The Legend of James Dean, and why he still matters

If James Dean were still alive today, he would have turned 86 this year. 86 – an age marked more by wheelchairs and walking canes, than cigarettes and fast cars.

It is hard to imagine the original Rebel without a cause growing up, getting health insurance and living like the rest of us. Although he probably wouldn’t have wanted it, he will forever be immortalised as the youthful heartthrob he was, and still is, in our collective minds.

His untimely death at the age of 24 leaves us with nothing but our imaginations to know what he would have become in his golden years.

Like the many starlets who died in their youth, Marilyn Monroe, Jimi Hendrix and the rest of the 27 club, James retires into our cultural canon as a caricature of himself in his prime: leaning against a classic Porsche in a wife beater, cigarette in hand.

Although it has been 62 years from James Deans’ passing, the iconoclastic actor is still the go-to archetype for rebels in film.

From Judd Nelson as John Bender in the Breakfast Club, to allegedly Robert Pattinson as Edward Cullen in Twilight, his nonchalant attitude and commanding charisma has inspired the moody, silent quasi-anarchic movie trope.

While the rebel has evolved over the decades, we still look to James as the gold standard by which coolness is judged, and it is no surprise why.

His role as troublemaker Jim Stark in Rebel without a cause became a zeitgeist for an entire generation of suburban youth in post-war America.

Amidst the white picket fences and pseudo-utopic vibes of suburbia in the ‘50s, there was hardly any room for disenchantment in the media.

The angst-riddled teenage years that has become so central to our culture today was non-existent then. In the fifties, life followed a different pattern – you were a baby, a child and then, a young adult.

James Dean became a symbol for this emerging generational class. Even the 1975 made-for-TV documentary on his life reflected this, titled – “James Dean: The First American Teenager”.

The teenage years in America just prior to that were marred by global crisis: first The Great Depression, then World War 2.

The fifties marked the first time in history when an entire generation of young adults was free from the responsibilities of formal work. Without Rebel Without a Cause and James Dean, we wouldn’t have teenage rebellion.

I’d even (dramatically) argue that without James Dean, there would be no breakfast club, no Marty McFly, and no Pink Floyd chanting ‘we don’t need no education’.

American youth culture has evolved into a whole different beast since then. From hang out spots, to fashion trends and an increasing attachment to social media.

Today, it is one of the largest consumer markets in the global economy, and youth-oriented products are a multi-billion industry. But at its core, teenagers haven’t changed. They’re still eager to differentiate themselves from their parents and the generations before, and they still believe that no one else understands them.

In the eyes of the older generations, they are still rebels without a cause.