Fear as Desire: Pleasantville Film Analysis
Pleasantville is a 1998 film directed by Gary Ross about siblings from the 1990’s that cross into a 1950’s sitcom and take on the roles of the main characters. The society in Pleasantville represents the ideal 1950’s community of white picket fences, atomic families, and traditional roles. When Jennifer and David take on their new roles in Pleasantville they quickly evoke changes across town. Jennifer introduces the naïve teens of Pleasantville to sex and being “cool.” As the townspeople indulge in pleasurable activities, their black & white complexions transform into color. In the beginning, David condemned Jennifer for “messing with their whole goddamn universe.” David later helps the townspeople escape their standardized lifestyles by discovering their passions. As he becomes more invested with the townspeople, specifically the teenagers, he gradually shifts into the monster seen by the black & white townspeople. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s essay, “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” examines how monsters reflect cultural fears. In Cohen’s sixth thesis “Fear of the Monster is Really a Kind of Desire,” he asserts that the monster is viewed as an alter ego (Cohen 79). People are secretly jealous of the monster’s ability to act against standard social customs. Cohen’s idea is reflected in Pleasantville by the traditionalists’ fears of David’s ability to change their old-fashioned values. Even though the traditional townspeople hold this fear of change, they secretly envy the colored part of society for their vivid experiences of emotion and knowledge.
The night after the fire David walks into the soda shop to a crowd of his peers waiting to ask him how he knew the way to stop the fire. David says, “well, where I used to live that’s just what firemen did.” When David reveals that he’s from outside of Pleasantville he creates another “cultural mode of seeing” (Cohen 81). This means that David has implanted the idea that there is somewhere else, another place that functions differently. This displays the importance of viewing things multidimensionally as described in the 2015 graphic novel by Nick Sousanis, Unflattening. The teenagers are able to use this different perspective to unflatten their conventional thinking (Sousanis). Then the group asks “What’s outside of Pleasantville?” The group’s request for more information about the outside world exposes their desire to learn and expand their knowledge. David tries to avoid the question saying, “it doesn’t matter. It’s not important.” He does this out of his own fear of corrupting their “pleasant” society. After being pressed further, David explains that “there are some places where the road doesn’t go in a circle. There are some places where the road keeps going… It all keeps going. Roads and rivers and…” David is cut off by a peer’s question, “like the mighty Mississippi?” The boy’s interruption with a connection he formed between the unending river David spoke of and the book he was reading displays critical thinking skills. The traditional townspeople do not question anything; they usually accept everything as a fact. The boy’s inquisitiveness exhibits a shift in thought between the black & white and colored townspeople. The boy hands the book to David, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, as David turns through its pages he notices that the majority of them are no longer blank. Jennifer explains that the pages filled in as she shared the parts of the book she remembered. The books were blank, because the desire to read and the desire for knowledge was nonexistent. When asked to describe the ending of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, David says, “they were going up the river trying to get free and in trying to get free, they see that they’re sort of free already.” The description of the end of the book relates to the town’s struggle for freedom. The townspeople are unaware that they have led the same standardized lifestyles. They conform to the mayor’s idea of how people should act “pleasant.” The camera pans to the book just as the blank page begins to fill with text. The scene ends with another teen handing David another book to tell them about. As David and Jennifer continuously broke through categories, they began to normalize pleasurable practices like sex, reading, music and dancing among the open-minded individuals of Pleasantville. Their efforts to impose a new way of life for Pleasantville’s society is later challenged by the mayor.
Bill and David were put on trial for using a variety of prohibited paint colors and violating “laws of common decency.” They painted a mural on the side of the police station that represents the riots and destruction from the social uproar between the black & white and colored people. Pleasantville’s division into colored and non-colored people mirrors the segregation that was prevalent throughout the United States in the 1920’s. The mural’s depiction of burning books, teenage sex and the town hall sinking into the ground was accessible to everyone in town. The mayor was unhappy with the entire town being exposed to the mural because it portrayed forbidden practices that destroyed “pleasant” societal concepts. David goes against the town standard of accepting the mayor’s directions without protest. David questions the mayor frequently throughout the trial. When David asks, “Where’s our lawyer?” he pushes against the social pressure to obey the mayor and admit guilt to the supposed crimes. This act of defiance demonstrates his disruption of social order. During the course of the trial, there is a shift in the audience’s energy and their skin begins to take on color. When David transforms George into color after exposing his longing and love for Betty, members of the audience begin to change colors as well. The transformation into color is accomplished by the townspeople uncovering and acknowledging their hidden desires. Cohen states that loathing a monster turns into desire, society’s fear of David turns into a yearning for the vibrant emotions that the people of color experience (Cohen 79). David smashes distinctions between the segregated crowds by evoking individuals to change. He encourages their change by helping them discover things deep within themselves that they were unaware of and never thought to explore. The town is reunited at the end of the scene when everyone changes into color and realizes that they are more similar than different.
Harboring a fear of change is natural, but in order to gain what one desires they must accept change. Pleasantville is representative of a society that is stuck in a cycle of standardization. David and Jennifer evoked change in their society in order to break the cycle of standardization and improve the townspeople’s quality of life. The people of Pleasantville desired the freedom to expand their knowledge and experience life vividly. The heavy undertones of racism in Pleasantville and the rules set forth by the mayor which prevents the colored individuals from participating in their preferred hobbies. In our society, some groups of people aren’t given the opportunity to experience their desires. Many people believe that discrimination is a thing of the past, but it actively prevents groups of people from attaining their desires. People can be discriminated against based upon race, ethnicity, disability, or sexual orientation. When viewed by the dominant part of society, individuals that are discriminated against are seen as monsters for disrupting the dominant’s preset social categories. A change in the dominant part of society’s mind-set would be beneficial in order to facilitate equal opportunities for everyone.
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” Readings for Analytical Writing, Third Edition. Ed. Christine Farris, et al. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. 68–86. Print.
Pleasantville. Dir. Gary Ross. Perf. Tobey Maguire, Reese Witherspoon, William H. Macy. New Line Cinema, 1998. Film.
Sousanis, Nick. Unflattening. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.