Volume 5, Issue 1: Spring 2009


Behaving Like Brando: Transgressing Race and Gender in The Wild One

Julie Willett  

One of most unforgettable moments in The Wild One (1953) occurs when a small-town girl asks “What're you rebelling against, Johnny?” His iconic reply “Whaddya got?” projects a sense of angst as complex as his own understanding and portrayal of masculinity. Judith Butler reminds us that gender is a performance and Marlon Brando’s way with words, his posture, movements, and sense of style reveal a particularly unique rendition. In her path breaking study of the male body in twentieth century popular culture, Susan Bordo casts masculinity as inseparable from an often hidden sense of vulnerability that was visible in Hollywood stars like Brando. Bordo points to Brando’s role, before his turn as Johnny in The Wild One, as Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), in which he “brought an emotional expressiveness, a willingness to portray male need, helplessness, [and] dependency that helped to shape a very different kind of romantic male ideal than the violent action hero” (Bordo 112).


Yet to fully understand Brando’s appeal to women and generations of male imitators, one must delve into Brando’s own brand of racial cross-dressing, on and off the screen.  Whaddya got?” may be Johnny’s retort, but a much more poignant response to the status quo was emerging in African-American communities. During WWII, the Double Victory Campaign demanding twin defeats of fascism abroad and racism at home emerged alongside Zoot Suiters who, as Robin Kelley so brilliantly reveals, had already created their own sense of masculine performance through leisure, dress, mannerisms, and speech.  Brando’s legacy reflected his ability to distort mid-century constructions of gender and race and borrow much from what has been assumed to be black and/or feminine.  In other words, Brandon refashioned a “manly bearing” (Montgomery) by embracing his own sensuality, vulnerability, dependency, and a not-yet-white identity that stood in sharp relief to the realm of work or middle-class ambition.  Consciously or not, for generations of men, “behaving like Brando” has meant adopting that which they may have defined as other.  Thus even those who have longed for exclusively white male companionship, clubs, and organizations, have perhaps also transgressed race and gender boundaries to forge their own sense of male rebelliousness (Bordo 133).


In the mid-twentieth century, masculinities were being refashioned thanks to film icons like Brando and James Dean. Against the backdrop of the Cold War, domestic containment begged for distinct gender roles that did not simply domesticate women, but also channeled white, middle, and working-class men into bread winning, marriage, and increasingly segregated, suburban lifestyles (May).  In film and television, the images of domesticated fathers who knew best stood in sharp contrast to Brando and Dean’s virile boyishness (Bordo 121).  Indeed, their influence on contemporary and future generations, Bordo insists, has been profound.   “Among popular entertainers, the only one whose style of masculinity they [her high-school boyfriends] consciously emulated was that of folk singer Bob Dylan, who combined poetry, domestic rebellion, and anti-establishment passion with lousy posture, a Salvation Army wardrobe, a voice that defied convention, and a sense of indifference to his audience, even when bellowing lyrics of protest.”   Bordo recalls how her “friends slouched like Dylan, they mumbled like Dylan, they scoured the Newark thrift stores in search of Dylan-like clothing.”   Of course, “What most of them didn’t know, however, was the young Robert Zimmerman (Dylan), and many other singers and public politicos of the sixties, just slightly older than the boys I knew, had gotten their inspiration from two movie stars of the fifties: Brando and Dean” (Bordo 132).


The full extent of Brando’s cultural influence is often overlooked, however. Although Dean is typically given credit for creating a new masculine style, Bordo insists that “actually it was Brando who originated the new elements of masculine style with which Dean became associated, and which Dean consciously tried to copy . . . from Brando’s voice, walk, gestures, and clothing to his iconoclastic opinions” (Bordo 133).  But Brando’s sense of style came “long before he put on the black leather jacket,” or—I would add—rode a motorcycle.  Indeed, “even before he became a star, Brando flouted the establishment with his body,” showing up in fashionable places wearing ripped clothing and preferring to stand “alone in the corner all night” rather than make polite conversation. The press mocked him and cast him as “uncivilized” and “primitive.”  Bordo notes that even Life Magazine described Brando as “‘a harlequin who had not been house-broken” (Bordo 134).


