Pleasantville is a 1998 film written and directed by Gary Ross David where an unpopular teenager obsessed with a 1950s sitcom and his sister Jennifer, a popular teenager with more interest in dating are magically transported into a fictional world of a television show.
David and Jennifer take on the roles of Budd and Mary Sue from the show. David an admirer of the show, initially wants to leave everything as is and tries to blend in. Jennifer prefers to shake things up and introduces sex to the sitcom world, which up until than was never heard off. David eventually realizes that Pleasantville is hollow, the books don’t have words in them, everyone follows a routine that provides no meaningful experience. David teaches them everything from novels to weather until they become more complete people. Due to the actions of David and Jennifer the black and white world slowly starts to show colors for the first time. This alarms many of the townspeople who cast the colorized people as troublemakers and eventually second-class citizens.
The town of Pleasantville faces the prospect of change for the first time and many act out of fear. In the end the town realizes that change is inevitable. David finds a way to leave Pleasantville and return home. Jennifer prefers to stay and start fresh in this new world. There is a lot going on in Pleasantville as it relates to social politics, but if there is a central theme that connects everything in the film it is personal repression leading to societal oppression. This is not just a guess or a reading of the film writer, director Gary Ross was not quiet about his intentions.
This movie is about the fact that personal repression gives rise to larger political oppression, that when we’re afraid of certain things in ourselves or we are afraid of change we project those fears onto other things and a lot of very ugly social situations can develop. The Garden of Eden imagery might lead one to think that is being introduced to Pleasantville but that is a little too simplistic. The story of Genesis refers to a tree, as the tree of knowledge, of good and evil and while Christian doctrine refers to this as original sin or the fall of man. The film is clearly showing its knowledge being a positive biblical imagery, rearranged in the film to show humanity’s growth rather than more socially conservative stagnation, a burning tree not as a warning from God as in the Old Testament but after sexual awakening, a rainbow after rainfall that the colorized citizens find harmless and enjoyable while the black and white citizens see as a portent of doom.
In Pleasantville the citizens are not experiencing sin, that is actually not what is causing the color. They are experiencing change. Most of the time when a black and white person has sex or experiences a moment of pleasure they obtain color or color happens nearby. However Jennifer has sex more than anyone else and remarks that she is confused why she is still in black and white David says that the color is not about sex and therefore not about the Christian idea of sin. Jennifer gains color when she issues sex in favor of reading a book, this change is reflected in her. Visually David gains color only after he defends Betty from bigoted citizens of the town, he goes through a change because he initially thought of Pleasantville as a paradise and that being pleasant was a goal. When he experiences strong emotions, in this case anger, he changes. The colorization of the town is about change and progress, not sin.
Socially conservative critics of the film who claim it is Pro sin have missed the point, not realizing that they have fallen into the trap of not seeing such attitudes are the target of the film. The students are finally able to read books and expand their knowledge, mr. Johnson is finally able to fully appreciate art, so with this in mind what other forms of knowledge do the citizens gain?
The colorization of Pleasantville allows this fictional town from about 1952 through second wave feminism years before it registered in the real world. Well first my feminism focused on women’s suffrage, second wave feminism was a social movement of the 1960s through the early 80s that focused on sexual freedom. Changing roles in the family and workplace, reproductive rights, systemic inequalities and official legal inequalities. While not all are present in the narrative of Pleasantville, many are the directors declaration of personal repression causing oppression definitely connects with sexuality. In addition to Jennifer introducing sex in general she also teaches her fictional mother Betty how to masturbate. Thereby giving women in Pleasantville sexual freedom beyond the confines of their marriages. She also falls for a man with more sympathetic values to her own, in terms of changing roles in the family when her husband George returns home he shouts honey I’m home and receives no response. This troubles him, as does the fact that his wife has not made him dinner. He reports this infraction to other men in a bowling alley, a traditionally male setting and his lack of prepared dinner becomes scandalous to the town. The mayor of Pleasantville, Big Bob, rouses the rabble saying that this is only the beginning of something far worse for the men of the town. The men behave as though not getting their dinners made by their women is unacceptable.
„Well we’re safe for now thank goodness we’re in a bowling alley but if George here doesn’t get his dinner any one of us could be next“
This incident is all the excuse the men need to enact a series of new draconian laws to return the town to a form that is more comfortable to those in power, denying the newly discovered rights of its citizenry, both women and men.
The colorization of Pleasantville also allows for the 1950 TV world to go through the civil rights movement of the mid-50s through the late 60s in a matter of days. When some citizens of the town are colorized, the mayor deems the black and white traditionalist citizens the pleasant and the colorized citizens the unpleasant. The systemic fear of the other is codified in law as shops display no colored signs, akin to segregation era separation between bytes and people of color.
When David is seen dating a teenage girl who has been colorized, black and white citizens call her his colored girlfriend. A reference to what opposing whites called miscegenation or mixing of races and what proponents would simply call integration.
During the courtroom scene the layout of colorized people on top and black and white people below resembles the same scene from To Kill a Mockingbird. The mayors laws include a rule that the only permissible paint colors are black white or gray. Repression creating political oppression becomes even more noticeable during scenes in which the town mayor is shot from angles that make him look like an imposing dictator. Upon learning of the existence of books that actually have words inside the black and white citizens burn these books. By the directors own admission this is a highly political film and of course his assertion is supported by the text of the narrative and not just his authorial intentions. Dislike of change or progress is an inherently socially conservative position. Conservative politicians running for office often paint a false vision of an America that looks like the 1950s, the era of the fictional Pleasantville sitcom.
Ronald Reagan a movie star from that era did so in his successful 1980 campaign decades later, candidates still link 1960s and 1970s counterculture to their opponents. The implication being that the era of civil rights and women’s liberation were mistakes and that social progress actually negatively effects society in incalculable ways. 1950 was not a golden era, shows like Leave It to Beaver were not accurate portrayals of life in that time. It’s just that our media is often how we remember an era from many years past or an era before we were born and could accept.
David sees the 1950s sitcom world of Pleasantville as paradise but this is a complete fantasy. Social progress is only frightening to those who do not wish to share power, those who glorify the values of the post-war period of America of 1945 through 1959 would also be endorsing the racial and gender inequalities of the time. They usually don’t say that out loud, instead saying traditional values in hopes that this dog-whistle will inform the electorate of the dark attitudes said politician is trying to convey without being caught on tape saying it. The ideal period of the 40s and 50s is a fantasy propagated by backwards politicians. That’s why in Pleasantville we see exaggerated innocence lost, biblical imagery contrasted with people actually adapting to change and finding all the good in it.