Using Howard Becker’s labeling theory, Beverly Yuen Thompson combines a sociological analysis of the literary novel The Outsiders, about rivaling youth subcultures, on the eve of the book’s fiftieth anniversary.
On April 24th, 1967, S. E. Hinton published the coming-of-age novel The Outsiders, when only eighteen herself. The publisher had her use initials so as to disguise the gender of the author of a male-centric, gang-oriented novel, so as not to discourage the target audience of teenage boys and male reviewers. This was not uncommon practice at the time, in a literary-world decidedly male-oriented. Against the backdrop of the mid-1960s in Tulsa, Oklahoma, The Outsiders takes the perspective of members of the under-dog gang the “greasers”, as they engage in various rumbles with their arch-enemy, the “socs,” or the well-off, white, athletic students who dominate the social hierarchy of the high school. The esteemed movie director Francis Ford Coppola directed both the 1983 movie, and a 1990 television series adaption of The Outsiders, thus maintaining the story’s resonance for new generations.
Both the novel and the film present a bleak picture of American society in the mid 1960s, which, retrospectively, can be viewed as an anecdote to the baby boomer nostalgia of other renderings of the period in television shows such as Happy Days (1974-1984), Laverne and Shirley (1976-1983) and George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973). Here we encounter an America of broken homes, where parents are strangely invisible or absent and where the young people wantonly roam the streets. So much of The Outsiders is about boundaries, both real and symbolic. The landscape is divided by fences and train lines, but it is the imagined and real lines of class, gender and age which present us with a divided middle America. And it is not hard to imagine in a time of wall building, that the young protagonists, now aged and retired, of the The Outsiders came to form the fodder of more recent political battles between elitism and populism.
Rules & Enforcers
Howard Becker published his own book—Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance—in 1963. This book provided the sociological framework of understanding how the larger society creates its values and rules, and then goes about enforcing them. While inherently not good or bad, society itself establishes the moral framework in which to justify its position on the various rules, regulations, and social norms that govern everyday life. While deviance is not just a statistical minority of a behavior, identity, or social grouping, it is paired with what Erving Goffman would call “stigma” and Stanley Cohen would dub “folk devils and moral panics.”
In the 1983 movie version of The Outsiders, the greasers always find themselves on the wrong side of the fence, as depicted in the opening scenes where the greasers have slipped through a hole in the fence in order to enjoy the drive-in movie theater, otherwise out of their financial reach. Iconic industrial, metal fences (not a white-picket world) decorate many scenes of The Outsiders, establishing a visual parameter that fence off the greasers from the privileged world of the socs.
Labeling “Greasers” and “Socs”
The Outsiders depicts the social rivalry between the high school cliques “greasers” and “socs.” In the beginning of the movie edition, a scuffle breaks out as three greasers, Pony-Boy, Johnny, and Two-Bit, walk with two soc girls after the drive-in movie lets out. Their boyfriends pull up in a Mustang and order their girlfriends into the car. As Two-Bit jumps into fight mode, Cherry says they will go with their boyfriends, because she hates fights. She turns to Pony-Boy, with whom she has had a friendly evening, and says,
- “If I see you in school and I don’t say ‘hi’, please don’t take it personal, okay?”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Really, you’re a nice boy and everything.”
“It’s okay.” Pony-Boy acknowledges.
Both sides understand the process of maintaining the separation of the two groups—even if the representation is more complete than the reality. Social class boundaries prevail through the landscape depicted in the novel through property lines, fences, the vulnerability of the greasers on their long walks home, and the predatory nature of the socs who cruise around in their Mustang, on the offensive—the haves preying on the have-nots.
Howard Becker’s concept of labeling as a social interaction process in which certain groups label others and treat them accordingly, is a dominant theme. The greasers are called many names by the socs: hood, trash, grease, dirty, bums, white trash, and delinquent youths. But the socs, like other socially empowered groups, have fewer derogatory names that are available to degrade them.
After the first fight in The Outsiders, as Pony-Boy and Johnny wander the streets on foot, they are again rolled-up-on by the socs, now drunk. One says,
- “You guys know what greasers are? White trash, with long greasy hair.” He throws his drink in Pony-Boy’s face.
Pony-Boy replies, “You know what a soc is? White trash with Mustangs and madras.”
Is it possible to use the same slur for one group against their opposition, and retain the intended sting, or does it lose meaning in the reversal?
Occasionally, the two groups have truces where they speak one-on-one, drop the labels, and use first names in a manner of humanizing the other.Before the final rumble of the story, the gangs again collide at the hamburger joint, and one soc calls Pony-Boy over for a talk. Rather than starting a fight, the soc says he read about the heroic deed of saving the children from the church fire for which Pony-Boy and Johnny were written about in the local paper.
- “I never would have believed a greaser could pull something like that.”
“A greaser didn’t have nothing to do with it.” Pony-Boy replies defensively.
The soc invites Pony-Boy into his Mustang for a more private talk about the upcoming rumble and the anticipation of more people getting hurt. “It doesn’t matter. No matter who wins, you will still be at the bottom and we will still be at the top, the lucky ones with all the breaks. It doesn’t matter. The greasers will still be greasers and the socs will still be socs. Anyways, thanks greaser. Hey, I didn’t mean that. I meant, thanks, kid.”
“It’s been nice talking to you, Randy. My name’s Pony-Boy.” He gets out of the Mustang and rejoins his friends loitering in front of the hamburger joint.
“So what did Mr. Super Soc have to say?”
“He ain’t a Soc. Just a guy that wanted to talk, that’s all.”
Still Relevant Fifty Years Later
Are these youth division still as relevant now as they were when the book was written fifty years ago?
Journalist Hayley Krischer asks if The Outsiders continues to be relevant to new generations of youth, even after it’s proven cinematic popularity with teenagers of the early 1980s and 1990s? The issue of insiders and outsiders, the labeling and targeting of so-called misfits, will not leave us. For the United States, such divisions often correspond with societal fractures based on class, race, religion, and gender. Conversation of traditional values clash with new methods of being that are threatening to the status quo. There will always be outsiders not because of the specificity upon which they are labeled, but upon the inherent human process of segregation and maintaining order.
- While your high school probably did not have the greasers and socs of the 1967, what similar group existed in your high school? How are they labeled? Are they associated with a moral panic from school authorities? What are their symbols that represent their group (i.e. leather jacket, switch blades, athletic jackets, fancy cars)? What parallels do you see between the representation of the greasers and this group?
- After watching the 1983 version of The Outsiders by director Francis Ford Coppola, how does the movie represent gender role behaviors within the subcultures of the greasers, the socs, and the larger society? How are the female characters portrayed? How is masculinity portrayed? Are their variations between the larger social culture and the subcultures of each group?
- After reading Becker’s Outsiders, what are some of his concepts not discussed here, which are relevant to the social world of the greasers and socs of Hinton’s Tulsa, Oklahoma?
- After reading Stanley Cohen’s book Folk Devils and Moral Panics, how do the concepts of the folk devil and the larger moral panic represented in the world of the greasers?
- Becker, Howard S. 1963. Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. New York: The Free Press.
- Cohen, Stanley. 1973. Folk Devils and Moral Panics. New York: Routledge Classics.
- Hinton, S.E. 1967. The Outsiders. New York: Viking Press.
- Krischer, Hayley. 2017. “Why ‘The Outsiders’ Lives On: A Teenage Novel Turns 50.” New York Times. March 12.
- The Outsiders. Dir. Francis Ford Coppola. Zoetrope Studios, 1983.