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James Dean Transfigured

James Dean Transfigured
The Many Faces of Rebel Iconography

An exploration of the international legacy of rebel imagery made popular by James Dean in the 1950s.

March 2007
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260 pages | 6 x 9 | 29 b&w illus. |

After the death of James Dean in 1955, the figure of the teen rebel permeated the globe, and its presence is still felt in the twenty-first century. Rebel iconography—which does not have to resemble James Dean himself, but merely incorporates his disaffected attitude—has become an advertising mainstay used to sell an array of merchandise and messages. Despite being overused in advertisements, it still has the power to surprise when used by authors and filmmakers in innovative and provocative ways.

The rebel figure has mass appeal precisely because of its ambiguities; it can mean anything to anyone. The global appropriation of rebel iconography has invested it with fresh meanings. Author Claudia Springer succeeds here in analyzing both ends of the spectrum—the rebel icon as a tool in upholding capitalism's cycle of consumption, and as a challenge to that cycle and its accompanying beliefs.

In this groundbreaking study of rebel iconography in international popular culture, Springer studies a variety of texts from the United States and abroad that use this imagery in contrasting and thought-provoking ways. Using a cultural studies approach, she analyzes films, fiction, poems, Web sites, and advertisements to determine the extent to which the icon's adaptations have been effective as a response to the actual social problems affecting contemporary adolescents around the world.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: The Rebel Icon
  • Chapter 1: Birth of an Icon
  • Chapter 2: Disney's Dean
  • Chapter 3: Rebel Wrecks
  • Chapter 4: The Teen Rebel
  • Chapter 5: The Postcolonial Rebel
  • Chapter 6: The Posthuman Rebel
  • Chapter 7: The Virtual Rebel
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Claudia Springer is an independent scholar living in Newton, Massachusetts. She was a professor in the English Department and Film Studies Program at Rhode Island College for many years.


Icons are the most significant and ambivalently, the most unintelligible of images.

David Gerald Orr
"The Icon in the Time Tunnel"


One of the legacies of American films of the fifties is their introduction of an internationally recognizable shorthand for dissent. The angry, alienated teen rebel who sneered at Eisenhower-era complacency from the big screen provided the world with a larger-than-life embodiment of the idea of nonconformity. At the time, there were Americans engaged in protracted struggles against Cold War politics and racial segregation, but their acts of rebellion failed to fire the public's imagination as dramatically as did Hollywood's sullen teens. The teen rebel transcended its origins in iconoclasm—in the rejection of the status quo—and was itself elevated to iconic status, becoming a revered object of devotion. Over the decades that followed, the rebel figure permeated the globe, and its charismatic presence is still felt in the twenty-first century. But the rebel is a particularly ambiguous icon, with meanings that contradict each other and an extraordinary ability to conform to any purpose.

On the one hand, the teen rebel icon is a supremely commercial product used to sell cars and jeans and the complete array of capitalism's flotsam and jetsam; but, on the other hand, it still has the power to surprise when used in innovative, provocative ways. Understanding the parameters of the rebel icon's contradictory appearances can illuminate popular iconography's contemporary functions. Long detached from its original spiritual and religious functions, most iconography is now secular but nonetheless deeply embedded in society. It creates the impression of shared identity by inviting its beholders to join its ranks, not just in admiration but in imitation. As such, it is one of the variables in the array of "lifestyle choices" confronting the contemporary consumer, for whom a "new look" can be just a credit-card purchase away. However, its status as a commodity does not diminish its power to be profoundly meaningful for individuals who incorporate it into their own personal and local contexts. As American pop culture iconography has spread throughout the world, it has displaced local icons and contributed to the erasure of unique cultural memory. And yet there are texts from around the world that defy global homogenization and show that American cultural hegemony can be resisted by turning American iconography against itself.

This is a study of a variety of texts from the United States and abroad that use the teen rebel icon in disparate ways. Included here are films, advertisements, poems, fiction, and Web sites. Films dominate the analysis because the teen rebel achieved its legendary status on screen, and that is where the presence of the rebel icon is most keenly felt. The huge number of texts that use the rebel figure makes it impossible to even come close to being comprehensive. I have sought diversity and have chosen texts that use contrasting strategies. Countless texts use rebel iconography in interesting ways, and it is my hope that the examples I have chosen to analyze will encourage a reevaluation of other examples that can offer up additional complexities and contradictions.

