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Defining youth rebellion in the 21st century

Natalie Wood & James Dean in
Natalie Wood & James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause" (1955)

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Long removed from the days of “Rebel Without a Cause,” youth rebellion today does not look much like what it did in the iconic 1955 drama.

Though James Dean, the film’s star, was the image of rebellion in the mid 20th century, clad in dark sunglasses, wearing a white t-shirt underneath a leather jacket, and nonchalantly leaning against a wall as thin wisps of smoke slither gracefully around his head from the cigarette hanging in his mouth, the youth today are neither wearing leather nor smoking cigarettes.

Later in the 1900s, rebellion came in the form of music. Bands like The Beatles irritated parents everywhere by introducing rock ‘n roll to America, and it wasn’t long before punk, hip-hop, and metal artists created their own waves of rebellion in the years that followed.

Today, however, rebellion is not so black and white. In fact, it may be taking forms that are the exact opposite of what it used to mean.

An op-ed in the New York Times this weekend attributes the spike in sales for Evangelical sex manuals (some of which call for women to abstain until marriage) to a desire to rebel. “The act of submission, when consciously chosen, can feel empowering, and even politically empowering,” writes the author.

What does youth rebellion look like today? Where is the next wave of cultural transformation coming from, and will it be from the music scene as we’ve seen in past generations? Do young people actually rebel against anything anymore, or have technology and social media made them complacent sheep? Could it be that there are still forms of rebellion taking place, but we don’t recognize them as easily because they aren’t taking the same form they once did?


Darby Saxbe, assistant professor of psychology at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. She recently co-authored a study that tracked brain activity of teenagers who engage in risky behavior.

Stephen Marche, columnist for Esquire Magazine. He explores the topic of what youth rebellion is today in an article from the November 2014 issue of Esquire, entitled “Where is America’s Real Youth Rebellion?