Pleasantville: An Election Primer
Professor Paul Joseph, Nova Southeastern University Law Center (November 1998)
As another election cycle winds down, the only thing that is clear is that the "culture wars" which have plagued us of late continue. The Republican National Committee has launched a $10 million blitz aimed at convincing the American people that one persons stupid private sex tricks are not only our business but are a good litmus test for official competence (something that must come as a surprise to those who thought that John F. Kennedy was a pretty good President while Richard Nixon was not).
Inevitably, the rabid rights message becomes one of "return." That America should return to a nicer, safer, crime-free, "family values" past that never was, but which anyone from my generation can immediately recognize as idealized pre-feminist family life from television situation comedies set in the 1950's.
Now, just when we need it, writer-director Gary Ross reminds us that the 50's fantasy has a dark side. The peaceful, tranquil, orderly facade is maintained by rigidly suppressing dissent and difference in a stifling society where violence is never far from the surface.
The film Pleasantville is a fable and the basics of the plot are well enough known that it gives nothing away to say that two 90's teens, one a cynical overly sexual but ultimately vulnerable young woman and the other a sensitive but nerdy young man, are magically transported into the black and white world of a television situation comedy and that, as they begin to bring emotional depth to the one-dimensional townspeople, the affected ones start to burst forth in, as it would have been said in the early days of the medium, "living color."
The first half of the film is played lightly and with good humor. A scene where the repressed mother discovers masturbation, causing the tree outside her window to burst into spontaneous flames, is particularly effective.
But the movie soon takes a more serious turn. The old guard, who are, of course, still black and white, correctly perceive that a revolution is taking place as more of the townspeople explore new ideas and new ways of life.
"No coloreds" read the signs in the establishments businesses and the use of that term is an intentional reminder of the rigid racial segregation and oppression of the often idealized 1950's. Soon, the town fathers are demanding that "their" women get back to the kitchen while more hot-headed elements begin burning books.
The film even culminates in a trial set in a courtroom deeply reminiscent of that in the film To Kill a Mockingbird. Here too, the "coloreds" are relegated to the balcony and to the defendants table.
Pleasantville can be criticized for becoming too heavy-handed in its moralizing. Yet, for an electorate which never knew the 50's except through endless re-runs of Leave it to Beaver, Pleasantville is a necessary reminder that freedom, while unsettling, disconcerting, sometimes dangerous, and discomforting, is still better than the alternative.