The young rebel figure firmly ingrained in our cultural imagination carries with it traces of Hollywood's screen rebels of the fifties, and none more than James Dean, a point that film scholar Jon Lewis makes when he writes in his study of teen films, The Road to Romance and Ruin, that "it is safe to say that after 1955, youth's resort to a kind of mannered anomie—on screen and on the streets—was patterned after James Dean's performance in Rebel Without a Cause." The generation that came of age in the early fifties is likely to consider Marlon Brando, whose fame preceded Dean's and who was idolized by him, as the ultimate rebel, but during the following fifty years, before his death in 2004, Brando's image was repeatedly revised (and reviled) as a result of his complicated public and personal life. Most young people are unfamiliar with the tough-talking young biker Brando; it is Dean, by virtue of his early death, who became a legendary figure of inarticulate teenage angst.

Despite its ubiquity, then, the rebel icon is a relatively recent invention with a specific lineage in which James Dean figures prominently. This is not a book about James Dean; it is about the rebel iconography he helped create. There are many books and articles about Dean's mid-twentieth-century life and times, but the rebel icon he contributed to has had a busy life without him for the last fifty years and shows no signs of slowing down. If anything, our mediatized world has heightened the rebel icon's visibility on ever-present screens. Consumer culture obsessively recycles iconic images to suit its many needs, and as consumerism has infiltrated the globe it has been accompanied by its stable of archetypes. Although the rebel icon has spread throughout the world, it has been anything but consistent. On the contrary, both left- and right-wing ideologues, from one extreme end of the political spectrum to the other, use rebel iconography to emblematize their cause. In each case the icon implies a position that has been misjudged and wrongly disparaged by the ruling powers, regardless of the politics involved. Each new manifestation of the icon reorients its constantly shifting allegiances.

Thus the iconic James Dean—a culturally and commercially mediated, fluid entity—is the focus of this book. My first chapter, "Birth of an Icon," analyzes the formation of the teen rebel icon during the fifties, giving James Dean a central place in its development. I argue that the rebel icon's ambiguities originate in the convergence of a complex host of social and economic phenomena: an emerging consumer culture in an affluent postwar society; a repressive social climate of homophobia, misogyny, racism, and anti-youth rhetoric; the appropriation of a black style by disaffected young white people looking for a defiant stance; the conventions introduced by Hollywood's teen films; and media and studio manipulation of James Dean's public image. The enigmatic nature of the icon made it easy for the advertising industry to grab hold of it as an endlessly malleable and durable marketing tool.

Chapter 2, "Disney's Dean," looks at the Disney studio's 1969 film The Love Bug (Robert Stevenson) as an example of the rebel icon's sanitization and decontextualization. Rebel elements flourish in the film, but they are drained of their threatening connotations and rendered tame and innocuous. The Love Bug's treatment of the rebel icon is a microcosm of the Disney studio's typical handling of anything that challenges the status quo. Through a process of Disneyfication, Disney films transform or mock subcultures, oppositional social movements, and racial or ethnic Others. The Disney studio's 1997 television remake of The Love Bug (Payton Reed) continues the trend by depoliticizing the sixties and once again homogenizing the rebel icon, and the 2005 theatrical remake, Herbie: Fully Loaded (Angela Robinson), is a Hollywood-style "girl-power" film in which being a rebel means hesitantly and apologetically disobeying your father.

Chapter 3, "Rebel Wrecks," contrasts Disney's strategy of eviscerating the rebel icon with British author J. G. Ballard's no-holds-barred novel Crash, published in 1973, four years after the release of The Love Bug. Crash incorporates the rebel icon and is structured around many of the same basic elements as the Disney film, but its treatment of their shared material could not be more radically different. The novel explodes the film's complacency, revealing that pop culture iconography resists fixity, lending itself instead to antithetical appropriations. Crash is an acute and disconcerting look at the perverse combination of sexuality, image obsession, celebrity death, and thrill seeking that underlies rebel iconography.

