“Only Punks Use Knives”: Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

Rebel Without a Cause is a film of incredible beauty, tension and menace.  I was riveted, even though, as a queer person and a woman, I felt under attack throughout this movie.  People will come to different conclusions about the “cause” of Jim’s rebellion, but for the queer viewer, a palpable terror of homosexuality seems to underlie his existence on the verge of total breakdown. 

Warning: post contains spoilers.

Jim is a young man who’s sexuality appears, at the beginning, undecided, still under formation and who is deeply confused about what it means to be a man. He is terrified of, and enraged by, something that he just can’t articulate.  He is highly attractive to (and ambiguously attracted by) other young men, negotiating sexually charged relationships with a violent gang leader called Buzz and a sensitive loner called Plato. 

 The possibility that the unnameable “cause” of Jim’s chaotic behaviour is a fear of queerness is also raised by his disgust at his father’s emasculation in the family home.  We see his father wearing a woman’s apron and being dominated by his “castrating bitch” of a mother and grandmother.  Jim begs his father to beat his mother to bring her into line.  In a misogynistic culture, the only solution to sexual ambiguity is violence against the female, but what Jim really seems to want is for his father to beat the threat of femininity which his mother has come to represent out of the family.  Jim fears that unless his father becomes a real man, he will be tainted by this emasculation and unable to become a real man himself.  If he can’t be a real man, what will he be?  And what is a real man, if not a violent man?

At first it appears that the hoodlum Buzz is merely jealous of Jim’s attempt to befriend his girl Judy, but as the film progresses it appears that Jim bugs Buzz on other levels and the boys’ rivalry becomes increasingly homoerotic.  Jim draws attention to this during a fight when he reminds Buzz that only “punks use knives”, “punk” being a code word for gay men. Both Buzz and Jim are adept in the use of knives.   The problem for Buzz is that the only way he feels able to connect with Jim is through violent competition and domination, which Jim can’t tolerate. 

As they prepare for a dangerous chicken run race, he tells Jim, over a shared cigarette, that he likes him, but doesn’t know what else to do.  Buzz is killed in the race and with Buzz’s death Jim is released from the danger of becoming like Buzz.

Jim’s relationship with Plato initially appears more hopeful.  Plato is even more strongly coded (hardly coded at all really) as gay.  He has a photograph of a man in his school locker and a huge crush on Jim.   The film continues its attack on mothers in its suggestion that Plato’s mother’s neglect of him has something to do with his mental health problems.  But the boys develop a gentle, affectionate relationship and, together with Judy, begin to form some kind of alternative family.

However, this cannot to be taken any further beyond fantasy and game-playing.  Reality intrudes; violence erupts again as members of the gang come to take revenge for Buzz’s death and Plato shoots one of them in self-defence.  Despite Jim’s desperate attempts to save him, Plato is shot and killed by the Police.  

This is tragic but, at the same time, the film makes it clear that with Plato dies the threat of queerness that haunts Jim and opens the way to the possibility of a “normal” life.   It’s interesting that the only person who truly mourns Plato is the black housekeeper, suggesting that the bond between these two most marginalised characters in the film comes from their very marginalisation.

In the final scene, Jim and Judy walk up to Jim’s parents and Jim introduces her: “This is Judy, she’s my friend.”  The film ends with the smiles of deep relief on the faces of Jim’s parents, smiles that feel like a slap in the face to the queers in the audience, those of us who must “die” for the straight couple/culture to live.  At the end of Rebel Wthout a Cause, it doesn’t matter to Jim’s parents that their son has been involved in the deaths of two other young men; all that matters is that he appears normal after all.

Within the story of Jim’s difficult coming of age is another story that is, if anything, even more disturbing and remains unresolved at the end.  At the beginning of the movie, Judy has been picked up by the police for walking the streets (another code?) late at night.  She tells the police that she has run away from her father because he has started to be violent towards her.  She came down stairs wearing lipstick and her father grabbed her and rubbed her mouth until she felt like her lips were being “rubbed off”.  This thinly veiled sexual assault is chilling, as is the performance of the actor who plays Judy’s father perfectly as a man sexually disturbed by his adolescent daughter.  Judy wants her old relationship with her father back and doesn’t understand why this can’t happen.  She knows that she’s in danger from her father and seeks Buzz as protection, but she doesn’t understand the nature of the danger.  In choosing Jim, she chooses a man who can protect her from her father because, though Jim is far more sensitive and caring than Buzz, he can clearly handle himself in violent situations.   Since Judy’s father is unlikely to react well to Jim’s relationship with his daughter, there may well be more violence round the corner.  It is a story so taboo that it can’t be coded, but it’s also an open secret in our culture, something we don’t even have to hide.  Judy’s father’s incestuous fixation on his daughter is actually out in the open for everyone to see, so obvious it’s invisble.

Rebel Without a Cause considers how young people can survive in a violently homophobic, woman-hating world, but it cannot offer any alternatives, reinforcing misogyny and homophobia in its representation of mothers as dangerous to their children and only allowing those who can approximate normality to survive.

And yet, perhaps queerness has had the last laugh as thousands of lesbians and gay men have found pleasure in identification with James Dean’s feral, slightly effeminate, beauty.  My girlfriend commented, while we were watching the film that “James Dean seems to be playing a butch lesbian”; possibly this is because so many butch lesbians have modelled themselves on his performance.

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5 thoughts on ““Only Punks Use Knives”: Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

  1. The more I think about it, the more the title seems ironic to me. Jim does have a cause for his rebellion, but one that cannot be spoken. And in the end, his rebellion is thwarted—-he successfully assimilates into the heteronormative paradigm.

    I first saw this movie when I was 15, and it definitely triggered a “baby butch” period for me. I had a classic teenage obsession with James Dean, pictures of him all over my bedroom walls. I cut off my hair and dressed like him as much as I could. I wanted more than anything to look like James Dean. But it was the James Dean of Rebel I was fixated on; I didn’t care about his other two movies, and still haven’t seen them. I think his character in Rebel articulated the unspeakable angst and frustration I (and a lot of other queers) felt.

  2. Sort of off topic, but I always felt that Rudolph Valentino came across more like a butch dyke than a guy too.

  3. I was just thinking, in terms of the queer=death equation in popular culture, it’s interesting that both Plato and Buzz not only end up dead, but are both death dealing. Buzz is trying to kill Jim with knives and chicken runs and Plato tries to shoot one of the gang members at the end.

    • Yeah, it’s kind of like a “kill or be killed” equation. The very existence of the queer is seen as a death threat to the heteronormative society; so the queer must be killed to preserve that society.

  4. Silverside,

    I’ve never watched a Rudolph Valentino film. I’ll put him on the list.

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