The Outsiders – a Look at Crime in the Street and the Labelling Theory
Gangs, the Street, and Labelling Theory in The Outsiders
Youth crime is a hot topic in society; when young people are involved in any type of crime, news outlets are quick to report it (Minaker & Hogeveen 5). Even entertainment outlets use the phenomenon of youth crime to their advantage. According to Minaker and Hogeveen, this type of media discourse presents “a one-sided conversation filled with images and messages about youth crime” (7). These images and messages are often skewed because they fail to explain the societal factors that led to the occurrence and tend to portray youth committing crimes as just “bad”. Many television shows and movies sensationalize youth crime, particularly gang-related youth crime, in an attempt to represent the growing concerns that youth crime, youth gangs, and youth violence is on the rise (9). Specifically, the topic of youth gangs has been a popular subject in the world of fiction. One of the most popular works on the topic was S.E. Hinton’s book, The Outsiders. The popularity of the story led it to be adapted into a film. The movie, staring C. Thomas Howell, Matt Dillon, and Ralph Macchio, carries many relevant themes, trends, and dynamics in relation to youths, gangs, violence, and crime. The Outsiders, outlines the factors that lead to youth joining gangs and demonstrates the dynamics of class relations. Overall, the film provides an example for labelling theory at work, as the label of the “greaser” guides most of the actions and assumptions made by characters throughout the film.
The Outsiders, set in 1966 Tulsa, Oklahoma, centers around 14 year-old “greaser” Ponyboy Curtis and his friends and fellow greasers Dallas “Dally” Winston and Johnny (The Outsiders 1983). There, many teenage boys are either “greasers”, lower-class teens from the north side of the town that are seen as delinquents by many of the adults in their neighbourhood, or they’re “socs”, middle- and upper-class teens from the south side of town, who have money, nice cars, and a stable future (The Outsiders 1983). The two sides are often at odds with each other, as their different lifestyles create tension between the two groups. Things become more heated after Johnny stabs and kills a “soc” in order to save Ponyboy’s life. Dally, who has been to jail in the past, helps Johnny and Ponyboy run away to an abandoned church to hide from the police. While out there, the church catches on fire and the three rescue children trapped inside. Upon returning home, Ponyboy and Dally learn that the death of the soc has led to a “rumble”, an agreed upon battle by both sides with set rules, being planned (The Outsiders 1983). With Johnny incapacitated in the hospital, the Ponyboy, Dally, along with Ponyboy’s older brothers, Sodapop and Darry, their friends Two-Bit Matthews and Steve Randle and the rest of the Greaser gang defeat the Socs in a “no weapons” brawl (The Outsiders 1983). After the rumble, Johnny dies and Dally, out of grief, commits an armed robbery and gets shot by the shop owner and soon after the police, which kills him. The film touches on many important aspects involved in the examination of youth crime. Most explicit is the view the film takes on youth gangs.
According to the Criminal Intelligence Service of Canada, a gang is “a group of persons consorting together to engage in unlawful activity” (Minaker & Hogeveen 235). The Outsiders provides examples of two different gangs; the Greasers and the Socs. While both gangs engage in unlawful activity, such as underage drinking and assault, the film focuses on the Greasers. The Greasers are comprised of young males from lower class families. While the film doesn’t explicitly outline why each member of the Greasers decided to join, their socio-economic status represents one of the main reasons that youths choose to join gangs. In their chapter on youth gangs and violence, Minaker and Hogeveen comprise a list of risk factors for youth and gang involvement (236). The list includes poverty and home life, coupled with a sense of hopelessness (236-242). These factors are all demonstrated by the Greasers. The Curtis brothers and their home represents the poverty that many youth involved in gang life experience. The gate around the house is rusted, the exterior of the home is in need of repairs, and there are several holes on the walls inside the home. Also, after Ponyboy returns from the hospital, he points out to Darry that they cannot afford for Darry to take the day off of work and care for him. The impoverished, “ghetto-like” living conditions that the Curtis brothers live in are one of the factors that many youth involved in gangs live in (242). Another major factor contributing to youth joining gangs is a poor home life. The Curtis brothers come from a broken home, as their parents were killed in an accident with a train, Johnny’s parents fight often and admits that his father can be physically abusive when he drinks, and while out with Ponyboy and Johnny, Dally expresses that his father doesn’t care whether he’s alive or dead. The Greasers spend so much time together at the Curtis home that the gang itself has become a somewhat stable family unit for many members, where they feel a sense of acceptance that they do not feel at home or in society. The lack of a stable home life and acceptance from others in society can also lead to a sense of hopelessness, which Johnny shows at the beginning of the film where he admits he has thought about killing himself because of his abusive home. The sense of community that is gained by gang involvement is a major factor in why youth become involved in gang life (242). They are all united by their chronic instabilities of poor housing, relationships and incomes. The need for acceptance and attachment is what drives the Greasers to join together, as they all suffer from similar poor economic and family conditions; something that the rival gang, the Socs, do not share.