Chapter 4, "The Teen Rebel," argues that despite the descent of much teen rebel iconography into clichés and stereotypes, at least a few texts revitalize the icon in original and meaningful ways. I analyze three films and a novel. Two of the films, The Doom Generation (Gregg Araki, 1996) and Boys Don't Cry (Kimberly Peirce, 2000), are American and belong to the teen film genre in which the rebel icon has become a mainstay, but instead of recycling the genre's conventions in familiar ways, they make the genre itself their subject matter. Using contrasting cinematic strategies and tones, these films are as much about the shortcomings of the teen film genre as they are about the alarming adversity faced by contemporary young people. I also analyze the Taiwanese novel Wild Child, written by Chang Ta-chun in 1996, as an example of the young rebel in literary fiction and as an example of how the rebel icon has been exported from the United States and transplanted into other national contexts. Wild Child uses the icon brilliantly in a searing attack on the hypocrisies that followed Taiwan's "economic miracle" of the 1980s, which left in its wake a dispossessed underclass and a generation of young people afloat in a corrupt adult world with only worldwide pop culture detritus to steer them. The teen rebel icon is part of the detritus, and Chang Ta-chun uses it to underscore his young protagonist's dilemmas. In Taiwan as well as in the U.S. and much of the rest of the world, teenagers are viewed as the causes of social problems and perceived as super-predators, when in fact they are victims. I analyze a Swedish film, Lilya 4-Ever (Lukas Moodysson, 2003), to show how it opposes the rhetoric of teen predators by using the rebel icon to reveal adult predation on adolescents in the former Soviet Union and Sweden. Teenagers in each of these texts—the two American films, the Taiwanese novel, and the Swedish film—are trapped in hostile environments created by political and social forces beyond their control that prevent them from making their own choices and realizing their aspirations. Rebel iconography seems to offer a refuge, but its limitations become abundantly clear in each case.

Chapter 5, "The Postcolonial Rebel," elaborates on the previous chapter by isolating three texts concerned with a specific aspect of the rebel icon's global dispersion: its role in identity formation among postcolonial subjects. I analyze two films that appropriate rebel iconography to interrogate its relevance to the postcolonial world, Touki-Bouki, a 1973 Senegalese film directed by Djibril Diop Mambety, and La Haine (Hate), a 1995 French film directed by Mathieu Kassovitz. Both films revolve around the powerful attraction of American-style rebel iconography to young people released from colonialism but faced with its legacy both at home and abroad in the former colonial powers. The films are concerned with young people estranged from their communities and struggling to define themselves differently from the norm. In both, young rebels resist the roles thrust on them and move to the margins of their cultures in an attempt to create their own identities. Their attempts, however, are characterized by confusion as they are consistently caught up in political and cultural currents they do not fully comprehend. In an effort to establish a unique identity, they inevitably fall back on American and European pop culture, a ubiquitous presence, and while they find ingenious ways to recontextualize the rebel icon in their own cultural milieus, it ultimately fails to enlighten or assist them in their struggles against Eurocentrism, racism, poverty, and police brutality. In this chapter I also analyze a short story by American fiction writer Robert Ready, "Jimmy the Arab," in which Bachir, the Arab character briefly played by James Dean on Broadway, has grown old and is under house arrest for his gay sexuality in postindependence Algeria. In Ready's story, the rebel icon in the form of the aging Bachir/James Dean challenges colonialism, myths of masculinity, and enforced heterosexuality.

Chapter 6, "The Posthuman Rebel," looks at how rebel iconography has been taken up in another mode, the science fiction genre, and analyzes the hugely popular film The Matrix (Wachowski Brothers, 1999) and its two sequels. Behind their flashy special effects and futuristic mise-en-scène, they reenact a familiar scenario that dates back to the fifties: the appropriation of black cool by young white hipsters in search of a rebellious style. Thomas A. Anderson's transformation into the incontrovertibly cool Neo in the Matrix trilogy is enacted through the guidance of his hip black teacher Morpheus and the spiritual guide the Oracle, both of whom function in typical Hollywood fashion to promote the success of a white protagonist by imparting to him the benefits of their "special powers." The Matrix films revolve around cool and were marketed as cool, but their coolness unselfconsciously reproduces the racial politics at the heart of the rebel icon's emergence in the middle of the twentieth century.

