In the 1950’s there was tremendous pressure on Americans to conform to certain values and moral standards. The Second World War and the Great Depression left a whole nation shell-shocked; the meaning of ‘ordinary’ was unclear, but people yearned to find it out. During the height of the Cold War, any one who did not subscribe to these “American values” was often accused of being a communist. In his essay, “The Ideology of the Liberal Consensus”, Godfrey Hodgson argues that this common beliefs and values that Americans held in the 1950’s were in fact a “liberal consensus” that described America as a perfect society that worked and did not suffer from any major conflicts or problems.

Young children, teenagers, and adults were bombarded with cultural and social messages reinforcing these views. They were told that America was free and good and the Soviet communists were evil. Many young Americans even came to believe that if there were problems lurking in American society they must be the result of communist infiltration. One minister, Jack I mpe, even charged that Rock-n-Roll music was part of a communist conspiracy to undermine the values of America’s youth. Many Americans in the 1950’s unquestionably and naively believed in their government, their society, and their culture. Pleasantville, written, produced, and directed by Gary Ross, explores the moral values of democracy.

The government of Pleasantville will do anything to avoid change, even going so far as burning books, banning music, and limiting artistic expression in an attempt to keep things “as pleasant as possible”. It is this attitude that hinders the townspeople’s potential to break free from the repressive confines of their society. The rigid controls that religious and political authority figures try to put on them run contrary to the meaning of democracy. The story begins with an awkward, dorky, modern-day teenager named David. David is the epitome of the anti-social geek of the nineties, who escapes the reality of his broken home by compulsively watching reruns of his favorite 1950’s sitcom, “Pleasantville”. The show stars William Macy as “George” and Joan Allen as his submissive wife “Betty.”Bud” and “Mary Sue”, the couple’s two perfect sitcom children are soon replaced by David and his ultra-popular twin sister Jennifer.

They are magically transported back in time to 1958 to the self-contained, monochromatic world of Pleasantville, which they are unable to escape. On the surface, Pleasantville is a friendly community where life is perfect. It is a town where no one uses the bathroom, the high school basketball team never misses a basket, and everyone is a perpetual virgin. Yet, when we look closer we realize that the tranquility of Pleasantville is purchased at a terrible price. Life is “pleasant” because the residents do not think or grow. The residents of Pleasantville are locked into a stifling routine in which homogeneity is encouraged and diversity, suppressed.

Freedom, in this film, has the power to literally change the way that the world looks to the people of Pleasantville, illustrated in scenes where portions of the restrictive black-and-white world are transformed suddenly, and almost magically into color. It is this freedom that David and Jennifer bring with them to Pleasantville. Mary Sue, (Jennifer), acts as the catalyst for in the film, deciding to make some changes, though Bud warns her against “messing with these people’s universe.”Maybe it needs messed with”, she retorts. Mary Sue then proceeds to introduce the teenagers of Pleasantville, and even her TV mother, to the world of sex. The first sign of change, rebellion, or growth results in not only a burst of color to the usually gray coloring of Pleasantville but also in a violent and legal response by the town’s government attempting to maintain the conformity that Pleasantville so obviously represents. Real change begins when personal honesty is brought forth.

Bud changes when he realizes that there are things worth fighting for, withdrawing is not the only response to challenge. George changes when he discovers his true love for his wife, Betty. Mary Sue seems stuck in the world of the black and white indefinitely, until she finally discovers that she is not simply a ‘slut’, but rather an intellectual who loves to read and learn, as she exclaimed to her brother in a bought of self-realization, “I did the slut thing, David”, she says, “it got kinda old”. Even the mayor shows his true colors once he admits that he is truly angry at what has been happening to his formerly routine and pleasant life. Pleasantville is repressive in a number of different ways which mirror elements of the historical 1950’s. Pleasantville is a racist town, illustrated by the government’s attempt to segregate the “coloreds” from the “non-coloreds”.

The “colored” people are seen as poisonous to society, filling the true citizens of Pleasantville with thoughts of freedom and liberation. The “no coloreds” sign up in the store window is reminiscent of the segregation of blacks and whites in the 1950’s. Pleasantville is sexist. The governmental structure is completely male, women are reduced to playing the role of the helpless housewife, whose most daunting task is having a hot supper on the table by the time her husband returns from work. The relationship between Betty and George Parker is a perfect example of a stereotypical fifties marriage. Betty is trapped in a loveless marriage to George, as she realizes she is actually in love with the soda-shop boss, Mr. Johnson.

Divorce was virtually non-existent in the 1950’s, and even if both parties acknowledged this loveless ness, it was almost certain that nothing would be done about it. As Pleasantville begins its rapid transformation into a modern society, the men of the town react negatively to their wives new roles in society. This is reflective of the post World War II encouragement of women to take a more active role in the work force. Pleasantville is both intellectually and sexually repressive. Freedom of thought is unheard of in Pleasantville. The books have no words, something that was never questioned until Jennifer points it out to her classmates. there is no sex in Pleasantville and even married couples sleep in separate single beds.

As Pleasantville begins its metamorphosis, the pages begin to fill with words, questions begin to be asked, and new forms of expression (such as Bill’s new-found love of painting, and Betty’s revelation of self-gratification) are discovered. The revelation of sex in Pleasantville is one of the most productive, enabling many Pleasantvillites to change over to the “colored” side. The historical 1950’s were equally as repressive as the cold war fueled McCarthyism’s witch hunts which entailed the black listing of alleged Hollywood Communists. In discussing his intentions for the film, Gary Ross has said that his objective was to satirize the “bridge to the past” that politicians like Bob Dole have attempted to convince us of recently.

He attempted to accurately depict the “mythic utopia” that we have made of the fifties, and show the underside of “this America that nobody really ever had”. Ross hoped to argue convincingly that longing for a “kinder, gentler time” would not help improve the current social problems. He argued, “all you can do, is to tear down your own cynicism and engage your own world”. Hodgson, Godfrey.

“The Ideology of the Liberal Consensus”. A History of Our Time: Readings on Postwar America. Third Edition. Ed. William H. Chafe and Harvard Sitkoff. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.

Maio, Kathi. “The Way it Never Was”. Fantasy & Science Fiction, 10958258, Mar. 99, Vol. 96, Issue 3. Starrett, Christopher. “Suburban Nightmares And Pathological Parodies”. USA Today Magazine, 01617389, Jan. 99, Vol. 127, Issue 2644.

Database: Academic Search Elite.

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