Pleasantville is a 1998 film directed by Gary Ross (Big, The Hunger Games) and produced by him, Steven Soderbergh (Sex, Lies and Videotapes, Contagion), Jon Kilik, and Bob Degus.
High school siblings David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) have diametrically opposite social lives. Jennifer is superficial and extroverted; David is shy and retreats into television. One evening, while their mother is out, David and Jennifer each decide to watch a television programme: Jennifer a concert on MTV, David a marathon of Pleasantville, a feel-good black and white 1958 sitcom about the Parker family. Unfortunately, the programmes overlap and there is only one TV set. Worse still, the remote is smashed to pieces as they battle for possession, putting the TV, which has no manual controls, beyond use.
At that moment, a TV repairman conveniently shows up. He quizzes David about Pleasantville and, impressed by David’s exhaustive knowledge, gives him a new, space-age remote control. The repairman leaves, and David and Jennifer promptly resume combat. One of them accidentally presses on a button, however, which suddenly transports them into the Parkers’ living room in the black and white world of Pleasantville. Through the television set in the Parker’s living room, David argues with the repairman, but the latter is angered and walks away. From then on David and Jennifer must pretend they are the Parkers’ offspring, Bud and Mary Sue.
David and Jennifer are confronted with the show’s quaintly wholesome environment. In order to keep the plotline, David instructs Jennifer to remain in character, so as not to disrupt the lives of the townsfolk, who do not detect the substitution. Yet this soon proves impossible: when Jennifer is asked out by a boy from the high school, she has sex with him on the first date, an entirely unknown concept to him and everyone else in the town. In Pleasantville, you see, young couples dare not even hold hands until they have been going steady for a while.
This triggers a process of transformation, whereby slowly black and white starts giving way to colour. The colouration manifests suddenly in individual objects, flowers, or faces, coinciding with bursts of emotion.
Almost immediately, David becomes friends with Mr. Johnson, owner of the local soda fountain. Necessity causes David, who works there part time, to present Mr. Johnson with ideas and procedures that progressively disrupt the establishment owner’s hitherto unfailing routines. Mr. Johnson begins displaying initiative, previously unknown. In time, David brings Mr. Johnson a book of modern art from the library, sparking in him an interest in painting.
Deviations have also crept into the Parker’s home. While discussing her date with her Pleasantville mother, Betty Parker, Jennifer tells her about the ways a woman can pleasure herself—solo. Betty swiftly puts this into practice in the bath while her husband goes to bed. We see from the layout of the master bedroom that the Parkers sleep in two single beds, chastely separated by a wide bedside table.
We later infer that the act has caused Betty to become coloured, about which she is mortified and ashamed. David helps her cover the colouration with her own black and white make-up. But soon after Betty takes a stroll along the main street and a colour painting in the window of Mr. Johnson’s soda fountain attracts her attention. She goes in and finds him painting. While conversing, she bursts into tears, causing Mr. Johnson to discover her secret. He is pleased and decides to paint her—in the nude (but for now, from above the breasts). They fall in love and this eventually causes her to leave home. For George Parker, Bud and Mary Sue’s father, this leads to a perplexing and unheard of situation: he arrives home from work only to find the house dark, his wife absent, and no dinner—hot or cold—waiting for him.
This is a sign of women’s growing independence in Pleasantville. By this time, many of them are borrowing books from the library, and a great many of the children are coloured and routinely engaging in sexual activity. Unchanged are only the town fathers, led by the Mayor, Big Bob, who is angered and alarmed by the progressive erosion Pleasantville’s traditional values. They resolve to take action.
As the townsfolk slowly become more colourful, a ban on coloured people is initiated in some public venues. Suddenly, the painting of Betty—this time a full nude—on the window of Mr. Johnson’s soda fountain triggers a riot. The soda fountain is ransacked, books are burnt, and coloured folk are harassed in the street. In response, the town fathers impose a series of draconian resolutions, prohibiting people from visiting the library, playing loud music, or using colour paint. David and Mr. Johnson protest by painting a colourful mural on a brick wall, depicting their recent Pleasantville life. The infraction leads to their arrest.
Brought to trial in front of the assembled town, David and Mr. Johnson defend their actions, with David arguing that colour is a manifestation of emotions that exist inside each and every one of them, and that it is pointless to suppress them. This turns into a wider argument in favour of embracing the good and the bad in life—an epiphany David has had during his experiences in Pleasantville. As Big Bob stands firm, David realises the Mayor is driven by fear and successfully provokes his anger, and thereby colouration, thus proving his point.
With Pleasantville irrevocably changed, Jennifer chooses to stay for a while to finish her education (until then, she had never even read a whole book in her life), but David, now wiser, returns to the real world via his remote.
