A Monster of Change
Pleasantville is a movie about two teenagers from the 1990’s who get pulled into a TV show set in a 1950’s suburb called Pleasantville. As with all of those old sitcoms, it was a pure world: no color, no sex, no fire, nothing unpleasant. This black-and-white world represents the values of the time, including man vs. woman gender roles, and more broadly, normality vs. abnormality. When David (played by Tobey Maguire) and his sister Jennifer (played by Reese Witherspoon) get transported into this pleasant little town via a magic TV remote, they start to change things ever so slightly. These changes start adding color to this black-and-white world, eventually leading to disastrous consequences. In his paper titled “Monster Culture: Seven Theses,” Jeffrey Jerome Cohen describes how our cultures come up with monsters that, among other things, violate strict, binary categorizations that we are comfortable with. This violation can be seen all throughout Pleasantville, as a simple, black-and-white world is abruptly turned to color when people break out of their boxes. It starts with a single rose, a dark crimson red in the middle of a collage of grays, after Jennifer introduces sex to the innocent Skip Martin (played by the late Paul Walker). Eventually, color starts to creep into every other part of the town as the two introduce new, seemingly unpleasant actions and entirely new concepts. This abrupt change doesn’t sit very well with most of the people in the town, but most importantly the Mayor of Pleasantville, Big Bob (played by J.T. Walsh). He thrives on the conformity of Pleasantville and the façade of happiness that it provides, and he gets very angry when people start breaking out of their black-and-white lives. For this reason, let’s examine this film by looking at the change as a monster, bursting onto the scene and causing an uproar through the town, and Big Bob is the angriest among them as the bright colors destroy the binary black-and-white world that he loves so much and loosens his grip on the town.
There is an excellent example of Bob’s discontent with the creeping color in a scene where he is having a conversation with George (the fictional father played by William H. Macy). Bob is describing all of these different changes they are seeing in their town as if the Russians had invaded. He explains that it’s not just the fire that burst into existence earlier in the movie, “it’s the little things.” For example, Bill Miller’s wife wants him to get one of those new, big, beds. On top of that, some kid just quit his job at the market, saying simply “I don’t feel like it,” and walking out. The fire, the crazy talk of big beds (code for sex), and the boy quitting his job are all things that seem pretty damn normal to all of us, but they fly in the face of the social conservatism and sexual repression that characterize the era being portrayed. At this point, Bob is pretty irate, waving his fists around like a dictator, saying classic dictatorial things like “we need to stand up for what’s right,” implying that all these changes are purely wrong. But because these changes are so ubiquitous, they avoid easy categorization. Like Cohen says, “The monster is the harbinger of category crisis,” meaning that the monster generally is an amalgam of things that a culture is anxious about or afraid of, and it “refuses easy categorization” (70). The change that is sweeping through this pleasant little town is not only in the form of color, violating the strict black-and-white binary that their world knows, but it comes in as sex, art, literature and public disobedience. This conglomeration of big changes only adds to Bob’s anger at the monster. He sees all of this happening at once, not seemingly connected to anything else, other than the color. While Big Bob is easily the most upset at all of these changes, he is certainly not the only resident of Pleasantville that is freaking out.
There is a fantastic scene a bit later in the movie that really shows how colorful things and actions disrupt the social order of Pleasantville. The owner of the soda shop, Bill Johnson (played by Jeff Daniels) paints a beautiful portrait of Betty Parker (played by Joan Allen). This portrait just happens to be of her in the nude, and it is phenomenally colorful. The scene opens with an angry crowd gathered outside the window with the painting on it. Close up shots of several townsfolk show the extreme disgust and anger with the painting, but they also show some confusion. The mob is yelling incoherently as they wave their fists in the air, outraged. As soon as one young man pushes his way through the crown and angrily hurls a stone through the face of Betty on the window, the situation devolves quite rapidly. Following suit, another young man throws another stone. Then two more young chaps grab a street bench (still in black and white) and finish the job. When the bench goes through, the rest of the painting is destroyed, signifying the town’s attempt at stamping down the colorful revolution. By now, everyone is losing their minds with excitement and joy. They break in the door of the shop with a trash can and proceed to toss the place. They destroy all of the art that Bill had in his shop, all of the colorful supplies he had were thrown in the street and the situation has devolved into a full-scale riot. At one point there is a young lady, fully clad in bright pink, running away from a group of boys, her shirt half torn like she escaped a raping. It’s a powerful scene that shows how easily we can devolve to sub-human, mob following rioters, all it takes is one person to cast the first stone, as it were. Next comes the book burning part of the scene, which is an image that none of us should take lightly. To the mob, literature is just another form of the monster of change, adding to the idea that the monster “refuses easy categorization,” as Cohen describes (70). One of the most interesting parts of this scene is the fact that the fire isn’t in color this time, like it was when Betty had her personal time in the bathtub. This fire isn’t a part of the monster we are talking about, but a part of the more obvious one. Here, Skip is fighting with Jennifer over the lone book that she has read, the act that turned her to color. Coming into the scene, you hear Skip say, “It’s better this way,” the classic conforming, black-and-white mindset. Even after Jennifer took him out to Lover’s Lane and rocked his socks off, Skip simply can’t wrap his mind around the changes that are taking place in Pleasantville. The change, in this case Jennifer, eventually wrestles the book free and gives Skip a swift kick in the groin. Change will always prevail over conformity, the way the colorful Jennifer
In the end, the color monster achieves victory over the oppressor (Big Bob) and everything in Pleasantville is turned to vibrant color, including Bob. No matter how hard the people in power may try, they cannot defeat the monster that is change, widespread change. However, the monster must be introduced in the first place. If David and Jennifer never argued about the TV channel with a magic remote, the people of Pleasantville would never have known anything different. They would have kept living their sexless, colorless, fireless, boring lives without knowing that there are places where “the roads don’t stop, they just keep going,” as David explains to his pleasant peers. To Big Bob, this is all too perfect. He runs his town like a dictator, seemingly without the bloodshed that accompanies most dictators, but a totalitarian leader nonetheless. As soon as these damned kids come into his town, introducing sex, books and color, his grip on the town begins to loosen. Alas, as Cohen says in his sixth thesis: “Fear of the monster is really a kind of desire,” which can be seen in characters like George and Betty (79). At first they were scared of the change that was creeping into their town, but eventually they both came around and saw the beauty of the monster, just like the rest of the town. Change is a powerful monster, especially to those who hold power as a kind of weapon. The change in this movie is incredibly extreme, introducing wholly novel ideas to these people, and the shock they felt must have been immense. Consequently, Big Bob lost his mind in the face of the monster as it defied all of the wonderfully pleasant things in his world. These are important ideas for us to think about, especially in a time of such upheaval and social disorder around the world as fundamentalists of all sects violently resist change. It’s crucial to our future that we not resist the monster of change, for if we do we only fuel the devolution of our society, which would likely lead to change anyways, but leaving a trail of carnage behind it.