By: Logan Arey, creator of Winding Expressions
I’ve got to say, Rebel Without A Cause (1955) is a rich film. I chose to watch it because,
honestly, I’ve never seen a James Dean film and I felt like I needed to, and I was very amuse
d by Dean’s acting ability. The movie even made me think how we should all return to the vault sometimes because there is some great cinema that we may have forgotten about. I wasn’t expecting to watch a film with so much social commentary in it. I can see why Rebel Without A Cause has been praised and is so culturally significant. The film entered the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1990.
The movie deals with such things as identity, the philosophical outlook on humanity/man as a species in the cosmos (the planetarium scene), picking apart the nuclear “ideal” family, the commercial values of the 1950s, Oedipus complex (Judy and her father), etc. There’s a lot to choose from with this film, but one thing that stood out for me was the definition of masculinity/manliness. This theme of defining manhood is very strong throughout the movie and the film makes it apparent how performative gender is.
The reason why gender identity stood out to me is that I wrote a paper on this very subject, only I used The Great Gatsby. Check it out if you want an in depth look at what I’m presenting here. Gender identity right now is a hot subject, and that’s because the definition for gender is as solid as water or gas – it doesn’t really exist! One of the more famous critiques on gender comes from Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble. I’ll present a short, concise quote because, honestly, Butler is really hard to understand. The quote goes: “gender is not to culture as sex is to nature” (Butler 10; Gender Trouble). In a nutshell, gender is not a concrete definition and it doesn’t need to be. Butler comes from the school of deconstruction so in Gender Trouble she picks apart the “defining” aspects of gender and presents how gender identity only comes from social construction. In other words, we made a definition for it; we defined masculinity and femininity. The body does not inform gender, humans inform it. So this social construction is something that is played on in Rebel Without A Cause.
In the 1950’s, the meaning to be a man was well defined, and Rebel Without A Cause plays around with this notion. Let’s start with Jim’s father. One of the main reasons Jim is a “hoodlum” is because he sees his father being emasculated by his mother. He complains to the juvenile officer, Ray, that he wants to see his father stick up for himself. He also states that he does not want to become like his father – submissive and weak. Another scene where Jim is in complete disgust with his dad is when his dad drops the food tray. At first Jim laughs about it because he can only imagine how upset his mother would be, but when his father says he needs to clean it up before she sees, Jim gets angry at the pathetic sight of his dad. It’s worth noting how Jim’s father is wearing an apron with flowers on it. This is what we would normally label as feminine, and the film takes advantage of the audience’s gender assumption toward the scene and depicts Jim’s father being “emasculated.” This is how the film illustrates this idea about gender identity. It interacts with the audience directly and the message is more intimate since we’re all subject to gender definitions.
Jim wants his dad to be more assertive and astute for two reasons. One, if his father performed our definition of masculinity, it would work fist hand for his father and he would realize how submissive he is. Two, if Jim’s father acts more masculine, then Jim has his mentor/teacher and someone to look up to – the father-son bond. We see Jim being called chicken by Buzz and this is what propels the plot – things escalate from here: the knife fight and the Chickie Run scene. But Jim needs his father to see how he had to do the Chickie Run because it would preserve his honor. Jim needs his father to approve of this to verify that he is, indeed, acting like a man.
Plato’s role has some complexity to it. In an article on Indiewire, Les Fabian Brathwaite presents the idea of a subversion of homosexuality in the film. This is something I can see but I don’t feel it stands out as much as gender construction, but I won’t dismiss the idea entirely and a closer look could probably strengthen what I’m presenting here. For my analysis though he wants what Jim wants: a mentor and a teacher of masculinity. He, of course, sees this in Jim and tries to get Jim to replace his father, but Jim also plays into this role by offering his jacket to Plato at the beginning and end of the movie. Since Plato lacks this education, he is prone to being the loner/awkward kid of the film and this is where a better understanding of homosexuality may come in hand.
This is all absurd and the characters seem to know it, but they feel (maybe to make society feel better and “function”) they have to do it. Buzz puts it best during the Chickie Run scene. When he and Jim bond Jim asks him, “Why do we do [the Chickie Run] this?” In which Buzz responds, “You gotta do something.” Buzz’s response is poignant that it makes you laugh to yourself at the absurdity of this mindless play. Buzz doesn’t know the solution, but he knows “you gotta do something” to enforce your machismo.
Another thing I noticed is at the end when Jim’s father finally asserts himself, both his father and his mother smile at each other. In the context I’m presenting, those smiles seem to mean they both know they’re playing the game right and thus making everyone happy by doing so, including themselves. Jim’s mother’s smile is especially worth noting because at the beginning of the film, when Jim is at the police station drunk, he says to Ray, “If he [Jim’s father] had the guts to knock mom cold for once then maybe she’d be happy.” The smile on Jim’s mother’s face verifies this happiness she gets when Jim’s father is finally acting the way he’s “supposed” to be.
Gender performance in Rebel Without A Cause is laid on so heavily that it illustrates just how silly this desire for gender definition is. It constantly demonstrates how a man should act and it’s just absurd and is even undercut by Jim’s sensitivity. Jim’s genuine side is what makes his character more successful rather than his overt-machismo personality. His genuine side garners friends while his machismo brings, literally, death. There are many things we can say about gender performance, but I think we can agree that Rebel Without A Cause demonstrates how farcical society can be.