Another issue that is showcased in The Outsiders is how class dynamics can affect youth crime. Class is arguably one of the most powerful factors that structures modern society (6). The conflict between the Greasers and Socs begins from this structure. The Greasers and Socs come from two different socio-economic backgrounds. The Greasers are poor and “powerless” compared to the wealthier Socs, who have more opportunities because of their high status. While a common reason for youths joining gangs is a poor economic status, youth from all social classes and can become involved in street crime (186). However, the film’s major focus is on the Greasers, as it is more common for youths suffering from the politics of exclusion to develop deviant behaviour (184). The politics of exclusion is the social isolation of members of society that is reinforced by the relationships of power that are present (184). In The Outsiders, the Greasers are literally “outsiders” in society. They are isolated due to the fact that they have a lower economic status than the Socs, who are the powerful. They are also easily recognizable and distinguishable from the Socs, and are described as “white trash with long greasy hair” (The Outsiders 1983). Class dynamics plays an important role in the film. It fuels the aggression that both groups have towards each other. Many youths involved in crime and gang life rely on criminal activity as a form of survival (Minaker & Hogeveen 236). They lack the opportunity to achieve societal goals (22). Thus, they rely on crime and misdemeanor to achieve those goals and feel like they have a purpose in society (23). The Greasers lack the financial means that allows them to attain the same achievements as the Socs. Sodapop must sacrifice his education in order to financially support his family. Meanwhile, the Socs do not need to work in order to have financial support. The differences in class and dynamic of the power that the upper-class Socs have over the lower-class Greasers encourages the Greasers to act out against the Socs. For example, Dally slashes the tires of one of the Socs’ cars. The class dynamics that are at play in the movie demonstrate a conflict approach to theorizing crime, where the assumption is that crime occurs when individuals and groups in society hold conflicting social, political, or economic interests, which places powerful groups against the marginalized (20). This approach is best shown through labelling theory.
While The Outsiders provides insight on why youth gravitate towards gang life and how class dynamics play a role in youth crime, it also sheds light on labelling theory. Labelling theory believes that when someone is labelled a “criminal” or “deviant” in society, they will act in a criminal or deviant manner (30). This perspective considers certain acts to be criminal when they labelled by social groups and institutions as such (6). Those who committed the criminal acts where committing “secondary deviance”, whereby committing an offence that has been seen labelled by society as “criminal” they have seemingly accepted the label of “criminal” and engage in activities that reflect that label (69). This theory is shown throughout the film. At the very beginning of The Outsiders, when Ponyboy asks Dally wants to do, he replies with “nothing legal” (The Outsiders 1983). Despite the fact that many of the Socs commit the same acts as the Greasers, the label of being a “greaser” makes the Greasers the deviants. Dally often acts upon that label by harassing children and Cherry Valance, a Soc girlfriend, slashing a Soc’s tires, being rude to the nurse in the hospital, and committing an armed robbery after Johnny’s death. Instead of trying to break the stigma of being a Greaser, Dally chose to abide by the label given to him by society. Ponyboy and Johnny, on the other hand, go against their “Greaser” label by saving the children from the fire in the abandoned church. When Ponyboy is riding in the ambulance, one of the teachers that was with the children asks if Ponyboy and his friends were professional heroes. Ponyboy responds by telling him that they are Greasers and the teacher is surprised. The label “greaser” has a negative connotation, which causes many to believe that the Greasers are inherently deviant. This is despite the fact that many Greasers act out because they are called criminals, not because they have actually committed an offence.
The Outsiders not only showcases the youth crime genre, but it provides insight on why youths join gangs, the class struggles that disenfranchised youth deal with, and how labels such as “deviant”, “criminal”, or “Greaser” can lead to a youth to actually becoming deviant. Youth facing poverty and poor home lives often feel hopeless and will turn to gangs to achieve a sense of community. Since class dynamics structure society, these poorer youth often find themselves in difficult situations, where they feel as if they must commit an offense in order to achieve the shared goals of society. Labelling theory reflects the class dynamics in society, as it is those who hold power in society that create the labels (Minaker & Hogeveen 70). The class and power struggle provides a primary reason for youths to join gangs. Youth involvement in crime is almost cyclical. Those who come from poorer economic and familial backgrounds turn to gang life in order to boost their status. However, those with higher status will perceive them as a threat and provide them with the label of deviant. These overlapping themes and theories demonstrate why understanding youth crime is so important. If one can understand the causes and socio-economic factors that lead to youth committing crimes, it becomes easier to deal with and find solutions for.
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