The “harlequin” who refused to be “house-broken” was a perfect assault on domesticated images of masculinity that dominated much of post-war popular culture.  In The Wild One, released just two years after A Streetcar Named Desire, Brando is less violent and more easily understood than in his previous portrayal of brutish Stanley Kowalski.  Nevertheless, his potency stands in bold relief to an out-of-touch small town that seems to suffer from a crisis in male authority.  The local sheriff who tries to keep Johnny and his gang on the straight and narrow fails miserably.  Even the sheriff’s own daughter Kathie (Mary Murphy) admits to Johnny that her father is “afraid of making a mistake . . . afraid of losing his job . . . the town joke.” Age, in this case, contributes to a sense of the town’s collective impotence.  As Johnny’s friends run amuck they accentuate their youthfulness through playful pranks and disregard for the powers-that-be. After pulling an old-timer up out of his car, they toss him about with complete disregard for or fear of any retribution.  Indeed, Johnny’s brethren despise authority and have little patience for the mundane.  They transform Main Street into a makeshift playground where they hop along like children on pogo sticks, circle beer bottles with their bikes and, just for kicks, proceed to trash a string of local businesses.  When Johnny’s rival Chino (Lee Marvin) picks a fight outside Bleeker’s Cafe, it seems no accident that the two, caught up in their own bravado, crash through the glass windows of a bridal boutique.  In a “town where people get married” and not much else seems to happen, they disrupt any notion of familial bliss the town or 1950s America claimed to offer. 


Johnny (as one of my students pointed out) is not the name given to a man. Indeed, he is strikingly boyish, nothing like uncaring Chino, and thus perhaps an unlikely emblem of masculine rebellion. Yet this is a moment when being a boy may have made it easier to be a man, or at least an undomesticated version. What made Johnny a different kind of man was this willingness to embrace a feminine, out-of-control emotional vulnerability and sensuality.  In the limelight of A Streetcar Named Desire, Brando once again cultivates the erotic along with a sense of immaturity and dependence.  He is not the not the father who knows best, but a clingy, troubling child. Like Stanley Kowalski, who screamed helplessly for “Stella,” Johnny clings to a stolen second-place trophy that he drags everywhere like a security blanket.  An object that signifies absolutely nothing,” scoffs Chino, but that makes Johnny “feel like a big strong man.”  The trophy has more meaning than it should and in the last scene of the movie when he finally relinquishes it to the only one who understood him, it seems as though Johnny might indeed be growing up, but he is still brandishing a different kind of manliness than that portrayed by Chino or  the unsympathetic town.


Johnny’s maturity is perhaps most in question not when he is around other men but women, in particular Kathie, the object of his desire. In response to his every mistake, she reaffirms his dependency on her through a kind of maternal stance.  She corrects Johnny’s poor manners, asking (as if she were his mother), “What did you do that for?  Why are you trying to be so rude?” His boyishness is often amplified with simplistic responses. And when he refuses to speak, it is Kathie who finishes his sentences, explaining that “he doesn’t know how,” for example, to say thank you when someone finally has done him right.  At times the gender roles seem inverted. Even when caught in his violent embrace, Kathie never seems to fear Johnny but realizes, “I’m not afraid of you.  You’re afraid of me.” She is the rational one, not Johnny.


At the same time, The Wild One leaves little doubt of Johnny’s masculine prowess. Dressed in a black leather jacket, jeans stretched tightly across his crotch, always ready to mount his bike, Johnny exudes a sensuality that, in turn, erotized the male body on and off the screen. When Kathie touches the front wheel’s fender on Johnny’s Triumph as if she were touching him, she admits to a kind of virginity:  “I’ve never ridden on a motorcycle before.  It’s fast.  It scared me.  But I forgot everything. It felt good.”  His motorcycle had offered her rescue, earlier from a symbolic gang rape, but also the possibility of violence revisited, especially when Johnny resurrects Streetcar’s Stanley Kowalski, a man whom women did fear:  “Right now I can slap you around to show you how good you are and [thanks to his bike] tomorrow I’m someplace else  and I don’t even know you or nothing,” he threatens. Even when words escape him, with every stomp on his kick start, Johnny asserts a powerful fuck-you attitude, whether or not a trophy is strapped onto his handlebars or embraces him on the back of his bike.  In this case, it seems his boyish fetish does not make Brando’s character less of a man, but rather a more complicated version of one.


