Sociology, Department of


Date of this Version



Kort-Butler, Lisa A. 2013. “Justice League? Depictions of Justice in Children’s Superhero Cartoons.” Criminal Justice Review 38:50-70. doi: 10.1177/0734016812467201


Copyright © 2012 Georgia State University; published by SAGE Publications. Used by permission.


The literature argues that media depictions of criminal justice present messages that conform to and promote the dominant ideology about the crime problem and how to solve it. Research has focused on television news and adult programs, but little research has examined messages about justice present in children’s shows. To fill this gap, an ethnographic content analysis of children’s cartoons was conducted, using a sample of episodes from Batman: The Animated Series, Spider-Man, and Justice League Unlimited. Several themes emerged. First, the justice system is often depicted as ill equipped to handle serious crime. Second, story lines suggested that the justice system is relatively weak, plagued by corruption or ineffectiveness. Third, heroes are driven by their notions of justice, recognizing that only they can stop the worst criminals and are morally obligated to do so. Fourth, heroes are willing to use force to capture offenders, but they also use brain power. Finally, although heroes work largely outside the law, they are supportive of the efforts of honest justice system actors. In sum, these shows provide messages about justice that are consistent with and supportive of the dominant ideology that derides rehabilitation and emphasizes incapacitation. They are also congruent with messages, images, and frames presented in adult-oriented media. By drawing on moral elements and the problem frame, they act as cultural primers by which young people may interpret subsequent imagery of crime and justice. The consistency across genres contributes to the social reality of crime and control.