Isn’t he Iconic, dontcha think? – Irony of a Rebel

Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955)

James Dean being bullied, as an outcast, and with only one (similarly outcast) friend? That’s not the James Dean we see plastered about as a pop culture icon. He’s supposed to be cool, confident, poised, and even a sex symbol. But the cultural icon he has become in turn creates a great sense of irony in the role he is most famous for. In this film about American culture in the 1950’s, Dean’s character cries, he’s broken, and he’s anything but an icon to his parents, the lawmen, and his classmates. We see the true vulnerabilities of a teenage boy from someone who would later become known as the tough guy of his generation.

Of course, viewers need not look any further than the title to see another bit of irony. Whether intentional on Ray’s part or not, Dean’s character is far from a rebel. In fact, he’s almost the opposite. The rebellious acts that accompany his character are nothing more than a reaction to the continued rejection he receives when attempting to normalize. He’s always provoked despite mostly trying to avoid trouble and spend time with the people that show him genuine care. He doesn’t seek attention, lashing out because he thinks he isn’t heard; he would prefer the calmness of a regular life. To further the irony of the title, despite its claim, the rebellious acts he does find himself involved in have a deep amount of cause – a need for love and acceptance.

And while much time is spent with his dealings with bullies, the root of his issues is very obviously his parents. In a time period whose most famous fictional parents were arguably Ward and June Cleaver, seeing a couple where the woman is the domineering force, where arguments are more frequent than pleasant conversation, and where a son has to beg for stability was uncommon. In fact, the irony here is that Ray doesn’t push a false reality on viewers. So, in a sense, the avoidance of irony becomes ironic. Sort of makes your head spin.

Many aspects of the film were ironic, but in a way that spoke truth to people in a time when truth was covered up neatly in most entertainment. Thanks to Ray’s honestly, no matter how old this film gets, new generations of viewers can watch it and connect to the characters, which is why Rebel without a Cause will always be considered a great and important film.  8.25/10


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