How does the 1955 Film Rebel without a Cause Establish Many of the Generic Conventions of Teen Movies?
‘Rebel without a cause’ was the first-ever film targeted at the newly established Teenage audience and caused the creation of the ‘Teen Movie’ genre because of its incredible success. The creators of Rebel without a cause saw enormous potential for the teen audience as they had never been targeted before, and they had money to spend on entertainment as they had no outgoings at all. The film starred James Dean as Jim Stark, the troubled teenager in a new town. He is portrayed as the outsider and the protagonist as he fights his oppressive authoritative figures.
The central theme running through this film is the outsider being absorbed into the new community and struggling with acceptance. This can be seen in ‘Rebel’ as Jim tries to be incorporated into the new town and strives to overcome many obstacles. This theme can also be seen in other films such as ‘Save the last dance’ as the white protagonist Sara Johnson tries to fit into the very proud black society. The narrative of initiation can be tied into the absorption theme in that in Rebel, the chicken run must be completed before the buzz, and the bully gang will accept Jim.
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This theme is reflected in later films such as grease, where the race must be completed to resolve the conflict between the opposing groups. Another theme that is almost always seen in teen movies is the boy/girl romance. In rebel, without a cause, this theme is reflected by the relationship between Judy and Jim. This can also be seen in later films such as the American Pie series, where sex permeates. The multiple relationships in American Pie can be seen as the characters strive to transition from puberty into adult society. This is another theme seen in the 1955 Rebel without a cause, as all teenage characters are trying to make it as mature adults.
This is an excellent task for teenagers as the ideal of “the love of your life” must be found before the transition is complete. The film’s message is that when love has been found, life will be so much easier. This offers social and economic reassurance for the audience that the teenager’s problems can be overcome and that true love can be found. The theme of transition ties in with the sub-theme of adulthood and what the right way to be a man is. The issue of masculinity is debated in its three-character forms: Jim’s dad shows us how he is emasculated, and his role as a man has been reversed with Mrs. Stark.
This is seen as he cleans up the meal he has made for his wife in a piny. Second, Jim himself is portrayed as the picture of perfect masculinity. Although he is rebellious, he is charming and treats Plato as his surrogate son and Judy as his loving partner. Because of Jim’s heroism in the film, Jim’s dad’s masculinity is restored, and he realizes that they need to resolve the conflict in the family unit. Plato offers the third view of masculinity as he is portrayed as a coward and seems to need someone to replace his Parents who have abandoned him. His love for Jim could be viewed as homosexual; only when the film was released would this love be seen as admiration and plutonic father love.
This is because not only was homosexuality illegal and considered a sin; the innocent audience wouldn’t be able to differentiate between plutonic admiration and homosexual admiration. There is another theme that can be seen in almost every film in the Teen Movie genre. This is the theme of conflict between parent and child. In rebel without a cause, the theme is that Jim rebels against his father’s lack of role model material. He sees his father as weak and unable to sustain the discipline needed to keep the family together. It can also be seen in how Judy hates her father and wants to move away from the family.
Other characters, such as Plato, resent his parental figures as he has been abandoned, and it has had a pronounced psychological effect on him. In other films, such as to save the last dance, the teenage protagonist is resentful to her father for not being supportive enough. Finally, some films in the teen movie genre have very few parental figures in them at all. In these cases, the parent character is replaced by other authority figures that are often state-provided. An example of this is the film ‘American Graffiti’ where the police and teachers offer cause for rebellion as the parents aren’t even shown in the film. Main characters are repeated throughout the teen movie genre and are nearly always portrayed on mise-en-scene in the same way.
The Geek – The character who is communicated as the unpopular and usually un-sexually experienced male. This can be seen in rebel without a cause in the form of Plato. He is unpopular, and it seems as though nobody wants to be his friend until Jim provides him with social reassurance and tries to help him. In American pie, the geek characters are played in varying degrees. Jim is shown as the jester character who can never do much right, resulting in comic relief. But in many films, the geeky character manages to overcome social adversity and finally be accepted, resulting in relations with the opposite sex. She’s all that shows how the geek can make the transition between ugly duckling into swan overnight.
The character Toad plays another geek role in American Graffiti. He also starts unpopular and without love but ends up being true to himself and finding that the girl likes him for who he is. The outside is another example of a character that is often repeated in teen movies. This can be seen in Jim Stark in rebel without a cause, Sandy in Grease and Sarah in save the last dance. These characters are all searching for social acceptance and, at first, come up against obstacles but, in the end, are absorbed by the community in different ways.
Rebel without a cause offers many ideal types for the protagonist characters. Jim and Judy are viewed as fashionable, beautiful and aspirational. This is so that they are accepted by the audience with pre-existing concepts about how different people should be viewed. In The teen movie genre, fat and ugly characters are never popular. They are hardly ever the hero as they are not aspirational characters for the audience to desire. The film rebel without a cause looks up to James Dean and Natalie Wood because they are both excellent actors. The teenage audience would find aspiration in their image and personality.
This is important for the film industry to communicate as for the film to be popular, it must contain specific role models for the audience to relate to. This creates a reason for the film to be watched and therefore receives funding from the teenager’s pockets. After this film, James dean’s fashionable white tee-shirt and the red jacket were copied throughout American teenage society and throughout the world. A similar fashion can be seen in American graffiti where John Milner wears his tight-fitted short-sleeved tee-shirt.
The film Rebel without a cause follows the perspective of Jim and Judy – the teenage protagonist characters. This is the central ideology of the teen movie genre that it always sympathizes with the youthful. This can be seen in such films as American Pie, where the adults are seen as boring and only viewed as obstacles for the teenager’s hedonism. However, American Pie challenges this convention as it uses an adult, Mrs. Stiffler – a young mother trying to cling on to her youth – who seduces the intellectual ‘Geek’ character, Paul Finch.
Rebel without a cause paved the way for hundreds of films targeted at the teenage audience. It was created because there had never been a genre that offered teenagers a way to express their emotions before communally. The film gave iconic status to James Dean’s name and gave thousands of teenagers a role model to follow. The film can be seen in many other films, which are constantly being added to the genre. Hundreds of other teen films have Rebel elements without a cause and follow the generic conventions established in 1955.