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"Rebel Without a Cause" and its Influence on American Culture

1950's Teens

In a decade that saw major social change, the movie Rebel Without a Cause exemplified a distinct group of teens through which all teens in the late 1950’s and 1960’s would be viewed. Many of the parents of these teens started to view their children as rebels. However, these teens are only misunderstood by their parents as a number of changes in America began to happen. The younger generation could identify with the main protagonist of Rebel Without a Cause, Jim Stark, because James Dean’s (actor) characterization of America’s youth. This characterization of Dean’s character influenced the exploding culture surrounding America’s youth in a time of global conflict. Many other factors also influenced this cool culture and they specifically targeted teens. Teens became a new demographic to appeal to and were highly influenced due to new or improved inventions and genres never before seen. To begin, a look at the historical context of the 1950’s will give a broader sense to what Rebel Without a Cause contributed to.

Historical Context

The United States had entered the Korean War on June 25, 1950 and had ended on July 27, 1953. During the Korean War, protests were kept at a minimum, in the United States, against the war (Adams 12). This later changed for the Vietnam War, where many teens took part in protests all across the United States. After World War 2, only The United States and Russia were left as the world powers. America in particular held a monopoly on imperialism in the world (Adams). This change on the global scale gave Americans a spotlight to advance in fashion and the arts. America soon became the central hub economically, scientifically, socially, and politically.

TV Shows We Used To Watch - Christmas 1959

TV Shows We Used To Watch - Christmas 1959

The Miracle of Television

A technological revelation that was the television became wildly popular. In 1956, about 75% of all households in the United States owned a television (Clements). The television was a major medium in relaying information near instantaneously as it was happening. The cable networks were in a struggle to gain actors and actresses from Hollywood because of the growing demand for cable (Clements). Many Hollywood actors and actresses in the 1950s had influence factors on the American public, specifically the youth, just like the stars of today. When more and more actors and actresses started showing up on television, their fashion and material content affected younger people, like a Jim Stark. Not only was the television use for program content, but it was used for product placement as well. The growing influence on the television targeted teens more and more from 1950 to today (Jackson-Brown). The television quickly advanced into a mature medium to spread American culture.

Rock and Roll Music

Music was another major influence to the younger generation models like Jim Stark and his persona. The introduction of Rock and Roll pushed the younger generation forward into a rebellious state. Rock and Roll songs typically featured teen life in their lyrics and was primarily listened to by teens. The tempo of the music was fast paced and a complete change from contemporary music of the 1940's and early 1950's. The change in the use of the electric guitar and pumped up volume paved the way for future rockers and set the groundwork for later musicians. Legends such as Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley were at the forefront of this musical revolution. Rock and Roll music changed the perception of the youth in America to try to stay young.

James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause

James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause

The Cool Culture

The cool culture was embodied by James Dean with his role in Rebel Without a Cause. This embodiment led to future actors and shows portraying in the same style that Dean had done. For example, The Fonz in Happy Days played by Henry Winkler embodied the same cool, laid back persona that James Dean had on display in Rebel Without a Cause. Dean’s character, Jim Stark, was from a household that was in constant argument and had a father figure that was not authoritative. Another character, Plato, also experiences home troubles. Plato tells Jim that his parents are divorced and never visit him; Plato stays home alone with just a mouse maid. Judy, the third character discussed here, also grows up in a difficult household situation where her father does not view her as a little girl any more. All of these characters have a single common problem that they are dealing with. Their parents do not understand them for one reason or another.

The Generation Gap

Rebel Without a Cause shows the generational gap between adolescents in the 1950s and their parents. A disconnect becomes apparent in Jim’s life when he questions his father’s actions or spineless non-direct answers. Plato never gets to see his parents in order to tell them how he truly feels about being left alone, where in return he acts out by shooting puppies. Judy portrays how a young woman can be shunned by her father even though Judy believes she’s still daddy’s little girl. These are all real life situations and can even happen today. This moved the adolescent culture into a belief where they can do things on their own because they are the only ones that they should rely on. Jim and Judy imagine a life where they run away together. This dream is not at all uncommon.

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Dating and a Rebellious Attitude

Rebel Without a Cause is a major testament to middle class adolescents dating and is where the rebellious attitude can be found. “The film follows a classic pattern: boy meets girl, girl rejects boy for an established, inappropriate boy, boy gets girl through an act of daring, boy proves his moral worth through a selfless act of bravery” (Goldberg). Rebel Without a Cause shows how love can be rebellious. Judy, for example, is misunderstood by her father when she begins to date boys her age. Her father sees her as now unclean or not innocent anymore because of Judy’s dating. Judy, in response to her father’s betrayal, acts out against him and runs off with Jim thus defying her father even more. Jim on the other hand, asks for his father’s advice. Jim’s undertone is rooted in his crush on Judy, even if it is not apparent, when he asks his father whether to go through with something for honor. Jim’s father never gives him a straight answer or the answer Jim is looking for to stop him from doing something he may regret later. Jim acts out against his family to try to figure out things on his own. After entangling himself in Judy’s affairs, it is quite apparent their strong feelings towards one another. They become the only ones that they can trust.

James Dean and Natalie Wood in Rebel Without a Cause trailer

James Dean and Natalie Wood in Rebel Without a Cause trailer


Rebel Without a Cause changed the adolescents in America a variety of ways. The film viewed difficult family life, even from a woman’s perspective. The film focused on dating and trust with your fellow peers. It helped influence the cool culture and future television programs and movies. American culture changed drastically as films and other media targeted teens as a new demographic for marketing and shaped their lives. James Dean was the ideal actor that shone through to many adolescents in the mid 1950s who would identify with his crisis at home, peer pressure around them, as well as an awkwardness that came along with dating.

Works Cited

Adams, David. "4/THE PROGRESSIVE CITIZENS OF AMERICA 1946-1948." The American Peace Movements: History, Root Causes, and Future. New Haven, CT: Advocate, 1986. N. pag. Web.

Clements, C. L. "It's the Pictures that Got Small: Hollywood Film Stars on 1950s Television." Choice 47.1 (2009): 113.ProQuest. Web. 6 Mar. 2014.

Jackson-Brown, Grace. "Children and Media Outside the Home: Playing and Learning in After-School Care/The Changing Portrayal of Adolescents in the Media since 1950." Journalism & Mass Communication Educator 63.4 (2009): 358-61.ProQuest. Web. 6 Mar. 2014.

Michael, Lewis Goldberg. "Rebel without a Cause: Using Film to Teach about Dating in the 1950s." Magazine of History 18.4 (2004): 38-42. ProQuest. Web. 6 Mar. 2014.

© 2017 Drew Overholt

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