Brando’s motorcycle also took on a life of its own.  In the film, its mobility symbolized the uncontainability of cultures that rural life, emerging suburbs, and lynch mobs were supposed to keep out.  Johnny’s gang defiantly brought into this small all-white town, everything that urban life had come to represent in the American imagination.  Since the early National Period, distinctly urban, often violent gangs were associated with an immigrant, not-yet-white, working-class who threatened and rejected the tenets of middle-class respectability through stance, dress, speech, and manners. Christine Stansell’s study of antebellum New York’s Irish working-class Bowery Boys vividly captures their walk, talk, and own sexual machismo (Stansell 89-101).  The Bowery Gal, like Britches, one of Johnny’s former one-night-stands, was bold not demure, a biker in her own right, one of the Beetles who claimed her own sensuality, desire, and prowess even though she fell ultimately into the paternalistic trap of being someone else’s woman, waiting for his actions and his desire.  Throughout the film, then, the bike is what afforded the transgression of race and respectability.


It is of course more than the motorcycle that makes Johnny a threat.  When Johnny’s club rides into town, they play havoc with racial accord.  Like the Beats, best known for their rejection of domesticity, bourgeois ambition and an embrace of black culture (Ehrenreich), Johnny and his motorcycle club blatantly mimic black aesthetics.  Following in the footsteps of a slightly earlier generation of Zoot Suiters, Jonny’s defiance of the status quo must be understood through the cultural terrain he claimed. “The zoot, the lindy hop, and the distinct lingo of ‘heb cat,’” Robin Kelley argues, “simultaneously embodied these class, racial, and cultural tensions” (165).  Johnny’s friends accentuate their otherness especially when they mock the elderly soda jerk who is clueless when they speak jive or offer to slip him some skin.  Against the backdrop of jazz music, they ask “Daddy-o” to “Gimme some skin and ooze it out just nice  . . .  Do you pick up on this jive, man?  Did you dig the rebop?”  Thinking about Malcolm X’s youth, Kelley unravels the “riddle of the zoot” when he notes how “This unique subculture enabled him [Malcolm] to negotiate an identity that resisted the hegemonic culture and its attendant racism and patriotism, the rural folkways (for many, the ‘parent culture’) that still survived in most black urban households, and the class conscious, integrationist attitudes of middle-class blacks” (165).  Similarly, Johnny had no desire to integrate into this town or its old-fashioned mentality.  Perhaps this is why Johnny’s biker fraternity was named the “Black Rebels Motorcycle Club.”  The point was not lost. Years later Bobby Seale, founder of the Black Panthers, would recall the influence Brando had on his own youthful sense of rebelliousness (Bordo 133).


Like other imitators of African Americans, Johnny’s club also expresses complete disdain for wage labor.  Zoot Suiters, Beats, and bikers all seemed to construct their sense of manhood in the realm of leisure and in opposition to work.  Malcolm X, Kelley insists, felt “one should work to live not live to work” (173).  Zoot Suiters resisted patriotic service and traditional African-American occupations that typically featured black men and women serving the needs of white vanity (Kelley, 168-169). The Beats copied and romanticized this angst. The most famous were strikingly misogynist and lived off a string of women to avoid work and insure good times (Ehrenreich). Malcolm, too, always “seemed to be shedding his work clothes, whether it was the apron of a soda jerk or the uniformed railroad sandwich peddler, in favor of his zoot suit” (Kelley 169).  And in The Wild One, every weekend, Johnny and his gang would “go-go-go.” More than temporarily escape work, Johnny’s friends showed absolute contempt for any semblance of wage labor as well as workers who seemed to embrace their servitude a bit too much.  The Ace filling-station attendant who is all too eager to please is treated little differently than the towel that’s swiped from his back pocket and used to start a “drag for beers.” And most poignantly when Johnny loses his patience with Kathie he snaps, “Who are you? Some girl who makes sandwiches or somethin’?”