With an intriguing fantasy scenario, the quaint setting adds to the film significant visual appeal. Yet, there is, more to the story than the challenges encountered by modern teenagers navigating the circumscribed universe of a forty-year-old television show. The latter merely serves as a troyan for a snide critique of conservatism, which, in a not entirely hyperbolic form, is here represented by Pleasantville—the idealisation of an America many of the most reactionary conservatives mourn and would like to bring back.
Much of the humour derives from two sources: firstly, the naïve, prudish, repressed, unimaginative conservatism of 1950s America (as conceived by Left liberals); and, secondly, and because of the former, its heavily censored, exaggeratedly wholesome representation in a contemporaneous television show. Everything and everyone is pleasant, temperate, safe, suburban, and middle class. They all have modern houses, with pristine lawns and picket fences; drive enormous beautiful American cars; and live stable, secure, predictable lives, in strict adherence to traditional gender roles. All the adult women are housewives, and all the adult males are sole providers for their families working nine-to-five jobs. It is all made to look implausibly beautiful and pleasantly nostalgic, but also a little dumb.
There are three aspects of Gary Ross’ critique that interest me: his attack on traditional gender roles, his attack on marriage, and his attack on conservatism as an attitude driven by fear.
The film’s critique of gender roles comes straight out of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Betty Parker is initially depicted as a happy mother and wife, but, once encouraged by Jennifer to explore masturbation, the emotional release and subsequent chance events makes her realise she is unhappy with her life and wants more. Other women in the film are seen borrowing books from the library and reading for the first time, a matter that concerns their husbands, who think women becoming overly educated is a bad idea.
The film’s critique of the traditional marriage is more subtle, but follows from the above, with the implication that it is okay, indeed a positive act of self-affirmation, for a wife seeking to expand her horizons to cheat on her husband and abandon the family home. Betty’s tryst with Mr. Johnson is depicted sympathetically and it is her jilted husband, George, who is portrayed as an idiot. Moreover, George’s attempt to reassert his authority after his wife rebels underlines his impotence, making him look ridiculous and silly, particularly since Betty stands firm in a very calm, gentle, and rather affectionate manner.
The film’s critique of conservatism is the main overarching message, taking also the most complex form. Big Bob’s appeal to the town’s fathers, made while they are all at the local bowling alley, originates from a place of fear—simple irrational fear in the face of the unknown, of loss of control, of where recent deviations may lead. The list of rules produced by them in the effort to restore order are utterly risible—their uptight, draconian, overly detailed prescriptions, as well as their preoccupation with symptoms rather than root causes, betraying the panicked weakness of the town’s conservative faction. One cannot ignore the fact that liberation—the experiencing of new experiences—in Pleasantville manifests in vibrant Technicolor, while conservatism is in boring black and white. Neither can one ignore the rather neat allusion to race relations in 1950s America: the racial angle is abundantly clear when signs begin appearing in Pleasantville’s public spaces banning ‘coloreds’, suggesting that Whites’ preferring their own company and their desire to live separate from Blacks was based purely on irrational fear of the unknown.
In the final scenes of the film, once David has returned to the real world in 1998, he finds his mothers crying at the kitchen table. She is frustrated because she is forty years of age and is unhappy because despite her material comforts life was not what it was supposed to be. David wisely counsels her that life is not supposed to be anything.
Ultimately, the film celebrates broken marriages, cuckoldry, and White displacement, all of which are conceived as liberation.
Critique of the Insult
It would be a mistake to conflate traditional with conservative and think of Pleasantville as a dialectic between liberal versus traditional. There is scarcely anything traditional in the film’s 1950s America; though doubly exaggerated in its conservatism, it still follows what Alexander Dugin calls liberal conservatism—a liberalism that, purely out of fear, wants to keep the status quo, go a little slower, or take a few steps back. Thus, I am in accord with Gary Ross’ view on the etiology and nature of conservatism, as well as with his wider commentary on the futility of escaping into an idealised past, only I would stress that this, as can only be the case in a context of triumphant thee-hundred-year-old liberalism, is one type of liberal insulting another for his timidity.
During the course of the insult, the viewer is presented with a number of false associations. One false association made in the film is a liberal trope: the opposition of conservatism to education, and the idea that education leads to liberalism—or if already liberal, to greater liberalism. Ross’ view is that the conservatives’ fear originates from ignorance, and that this ignorance perpetuates the fear. Certainly, none of the fathers in Pleasantville show any interest in reading, except the morning newspaper. (One wonders how it is that a ‘serious man’ reads the newspaper, and how newspaper-reading is linked to seriousness and hard-boiled masculinity, given what we know about the corporate media and the nature of their output.) The idea that education leads to liberalism is pure Enlightenment propaganda—even the term ‘Enlightenment’ is propagandistic, as it knowingly implies that those who do not agree with ‘Enlightenment’ ideas are benighted. Firstly, it does not follow that a conservative will be cured of his fear or of his ignorance through education; on the contrary, fear can motivate a conservative to seek in his newly acquired knowledge proof of his own correctness, further entrenching his ignorance. Secondly, it does not follow that education leads to liberalism or greater liberalism; this is perfectly possible, but wider reading can just as well enable someone to venture outside of the liberal episteme (Foucault), facilitating a critical examination of liberalism and thereby its rejection.
