The Representation of the Outlaw Biker in California, 1953-1969: Film, Counterculture and Commodity
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My thesis is an exploration of the representation of the outlaw biker from 1953-1969. I will use three films to anchor my work: Easy Rider (1969), The Wild One (1953), The Wild Angels (1965). Each of these films will be the anchor of its own chapter, but I will also be using various imagery to explore the tensions surrounding the depictions presented, and subsequent social themes. Each film addresses different aspects of the biker, making them all important, therefore the thesis will be a visual exploration into the social and cultural history of the biker.
Easy Rider is the defining biker movie. Merging counterculture values with a cowboy themed outlaw biker image, this film defined both the mentality and imagery of what is associated with the biker lifestyle. A key addition to the New Hollywood cinematic movement, the film questioned the authoritative system by having the main characters killed by those who hold outdated values. The Wild One began the visual and cultural journey of the biker, by creating the leather-clad image of the outlaw motorcyclist for the foreseeable future and cultivating his masculinity through aggressive behaviour. Based on true events of the Hollister riot of 1947, The Wild One began the complex relationship between outlaw biker and the counterculture by presenting the main character as a beatnik, a precursor to the hippy. With the rise of the biker in popular culture in the 1960s, this proved to confuse ideological boundaries between the outlaw biker and the counterculture, especially concerning the Vietnam war. The Wild Angels was released during the peak popularity of the biker in America. With actual members of the Hells Angels starring in the film, and mimicking -- and sensationalising -- headlines of the time, it was aimed at teenage audiences who craved shocking entertainment. Unfortunately for the female characters, this was often at their expense.
When discussing the wider visual realm of each chapter, I will cross reference manufacturer advertisements, newspaper and television stories, first hand accounts and documentary photographs with the films to highlight the importance of the image as culture industry. To complete my thesis, I will draw attention to the 1996 Guggenheim exhibition “The Art of the Motorcycle” and how corporate and institutional influence sanitised the visual history of motorcycling for the masses, commodifying the image of the outlaw biker. Since the history of motorcycling has been defined by images, the thesis discusses how the image has been appropriated numerous times, in different ways, for various reasons.
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