By: Ian McLeod
The 1950’s saw the rise of a teen culture, as we know it today. Because of the rise in popularity in cars (with new highways to drive them on), rock ‘n’ roll, and the post World War II world they lived in, teenagers were beginning to create a subculture from the greater culture around them. Male teenagers began to develop their own distinct fashion taken from the first pop icons in men like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and James Dean. While the first two men were chart-topping musicians, James Dean was an actor of only 3 movies before his death by car crash in 1955, and perhaps the most influential of his performances was in Rebel Without a Cause.
In Rebel Without a Cause Dean plays Jim Stark, a teenager whom every teenager can relate to. In the movie Dean’s character lives the teenage rebel life style, interacts with bullies, and has to deal with parents who do not understand him. Perhaps one of the most well known lines from the film is when Dean’s character yells out “You’re tearing me apart! You say one thing, he says another, and everybody changes back again” in response to his parents being unsure what to do with their son after he gets in trouble. Throughout the film Dean’s character has similar encounters with his overbearing parents, even yelling at his father “What can you do when you have to be a man?” Dean’s character would also rather be with his friends than parents who only wish to control his life, as seen when he runs away from home to be with his friends.
Teenagers everywhere could relate to Dean’s character in Rebel Without a Cause. Not only did teen culture begin to rise in the 1950’s, but also the awareness of teenage angst. The feelings of not being understood, the desire for freedom and love, and the hurts from others at school, and an overall feeling of being lost. All these elements existed in Rebel Without a Cause. As Dean’s character finally found people that would understand him at the end of the film, so teenagers viewing the film felt like someone could understand them as well, even if it was a character on a movie screen. While not offering any solutions to their questions and hurts, teenagers found solace in that they were not alone in their struggle to find meaning. Dean’s performance in Rebel Without a Cause gave teenagers something they had previously not had: someone to look up too that understood them.
The influence of Rebel Without a Cause was great in the 1950’s, and even beyond. James Dean’s influence iconized after is his unexpected death in 1955, making him almost a martyr for teenagers everywhere. Dean’s influence ranges even to the modern age as well: Justin Bieber has even posed as James Dean on his Instagram page. Dean’s influence reaches far and wide, and in the 1950’s gave teenagers less of an example of someone they could be, and more of someone the could relate too. James Dean became an icon for men and teenagers everywhere, and his influence is still around today.