James Dean Transfigured: The Many Faces of Rebel Iconography

James Dean Transfigured: The Many Faces of Rebel Iconography

James Dean Transfigured: The Many Faces of Rebel Iconography

James Dean Transfigured: The Many Faces of Rebel Iconography

Synopsis

After the death of James Dean in 1955, the figure of the teen rebel permeated the globe, and its presence is still felt in the twenty-first century. Rebel iconography--which does not have to resemble James Dean himself, but merely incorporates his disaffected attitude--has become an advertising mainstay used to sell an array of merchandise and messages. Despite being overused in advertisements, it still has the power to surprise when used by authors and filmmakers in innovative and provocative ways.

The rebel figure has mass appeal precisely because of its ambiguities; it can mean anything to anyone. The global appropriation of rebel iconography has invested it with fresh meanings. Author Claudia Springer succeeds here in analyzing both ends of the spectrum--the rebel icon as a tool in upholding capitalism's cycle of consumption, and as a challenge to that cycle and its accompanying beliefs.

In this groundbreaking study of rebel iconography in international popular culture, Springer studies a variety of texts from the United States and abroad that use this imagery in contrasting and thought-provoking ways. Using a cultural studies approach, she analyzes films, fiction, poems, Web sites, and advertisements to determine the extent to which the icon's adaptations have been effective as a response to the actual social problems affecting contemporary adolescents around the world.

Excerpt

Icons are the most significant and ambivalently, the most unintelligible
of images.

—DAVID GERALD ORR
"THE ICON IN THE TIME TUNNEL"

One of the legacies of American films of the fifties is their introduction of an internationally recognizable shorthand for dissent. The angry, alienated teen rebel who sneered at Eisenhower-era complacency from the big screen provided the world with a larger-than-life embodiment of the idea of nonconformity. At the time, there were Americans engaged in protracted struggles against Cold War politics and racial segregation, but their acts of rebellion failed to fire the public's imagination as dramatically as did Hollywood's sullen teens. The teen rebel transcended its origins in iconoclasm—in the rejection of the status quo—and was itself elevated to iconic status, becoming a revered object of devotion. Over the decades that followed, the rebel figure permeated the globe, and its charismatic presence is still felt in the twenty-first century. But the rebel is a particularly ambiguous icon, with meanings that contradict each other and an extraordinary ability to conform to any purpose.

On the one hand, the teen rebel icon is a supremely commercial product used to sell cars and jeans and the complete array of capitalism's flotsam and jetsam; but, on the other hand, it still has the power to surprise when used in innovative, provocative ways. Understanding the parameters of the rebel icon's contradictory appearances can illuminate popular iconography's contemporary functions. Long detached from its original spiritual and religious functions, most iconography is now secular but . . .

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