If alive today, James Dean would be ninety years old; yet, long after his passing in 2021, his subversion of toxic masculinity in East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause will continue to be relevant.
Watching James Dean on screen in Rebel Without a Cause was the first time I saw a man properly cry on screen. Not in the beautiful, single tear rolls down the cheek kinda bullshit way, but a proper cry – a wail, a shout for help if you will. An ugly mess of despair and hopelessness that could only be expressed through a good authentic cry.
And yet…it was released in 1957. This open vulnerability and raw display of emotion does not fit the 1950s alpha-male archetype James Dean is often seen as representing. In fact, I’d argue that if this film were to be released today, you’d have all the Candace Owens and Ben Shapiros of the world telling us that this is explicitly not how ‘a real man’ should act. “A real man does not cry and wail,” they would say, “bring back manly men”.
There is a reason James Dean was seen as a teenage icon in the 50s, but I’d argue that it is not for the reasons always cited today. Contemporary songs and movies reference James Dean as the epitome of cool and recklessness, and on surface level that makes sense. A classically handsome white male tragically dies in a car crash at the peak of his fame. He’s almost a perfect blank slate for people to project whatever image they see of the 50s onto him. James Dean is the face of the ‘teenage rebel’, the voice of a generation, the effortlessly cool.
But was he? In two of his most famous roles he plays a social outcast; as the titular rebel from Rebel Without a Cause he is severely bullied by his peers. To further subvert the macho image projected onto Dean, in one of his last television appearances he talks about road safety and the dangers of drag racing, in a quiet, pensive tone that is a far cry from cool or reckless.
Let’s go back to James Dean and his emotions on screen, because, man, that shit is powerful. In East of Eden, his character Cal Trask, feeling constantly rejected by his father’s lack of affection, desperately hugs him while crying, to his father’s (both the character’s and the actor’s) surprise. In Rebel Without a Cause, after his friend dies he cries in agony as he clutches his father’s legs. And whilst there have been countless homages, from Spongebob to Tommy Wiseau’s The Room of his oh-so-dramatic “You’re tearing me apart!” line, his original cry for help really packs that punch of built-up, raw emotion.
It goes without saying that both East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause have some incredibly dated messages. His sensitivity and emotional vulnerability are implied to be an unfortunate consequence of an unstable home life. In a particularly cringeworthy scene from Rebel Without a Cause it is stated that maybe the protagonist’s mother would be happy if his father would “knock her out cold”, implying that is what ‘makes a man’.
However, if we were to ignore the dated aspects of these films and just focus on Dean’s emotional vulnerability (most of which is improvised!), I’d say that it is still, to this day, undoubtedly progressive. Watching Dean crying out for help and longing for his father’s approval and affection without bottling his emotions is honestly awe-inspiring. When I watched Rebel Without a Cause at fourteen, seeing someone be so emotionally vulnerable and lost in the world made me feel just that little bit less alone in my adolescence.
I believe that this raw, unashamed emotion James Dean portrays should be focused on more when talking about his “icon” status. His ability to portray such earnestness and vulnerability when in an emotional crisis, especially as a male in the 1950s, is a powerful “fuck you” to toxic masculinity. Other male 50s icons such as Elvis Presley or Marlon Brando don’t hold a candle to him in his ability to be openly sensitive; in fact, I’d argue that their portrayals of emotion are almost opposites. Brando’s characters have often been violent and abusive, and in Elvis’ most iconic role from Jailhouse Rock, he literally beats someone to death in the opening scene.
James Dean was never the 1950s alpha-male leading man we have painted him to be, not on screen nor in real life. He was a troubled kid trying to find his way in the world in the best way he knew how and that is how he should be remembered. Dean lives on as a reminder that is okay to be vulnerable regardless of gender or status, a message ever so relevant in 2021.
Words by Annie Roper.
Image courtesy of Pixabay.