Director Gary Ross says that Pleasantville 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’re afraid of change, we project those fears onto to other things, and a lot of very ugly social situations can develop”
Pleasantville is perhaps one of the most blatantly liberal films. This political oppression that Gary Ross speaks of is what most conservatives bring on. Such as the oppression of the self when it comes sexual freedom, issues of race, and censorship of art. The film remarkably uses color, as the black and white world of Pleasantville slowly turns into color. The bland, conformist black and white transforms into beautiful color when the world and true self opens up.
Tobey Maguire plays David, a teenager in the 90s. And between AIDS and global warming, there’s a lot to be scared of. Pleasantville is his favorite show, a Leave It To Beaver-esque escape to the good old years of the 1950s. But the film shows that those good old years had values that weren’t so good.
Through a magic remote, he and his sister get transported into the show. Since this is a television world, the oppressive elements of the 1950s are heightened. There are no roads out of town, their basketball team always wins, all the books are blank, and there is no sex. They don’t even go to the bathroom!
But although it’s a television world, television still reflected the values of the time. Before counterculture hit, the 1950s are often nostalgically looked back on as a sweet, idealistic and comfortable suburban life. The filmmakers dispel the fantasy that it was an era of innocence. What many think was ‘perfect’ or ‘idyllic’ about the 1950s, was in fact very ugly. In that time, women were confined to the household or purely as sex objects (nothing in between), many blacks couldn’t vote, and artists were branded as Communists. In Pleasantville, the changes that happen in the town are symbolism for the upcoming sexual revolution, feminist movement, and civil rights movement of the 1960s.
At the beginning, David is in his glory being in his favorite TV town. He loves playing the part of Bud Parker and interacting in the town. Jennifer, on the other hand, hates living in the town, so she decides to shake things up. All of the changes that happen in the town start with sex, when Jennifer sleeps with a local boy on Lover’s Lane. After that, he sees color for the very first time, on a flower. Eventually, other teenagers start in on the trend and soon they all start turning into color, bit by bit. Just on the lips, or their bubblegum, or their shoes.
Betty Parker, Mary Sue’s mother, (played by Joan Allen) like most of the adults, catches wind of what is going on at Lover’s Lane and with the newly colored teenagers. Jennifer tells Betty about sex, but also the joys of pleasuring herself… (And in her discovery it causes a tree to burst on fire, and since there are no fires in Pleasantville, they don’t know how to put them out!)
Betty Parker, like most TV and real-life wives of the ’50s, was expected to be the perfect housewife. Dinner on the table at 5, house clean, always looking beautiful. After learning the joys of the self and striking up a relationship with the soda shop owner, she becomes the first adult to turn to color. Her husband wants her to cover up and remain black and white but she likes being in color, and awakened to the world. She likes the newfound freedom in herself to be able to leave the house, and live for herself. Not just living as a live-in maid who watches the clock tick by until her husband returns home for dinner.
One night she dares to go out and doesn’t make dinner for George, leaving him to fend for himself. The men in the town and the mayor react in horror. This is obviously an emergency! David mocks the mayor in the end courtroom scene. “Pretty soon the women will go and work while the men stay home and cook!” Between the behavior of Betty Parker and the teenagers turning color, Pleasantville is shaken up and horrified by all these changes.
The use of color also, quite clearly, is an allegory of race. As more and more people become colorful, the mayor decrees that “You must separate out things that are pleasant from things that are unpleasant” and deems the true citizens of Pleasantville as those who are in black and white.Those who are the same and the majority (black and white) are good, those who are different and the minority (the colored) are seen as bad. (There are no African-Americans in Pleasantville because, since it was a 1950s show, they would not be depicted in suburbia) The tensions between the blacks and whites vs. the coloreds are quite obviously shown in this scene.
Pleasantville also takes on the censorship of art. Art and books allow you to be opened up to a world outside of your own, perhaps outside of the societal norms that you’ve been put in. And once the world opens up to you, you start questioning things. This is a no-no for Pleasantville. What’s here and what we know is good. What’s outside the world, what is unknown, we should fear and not be exposed to.
The blank pages of books start filling in, and soon the teenagers start filling the library excitedly reading. Jennifer starts falling in love with reading and her studies. But the film is not chastising her for being a previously ‘promiscuous’ character, and quelling that promiscuity is good. It shows that sexual freedoms and freedom of the mind are equally important.
The townsfolk are able to tolerate, but still question the sexual liberation of the young people. But they seem more disturbed that women are actually hanging out at the library. Women with brains are far more alarming.
(There’s a beautiful scene where David tells them the story of Huck Finn and the pages fill in as he tells them. The teens are enamored with the story and thrilled to be able to read it.)
The owner of the soda shop, who has a love of painting, (and one of very few adults to transform to color and become liberated) is now able to see the beautiful artworks from history. This inspires him to paint a nude painting of Betty Parker on the walls.
This outrages the black and whites of town. Nudity to them, of course, is awful and disgusting and should not be seen, even in a painting. They vandalize and destroy the beautiful soda shop, breaking the glass painting. They burn the books. Haven’t we seen this before? The beauty of art when it is different or challenging, or “outside of our values” is something to be feared, smothered, put away. Censorship of art is still prevalent in our society.
As more and more of the teenagers turn color, Jennifer becomes frustrated that she is still in black and white.
Jennifer: I’ve had, like, ten times as much sex as the rest of these girls, and I still look like this. I mean, they spend, like, an hour in the back seat of some car and all of a sudden they’re in Technicolor?
David: I don’t know. Maybe it’s not just the sex.
The color does not just represent sexual freedom, but freedom of the self. Black and white to color represents the transformation from repression to enlightenment. The people, and their surroundings, change to color when they connect with the essence of who they really are. This is perfectly exemplified in the ending scene, as well as a perfect representation of the stubbornness of some American people with conservative values to change.
When filled with a sense of complete self, or a burst of pure unrepressed emotion, the color is released from within. The color is the change, finding one’s personality that doesn’t conform into social norms. See how David gets to turn his father and the mayor into color in the scene below.
Pleasantville is quite an underrated film. The beauty of it’s message is important. The people of Pleasantville turned to color when something stirred within them. Freedoms of art, music, sex, or freedoms from gender or societal roles allow us to be our true selves and what makes the beauty and differences of the world. When we hold in our true selves out of fear, ugliness does rear its head. Fearing differences or change does not allow us to connect with our fellow human or with the world. This is a film with a definite message, that stands for something that not all may agree with. But we shouldn’t be like the citizens of Pleasantville, for this is not a black-and-white world.