There’s a question that rests in the back of every human’s mind. This question awakens at the darkest and deepest hour. Who am I? In the film, Rebel Without a Cause, this simple question stirs in the mind of the protagonist, Jim Stark. At first glance, Stark is portrayed as a troubled teenager; however, in a deeper dissection of his character it is revealed that his actions are consequences from his lack of a male role model. Throughout the film, Jim is challenged by determining the true meaning of masculinity. The male gender role is portrayed in several ways through Jim’s unstable relationship with his father, his romance with Judy, and his friendship with Buzz and Plato.
Released in 1955, Rebel Without a Cause, was born in an era of tradition. This lifestyle consisted of the male of the household being the provider and protector of the family. The Stark family was the opposite of the common household. Moving every year to create a new beginning away from their son’s troubled pasted, the Stark’s lacked the male leadership in their family. Jim’s father, Frank, did not have the ability to gain dominance over the family. Frank’s lack of masculinity is perfectly demonstrated in the scene where Jim catches his father cleaning up a mess while wearing his mother’s apron. On his hands and knees Frank is picking up a mess “before [his wife] sees it” (Ray). Jim tries to pick his father up off the floor, but eventually leaves him after showing obvious signs of disappointment in his father’s lack of dominance. In the final scene of the film, after the death of close friend, Jim’s father promises to be “as strong as [Jim] needed him to be” (Ray). This is the only scene where Frank decides to make an effort towards achieving the goal of masculinity. According to Chris Huqueriza, “the influence of his domineering mother and his emasculated, conformist father helps decide whether Jim will face his fears by winning his individuality or conform like his father to the dominant mother’s influence.” This statement defines Jim’s quest throughout the film: to find his identity and manhood. Because of his strained relationship with his father, Jim’s idea of masculinity is twisted which influences his challenge of finding his identity.
Not only was Jim’s opinion on masculinity impacted by his relationship with his father, but also by his romance with Judy. Jim meets Judy in the opening scene of the film at the police station where the main characters are seen telling officers about their struggles at home after being arrested under different circumstances. Like Jim, Judy also has a troubled relationship with her father. Because she is growing older and maturing, Judy feels that her father is ignoring her. In response, she dresses in revealing clothing in order to gain his attention. Judy shows Jim a different side of masculinity through love. According to Edward Thompson with the U.S American Psychological Association, manhood and gender roles are “embedded in the structure of relationships between women and men” (Thompson). Therefore, Jim’s masculinity would be a result from his relationship with Judy. This relationship allowed Jim to witness a love that was far different than his father and mother’s relationship. Jim tells Judy that “[he’s] been looking for someone to love [him] and now [he] loves somebody and it’s so easy” (Ray). Judy replies and states that she really means it when she says she loves him. The relationship forces Jim to take on the male role of the romance unlike his father in his parent’s marriage. Jim is seen taking on this “husband-like role” in the final scene of the movie. According to Kenneth Moffatt, “the male identity is defined by the domination of women” (Moffatt). After the death of their closest friend, Plato, Jim and Judy are pictured holding on to each other and staring off towards the future. Jim has his arm around Judy’s shoulder, perhaps symbolizing protection over her in their future.
Masculinity is depicted differently in two different friendships throughout the film. The first friendship, although it seems like a rivalry, is the relationship between Buzz and Jim. Buzz Gunderson was the gang leader and school bully. Quickly seeking Jim as his next victim, Buzz challenges Jim to a knife fight on the first day of class. Although he loses, Buzz realizes that Jim is different from all the other males in the school. In the final scene of Buzz’s death before the “chickie-run”, he admits to Jim that he likes him despite his actions. Buzz portrays the dominant and aggressive side of masculinity that was not seen in any of the other male characters in the film. In an article written by Todd Migliaccio, male friendships are described as the performance of masculinity. Migliaccio states, “interaction between male friends is not simply because we are men, but a part of performing masculinity in society.” Buzz’s partnership with Jim, although tough in some scenes, ends up being two males “performing masculinity” and their role in society (Migliaccio). In contrast, the next friendship illustrates the opposite side of masculinity. John “Plato” Crawford is the third member of the trinity of friends. His friendship with Jim is unlike a normal male relationship because Plato seeks a father figure in Jim. Because of his lack of parental figures throughout his life, Plato confides in Jim and Judy to be his guardians. Plato tells Jim, “if only [Jim] could have been his father,” then he would always have someone to claim him (Ray). The relationship with Plato gives Jim insight on the masculinity that comes along with fatherhood and guardianship. According to Peter Nardi, author of Men’s Friendships, friendships have become a “private concern” and they “no longer bare witness to our identities” (Nardi). Jim did keep his friendships private. However, the friendship with Buzz and Plato both impacted his identity in his masculinity. Although these friendships are on opposite scales, both equally teach Jim more about the power and responsibility of manhood.
Jim Stark’s quest to find his identity and the meaning of being a true man was impacted on many different levels by many different relationships. Through the relationship with his passive father, Jim learns the impact that a lack of male dominance has on a family and a marriage. Jim’s romance with Judy opens his eyes to the masculinity that is present in the face of love. Finally, the friendships with Buzz and Plato that end in death spark a new perspective on manhood. This perspective challenges the roles of dominance and aggression in masculinity while enhancing the role of protection and security. The troubled teenager who was looking for an escape from his past and reality found his identity.
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