Chapter 7, "The Virtual Rebel," examines the rebel icon's lives on the Internet by analyzing how James Dean continues to live posthumously on Web sites devoted to him and the iconography he inspired. The Internet creates the illusion of immediacy, of proximity to the "real" James Dean, through virtual visits to his hometown or through photographs and memorabilia. Attempts to get close to the "authentic" Dean are doomed to fail, and yet they do provide the valuable experience of community for fans. Web sites dedicated to James Dean originate in all corners of the world, and their diversity reveals the range of meanings associated with him, from the "official" site that presents him as a model of homespun virtues to a multitude of unofficial sites that use him to express a host of extraordinary ideas. Dean's image was so highly manipulated even before his death that it is impossible to uncover the "authentic" James Dean; all we have access to is the way he has been used for contradictory ideological purposes. Authenticity is highly valued now that the media and advertising have largely displaced it, so, ironically, it has become another manufactured commodity.

Cultural studies offers a valuable approach to understanding the teen rebel icon's development. Cultural studies is a form of inquiry that draws on other fields—anthropology, sociology, gender studies, feminism, literary criticism, history, and psychoanalysis, among others—to discuss contemporary cultural practices. Although it draws on other fields, cultural studies also challenges them. Specifically, it challenges what has traditionally been studied and how it has been studied. Cultural studies has sought to transform the objects of study in the humanities to include everything produced within a culture, not just the narrow range of texts traditionally deemed worthy of study—the "great books" in literature departments, for example. Cultural studies opens up textual analysis to all cultural phenomena; television, professional wrestling, the World Wide Web, rap music, grunge clothing, tattoos, popular dance, and fan clubs and their fanzines, to name a few, are all considered texts worthy of serious, rigorous analysis by cultural studies scholars. In anthropology, there has been a corresponding shift from studying "primitive" peoples to studying the organization and rituals of Western industrialized societies. By redefining the object of study, cultural studies has challenged traditionally sacrosanct categories in the humanities. In literary studies, for example, cultural studies takes on the canon: the group of books deemed superior by academic arbiters of literary taste. Instead of singling out a few books on the basis of literary quality, cultural studies "reads" all texts of culture, thereby erasing the line between "high culture" and "low culture." In cultural studies, textual analysis is concerned less with a text's inherent literary value—its "greatness"—and more with its articulation of ideological positions in relation to dominant culture. Cultural studies analyzes texts within the context of their social production, thus challenging the traditional concept of the literary object as autonomous and self-contained.

Cultural studies dates from the 1970s, and its origins include the Birmingham Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies in England, where theorist Stuart Hall wrote some of its classic work, and the French journal Tel Quel. The field was founded with a commitment to cultural critique—with exposing the workings of the dominant class and analyzing its use of mass culture as a tool to secure consensus for its dominance. For this endeavor, cultural studies drew heavily on an earlier mode of cultural critique—Marxist theory, in particular the writings of Louis Althusser on ideology and Antonio Gramsci on hegemony. But cultural studies also grew out of a critique of Marxism, out of a sense that traditional Marxist theories were inadequate to explain the complexities of contemporary cultural production and reception. For example, there was dissatisfaction with Marxist economic reductionism, with its emphasis on economic determinants underlying all human experience. For cultural studies theorists, we are not simply constituted by the class we are born into, with all of our thoughts determined by our class identification. Similarly, cultural studies rejected the Marxist Frankfort School's dismissal of mass culture as debased and corrupt.

Instead, cultural studies scholars trust that there is more than one way to respond to a text, and that people often read texts in creative ways that defy expectation. Many works of cultural studies, then, turn from thinking of texts as pure instruments of cultural control to seeing them as sites of struggle between dominant and oppositional readings. Culture is not uniform and homogenous and defined entirely by class stratification. Rather, it is composed of multiple subordinate groups—subcultures—that often resist falling into line behind a dominant cultural agenda. British scholar Dick Hebdige's 1979 book Subculture: The Meaning of Style was an important influence on subsequent work in the field, and his pioneering work was joined by equally insightful studies by scholars Simon Frith, Angela McRobbie, and Iain Chambers, among others, who examined youth subcultures, working-class subcultures, black subcultures, gay and lesbian subcultures, and women's subcultures. Issues of race, gender, and sexuality are central to cultural studies, to some extent replacing the Marxist concept of classes as agents of social transformation with a concept of "identities" as agents of oppositional change.

