Even though he only made three films, James Dean introduced Hollywood to a new kind of man: Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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James Dean and the birth of modern masculinity

A life mesmerisingly truncated, James Dean left behind only three films, and the gaping absence of the career that might have been.

In Rebel Without A Cause, from 1955, a 24-year old James Dean, red-jacketed and tight-jeaned, climbs behind the wheel of an old black Mercury. To his right, the opponent he will race to the edge of a cliff hangs out of his driver-side window for a last slug of bravado: “Hey Toreador!”, he jeers. “First man who jumps is a chicken.” Re-inserting a trademark cigarette, Dean flicks on his headlights and hits the gas, and the two cars accelerate towards the brink. Frames from the edge, Dean glances right, grabs for the door and rolls out onto the turf. His adversary, jacket sleeve caught on his door handle and jammed into his driver’s seat, slips wrenchingly over the edge with his car.

Less than a year later, the real life James Dean, whose legacy is the subject of an upcoming retrospective at the BFI, was to die in an echoing event, flipping a race-car on a bend on a California highway. A life mesmerisingly truncated, he left behind only three films, and the gaping absence of the career that might have been. It was a sequence of events morbidly inkeeping with the themes of doomed youth his characters embodied.

The word “iconic” is tossed around ad nauseum, but if ever it were to apply, in the sense of an individual and a star whose off-screen persona outshines the sum of their roles, who bends the fabric of the society in which they live, Dean would surely qualify. In life, and even more so in death, the bee-stung darling of early Technicolor has held the awe of the movie-going public.

But facial anatomy and excellent hair were not the traits for which Dean was influential. Hollywood does not suffer a shortage of cheekbones. He slotted into a blurry interlude following the second world war but before the flowering of the Beat movement, in which the role of a man in society was under sudden and unsuspected dispute. A generation primed for combat found itself at a loss of purpose, and gender roles that were without meaning overnight began to merge and reconfigure themselves.

A portrait of Dean from the early 1950s.
Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dean was a new kind of man. His characters cried and struggled and screamed in frustration at the blurry world they had to live in. They were awkward and uncertain, grappling with sexuality and the disappointment in older men around them. “What can you do when you have to be a man?”, screams Jim, the tortured hero of Rebel Without A Cause, at his impotent father.

The cut of the male star was formerly more robust: Charlton Heston, Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable – these were men’s men, manoeuvring from the Alexandrian chariot to the Western Front with a raised eyebrow in place. But the type of machismo with which Hollywood used to cash cheques, which slipped so easily into the rhythm of day-saving and woman-placating, is now all but redundant. George Clooney is perhaps the only contemporary relic of that 1940s flavour of heterosexuality. With a Cary Grant jawline and non-threatening cool, Clooney lingers as a housewives’ favourite, occasionally modernising his brand with political activism and dips into independent pictures. He banks on a nostalgia for the screen heroes that preceded him.

But the successors to James Dean are in evidence everywhere. From the contemplative Ryan Gosling to the part-time poet James Franco, the Emotional Man is now a marketable asset. Matthew McConaughey, 2014’s case in point, has lived an entire spectrum of masculinity, latterly dropping frat-boy kilos to become a thoughtful shadow of himself – a feminised brand that has been remunerated well beyond his Oscar.

In Hollywood today, a “male icon” is a contradiction in terms. Where fame has become all but genderless, a new batch of androgynous stars has fumbled its way to the surface. From Michael Cera to Jesse Eisenberg, the cinema is synonymous with a group of loping, hobbit-haired boys so divorced from masculinity that their characters actively mock the idea of sexual power. A swelling interest in superheroes, as an object of ironic admiration by the tech generation, is not coincidental, as fanboys reflect on a lost type of man, so distant from themselves.

James Dean opened a door for the re-imagining of the male star. An awkward icon, he gave early shape to a model that would take decades to take hold. A man not just uncomfortable in himself but in the very idea of what a man represents, alongside Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash he broke a cycle of sexual dogma, laying the tracks for a half-century of flexible, sensitive masculinity. From the Beatles to The Graduate, The Smiths to Superbad, another type of man entirely was to dominate a soft, new horizon. 

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No, J J Abrams – Star Wars was never “a boy’s thing”

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”.

In 1977, millions of people went to cinemas to see Star Wars: A New Hope, and afterwards, a good portion of them were suddenly rendered invisible. It didn’t matter that they rushed to line up for the sequels; it didn’t matter that they were eager to buy and play with the toys; it didn’t matter that they grew up to read the novels and explore the expanded universe and sit through the prequels and introduce their children to something they had loved as a child. They’re a group that overlaps with the invisible force that haunts comic book shops, or plays a lot of video games, or makes up nearly half the audience for superhero films, or, to one New Statesman staffer’s persistent, possibly-only-half joking incredulity, liked Doctor Who long before Russell T Davies got his hands on it. 

With less than three weeks before J J Abrams’s rebooted Star Wars hits screens, the director went on Good Morning America yesterday to talk in vague, broad strokes about his turn with the franchise. But the otherwise-unremarkable interview made headlines because of one segment, when Abrams was asked who he most excited to hear from about the film. He said:

“Star Wars was always about, you was always a boy’s thing, and a movie that dads take their sons to. And though that’s still very much the case, I was really hoping that this could be a movie that mothers can take their daughters to as well. So I’m looking forward to kids seeing this movie and to seeing themselves in it, and seeing that they’re capable of doing what they could never imagine was possible.”

