Decoding Pop Culture Signs and Symbols in The Outsiders
The Outsiders was written in 1967 as the United States was increasing its activity in Vietnam, the civil rights movement was gaining momentum, and the Beat movement of the 1950s was transitioning into the hippie movement of the 1960s. Yet none of these social or political events are referenced in the novel. The focus of the novel is instead on class and the way it affects these specific teenagers. Class is often expressed through what people listen to, wear, and watch. Details like clothes, movies, and music are signs and symbols the characters use to determine who they can trust and who they cannot. For example, the clothes a girl wears signal to Ponyboy whether a girl is out of his reach or if she can be approached. The clothes Ponyboy and his friends wear let girls know if they are possible romantic prospects or if they’ll threaten the girls’ reputations.
S.E. Hinton was fifteen when she wrote The Outsiders. She was, as she has said in interviews, living through the same things she was writing about. Therefore, her focus on popular culture, as opposed to the political and social turmoil that was occurring in the 1960s, makes sense. The book does not suggest that young adults are not political or unaware of important events, but that often what is most immediately important and what binds social groups together or separates them is actually popular culture.
Ponyboy’s confusion about (and deviance from) popular culture norms drives plot events. Even though Ponyboy is a greaser, he is in the advanced classes at school with many Socs. The divide between greasers and Socs may seem less wide in the classroom, but as Ponyboy finds out when he takes out his switchblade to dissect a frog, the divide is always there and he must be vigilant about it: “The minute I flicked it out—I forgot what I was doing or I would never have done it—this girl right beside me kind of gasped, and said, ‘They are right. You are a hood.’ That didn’t make me feel so hot.” It should be noted that Ponyboy being a “hood” was a surprise to his lab partner. Up until Ponyboy pulled out his switchblade, he had merely been the smart kid in class who sat next to her. Unfortunately, doing well in school is not a great equalizer in the novel. It is the material possessions a character has that define them and make it difficult for communication to occur between different groups.
When Ponyboy and Cherry are walking home from the movie theater, Ponyboy is surprised to learn that it’s really only their musical preferences that separate them: “They liked the Beatles thought Elvis Presley was out, and we thought The Beatles were rank and that Elvis was tuff [cool], but that seemed the only difference to me.” For a brief moment, Ponyboy thinks he’s found a way to bridge the divide between Socs and greasers using pop culture as a common language. But even Cherry Valance, a kindred spirit to Ponyboy, acknowledges she probably won’t speak to him in the halls at school because if her friends saw that, it would harm her reputation. Music, movies, and fashion are not merely entertainment in the novel, they have a power that can separate people or bring them together. What someone is wearing can make the difference between getting off with a warning from the police or getting shot under a streetlight.
Popular culture very quickly defines the characters in The Outsiders as either greaser or Soc. It is a shorthand the reader quickly adopts to recognize whether Ponyboy and his gang are amongst friends or enemies. If a character approaches Ponyboy in a “tuff” new car like a Mustang or Corvair, we know he is in trouble. Most of the time, the greasers walk everywhere because even if they have a car, it is in need of repair. Even though Ponyboy claims to not be particularly interested in girls, he definitely notices what girls wear and compares “greasy” girls to Soc girls, wondering, “...what other girls were like. The girls who were bright-eyed and had their dresses a decent length and acted as if they’d like to spit on us if given a chance.” Because the signs and symbols of class are worn directly on their bodies, the greasers and the Socs have very little chance of ever being able to cross the boundary separating them, and that lends a bleak tone to the novel even in spite of its hopeful ending.
Pop culture in the novel is a powerful force that defines friends and enemies. It is a barrier that not only separates greasers from Socs but also adults from teenagers. Thus, at the end when Ponyboy decides to write his own story, he effectively wants to contribute to the popular culture that defines his group and the Socs. The ending of the novel can be read as bleak because Ponyboy is still poor and living in a lousy neighborhood and his parents are still dead, but by writing down his own story, Ponyboy shows his belief in the power of pop culture to change his circumstances by changing the opinions of others. Through his very writing he offers a glimmer of hope. Popular culture might appear a superficial element of a consumer-oriented society, but in The Outsiders, it is a complex and powerful series of signs and symbols, as vital to communication and empathy between groups as the slang they use to speak to one another.