By Matt Walsh, VI Form
Delinquency: It Comes from Within (Rebel without a Cause Juxtaposed with Cycle of Outrage)
Although its production was fraught with promiscuity, Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause promotes a moralistic Cold War agenda. Protagonist Jim Stark, portrayed by James Dean, is a new kid in town with a history of delinquency. Because his parents struggle to exert authority over Jim and are quick to forgive him for his wrongdoing, Jim, albeit well-intentioned, finds himself associated with a group of delinquents. Included in the group is Judy, a sixteen-year-old girl whose misbehavior is driven by her father’s reluctance to reciprocate her love for him. Jim also develops a friendship with Plato, whose absent parents make him the most delinquent of the three protagonists. Rebel Without a Cause blames their misbehavior on their lack of emotional connection with their respective parents, and likewise, James Gilbert’s 1986 book A Cycle of Outrage suggests that many Americans viewed a stable domestic setting as the panacea for all forms of juvenile delinquency. Nonetheless, the film Rebel Without a Cause suggests that only emotional connections between children and parents can curb the epidemic of juvenile delinquency whereas A Cycle of Outrage suggests that the public viewed delinquency as an epidemic that originated outside of the family.
The scene in the police station first demonstrates how the paucity of emotional connection between the protagonists and their respective parents has driven them to delinquency. Whereas A Cycle of Outrage suggests that most parents feared “contamination from traditional delinquency sources in slums”, the scene in the police station demonstrates that juvenile misbehavior is inevitable in unstable households (Gilbert 74). When Inspector Ray invited Judy into his office to question her, rather than gathering details on her whereabouts, he attempts to diagnose Judy’s misbehavior. In questioning Judy, Ray searches for an underlying psychological reason for her delinquency, first asking if she was “looking for company” but ultimately concluding that she ran away to make her father notice her. Ray tries to arrange for Judy’s father, not her mother, to pick her up because he understands that it will force Judy and her father into conversing about her delinquency. Upon hearing this, Judy stops crying, bolts her head toward Ray, and gives him her telephone number so that he can call her house. Judy interpets Ray’s understanding of her difficult home situation as the beginning of an emotional connection between the two, driving her to comply with his request to give him her telephone number. However, her break from misbehavior is short-lived: Ray’s inability to get Judy’s father to come to the police station informs Judy that perhaps Ray’s emotional connection to her was not as meaningful as she first assumed. When Ray tells Judy to “take it easy”, Judy replies with a sarcastic “oh sure!” illustrating that her broken emotional connection with Ray has renewed her rebellious behavior.
As with Judy, Ray conducts a psychoanalysis of Jim that demonstrates that the emotional disconnect between Jim and his parents drive Jim’s misbehavior. Jim admits to Ray that his parents “never understand” that constantly moving does not solve his problem with making friends and that he would not misbehave if he “felt that [he] belonged someplace”. Thus, his parents’ inability to empathize with his struggle to make friends leaves him emotionally isolated and prone to rebel. Although Jim never draws a distinct connection between his own delinquency and his turbulent family life, in his frequent mentions of his relationship with Frank, Jim implies that his inability to connect with his father drives his misbehavior. Furthermore, That Jim confided in Ray, even though Ray tackled Jim at the beginning of their one-on-one conversation, demonstrates that a “tough love” relationship breeds emotional connections between fathers and sons. As such, Jim yearns for his father to “knock mom cold”, demonstrating that he desires a father who can exert authority over him, not a father who “always wants to be [his] pal”, like Frank. In Ray’s conversations with Judy and Jim, he finds that the reason for their delinquency derives from their home lives, contradicting A Cycle of Outrage’s claim that the public ascribed juvenile delinquency to outside forces. Even though FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, like Rebel Without a Cause blamed delinquency on “lax institutions, greed, cynicism, and loose family ties”, he identified a culprit in “the traitor…who knifes from within” (Gilbert 71). Rebel Without a Cause, because it lacks mention of the Cold War and the Soviet Union, argues that the decay of family ties are not rooted in communist influence.
Their lack of emotional connections with their respective parents drives Jim, Judy, and Plato to form bonds with each other. When Plato grabbed his mother’s gun and ran out of his house, he told his housekeeper that “he had to warn [Jim]” about Buzz’s friends’ plans, illustrating that Plato’s emotional connection to Jim encouraged him to take the gun. As having the gun embroiled Plato in a chase with the police, Plato’s emotional connection to Jim only escalated his delinquency, demonstrating that only emotional bonds with parents—not other kids—will reduce delinquency. However, after they run away to the abandoned mansion, the three form a relationship in which Jim and Judy, who are romantically involved, fulfill the role of father and mother while the younger Plato plays the role of a son. As Plato laments his parents for being absent, Jim and Judy comfort him until he falls asleep, at which point they decide to explore the mansion. When Buzz’s clique comes to the mansion, Plato brandishes his gun, demands to know why Jim and Judy “[ran] out on him”, and shouts “you’re not my father!” as he leaves the property. As Jim and Judy were Plato’s bona fide parents, leaving Plato outside paralleled Plato’s parents leaving him alone with the housekeeper. In both cases, a lack of emotional intimacy between Plato and his parent figures drove his misbehavior. The “contagion, contamination, and infection” from the outside that most associated with juvenile delinquency in the 1950s had no discernible effect on Plato’s behavior (Gilbert 75).
Rebel Without a Cause illustrates that delinquency is prone to occur when there is an emotional disconnect between children and their parents, but A Cycle of Outrage suggested that the people of the 1950s perceived juvenile delinquency as a threat originating from the outside. Even if Rebel without a Cause did not contribute to the popular narrative that foreign subversives were encouraging delinquency in middle-class suburbia, it prescribed a popular solution to juvenile delinquency: a stable domestic setting. Perhaps by not even addressing the role of foreign subversives in the rise in juvenile delinquency, Rebel Without a Cause demonstrated the innate importance of maintaining strong family bonds.
Matt Walsh is a VI Form Day Student from Southborough, Massachusetts. His academic interests include chemistry, history, and politics, and he enjoys playing baseball and performing with the trumpet in the jazz band.