A related false association is that of liberalism with progress, or improvement, and forward movement in time. The infusion of modern ideas into Pleasantville triggers a linear process of transformation from conservatism to liberalism, from less to more, from boring to exiting, that increases inexorably over time and is portrayed as inevitable. The ‘goodness’ of the process is underlined by the fact that it affects David and Jennifer in positive ways. David, the obsessive fan of the show, was initially stuck in this nostalgic 1950s fiction and is then enlightened by the process of transformation triggered by his intervention. He eventually leaves because he realises that he no longer needs the show. Jennifer, the high school airhead, is also improved, swept by the revolution in feminine learning triggered by her actions, which awakens in her a taste for reading and learning. She eventually stays to complete her education. Obviously, it does not follow that forward movement in time must necessarily lead to universal liberalism: ahead of us lies a time when the opposite will be true. Change may be inevitable, but change does not have to mean, nor does it inevitably have to result in, liberalism.
A final false association is that between coloured folk and excitement, vibrancy, or enrichment. The film presents the displacement of (black and) white folk by coloureds as a disruptive process that may be initially frightening for the conservative black and whites, but that is ultimately a necessary, positive, exciting, enriching, and inevitable development beneficial for the entire community. Reading between the lines, and bearing in mind that events in Pleasantville unfold in a setting that is forty years in the past, we can take this to mean that White folk are to be seen as boring anachronisms who should allow themselves to be colourised, for their own betterment and the betterment of society. Resistance, it seems, is futile. This message is probably the least apparent, since the entire cast is White, but can it be denied? A very shrewd advertisement for the multiracial society this is, as it delivers its payload in a manner that for Whites—the intended audience—makes it easy on the eye, with no need for such crass methods as a multiracial cast.
Not content with the attack on Whiteness, there is also an attack on masculinity. The ‘colour revolution’ is initiated by a teenage girl (Jennifer) and the process involves largely the wives and the young, while the last to be colourised are the town fathers, who eventually lose the battle for control. In the case of George Parker, any authority he may have had as his family’s sole provider proves to be flimsy in the extreme: though his wife is dependent on him economically, once she becomes self-aware she quickly proves that he has no hold on her. And once she leaves the family home it becomes evident that it was he who was dependent on her, for he is completely lost, going hungry because he is unable even to feed himself. This presents viewers with an adversarial conception of gender relations, which is also false. While we can accept that the role of mother and wife is insufficient for many women, that some women may just not be cut out for that role, and that many felt suffocated by it in modern times, feminine self-affirmation does not have necessarily to involve a derogation of masculinity. Quite the contrary, I would argue that, at least in certain but not unimportant contexts, self-affirming femininity requires exalting the opposing polarity of masculinity, the same way that self-affirming masculinity requires exalting the opposing polarity of femininity, and that the complete actualisation of one is not possible without the other. Chivalry, for example, an expression of high masculinity, cannot actualise itself without a woman. It also exalts both the man and the woman, and where there is an oath of fealty, it empowers both, rather than subject one to the other. Hollywood’s mean-spirited conception of gender relations, developed by resentful second-wave feminists who were influenced by Marx and partly funded by finance oligarchs seeking greater social control, merely reflects the nature of Hollywood relationships and the feedback effect the screen treatment of these matters has created between itself and modern audiences.
Pleasantville is an amusing, ingenious, and easy film, intended at a mainly young, White, female audience. One can ignore the politics and enjoy the film for what it is. On the other hand, the politics are very clearly present and heavily slanted in a very particular direction. This extreme bias—or shall we say, extreme prejudice?—will, however, not likely be identified by the audience, save for members already attuned to it; the humorous and light-hearted nature of the story, together with the quaint 1950s aesthetic, feel-good psychology, and clever cinematography, deflects attention from the underlying massage, so for the most part the latter will be absorbed in an unquestioning, quasi-subliminal, general way. Even if not consciously intended as such, as a piece of Left-liberal propaganda this is, therefore, as insidious as the film is fun. It also seems singularly malicious when we remember the contempt felt in Hollywood for those ‘awful’ 1950s and the cynical way the film exploits 1950s nostalgia yet again to fleece the WASPs and poison them too.