- The Ambivalent Treatment of Counter-cultural Identity in the "Outlaw Biker" Film, 1966-72
Although the "outlaw biker" film that flourished from roughly 1966 to 1972 in the U.S. represented the youth rebellion and countercultural social identity of the period—reveling in the sordid milieu of alternative lifestyles, in the rejection of "mainstream" social values, and in the mobilization of anarchic or nihilistic practices—this seemingly disruptive sub-genre rejected the very politics of countercultural identity that it was appropriating, instead echoing most of the conservative, rather than the liberal, critiques that were circulating during the period. Critical discussion of the genre has advanced a simplistic view of how biker films resonated with period-specific discourses of youth culture and identity politics. Both popular and scholarly writings note that the genre was marketed toward the so-called youth audience, but they inadequately explain how that appeal was inflected, complicated, even subverted.
The biker film cycle was part of a larger renegotiation of cultural attitudes about the political role of "youth" and thus about the function of all normative identities during the late Sixties and early Seventies. To borrow Thomas Doherty's characterization of 1950s popular culture, biker films were a later stage of the "juvenilization" occurring in American cinema. Almost all readers will have in mind at this point the canonical auteur film Easy Rider (Hopper, 1969), in which motorcyclist characters are presented as tragic heroes doomed by the "dystopic nightmare of social difference and reactionary politics" that blocks their eastward route to freedom (Cohan and Hark 3). But Easy Rider does not fairly represent the outlaw-biker genre. Instead, as Cohan, Hark, and film historian David Lederman indicate, that film is better situated within the distinct genre of the road movie (Cohan and Hark 1; Lederman 43). This paper focuses on the principal generic features of the outlaw-biker film, which had at its center the biker gang—and that gang typically exposed a crucial indictment of counter-culture mythology: the bikers were not heroic or redemptive; they were prurient, titillating, and vacuous. The promise of canny "individualism" offered in these genre films was an illusion and a trap.
In doing so, the biker films evinced a subtle but powerful ideological undercurrent that carried with it the popular conservative unease with identity-based political movements. Such unease illustrates how even the "countercultural" biker films in fact embodied the "dual nature of exploitation film" that has been associated by scholars like Eric Schaefer with earlier phases of popular culture (specifically, 1919-1959). Such politically exploitative films are "at the same time progressive in content"—because they expose audiences to material that is undergoing repression—"and conservative in aims"—because the films induce shame or revulsion toward that material (Reed 98). The outlaw-biker film thus reflects how "anti-establishment" attitudes and "independent" aesthetics could be reconciled, quite improbably, with the ideological status quo by the early 1970s. [End Page 39]
The politics of the biker genre can be framed through historical scholarship on the evolution of American youth culture and the connotations of "rebel" identity in the postwar period. The outlaw biker figure was one eventual iteration of what Leerom Medovoi has identified as the "rebel" archetype in postwar American culture. In Medovoi's formulation, the rebel emerged along with the postwar advent of "identity politics" as a concept in itself. The rebel figure expressed an allegiance first and foremost to him or herself, and this was positioned as a newfound basis for political identity in the postwar cultural context. This celebratory vision of rebellious identity was specifically steeped in tropes of self-reliant masculinity. Writing and popular culture valorized self-directed, autonomous men struggling for "psychopolitical autonomy...against an authoritarian world of 'role expectations'" (Medovoi 47). This rebellion was contrasted with the more pathological "rebellion within the confines of conformity" that characterized not only delinquent gangs, but also fascist and communist parties (32). Thus, the "bad boy" rebel figure embodied a particular kind of rebellion: he followed his own desires rather than imitating the herd, as with conformists like Nazis (33). Furthermore, far from being a permanent outsider, he was guided by an intrinsic (though latent...