The conflation of rebellion with the masculine youth is, in the words of Richard Dyer, “the ideal material term on which to displace social discontent,” because, of course, the young always get old.

The iconic young white male rebel is like a pop cultural “safety valve” where revolutionary impulses of subaltern/disenfranchised audiences will be satisfied in the Brando, Dean figure whose fictive generational alienation comes quite conveniently with an expiration date. This, of course, is not the case with women, racial minorities, sexual minorities etc. whose alienation is life-long, and whose “rebel” representations in media are almost invariably problematized.

The premise for Dean’s rebellion in Rebel Without a Cause, and East of Eden is furthermore predicated on the failure of his family to live up to patriarchal norms. In both Rebel and Eden, the narrative source of Dean’s discontent is the relative weakness of his father to his mother’s familial dominance (“You’re tearing me apaaaaaaht!”). If any structural critique is taking beyond his (“healthy”) youthful restlessness, it’s against any transgression of gendered parental roles. In this light Dean’s rebellion is that of the conservative.

Could the icons of the youth-based counter culture be so cherished, spotlighted, and commodified by mass/corporate culture for the agreeable time-limit implicit in the premise of childish discontent? For the prevailing conservative moral at its heart?

If we find this to be (at least in part) the case, then these “rebels” are deployed for little more than maintaining the status-quo.

For more on the rebel genre see my earlier post, “Rebels by Proxy“.
For another take on the James Dean icon as a pro-feminist figure, see “Pop Feminist: Teen Idols #3“.

Dyer, Richard. Stars, 1979