistic, as is assumed to be the explanation for Robin Hood, the formula still applies in a bare bones manner. Such myth making highlights the desire to have a hero that challenges and upsets the establishment when it oversteps the mark into tyranny. To this end, some will cling onto the first thing that resembles such a figure.
The desire to not only make heroes of villains but to try to become associated with such perceived greatness is commonplace. In London just about everyone knew the Krays or knew someone who did. In America everyone seems to have photographs of outlaws like Billy the Kid and Jesse James floating around in their attic. In Australia it seems like everyone is related to a bushranger in some capacity. How often have you heard phrases like “I’m related to Ned Kelly” or “my great, great grandmother danced with Ben Hall”? Of course this sense of connection can be dubious at times but it helps people ground their beliefs in something tangible (which incidentally is why there’s a market for Ned Kelly tyre flaps). There is also no denying that the general public’s fascination with the lawless of our society is prominent and profitable. A perfect contemporary illustration can be seen in Mark Brandon Read, aka Chopper. When asked by Andrew Denton why, if he didn’t want young people to follow in his criminal footsteps, he wrote nine sequels to his first book glorifying and exaggerating his crimes he replied “Because they sold well.” In fact, Read is the epitome of the glorified criminal. By his own standards he was basically a typical street thug no more worthy of recognition than any other hoodlum, yet he is viewed by many as a hero and all round top bloke largely thanks to his unique appearance and flair for the theatrical. He comes across to many as the terrifying ogre with a heart of gold – like Shrek with a butane torch. His rhetoric about punishing drug dealers, child molesters and any other criminal that attacks the defenceless is perhaps the key to his characterisation. People want to believe the idea that a criminal can act as a defender of the weak and helpless against other crooks because of the desire to see “bad” people redeemed irrespective of their stance on the law and a belief in the innate goodness of the average person (most popular crooks coming from humble, working class or impoverished backgrounds).
The idea of these dangerous offenders coming from a place of oppression and exerting power over their oppressors and furthermore using their might to protect the oppressed is the height of power fantasy. This notion of the faceless and oppressive “Man” is usually how the status quo is perceived at any given time by any amount of people owing to the propensity for figures of authority to exert power over others, frequently with little regard for the values or well being of many communities. A figure like Ned Kelly appeals to those who have felt bullied or persecuted in their life. The armour becomes a symbol of defiance and resilience, much like Chopper’s sunglasses, tattoos and moustache became symbolic of dominance and intimidation. In folklore Ben Hall is a tragic anti-hero, forced into crime because external forces broke his life apart (again, the police are portrayed as oppressors by burning his house down and even being personified as Jim Taylor who is in many colloquial accounts a former policeman). He breaks free of the oppression of the law by taking to the bush and ridiculing the police. Similarly, Dan Morgan was seen by many as heroic because he menaced unsympathetic managerial types in the name of the labourers that were in their employ and perceived as being ill treated. The bushranger becomes a beacon to those with an oppressed mentality; that is to say that those who have experienced or are experiencing oppression in some form identify with the romance of a life lived in opposition to oppressive forces. To this end it could reasonably be argued that the fascination with bushrangers is intertwined with a passion for social justice – that is a desire to see justice doled out equally among the adherents of society irrespective of the laws.
In the end the fascination with crime and outlaws will never falter while there exists a division between the lawful and the lawless and while there exists a distinct form of inequality or oppression in society. Looking up to an outlaw can say just as much about our strong moral character as our detesting the same can. By ascribing a morally superior motivation to crime it can speak to a desire to see justice carried out in spite of oppressive laws. By admiring an outlaw’s stance against a corrupt authority or their using their power to give hope to those being oppressed it can highlight social justice values that can’t be fed by other figures. In short, the romance of robbery is the desire of the downtrodden, an escapist ideal that places personal integrity as being more virtuous than compliance and seeks a hero to be the mouthpiece of those without a voice.
Sources and further exploration:
Interview with Chopper Read on Enough Rope (Source)