Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Fall 2012


Great Plains Quarterly 32:4 (Fall 2012).


Copyright © 2012 Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska.


The 1998 murders of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. prompted strong emotions in the national debate over hate crimes. Yet while legal, literary, and critical readings of the murders have emerged, little attention has been devoted to these emotions and their role in the politics that followed. Jennifer Petersen remedies this deficiency, offering broader insights about politics, media, and the public sphere.

Drawing upon close readings of local and national media, Petersen tirelessly traces the complex affective webs that surround each case. In the first half of her book, Petersen describes the national media's characterization of Shepard as an empathetic, modern figure identifiable with the American public. In contrast, the media berates Shepard's hometown of Laramie, Wyoming, for failing to share that identification, publicly shaming the residents to distance them from the national imaginary. The book's second half turns to the Byrd case, highlighting how the little-known man is both pitied and minimized in the press to focus instead upon his killers, prosecutors, and other victims of bias. In each case, Petersen emphasizes the media's part in ascribing "the right feelings" publics should have toward each crime and how local publics relied upon performances of "proper" feelings to direct their responses to the incidents.