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  • Rethinking Rebellion in the 1950s
  • Sarah E. Chinn, teaches American literature
Rebels: Youth and the Cold War Origins of Identity Leerom Medovoi Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006. ix + 387 pp.

Here is the conventional wisdom about the United States in the 1950s: because of economic expansion, the Cold War, and the increasing corporatization, suburbanization and commodification of white America, the United States became increasingly conformist, politically conservative, and intolerant of dissent. In reaction, rebels like James Dean, Elvis Presley, and the Beat Generation offered a different kind of vibrant young masculinity that called upon various marginal identities (working class, African American, artistic) to loosen the stranglehold of the "organization man."

Of course, that narrative has been reworked, debunked, restructured, deconstructed, and recast so many times that the conventional wisdom can hardly be called conventional anymore. In fact, on picking up Leerom Medovoi's Rebels, I was not expecting much in the way of new analysis. I was, however, mistaken. Medovoi's thesis is both simple and elegant: that the rebel, particularly "the bad boy," was a necessary part of 1950s popular culture as a corollary and corrective to the man in the gray flannel suit. In its new identity as the "leader of the Free World," the United States "required figures who could represent America's emancipatory character, whether in relation to the Soviet Union, the new nations of the third world, or even its own suburbs" (1). The figure of the bad boy sustained the United States' self-image as a place for individual self-expression, for self-fashioning, even as most of the bad boy narratives ended up absorbing their rebels into a normative, heterosexual, bourgeois masculinity.

Medovoi does an excellent job of working through the existing scholarship on the 1950s and, in particular, recent discussions of masculinity in the postwar era. I would have liked him to situate the figure of the adolescent in a more-historicized discussion: teenage boys and girls were objects of cultural concern for decades before the 1950s, and many of the anxieties expressed in the 1950s and [End Page 586] 1960s had been voiced as far back as the 1890s. What was new, which Medovoi elucidates clearly, is that the postwar bad boy "represented a youth spawned in the new suburbs, but refusing its domestication" (42). Medovoi also effectively links the rabid (albeit counterintuitive) misogyny of the era with the attractions of the bad boy, who rejects the nuclear family and the castrating (or, in an alternative scenario, phallic) mother.

In his terrific readings of Rebel without a Cause and the Elvis vehicle King Creole, Medovoi demonstrates how the bad boy reconfigures the oedipal crisis in the context of white American suburbanism, so that rather than desire his controlling mother and destroy his milquetoast father, the rebel "refuses to replace the father, and often precisely because he does not want to be possessed by the mother as is his father" (169). The bad boy attempts to heal the disjuncture between the conformist Eisenhower 1950s and the masculinist Playboy 1950s, seeking a middle ground of rebellion against the suburbs that is defined by adolescent, not adult, sexuality. He seeks out egalitarian heterosexual relationships (in contrast with the disequilibrium of his parents' marriage), homoerotic friendships, and ecstatic violence to carve out what Medovoi terms "the erotics of rebel identity" (188).

Medovoi's analysis of rock 'n' roll as a cultural phenomenon is particularly useful. Rather than rehearse the rock-as-voice-of-the-subaltern versus rock-as-sop-to-the-masses/rock-as-appropriation-of-autochthonous-musical-traditions debate, he carves out a new interpretation. In doing so, he charts how rock 'n' roll grew out of preexisting musical commodities such as R&B and country music, and repurposed those genres for a new, largely white, suburban teenage audience, geared to their interests. Songs about punching out for the weekend and going to the local bar, for example, became songs about getting out of school on a Friday afternoon and driving round looking for fun.

I also liked Medovoi's discussion of the bad girls of the 1950s—primarily the tomboy and the tough girl. And the book's conclusion effectively traces the...


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