However, there is little agreement in the field about whether a special subcultural response or reading is subversive of the existing order. In fact, this question is hotly contested. Standing on one side of the debate is television scholar John Fiske, who grants the audience almost complete autonomy to construct meaning, making the argument that consumers engage in widespread subversive readings of mass culture and actively resist hegemonic dictates. Fiske's position has spawned a slew of cultural studies books that analyze oppositional readings of everything from Madonna videos to slasher films. However, the idea that the consumer freely determines meaning has come under attack from within cultural studies. Fiske has been accused of being simplistic, and his critics have cautioned that by exalting the consumer's unconstrained interpretive abilities, cultural studies can end up celebrating rather than analyzing the status quo. Debates over these issues comprise a lot of writing in the field.

In addition to analyzing consumer reception of mass-culture texts, cultural studies is interested in the possibilities of people creating oppositional cultural work. Subcultural expressions are studied as gestures of resistance to the commercial mainstream; the music of Bif Naked, a struggling Canadian woman punk rocker, for example, can be contrasted with that of the corporate megastar Britney Spears. But there is also a recognition in cultural studies that anything oppositional is likely to be quickly absorbed into the mainstream. The grunge protest against the oppressive fashion industry, for example, was cut short when its baggy flannel shirts appeared on high-paid supermodels on Paris catwalks and the cover of Elle magazine. In another twist, though, subcultures often reappropriate what the consumer industries have appropriated from them, creating an interesting cycle of resistance and cooptation. While some argue that corporate plundering of all oppositional forms has made resistance impossible, others, myself included, are interested in tracing the precise workings of appropriation and reappropriation, seeing them as parts of a dialectical process that is never completely resolved.

Cultural studies has grown and changed and branched out since its inception, resulting in many different approaches and methodologies. It has always been eclectic, borrowing its theoretical tools from other fields. The discipline is defined by its openness, and it now includes postmodern cultural studies, black cultural studies, postcolonial cultural studies, Chinese cultural studies, and cognitive cultural studies, among others. Its methodological strengths for the study of rebel iconography are its insistence on the validity of all texts as objects of study and its commitment to contextualization. For example, although The Love Bug is far from being a cinematic masterpiece, I have chosen to analyze it at length because it epitomizes the strategy of domesticating the rebel figure and subduing its disruptive connotations. And I devote a whole chapter to an analysis of Web sites even though they vary in quality and in any case would not be considered "art" by traditional mavens of taste. Nonetheless, they are where conflicting interpretations of rebel iconography currently proliferate. My analyses of The Love Bug and Web sites, along with the other texts included here, place them in their social and historical contexts, while also noting that their manipulation of the rebel icon is based on a strategy of decontextualization. When figures become iconic, they get wrenched from their original situations and meanings and are opened up to endless reconfiguration, because for the purposes of advertising it is advantageous to abandon origins and earlier contexts in order to invest an image with new and more marketable meanings.

Returning to the rebel icon's original contexts in the fifties means recognizing that not all pop culture emblems of "rebellion" in the decades since have the same derivation. For example, hip hop and rap are often explicitly political and critical, challenging the police force and other American institutions for their racism, and their origins predate fifties teen rebel iconography, drawing instead on the history of the African diaspora and African American cultural forms while also incorporating Hispanic and other musical traditions. Rap is explicitly hybrid and attests to a continuity between the past and present, as American studies scholar Tricia Rose indicates: "These transformations and hybrids reflect the initial spirit of rap and hip hop as an experimental and collective space where contemporary issues and ancestral forces are worked through simultaneously." Rose points out that "hip hop's anger is produced by contemporary racism, gender, and class oppression . . . [and] a great deal of pleasure in hip hop is derived from subverting these forces and affirming Afrodiasporic histories and identities." The styles of insubordination of rap and hip hop have deep historical roots, and these roots contributed to the attitude and appearance of fifties rebel iconography; yet the teen rebel is not a significant antecedent for rap and hip hop. The fifties teen rebel icon is derivative of older styles of resistance and owes them a debt, but the older styles have persisted and evolved independently of it. These styles sometimes overlap, as in the Senegalese film Touki-Bouki and the French film La Haine, analyzed in Chapter 4, creating hybrid forms typical of a globalized world where multiple influences combine in provocative ways.

