Ellona Wilner
English 285
November 8, 1995

Just Cause, No Rebels

While the film Rebel Without A Cause would have you believe that adolescents are irrationally and inherently rebellious, the rebellions of teenagers like Jim, Judy and Plato are motivated by their own twisted upbringings.<1> But society stands in the way of their rebellion; <2> unfriendly to any form of dissent, the doctrines of society eventually force rebellious teens to conform, or destroys those who refuse to do so.

We are asked to view Jim, hauled in off the streets in a drunken stupor, and Judy, who wanders the night alone after fighting with her father, as examples of pointless teenage rebellion.<3> Instead, we learn both are rebelling against the parents who refuse to love them,<4> or love them too much. Jim is starting at a new school because his parents "think I can make friends if we move." His “rebellious” actions are motivated by his disgust with his parents: observing the demasculation of his father by his overbearing mom, Jim will defend himself against the taunt of “chicken” -- an insinuation of weakness and the loss of male virility -- at any cost.

Judy, who expresses her adoration for her father through unsubtle sexual gestures, rebels by cavorting with the wildest clique at school. In the tradition of the Electra Complex, her frustrations stem from her unfulfilled desires towards her father, and her form of rebellion is highly sexualized; “You weren’t looking for comfort, were you?”, says the knowing policeman-therapist of Judy’s 1 a.m. wanderings, and suggests, “Maybe that’s a way of getting back at your dad.”

These attempts at rebellion are subdued by parents and authority figures, who suggest that the teens conform rather than take a stance of individualism. Jim contemplates not participating in the dangerous “chicken” race -- and thereby declaring his unwillingness to conform to reckless “rebellion,” as defined by other teens -- but his Dad cannot support his dissention.<5> A conflict between danger and conformity, he tells Jim, is not a "hasty decision" that can be made quickly; a fatal accident is not something that should be reported, if no one else is reporting it.

The emphasis on conformity and on the proper socialization of rebellious teenagers manifests itself in the vital importance of “belonging” that the teenagers exhibit. Judy, for example, mourns no more than 20 minutes over her boyfriend’s death. She recognizes the importance<6> of belonging to someone, and so finds love with Jim before sunrise. Even more extreme is Plato’s desire to “belong.” Lamenting his abandonment by his parents, Plato latches on to Jim with homoerotic fervency,<7> asking him to come over and “spend the night.” Moreover, Jim is his “best friend” -- Plato imagines that only he is close enough to call him “Jamie” -- and a father figure, who, with Judy, replaces his lost mother and father. Plato launches on a violent rampage when he believes the pair have abandoned him, and his rebellion is quelled only when he is shot to death.

Plato is the only character with no hope of assimilation;<8> his psychological scars are too deep, his angst too obvious, and only by death can his “rebellious” spirit be eliminated. Jim, in contrast, forsakes any future attempt at rebellion by forging a connection with Judy, an action sanctioned by his parents and society. While his friend and surrogate son is being carted to the morgue, Jim slings an arm over the shoulder of his new girl and tells his parents, "This is Judy." The camera pans to his parents; they share a knowing glance, and smiles creep across their faces. At the end of a busy day,<9> which began with Dad's plea to find some friends, Jim's parents are ecstatic that he did indeed make a friend, and a girlfriend at that. Embracing each other warmly, the Starks find contentment in their son’s transformation from teenage rebel to loving boyfriend, from possessing individualistic integrity to conforming to the status quo.


1. A beautifully written, strong opening.

2. Well in a sense you've built the preventing mechanism into your opening sentence: what rebellion can be particularly strong when it is mostly or wholly deemed to have originated in "twisted" upbringings--in pathology?

3. A good summary of the film's centrist subject position, yes.

4. But not "instead," Ellona; this is part of the same rebellion-denying function of this film's/the 50s' way of seeing teenage resistance. The logic here is a bit off, even though I think you've understood how the centrist hegemony disarms the rebellion. The family problem is the very thing that enables the film to contend that these rebellions are without 'cause.' Rather, we are to deem them natural, cyclical.

5. Nicely analyzed here. Jim's a centrist pretty early in the film, long before he disarms Plato on behalf of the police.

6. Nice again. Given the previous sentence, this is almost a hilarious understatement.

7. Well analyzed here too. You have a talent for doing a great deal in a single sentence.

8. A fine, fine pargaraph-opener. Strong, full, pithy.

9. This is such a wonderful, dead-on-apt statement, Ellona! Bravo! You manage the tone of this really very well.

General comment: This is, I think, the perfect position paper. Implies very strongly your position on the film's position--but doesn't merely repeat that. Rather, you move through a great deal of evidence, referring to filmic moments, dialogue, character, plot, seamlessly. Everything is perfectly but not obviously organized to come to the aid of your view that this is a centrist film, enforcing conformity.

Al

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