This presentation, delivered at the Film and History Conference, was focused on the transformation of James Dean’s star text in popular culture of the 1970s and 1980s.
The presentation is excerpted below, and made available to members of the Promotion & Tenure Committee with THIS link.
With “Jack & Diane,” John Mellencamp was just one among many pop culture figures in the 1980s that attempted to channel James Dean, and the press and promotional industries rushed to grant nearly every one the mantle of “the next James Dean.” While these comparisons may have simply been a shorthand to promote a young performer as filling a particular character type, or a way to invest a little-known actor with cultural legitimacy, it speaks to the importance of Dean’s Fifties stardom to the Re-Generation that his legacy was so persistently invoked.
(***)The multiple claims on what I would call the “star legacy” of James Dean in the Reagan Era reflected America’s changing understanding of its own traditions of family, sexuality, identity and individuality. The numerous and complicated invocations of James Dean, and the ways that Re-Generation films and pop music utilized his legacy not only influenced the ways Reagan-Era audiences understood Dean’s films (or, more broadly, his star text) in retrospect, but also reshaped the cultural meaning of “teen rebellion” and its attendant politics of gender and sexuality. The balance of my time today will be spent on examining three different strains of claims on Dean’s legacy in the period, each representing a different perspective on the figure of the “teen rebel.”