Rebel Without a Cause: The 50s and LGBT representation

james dean

Collage by Chloe

Lately I’ve had a craving for films that focus on LGBT stories and narratives. I think it’s because growing up I felt starved of teenagers that weren’t straight and cis-gendered. Of course these people exist and their stories need to be told, but you know other people exist as well and I wanted to find out more about them.(I basically didn’t learn about different sexualities and genders until I joined tumblr which has been a beautiful and terrifying journey) So I have recently been on a quest to find films that talk about these different people and their lives and would like to pass on my love for them! (Admittedly some are completely clichéd and everyone knows about them but that does not stop them being joyous).

Let’s start at the beginning, in 50’s Hollywood where basically saying the word ‘gay’ could probably get you censored and your film really weirdly changed so the entire story was different (and much more boring) . There was this legislative thing called the Hays code which prevented among other things ‘depictions of homosexuality’. Films could get round this but they could never openly say a character was gay WHICH WAS COMPLETELY FRUSTRATING AND UNSATISFYING TO EVERYONE. Enter a perfect example of this: Rebel Without a Cause starring the beautiful and doomed James Dean. Rebel without a cause is arguably a terrible film in some ways- it’s quite overly melodramatic and there are some weird definitions of masculinity: At one point Jim Stark (James Dean) expresses anger that his dad doesn’t ‘knock mom cold’ which would presumably earn his respect. Sigh.

But there are some really good queer things about it that save it from being about a boring misogynistic teenager. James Dean was bisexual, as was his co-star Sal Mineo and the director of the film, Nicholas Ray which makes it pretty queer-friendly. The character Sal Mineo plays is called Plato (after the Greek philosopher who is rumoured to have been gay, Yes, this is not really proof but it’s literally all about SUBTEXT) and develops a fixation on Jim after he joins their school. Jim is an angry and troubled adolescent who doesn’t like people calling him a ‘chicken’ and manages to get into a deadly fight on the first day of school which all things told is probably not going to make a good impression, especially since his parents want this to be a fresh start. Plato adores Jim and his love interest Judy and views them as a surrogate family. He tries hard to protect Jim (which means SPOILER ALERT, Plato has to die because we can’t have living sympathetic gay characters apparently) The film essentially follows Jim trying to work himself and others out, getting into the aforementioned fight and fighting against his parents and anyone who represents authority.

The most important thing about this film is the way it reaches out to confused and tortured teenagers in a way that films hadn’t really tried to do before. The film wants to understand why Jim has such a weird idea of masculinity and why Plato is lonely and isolated. Although there are issues with it, the way it presents sexuality is original and interesting. Towards the end, before the pivotal end scene where there’s a multitude of fighting and angst, the three assemble in the empty ruin of a house and are contented just to be together- they have found a family. Rebel without a cause is still relevant for anyone seeking to find a community and identity of their own. Enjoy the teen angst and ridiculously dramatic script but remember how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go.

By Rosa Burgoyne

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