One of the most striking things about the notions of masculinity invoked in Rebel Without A Cause is the extent to which it is established in contrast and antagonism to femininity/females. Jim desperately wishes for his father, his male role model, or at least the male role model prescribed to him by American society, to embody traditionally glorified active definitions of masculinity. He repeatedly tells his father, begs him to “stand up,” a figurative cry given literal embodiment in Ray’s blocking and staging; often, Jim, on the verge of tears, pulls his stooping or kneeling father up from his knees or his static sitting position, as if to simultaneously pull him up into the more active, dominant form of masculinity espoused by American society.
However, what makes the wish for such idealized notions of masculinity interesting is the way it is here constructed almost wholly in relation to the female, specifically in the figures of Jim’s paternal grandmother and his mother. I am reminded of the notoriously troubling figure of The Mother in many of Alfred Hitchcock’s films: grown men, like the Claude Raines character in Notorious or the worst-case-of-all Norman Bates in Psycho, are shown to be compromised in their masculinity and their adult maturity by the continuing presence (which is often overbearing and excessive) of their mother. These men fail to live up to notions of what it is to be a “man” by living in houses and families still ruled by the matriarch rather than the masculine patriarch. Here, too, Jim’s father Frank is completely dominated not only by his nagging wife, who “eats away at him” as Jim says, but also by his mother. When the female-dominated trio go to collect Jim from the police station, it is not only Jim’s mother but also his grandmother who forcibly make themselves heard, who drown out his father (and Jim) and perpetuate the boundless, cyclical chatter which so sickens Jim and which emasculates his father. Furthermore, Frank’s mother joins the family at the breakfast table on Jim’s first day of school, inserting her (female) presence into a family already strained with tension and overburdened with the weight of the male-suppressing and -dominating female.
What really bothers Jim is not merely that his mother is a (vocally, among other things) strong female presence or that his dad is a rather “weak” masculine one, but that one is seen to be a cause of the other; in Rebel Without A Cause, the weak man who cannot literally or figuratively stand up for himself or his teenage son, who cannot stand or speak against the woman, is cast in a directly causal relation with the mother (female). Jim’s father fails to meet his and the film’s definition of a “man,” donning the apron that reveals his feminized role in the household, (to Jim) his lack of masculine pride and self-respect, and the “whipped” nature of his inactive, bent-over masculinity in relation to the more masculinely dominant female character of Carol Stark. It is not surprising that Frank has no answer to Jim’s question of “what can you do when you have to be a man?,” or proposes the ineffectual pro-con list which amounts to about the same thing for Jim, for Frank has never asserted himself as “a man” to either his wife or his son. It is this which Jim finds so difficult to forgive, and which causes him to fight and participate in deadly “chickie runs,” in town after town, in an over-earnest, desperate attempt to prove himself the active, upstanding “man” his father has never been.
However, such personal complaints and textual discourses against this supposed feminization in relation to the proverbial-pants-wearing wife (the man wears his wife’s frilly yellow apron and Jim actually “thought [he] was mom”!) are interestingly complicated when compared to Jim himself, played to charismatic delight by the moody and shy Method-acting James Dean. The line between character and actor blur slightly and Jim, while acting the traditional active man by defending his honor (violently) against accusations of “chicken” and by racing Buzz towards the end of a cliff, also embodies an emotionality which the film admiringly supports but which is also traditionally associated with the female. Jim is revered by both Plato and Judy for his “sincerity” and it is his ability to actually talk with the unpopular and otherwise-unseen Plato, to cry and to rage, to connect with Judy on a level beyond physicality which define his masculinity. In the end, he is able to do what his father never could, to “stand up” for Plato and to assert his voice, literally; he is the one who peaceably convinces Plato to give up his gun and to come out of the observatory, through his words, his paternal strength and his proactivity, before it all ends violently, while still advocating the general emotiveness which Judy “so easily” fell in love with. Just as Frank’s passive masculinity is linked with Carol, so too is Jim’s particular embodiment of masculinity set up in contrast to the destructive group violence of the gang of teenagers and to the parents’ inability to provide a supportive home. Of course, though, Rebel ultimately covers it all over in the vanilla-sweet ending which kills off the renegade figure of Plato and re-asserts the successful heterosexual couple and the “correct” formulation of the American family, as well as the traditional active and female-dominating definitions of masculinity despite much of the tension and contradiction which came before.