James Dean

Dean is, obviously, one of the most iconic teen idols of them all– but let’s try to unhinge ourselves from the Times-Square-gift-shop-coffee-mug-James-Dean and orient this idol of idols historically.

The 50s is quick becoming my favorite 20th c. decade. Despite the crap we’ve been fed through reruns of Leave it to Beaver, or garbage high-school dance tracks like “Johnny Angel”, there is an unmistakable dark side to the 50s. Why, for example was there so great market for Catcher in the Rye, Mad Magazine, Rock ‘n’ roll and existentialism? Dark storms were brewing no doubt, and the “disease with no name” would only get one in 1963 when Betty Fridan exposed the silent agony of the picture perfect 50s middle class housewife in The Feminine Mystique.

Is it any wonder that the tragic James Dean would catapult to the greatest heights of American mythology?

I’m interested especially in Dean’s cross gender appeal. As I mentioned in my first teen-idol post, I believe that women don’t lust after their idols as much as they identify with them, which is a motivation often unnamed as it is hammered unmistakably into your brain at 13 that you are just going through puberty, having your first foolish sexual feelings (“soon to be extinguished” claim evolutionary psychologists!), you silly, silly girl.

Todd Giltin writes in The Sixties that “[Dean’s] masculine and feminine appeals were delicately balanced: to teenage girls he was an awkward darling, to boys a lost companion of the soul” (32). This, I suspect, is a misread of the nature of girls’ Dean fixation.

Gitlin later notes that “unlike Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, or Humphrey Bogart, say, heroes who knew what they wanted and went after it, Brando and Dean went looking for trouble because they had nothing better to do. They were refusers, defined by what they weren’t” (33).

It seems to me that this is also perhaps the reason why Gable, Cooper, or Bogart didn’t capture the imagination of the teeny-bopper crowd. If Dean “…seemed the perfect embodiment of doomed, estranged youth” (32), I can think of nothing more doomed or estranged than growing up a young woman with your Friedaneque repressed, depressed mother, knowing that this is your dull fate, while your brothers, at least, get to play baseball and dream of the possibilities of the future. For girls, their future was not only bleak, it was right there in front of them, passed out on the couch from tranquillizers at 3 in the afternoon.

Dean’s agonizing alienation in Rebel Without a Cause, partly due to his resentment toward his Mother as well, gives him more to say to young women of the 50s than his “darling awkwardness” alone allows. He was a soulmate for them too, perhaps more so– though, again, it’s men who dominate cultural criticism and their point of view is chanted from library corridors, album notes, audio commentary, televised retrospectives, and on and on…our memory is perhaps off balance.

“And James Dean’s Death erupted in the midst of an affluent society which was supposed to have had no more need of risk because it was organized to make happiness mandatory and adaptation the irresistible flagstone path of least resistance” (35, my italics). Dean rejects the so-called happiness handed to him on a platter, he abjects, he self destructs, and he offers no “cause” for his rebellion. For the many women afflicted by the “disease with no name” perhaps Dean’s refusal to justify himself was exhilarating.