It has been half a century since James Dean's death, but the rebel icon persists and is being transfigured. "Transfiguration" is a word that denotes not only metamorphosis but also the attainment of elevated spirituality. The rebel icon is not religious in the traditional sense; its elevation is secular yet imbued with sentiments held in common with religious devotion: mythification, exaltation, ritual, worship. Even though traditional religions do not hold complete sway over twenty-first-century American culture, despite the efforts of the vocal Christian right, religious beliefs and rituals are flourishing in daily practices. Consumer society is organized around assumptions that mirror religious belief systems, uniting its adherents in taken-for-granted modes of behavior. Every religion has its own myths—narratives about its origins and the proper conduct of its believers—and also an overarching myth providing an ideological paradigm for the smaller myths. In our capitalist society, the meta-myth is the American dream success story, and the sacred ritual of shopping unites the faithful, a point made incisively by professor of religious studies Dell deChant in his article "The Economy as Religion: The Dynamics of Consumer Culture." He writes that "the myth of material success and achievement, gained through mastery of the mysteries of the Economy," is our culture's meta-myth, and he explains that

religion in postmodern society is that collection of culturally embedded phenomena that mediate individual and collective relationships with the sacred power of the Economy through acquisition-consumption-disposal. It is not enough to simply acquire and consume objects and images. One must do both and one must also dispose of the objects and images for the sacred to be experienced. The entire process must be completed, for only then (in the cyclical manner that is elemental to cosmological systems) can the process begin again. The quicker the process is completed and then begun again, the greater is one's experience of the sacred, and hence the greater one's power in the socio-religious system. For this reason, popular culture venerates the person who is able to keep up with the trends in fashion, who is able to acquire a new car every year (perhaps this explains the recent success of automobile leasing), who buys a new house, replaces appliances on a regular basis, installs a new lawn periodically, acquires the most innovative type of computer, and so on.

Consumerism, seen in this light, is the fundamental belief of contemporary American society, the bedrock upon which most shared customs exist. Its primacy benefits the immensely powerful corporations that have invaded nearly every corner of our public and private space, exhorting us to buy, buy, buy. Unlike members of traditional religions, devotees of the Economy are subjected to perpetual Sabbath; we can worship at the altar of Wal-Mart seven days a week.

The teen rebel icon has a privileged place in the Economy's sacred cycle of acquisition-consumption-disposal. Just as stories about saints and other holy figures are interpreted differently according to changing cultural attitudes, so the stories that accompany the teen rebel change with the times and with the needs of their tellers. When the advertising industry uses the icon, it invests the already enshrined figure with whatever is necessary to persuade us to buy a product. Recently this has meant using ads that appeal to our desire not to participate in the process, to rebel against the pressure to be a consuming drone, but ironically it is necessary to buy the advertised product in order to resist successfully. This nonsensical logic corrals the spirit of the nonbeliever back into the consumer credo and strengthens the Economy's hold. But just as traditional religious figures can be used to pose questions about established religious and cultural norms (think of artist Andres Serrano's Piss Christ), so the rebel icon can be used in challenging, critical ways. In this study I am interested in analyzing both ends of the spectrum: the rebel icon as a tool in upholding capitalism's sacred cycle of consumption and as a challenge to that cycle and its accompanying beliefs. It is easy to despair that consumer society's capacity to assimilate all protests against its reign makes it impossible for oppositional ideas to be disseminated. The example of the rebel icon shows not only that iconic figures can be used to feed the cycle of acquisition-consumption-disposal; such figures can be reappropriated, showing that the possibility of opposition persists in the age of corporate dominion.


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