Representation of the Juvenile Delinquent in 1950S Teen Films

An obscured and omnipresent stereotype role of the teenager, featured from the beginning of traditional Old Hollywood cinema is the juvenile delinquent. Throughout time, the stereotype has stayed the same, although the portrayal has changed throughout the decades in film, to fit the representation of teens within that time. Although a great extent of inconsistent and wrong manifestation of the juvenile delinquent within cinema has proven to cause an uprise in society. Not only does the influence of teenage delinquency make a great spectacle for industry films but it also leads to the convergence of both real life and on screen teenagers to go down the rocky, misled path of delinquency and rebelling. This is present within the Hollywood films such as Nicholas Ray’s ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ (1955) and John Hughes’ ‘The Breakfast Club’ (1985). Both encapsulate the impact of relevant factors during that time in society, such as economic and cultural and how that too can be a major influence on the people in society themselves and/ or the roles of characters within those films.

Film is an aesthetic documentation of times throughout history fluctuating to embody what society is like, both good and bad. At the time that the great American Dream was alive, that cultural expectations for adolescents is what brought out the teenage delinquent within cinema and real life. In the 1950’s an issue on teen delinquency arose to a massive scale due to ephebiphobia, which dramatized and inaccurately exaggerated the characterisation of young people. This confronted society with the conditions of youth alcoholism, crime and homosexuality. Due to this the film industry was investigated in 1955 as being one of the issues encouraging adolescent rebellion and criminal behaviour. In the face of America’s terrifying juvenile crime wave, society was feeling threatened with a flood of movies and television productions, which supposedly flaunted indecency and applauded lawlessness. People were being confronted with an ideal that drifted away from the exemplary post World War 2 values of prosperity, security and dedication to social unity. Concerned citizens saw antisocial behaviour arising in teens and a massive presence of intercourse within the adolescent community.

A particular influence that presented these behaviours of teenagers, which was also defined as being a juvenile delinquent, was within ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ (1955), where the ‘alienated’ youth is portrayed by Jim Stark, played by actor James Dean. The 1950’s were a unique interlude in the history of the American family. The American family life during that decade, even the happiest of families- especially the teens in them were haunted by strenuous amounts of significantly bad influences around them and the strenuous wants and needs from them in that society. James Dean, within Rebel Without a Cause’ was able to have merged the Teenage Dream of non conformity with a twisted version of the American Dream, which seemed appealing to the adolescence during a time of alienation and vulnerability, trying to find their way through the confusions of the 1950’s culture. This imagery of the teen angst of a juvenile delinquent was a safe haven for adolescence during that time and it’s cinematic presence in society influenced the teens, just as much as mass cinema took it’s influence from them.

Jim Stark’s family life within ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ (1955) just as the dynamics of a family within the 1950’s was broken and fragmented. Suburbia and the ‘white picket fence’ ideal was left behind and as is shown between the characters; Jim Stark, Judy and Plato, teens started to create families within their own circles, families that they saw as being more reliable. Overall the 1950’s decade of cinema we saw the recasting of the traditional figure of the outlaw hero as the youthful rebel, also known as the juvenile delinquent. This rebel figure basically epitomised youth in teen film and became such a pivotal role. This definition of youth was subject to a wide range of controls that were not subject to adults, both on and off screen in the 1950’s and was not only confined to the home and familial relationships. Whilst also there were an abundant amount of research during this time offering definitions, causes and cures for the juvenile delinquent. It is asserted by critics that within the film ‘Rebel Without A Cause’ (1955) and American society overall within the 1950’s, that this emphases on delinquency was a reflection of youths important symbolic position within the culture. Youths perceiving as juvenile delinquents gave voice to an undercurrent anxiety that was emerging in America in the post-war period in a response to a number of internal problems, problems that the adult society is unable to reconcile. We see this being metaphorically portrayed within in ‘Rebel Without A Cause’ (1955) as juvenile delinquent, Jim Stark is fighting internalised issues that influence his erratic behaviour, which ultimately his parents do not know how to control or assess. A great summary of how this influence of a juvenile delinquent saw all of society feeling the same about their own teenage kids during that time.

John Hughes’ ‘The Breakfast Club’ (1985) also embodies exactly how overlapping influences from societal, economic and cultural aspects, all specifically being subject to a juvenile delinquent can also be used to render and influence a films storyline. So much so that the other teenage character roles within the films become influenced by and attached to the teenage juvenile delinquent. We see Claire Standish ‘the prom queen’ who is played by Molly Ringwald, being influenced by the juvenile delinquent John Bender within ‘The Breakfast Club’ (1985). Due to the low understanding of her own self awareness and her ongoing self pity in life, Claire reaches out to Bender. Her character is influenced through her thought and social processes, attempting to develop her own attitude and values through the help of him. The social delinquent in this instance is the most impactful influence within the film, and not in a good way. Although remembering that in the 1980’s, this stereotype of the juvenile delinquent began to go soft as distinct youth genres were created, leaving a less impactful rebellion on society but rather focusing on the storyline and the roles within the films. Juvenile delinquent or more so just the term delinquency was altered within ‘The Breakfast Club’ (1985) to predominantly being used to categorise certain youthful behaviours that are troublesome and to legitimise the exercise of adult control. This is shown in ‘The Breakfast Club’ (1985) through the relationship of the juvenile delinquent, Bender with his principle, who is played by Paul Gleason. Their roles are very societal hierarchy motivated, where we see a juvenile delinquent teen rebelling against the authority of his high school principal, Mr. Vernon. While ‘The Breakfast Club’ raises the issues of delinquency and depicts the problems it can cause for the teenage characters; such as suicidal thoughts, antisocial behaviour, domestic abuse and so on. It also reconciles the tensions created in the film narrative. We see this within the film as the juvenile delinquent, Bender also initiates a sit down talk with the rest of the characters, which ultimately results in a bond between all of them; the rebellious teen, the jock, the basket case, a prom queen and the nerd. This is described as idealistic closures where the juvenile delinquent is reincorporated neatly back into society.

The central conflict within ‘The Breakfast Club’ (1985) can be framed as a conflict between individualist and communitarian values. Bender stereotypically presented as the juvenile delinquent initially represents individualism in that they rebel against society’s rules and values while the roles of the other characters (to different extents) adopt the values of education and obedience, representing the value of communitarian perception. This is evident in real life too and to the same extents, as these teenage stereotypes of the rebel, jock, basket case, prom queen and nerd were the clauses that separated adolescences in the high school surrounding during the 1980’s. The reconciliation that eventually takes place between the two sets of values requires a more complex depiction of each character roles values, which is shown in ‘The Breakfast Club’ (1985) through the long winding conversations between the group whilst they are in weekend detention.

Overall in comparison, ‘The Breakfast Club’ (1985) juvenile delinquent, Bender is influencing the characters within the film and more so stereotypical spectacle is created from real teens in society. He is the one that unites all characters, who were once strangers and through him they all create a common bond finding a common ground when it comes to teen defiance and rebellion. It has been consistently demonstrated that good and bad make them selves evident in real life although not as absolutes when it comes to the juvenile delinquent. The American mass media however has always operated comfortably when presenting clearly etched polarities to it’s consumers. This duality really hones in on the destructive life of the juvenile delinquent, which in every society teens are able to relate to the most.

Delinquency within ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ and ‘The Breakfast Club’ both essentially stem from relevant cultural factors within the times of both decades. Through this the juvenile delinquent representation that is on par through it’s portrayal evidently has the capacity to both influence people in society and the characters within film.

18 May 2020
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