Before We Knew Better: Rebel Without A Cause’s retro gender attitude shows how far we’ve come

Rebel Without A Cause
Rebel Without A Cause
Image: Photo by Warner Bros/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
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In this mini-series, we look again at media we have loved to consider how it depicted gender. How does it look to a person with a 2019 perspective on gender roles and norms? Warning: Contains spoilers.

When did it come out? 1955

How does it hold up? Terribly—and thank goodness!

You know the image: James Dean with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, looking like the archetype of a teenager deep in angst. Rebel Without a Cause is iconic, even today, though the emotional punch of its melodrama has faded with the years.

It’s not just time that makes the movie’s emotional core feel outdated. The progress American society has made in those years subverts the supposed profundity of Dean’s empty rebellion. Dean’s hyper-masculine posturing and rage against his father’s sensitivity are anachronistic to watch in 2019.

And, honestly, I’m relieved.

When I first watched Rebel Without a Cause, I was expecting a cool, sophisticated movie—the kind that makes you wonder why we don’t make them like that any more. Instead, I couldn’t help laughing at the stilted script and confused character development. I decided to rewatch the film precisely to enjoy its flaws: In an era of #metoo and toxic masculinity, it’s comforting to remember that, actually, we have made some progress.

All too often, decades-old movies depict female characters that far surpass contemporary equivalents. Katharine Hepburn will forever be shockingly cool and non-conforming in every role she plays (and her co-star’s refusal to take advantage of her when she passes out drunk in 1940’s The Philadelphia Story is still an all-too-relevant counter to conventional male behavior.) Leading ladies of earlier decades, from investigative reporter Hildy Johnson in 1940’s His Girl Friday, to Sally Albright in the 1989 movie When Harry Met Sally, are far more unconventional and richly-developed than so many over-groomed movie stars today. And don’t get me started on 9 to 5, a powerful feminist satire made in 1980, in which characters demand many employment rights that women still haven’t achieved nearly 40 years later. Sometimes, watching the great films of old, it can feel as if gender relations haven’t advanced at all.

Not so with Rebel Without a Cause. Here’s a film that can be enjoyed with the smug satisfaction of knowing that at least some standards have changed for the better. One telling example: Early on in the movie, Dean’s character, Jim Stark, laments his father’s failure to beat his mother. “If he had guts to knock mum cold once, then maybe she’d be happy and then she’d stop picking on him,” he complains to a sympathetic police officer. Ah yes, the soothing virtues of domestic violence.

It’s difficult to describe the plot of Rebel Without a Cause without sounding flippant—because the film’s treatment of sensitive issues, including death, is itself markedly glib. It starts in a police station, where the three leads—Jim, played by Dean; Judy, played by Natalie Wood; and Plato, played by Sal Mineo—who don’t yet know each other, have been brought in for being drunk, curfew violation, and shooting puppies respectively (Plato’s shooting puppies is at odds with his sweet, shy demeanor, but is an early sign of his deep emotional trauma). They’re all soon released by police officers who act far more like counsellors than law enforcers. Jim is new to town and, when he goes to high school the next day, he learns the other two arrested teens are his classmates. 

Jim quickly gets into a fight with the cool kids (the leader of the pack, Buzz, is of course dating Judy). This then leads to a highly artificial knife fight, set to climactic music, with Jim reacting with agonized fury whenever his opponent Buzz calls him “chicken.”

The two decide to settle their feud with a “chicken run” later that night. The rules of the game: Buzz and Jim drive their cars towards the edge of a cliff and whoever stops their car first is the “chicken.” But Buzz gets his jacket stuck in the car door, can’t roll out, and so plummets off the cliff and dies. The strangely unaffected teenagers flee the scene. Judy and Jim both go home, where Jim argues with his parents about whether he should tell the police (his parents try to persuade him not to.) Jim goes to the police station but is sent away before he can make a report. He meets up with Judy outside their next-door houses, and the two go to an abandoned mansion Plato told Jim about. There they find Plato himself, and the three play at being a family to replace their inadequate ones. The cool kids follow them there, furious in their belief that Jim has reported them to the police, and Plato, alarmed, shoots at them to scare them away. He then runs to the nearby Griffith Observatory; Jim and Judy, who are falling in love, go with to try to console him. But the police soon arrive and, despite Jim’s best efforts, they ultimately shoot and kill Plato. Jim seems briefly devastated, but pulls it together to proudly introduce Judy to his parents. 

As Jim’s praise of domestic violence may suggest, the film paints his parents’ tense marriage as a key cause of his teenage angst. Specifically, Jim thinks his father is too weak. Jim reacts in horror, for example, when he comes home to find his father wearing a yellow apron and clearing up a tray of food that he’s dropped. “Don’t… you shouldn’t,” says Jim, aghast that his father would clean up his own mess. Jim’s mother was wearing the yellow apron, serving up eggs and making Jim a packed lunch in an earlier scene, so it’s not as though she’s rejected all traditionally feminine duties. But apparently any sensitivity from his father is a source of great consternation to Jim. Coupled with Jim’s rage over being called a “chicken,” the film presents an angry young teenager who’s deeply invested in upholding a rigid notion of “strong” masculinity.

The main female character, Judy, has her own disturbing relationship with her father. At the beginning of the film, at the police station, she says she ran away because he father called her a “dirty tramp” and roughly rubbed her lipstick off her face. Judy complains her father doesn’t give her attention now she’s no longer a little girl, and won’t even let her kiss him. On the two occasions when she tries (aiming for the lips), he pushes her away and then slaps her. The second time, he apologizes and tries to appease her by calling her “glamour puss,” which he apparently considers an appropriate nickname for his daughter. The Electra Complex (female equivalent of the Oedipal Complex, where a daughter wants to sleep with her father), isn’t particularly subtle.

While the film is painfully out-of-date in its portrayal of gender, critics have heralded it for being ahead of its time in terms of LGBT issues. It’s implied that Plato, who has a photo of actor Alan Ladd in his locker, is gay. The character is clearly in love with Jim, following him around and gazing at him adoringly. An early version of the script reportedly made this sexual tension more explicit, calling for Jim and Plato to share a kiss, but this did not get past movie censors. Geoffrey Shurlock, in charge of the Production Code that set movie moral guidelines, wrote to studio head Jack Warner: “It is of course vital that there be no inference of a questionable or homosexual relationship between Plato and Jim.” And so the kiss was cut. But director Nicholas Ray managed to heavily imply Plato’s homosexuality, in a manner that got past the largely oblivious 1950s censors, but is evident to a modern viewer. 

Rebel Without a Cause displays a striking contrast in its portrayal of gay characters versus female characters. Given the rates of progress the US has made in the decades since the film’s premier, this forwarded-thinking approach towards LGBT characters, compared to its markedly backwards stance on gender, goes against what we might expect to see in an old film. After all, LGBT rights have progressed rapidly in the span of just a few decades (homosexuality was illegal in many US states in 2003, but same-sex marriage was legal in the US by 2015), and so we might well expect a 1950s film to be painfully outdated on that front. Meanwhile, women have been demanding fair pay at work and equal responsibility at home for decades. Taking stock today, when several states are rolling back abortion access, it can feel like the conversation around women’s rights has barely advanced. And so it’s impressive to find a movie from more than six decades ago that’s markedly ahead of the curve on gay rights, but so lacking in progressive thought on gender.

Rebel Without a Cause is a comforting reminder that, though experts predict it will take 75 years from now until men do equal amounts of work in the home, and around a century from today until we have gender parity in the C-suite, at least we no longer glorify domestic violence. When it comes to gender, this film is horribly retro—and thank goodness for that.

This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here.