By Harry Kuperstein, VI Form
Rebel Without a Cause and Juvenile Delinquency Hysteria
Rebel Without a Cause, starring James Dean, was released in 1955, which was around the peak of the hysteria surrounding juvenile delinquency. Chapter 4 of Gilbert’s A Cycle of Outrage states that from 1953 to 1958, there was a spike in articles about delinquency. The Senate also heard cases of delinquency in 1953, some of which lasted over a decade. And, it soon became evident that movies about teenagers turning towards delinquency, likely propped up by famous icons like James Dean, became wildly popular. Over sixty films centered on the idea of juvenile delinquency were released in the 1950s (Gilbert 85).
To give an idea of the perception of the problem, a Gallup poll released on September 28, 1956 where respondents were asked “What do you think is the most important problem facing the country today?” listed ‘Juvenile delinquency’ at 2%, above ‘Education problems’ and just below ‘Unemployment’ and ‘Communism in US’. The fear around rising crime rates was perpetuated by the same figures that were driving McCarthyism and the Second Red Scare, which were considered issues of national security at the time. J. Edgar Hoover, publicly revered Director of the FBI and notorious proponent of McCarthyism, regurgitated the statistics his Bureau was producing: that crime rates were rising rapidly in the 1950s. But in actuality, those who were producing the statistics worried that they were painting a distorted picture, and that the issue was overstated.
Against the prevailing domestic conformity of the post-WWII era, juveniles presented a significant threat to the order that had been recently established. After all, juveniles made up the next generation, and the older generations feared that without maintaining the present order they had carefully built, communism would win. In a journal from 1957 not-so-lightly titled “Techniques of Neutralization: A Theory of Delinquency”, the authors describe a delinquent’s world as “the world of the law-abiding turned upside down and its norms constitute a countervailing force directed against the conforming social order” (Sykes 664). As different and counterculture as the world of the juvenile delinquent is, it too has its norms, and the idea of conformity within the rebels’ own group is preserved.
This idea of conformity can be observed in Rebel Without a Cause. The group of rebels are introduced in their convertible, and they all wear the same leather jacket and all gel their hair back. In the shot after Jim Stark steps on the school seal, the camera focuses on the rebels’ feet. They are all wearing the same boots and they are all wearing jeans. And just before that scene, when the flag is raised at school, even the rebels pause and look at the flag, with their books in hand. Which brings up the fact that delinquency in the movie is to a much lesser degree than viewers today may be used to.
Staying up past curfew in the movie is portrayed as delinquency and is perfectly justifiable grounds for a trip to the police station. Delinquency today may be to a much larger degree, including criminal offenses. The police station, to today’s youth, represents a severe punishment. Yet, the police station in the movie is represented as what would be a psychiatric clinic today, where delinquents can go to talk through their issues and correct their behavior. Ray in the police station stands to serve as a father figure to Jim, a role which Jim’s own father is incapable of filling. At the end of the movie, Ray appears to be the only one who can read the situation at hand, and exhibits trust in Jim to resolve the situation. Ray’s knowledge may make teenagers feel that the police know better than them. Ray can also make teenagers feel validated through the police’s confidence in Jim. The parents of these delinquents do not adhere to the traditional mother-father structure of the time, which causes them to turn to delinquency.
The parents in Jim’s family do not maintain the typical father-mother structure. The mother assumes much more of an authority role, and as a result has feminized the father. The father is then consistently portrayed in an inferior role to the mother. For example, when he is seen in the mother’s apron on his knees picking up food in the hall, Jim Stark actually confuses his own father for his mother. Jim’s father is also unable to voice his own opinion in any kind of argument, and fails to stand up to Jim when he argues against his mother. It is no surprise that Jim wants to go to the police station to report himself after his involvement in the Chickie Run, when the police station is the only force that will help him out of delinquency. His parents advise him to stay silent and pretend he had no involvement, but obviously this is not the sort of behavior society would encourage. The 1950’s viewer would see Jim’s family as incompetent and a poor living environment, which would explain Jim’s state as a delinquent.
Similar to Jim, Judy lives in a household that cannot provide the support she needs. Judy’s family is different in that she no longer receives the affection she seeks because she has turned sixteen and her father treats her like a legal adult. Her father also slaps her, and at one point calls her a ‘dirty tramp’, which may be considered abusive behavior in today’s society. The household masculinity is complemented with symbols of masculinity such as swords on the wall, and Judy’s mother’s lack of dialogue and camera time in the scene at her table. Since Judy’s father is no longer someone that Judy would like to be around, and he does not return the affection she expects and needs from him, she resorts to delinquency and stays out past curfew.
Since Jim and Judy both come from inadequate households, they form a quasi-marriage, where they act as if they are married and serve as Plato’s parents. Plato himself effectively has no parents, so Jim and Judy are his mother and father figures. When Plato’s new ‘parents’ run off on him, he turns violent. By the end of the movie, after Plato has died, Jim no longer assumes the father role to Plato, which allows Jim’s own father to step into the father role to Jim. Order is restored in the domestic setting when Jim has Judy, and his father is superior to his mother in their household. It is then implied that, despite Plato’s death, everything is back to the 1950’s normal and Jim and Judy have no reason to resort to delinquency anymore.
Gallup, George H. The Gallup Poll: Public Opinion 1935-1971. Westport, Ct: Greenwood, 1972. 144. Print.
Gilbert, James Burkhart. A Cycle of Outrage: America’s Reaction to the Juvenile Delinquent in the 1950s. New York, Oxford University Press, 1986.
Sykes, Gresham M., and David Matza. “Techniques of Neutralization: A Theory of Delinquency.” American Sociological Review 22.6 (1957): 664-70. Web.