20 Years of PLEASANTVILLE: Privilege, Prejudice & The Pursuit Of Perfection
Pleasantville is still relevant 20 years later: In a time where the American Dream is being redefined, Pleasantville tries to tell us that among the chaos and imperfection of this world, you can still find happiness.
One of the most original and thought-provoking films of all time, Pleasantville has withstood the test of time for its clever use of color to tell its story. Due to its bold visuals, it is a film that has been ingrained in my mind since childhood. On its 20th anniversary, I decided to take another look at Pleasantville and see it for what it really is: An allegory about the American Dream, privilege, and revolution in America. However, is Pleasantville still relevant to America in 2018?
Ignorance is Bliss…Literally
Let me start the discussion with a question: Is there a television show or movie that you love to watch and get lost in? When you find your answer, think about this: How does it make you feel? Since the dawn of film, it has been used as a means of escapism for those looking for freedom from the reality of their everyday lives. It’s evident at the beginning of Pleasantville that David (Tobey McGuire) watches the show as a distraction from his mundane existence.
In Pleasantville, everyone is well…pleasant. Unlike the real world, there is no confrontation and everything is “perfect”. David and Jennifer’s (Reese Witherspoon) visit to Pleasantville proves to be predestined to change the town’s nonexistent history. The residents of Pleasantville live in ignorant bliss – completely unaware of how the world really is. Day after day, they stick to their roles, failing to see beyond them. It’s apparent that they can change at anytime, they just aren’t aware they can.
This is an unintentional commentary on privilege. There are people that exist in this world that can’t see beyond their circumstances. They live a happy existence, so they fail to see the injustice and suffering in the world. They don’t really deviate outside the norm because they are blinded by routine and comfort. The TV Repairman (Don Knotts) boasts more than once: “It’s a privilege to be here!”
As Jennifer interferes with the status quo, the residents of Pleasantville begin to question their surroundings – much to the disdain of the town’s leaders. As Jennifer and David try to educate everyone about what lies beyond Pleasantville, books begin to fill up, residents begin to act out, and colors start to appear.
Racism and Igniting Change
When the residents of Pleasantville rapidly change to color, panic ensues among the unchanged citizens. Satisfied with things as they are, the Chamber of Commerce aims to put a stop to the new attitudes rippling through town. Pleasantville’s universe is thrown out of the loop and order is disrupted. Big Bob (J.T. Walsh), the town’s mayor constantly places an emphasis on the “values that make Pleasantville great.” Now does that sound familiar to you at all?
Most of the older men in Pleasantville are used to the status quo and thrive from it. With the introduction of color, they see their dominance collapsing. In order to prevent an overtaking of the “Coloreds”, Big Bob establishes new laws meant to hinder personal expression and the pursuit of knowledge. At this point in the film, familiar imagery is plastered throughout town: “NO COLOREDS”. Riots also erupt on Pleasantville’s once peaceful streets.
While this film provides blatant references to the Jim Crow era, racism takes a backseat. Since people of color are completely absent, Pleasantville chooses to focus more on the spark that ignites change. At the conclusion of the film, everything still seems pretty “swell” and Jennifer decides to remain in 1958 to pursue an education. She knows she wouldn’t be able to get into college in the modern world. How awesome would it be to go back in time so life would be easier? Wait a minute…
Pleasantville focuses on the small acts of rebellion that lead to revolution. In today’s social justice driven-society, small acts of protest are often condemned if they don’t live up to someone’s standards of “speaking out”. Sometimes when you’re afraid or unsure, you have to start off small. You have to take baby steps in order to make a change. In order for change to occur, seeds must be planted in order to grow into something substantial.
Betty (Joan Allen) taking time for herself, Jennifer declining a date to read, and Bill (Jeff Daniels) deciding to take it upon himself to close his restaurant were all small acts that lead to a major shift. You can’t always do something big, but what’s important is that you do something. This film’s message is pretty universal, even if it is imperfect.
Pleasantville: A Perfect Life Doesn’t Exist
Life isn’t meant to be a series of episodes where everything peachy and problems are solved within the span of 30 minutes. Life’s a series of ups and downs. Life is a mix of good days, bad days, and just some OK days. With color introduced to Pleasantville, is also a new way of life where everything isn’t so black and white (Pun sort of intended).
A particular scene to notice is when Margaret (Marley Shelton) offers an apple to David. “Try it!” She urges as she extends her hand. In this scene, the couple remains in black and white while the apple is a bloody red. This is an extremely clever reference to Adam and Eve’s rebellion in the Garden of Eden. Eve offers Adam a bite of an apple from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil – and sin is introduced to the world. Prior to their consumption of the apple, Adam and Eve lived in a perfect world free of suffering – much like Pleasantville.
Upon his return to the real world, David has earned a lifetime of wisdom in the span of an evening. His mother has returned after a failed rendezvous. She pours her emotions to David, telling him how she thought she had all the “right” things and how her life isn’t supposed to be the way it is.
“It isn’t supposed to be anything.” David reassures her.
A “perfect” life doesn’t exist- at least, from what I’ve seen. There is no “right” anything. In a time where the American Dream is being redefined, Pleasantville tries to tell us that among the chaos and imperfection of this world, you can still find happiness. While its messages can be interpreted in many different ways, Pleasantville is still extremely relevant after 20 years. There’s so much to dissect, there’s so many layers to discuss. I don’t think that will end anytime soon.
Do you agree with Pleasantville‘s messages? How did you interpret the film? Discuss below!
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