However, Kathie is the only wageworker Johnny shows any respect for, because he can so easily re-imagine her in his realm of leisure. When they first meet, he politely and all-so-deliberately lifts his hands as she wipes the counter. “Why, thank you,” teases Johnny.  When he moves to the bar, he tries desperately to pull her away from her work-a-day self and into a space that he can perhaps control and certainly finds more palatable.  He even puts a coin in the jukebox in an attempt to change the mood.   Against a backdrop of seductive jazz, Johnny coaxes Kathie to step beyond the counter and dance. No doubt he wishes to transform her, as he has presumably done.  When she refuses, he complains, “Man, you are too square.” To be sure, men’s identities can often be understood through labor, their work culture, their skills, and economic posturing, but Robin Kelley’s Zoot Suiters, much like Johnny, defy the notion that work is an end-all.   Troubled so much with Kathie’s attachment to her job, Johnny vows “If you’re gonna stay cool, you’ve got to wail. . . . You got to make some jive,”


Perhaps what brings Johnny’s racial construct most into question is the fear and adoration he begets.  Bordo notes that Brando was cast in the contemporary press as “uncivilized” possessing a “primitivism” on and off the screen (134).  In some ways, Kathie is attracted to Johnny’s undomesticated whiteness and the lure of wild adventure.  At the same time, her small town naiveté renders her innocent and passive in a fictive narrative that drives the town fathers’ imagination and fear.  A misunderstood slap makes Johnny not just an annoyance to a town but a threat to Kathie, white womanhood, and the town’s sense of racial purity.   To be sure, it is not Johnny’s boyishness that makes small town vigilantes hunt him down like a southern lynch mob.  Even though Johnny rescued rather than raped Kathie, he is portrayed as the outsider who must pay for the town’s guilty fear and desire.


George Rawick was a historian of slavery, who understood the importance of looking at identity and resistance beyond the gaze of labor’s control and his words from Sundown to Sunup best capture the town’s response to Brando and his influence in popular culture.  When thinking about the legacy of slavery and racism, Rawick envisions that “The Englishman met the West African as a reformed sinner meets a comrade of his previous debaucheries.” Indeed, “The reformed sinner very often creates a pornography of his former life.” And tragically, “He must suppress even his knowledge that he had acted that way or even that he wanted to act that way” (Rawick 132-133).  Rawick’s profound understanding of race and imagination suggests much about the legacy of Brando’s gender performance, a performance that turns so much on race.  Perhaps then it is even possible to suggest that men who cling desperately to whiteness and masculinity also transgress these very categorizations.




Thanks so much to my husband and colleague, Randy McBee, and the many Texas Tech graduate students who recently inspired this discussion of masculinity and its discontents.


Works Cited


Bordo, Susan. The Male Body: A New Look at Men in Public and Private. New York:  Farrar, Straus and Grioux, 1999.


Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminisms and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.


Ehrenreich, Barbara. The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and The Flight From Commitment.  New York: Anchor Press, 1983.


Kelley, Robin D.G.  Race Rebels:  Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class. New York: The Free Press, 1996.


May, Elaine Tyler. Homeward Bound:  American Families in the Cold War Era. New York: Basic Books, 1988.


Montgomery, David. Workers’ Control in America: Studies in the History of Work, Technology, and Labor Struggles. Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1979.


Rawick, George. From Sundown to Sunup:  The Making of the Black Community. Westport: Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1972.


Stansell, Christine. City of Women: Sex and Class in New York 1789-1860. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois, 1986. 


The Wild One, dir. Laslo Benedek, 1953.    

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