Genre Analysis/Social Genre: Rebel Without a Cause

Essay by sciannenCollege, UndergraduateA+, November 2009

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The 1955 social drama “Rebel Without a Cause” is a powerful archetype of both its genre and the period of social upheaval that it portrays. Playing the lead role of Jim Stark, actor James Dean personifies the film’s central theme, a tortuous longing to belong and be loved, unconditionally.

The Stark family, who’ve recently migrated to suburban Los Angeles, are seeking a fresh start and rehabilitation of their delinquent teenage son. Their aspirations echo the universal theme of yearning for acceptance. Even the family name is metaphor for their hollow portrayal of the mythical blissful nuclear family unit. It’s not the first time they have tried to stitch the threadbare fabric of urban conformity. Once again, that tattered shroud is shredded by Jim’s rebellion against his parents’ warped charade prevailing middle-American values. Director Nicholas Ray continues to explore the genre by exposing the shifting social roles for a boy becoming a man, girl to woman, husband and wife, and finally parents/role-models.

After his arrest for public drunkenness, Jim screams at his squabbling parents, “You’re tearing me apart!” This first of many crises faced by the male lead, stems from the incongruity of the current social norms and the reality of his family life. Confiding to a police officer he says, “If I had one day when I didn’t have to feel all confused. Felt that I belonged some place.” His confusion is rooted in the role reversal of his parents, as his mother dominates his subservient father. Jim tells the officer, “If he had guts to knock Mom cold once, then maybe she'd be happy and then she'd stop picking on him. Because they make mush out of him! Just mush!” Jim struggles to explain that while he loves his father he has no respect for him as a man. Acknowledging the youth’s dilemma, the officer offers himself as an alternative role-model and confidant. It’s insightful of the misogynistic post-war values that Jim’s remark was met with acceptance and an offer of a surrogate father-figure.

The social norms of the time held that the man was the head of the house and his word was final. This is exemplified by the parents of the other lead character, Jim’s love interest Judy. Her torment stems from trying to maintain an emotionally fulfilling relationship with her authoritarian father, who is increasingly uncomfortable with his daughter’s development into a young woman. In the opening scenes she recalls his reaction to her wearing lipstick saying, “He called me a dirty tramp! My own father.” Later he hits her across the face for kissing him on the cheek. After realizing his overreaction and trying to make amends, the father is consoled by his doting wife’s assurance that their daughter is just at a difficult age.

A poignant reminder of the isolation with which all the characters are grappling, comes from the astronomer’s commentary at the planetarium. Reflecting on the Earth’s insignificance in the universe he witheringly remarks, “Through the infinite reaches of space, the problems of man seem trivial and naïve indeed, and man, existing alone, seems himself an episode of little consequence." Jim’s schoolmate Plato is frightened by the presentation, but Jim comforts him in a fatherly sense. His strength of character is quickly put to the test, as a gang of seniors provoke him into a knife fight. Despite winning, he agrees to a “Chickie run” in a further initiation of the new stag into the herd. After agreeing to take part, he asks his friend what “Chickie run” means, revealing his vulnerable side, beneath the tough façade. It is also perhaps a subtle dig at the ever-changing jargon of teenagers and further bid to connect with younger audiences.

Jim’s crisis of social acceptance is compounded by troubles at home. Despite repeatedly pleas, Jim never gets a real answer when he asks his father, “What do you do when you have to be a man?” His emasculated father’s hopeless role model turns farcical when Jim returns from the cliff tragedy to find him wearing a frilly apron and picking up spilled food for fear his wife will see it. Jim confesses that he knew the inherent dangers he faced, but had to race. “They called me chicken. I had to go. If I didn’t I’d never be able to face those kids again,” he says.

As art imitates life, the story paralleled part of a new wave of films, which rebelled against the nostalgic pre-war idealism. Since the arrival of television, the average age of moviegoers had fallen significantly. The younger crowd craved plots and characters with which they could identify. Already attuned to the rebellious messages of another revolutionary social tidal wave, rock and roll, patrons sought the same theme on the big screen. The icon of this new cinema was the anti-hero.

There were two actors who came to epitomize this new role, which required being simultaneously strong and gentle, menacing and vulnerable. James Dean’s portrayal of the troubled Jim Stark is one and the other is exemplified by Marlon Brando in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Brando’s anguished cry as Stanley, “Hey, Stella! Hey, Stellaaa!” resonates Dean’s sentiment as Jim screaming “You’re tearing me apart.” Both films are set in the tumultuous period following World War Two and both wrestle with the growing pains of defining gender roles and relationships in a rapidly changing world.

The resolution won in the final scene of “Rebel Without a Cause” comes at a heavy price, the death of two teenage boys. The tragic experience cements the bond between Jim and Judy. The Starks’ faux reality finally shatters their façade, when the fear of losing their son finally catalyzes the father into promising, “I’ll try to be as strong as you want me to be.” The acknowledgement of past failing, and a desire to build a brighter and honest future, echoes across the social spectrum. The world has changed, for individuals, the arts and society as a whole. This movie, like its underlying ideals of honesty, compassion and the need to be loved, remain true and timeless.

Works Cited“A Rebel Without a Cause.” Undated (Viewed 22 Oct. 2009)Dirks, Tim. “Film History of the 1950s – Part 1” American Movie ClassicsCompany LLC. Undated (Viewed 22 Oct. 2009)“A Streetcar Named Desire.” Undated (Viewed 22 Oct. 2009)Wood, Chris. The Canadian Journal Of Irish Studies,Spring 2000