That invisible group of Star Wars fans, who love that well-known “boy’s thing”? Women, who have spent the past four decades loving the franchise just as much as all those fanboys, even if no one else – the fanboys themselves in particular – seemed to take much notice. Abrams’s offhand remark coincided with recent headlines like Bloomberg’s “‘Star Wars’ Toys Aren’t Just For Boys Anymore as Rey Takes Over”, a reference to the female lead of The Force Awakens, portrayed by Daisy Ridley. Across the web, aside from stirrings by the now-mandatory Internet Outrage Machine, the overwhelming response seemed to be one of sad and somewhat resigned frustration, with women sharing memories of falling in love with the series, essentially saying, “We’ve been here this whole time.” My friend Lori Morimoto, in “An Open Letter to J J Abrams”, wrote, “I’d like to tell you the story of a girl who became a Star Wars fan. I hope you can suspend disbelief over my existence long enough to make it to the end.”

Star Wars is a universe populated by complicated gender politics, on and off screen. The three original films fail most facets of the Bechdel test (I laughed out loud here seeing the suggestion that A New Hope deserves a pass because the only two named female characters could have talked offscreen). Princess Leia’s enslavement and escape (and the bikini she wears while doing it) is a cultural touchstone that’s launched a complicated feminist dialogue over the decades. And it is perhaps because of the mostly-male cast in the films – and the long-held assumption that science fiction is a primarily masculine property – that the franchise has long been marketed exclusively to boys, despite the massive and loyal female audience.

But the modern Star Wars empire is helmed a woman, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, and when she revealed that two-thirds the story team behind the newest film was female, she also pledged that there would be a woman in the director’s chair before too long. And since one of the leads in The Force Awakens is a woman, her character, along with a black male lead – portrayed by John Boyega – sparked anger from the reactionary white guy corner of the internet in recent months (sorry that the SJWs ruined your movies, guys!). For films that once portrayed a place so alien that only white men were allowed to speak to each other, the widening of representation in this reboot apparently looks to some like a political – or, to them, a politically correct – act.

The welcome diversity of the leading cast highlights all the good intentions in Abrams’s statement: that this new film promises more than a panoply of white guys, that girls and people of colour can see themselves reflected back in these new heroes. All the girls who thought the movies weren’t for them because they only saw men onscreen, or the endless line of male action figures on the shelf, have a point of entry now – that’s what representation means. And that’s certainly worth cheering for, even if it only took us 40 years to get there. But it’s hard for all the people who aren’t white men who’ve found other points of entry over the years, who managed to love it without seeing themselves there. I can speak from personal experience when I say that a lifetime of media about white guys hasn’t stopped me from finding characters and stories to fall in love with.

Here’s a theory: you might not have noticed that you were surrounded by female Star Wars fans all these years because you were the one who rendered them invisible. Women who like things such as Star Wars, or comics, or anything else that leads journalists to write those painful “not just for boys anymore” trend stories, have had to take it from all sides. Enthusiasm for something seen as the province of men clashes with mainstream perceptions of femininity. Even women liking this stuff in the context of traditionally feminised fan spaces, like fanfiction, find themselves fending off assumptions from men and women alike, perhaps the accusation that they are sexualising something too much, or they are placing too much weight on the emotional elements of a storyline. Basically, that they’re liking the thing the wrong way.

But women’s enthusiasm for perceived “male” spaces is always liking the thing the wrong way. The plainest illustration of this is the Fake Geek Girl, in meme and in practice: the barriers to entry are raised immeasurably high when women try to join in many male-dominated fannish conversations. The wonderful Noelle Stevenson illustrates this beautifully – and then literally, when a guy challenges her on her work. I’m sure that just by writing about Star Wars, I’m opening myself up to the angry gatekeeping-style pissing contests that men like to toss at women who claim to like the things they like. (Let’s get it all out in the open here: Star Wars isn’t my fandom. I saw the three original films on dates with my first boyfriend – our first date: Star Trek: First Contact, because we were clearly the coolest kids in town – and upon rewatches as an adult nothing grabbed me. But I am also a fandom journalist, so that’s kind of how this works.)

There’s a persistent myth – and I say persistent because I keep seeing these deluded boys get mad in new viral posts – that women who claim to like geeky things are just pretending, the somewhat confusing notion that they are doing it for attention. (And then there’s the inevitable anger that in this supposedly desperate plea for attention – why else would a woman claim to like their beloved characters?! – these women still don’t want to sleep with them.) And what never seems to occur to any of these gatekeepers is that these women were there all along, liking these things just as much – and are finally being given the cultural space to be open about their interests and passions. But that space is given haltingly; plenty of women, tired of waiting, are going out and taking it. The result is the tension (and, at times, outright hostility) that has marked certain corners of the fannish world in the past few years.

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”. There are many reasons that people love Star Wars, and most of them are universal things: the themes, the characters, the archetypal struggle of good versus evil. Most of the time we default to the white guy; he struggles with things we all struggle with, but somehow, he is deemed most relatable. Abrams, Kennedy, and everyone behind the new films should be applauded for their efforts to give non-white guys a turn at the universal story – I think these are incredibly valuable choices, and certainly will make the films vastly more accessible, particularly to children.

But we don’t just need Rey on screen and Rey dolls on the shelves for mothers and daughters – those same mothers and daughters have found plenty to love without many women to look to on their screens. We need boys to love the female heroes as much as we’ve loved the men over the years: we need universal to be truly universal. And when we express that love, the default reaction shouldn’t be a challenge: not, “You don’t like this thing as much as I do,” or, “You don’t love this the right way.” Isn’t it easier to say, “Oh, I’m so glad that you love this, too!”

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.