Take the title literally: James Dean Transfigured: The Many Faces of Rebel Iconography is about a lot more than James Dean himself. Claudia Springer’s book examines how the generic “teen rebel icon” is used, overused, and often outrageously abused in various cultures of the Western world and beyond. A clear and careful writer, Springer understands how divergent and sometimes contradictory teen-rebel images can be, and how persistently they influence, inflect, and compete with one another in today’s overheated media environment. The result is a flawed but fascinating study that blends intellectual insight with pop-culture savvy
Springer begins her introductory chapter, “The Rebel Icon”, with material that will be old news for anyone who’s been within 100 miles of a graduate school in the past 30 years or so. Cultural studies, the source of her methodology, is a discipline that draws on other fields — anthropology, gender studies, et cetera — to analyze not just the “high culture” valued by traditional scholars (classical music, great books) but also “low culture” products (rap songs, Tarantino movies) that interact far more intensely with the everyday lives of everyday people. Moving closer to her specific subject, Springer notes that idiosyncratic, subcultural, and “against the grain” interpretations of cultural artifacts may or may not (depending on the context and results) present “creative resistance” to the capitalistic powers that be. This is pretty basic material, but it prepares the ground for the James Deanology to come.
Here again we begin with the basics. Dean was born in 1931, grew up on a Midwestern farm, moved to New York, got into the Actors Studio, had sex with a multitude of men and women, appeared in numerous TV shows, and played pivotal roles in a grand total of three Hollywood movies. The first was East of Eden, released in April 1955; the others, Rebel Without a Cause and Giant, —premiered after his death in a car crash, five months later, at age 24.
James Dean was dead, but the rebel icon — his popular image, based on his movie roles and reputation for rough-and-ready living — was alive, well, and growing to grotesque proportions, like a giant creature in a ’50s sci-fi film. No sooner had his snazzy Porsche sports car collided with college student Donald Turnupseed’s modest Ford sedan, Springer reports, than his name and likeness became invaluable tools for peddling books, magazines, posters, calendars, ashtrays, belt buckles, mugs, refrigerator magnets, alarm clocks, water globes, key chains, silk ties, Christmas ornaments…you get the picture. Only a handful of other dead celebrities (remember the Davy Crockett craze, baby-boomers?) rivaled him for sheer selling power in the economic boom years after World War II, when the notions of “youth culture” and the “teenager” were being born. Dean has a prominent position in this pantheon, since his image helped create the “rebel” as an especially distinctive and enduring icon.
For the small number of stars with Dean’s spectacularly high charisma, Springer writes, “fame is merely a stepping stone on the road to enshrinement as an icon, and once inducted into this realm, an icon is worshiped as an entity that has surpassed human limitations.” Sure enough, fans around the world developed what sociologists call a “parasocial” relationship with Dean, an actor they’d never personally laid eyes on. For that matter, most of them would have scorned him if he’d lived next door, given the countless first-hand reports (largely suppressed by the posthumous publicity apparatus) that he rarely bathed, frequently stank, and had the disagreeable manners of a bratty little boy.
The best portions of James Dean Transfigured trace the astonishingly far-reaching impact of the rebel iconography that Dean inspired. Even in the 21st century, Springer observes, the United States military has mobilized it for the Iraq war, “advertising its troops not as cogs in a well-oiled fighting machine but as a collection of young rag-tag individualists engaged in rugged self-expression.” The aim is to distract attention from the military realities of subordination, regimentation, and grunt labor. Does this actually work? The mind reels.
Springer makes some offbeat analytical moves, and not all of them pay off. It’s interesting to note the sanitized rebel-icon imagery in the Walt Disney studio’s 1969 comedy The Love Bug, exemplifying “the sterilization of dissent,” but a whole chapter on “Disney’s Dean” seems a little much. The chapter on “The Postcolonial Rebel” lapses at times into standard victimology, and it’s unclear why Mathieu Kassovitz’s (clunky) La Haine (1995) and Djibril Diop Mambéty’s (delicious) Touki Bouki (1973) are the best international films Springer could have chosen to explore.
On smaller matters, Springer lavishes far more space on Gregg Araki’s insipid 1995 comedy-thriller The Doom Generation than its postmodern take on rebel iconography justifies; she misunderstands psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s important “mirror stage” concept; she unfairly trounces Hilary Swank for projecting a feminine star image in the afterglow of Boys Don’t Cry; and how could anyone say that by 1959 the masterly Rebel Without a Cause seemed to embody an “overwrought melodramatic Hollywood aesthetic,” when this is obviously a movie for the ages, style and all?
Such blemishes are more than overbalanced by the book’s strong points, though. The chapter on “Rebel Wrecks” views the darkest side of contemporary car culture via the auto-crash fictions of J.G. Ballard and David Cronenberg; the chapter on “The Posthuman Rebel” illuminates the Matrix movies; and “The Virtual Rebel” focuses on Internet iconography, which has opened up a plenitude of new techniques for manipulating, exploiting, and cashing in on the unkillable Dean phenomenon. Even a questionable chapter like “Disney’s Dean” is largely redeemed by digressions into a wide range of related subject areas.
At a time when many cultural-studies projects are thinly disguised fan-club activities, I applaud Springer’s willingness to end her hermeneutic voyage on an unapologetically downbeat note. Young people today are arguably more beleaguered than ever by social and political ills, she argues, and on top of this they’re habitually berated for causing the very problems that plague them. The unforgettable wail of Dean’s character in Rebel Without a Cause — You’re tearing me apart!” — still rings true, Springer continues, reminding us that the adolescents who were pierced to the heart by Dean’s distress in 1955 have hardly created a new-and-improved world in the intervening decades.
“Instead,” she writes in the book’s closing words, “they created a suffocating global trap in which the rebel icon is simultaneously up for sale and an enduring protest.” How true, and how sad. I can only add that in our age of media hype, corporate cooptation, and unimaginably dishonest government, the “up for sale” part is beating the “enduring protest” part, hands down.