Whitewashed History in Pleasantville

by tigermanifesto

Gary Ross’s 1998 Pleasantville has a singular narrative purpose: to reveal that American nostalgia for the stifling, idealized small town presented in 1950s television shows is a dangerous fantasy. It succeeds, and while doing so illustrates the way privilege insulates white men and leaves them bemused and dangerous when the people they stand on decide to shed their burdens. The basic visual scheme of the film is this: within the television show world, those who become full human beings turn colour while those who remain in Plato’s prime time cave stay pasty black and white. Manly hangouts like the bowling alley and barbershop stay plunged in grey scale while transgressive art shines with reds, blues, and dozens of other colours that threaten the basic “pleasantness” of the town.

Violence is repressed from the screen in old comedies, of which Pleasantville, the show within the film, is a direct parody. What the film shows, however, is that the black and white seams cannot hold back that violence once the privileged order is challenged. A crucial scene in the film occurs more than halfway through. Joan Allen’s character, Betty Parker, confronts a group of attempted rapists, all of whom remain in black and white. The film notes that this violence is inherent in the world itself, and was not introduced with the “colours” of real life. Our recovering nostalgic of a protagonist, played by Tobey Maguire, does not realize this until he has to defend Betty from this gang with force. “People change” is the film’s manifesto, but the virtue of the film is in showing–if not exactly recognizing–that changes come at a profound cost. Reactionaries change as well as revolutionaries, but they tend to only retreat inwards, expressing more and more violence towards the forces threatening their hold on power.

At the centre of the film, however, is a vast emptiness it cannot contemplate. Because it chooses to wage its battle against reactionary nostalgia within the imagined world of a television series instead of history as it was, it accepts, to an extent, the rules those old shows played by. This means that racial, sexual, and gender differences vanish; the characters are apparently entirely white, straight, and cis. Black culture, in particular, hovers around the edges of the narrative, emanating as rock and roll from jukeboxes or taking the form of Miles Davis music in the soundtrack. In its naivety, the film sets up a division between black-and-whites and “coloreds,” including actual segregated courtrooms and businesses. This brings the lack of actual black, Latin@, Asian, or Native American representation in the film to a painful obviousness. Despite the air of sexual awakening that permeates the town during its transformation into colour, LGBT people make no obvious appearance when awoken from their broadcast prison. Last but not least, class is utterly repressed, and the fantasy economics of a 1950s suburban television show remain in place, excluding homelessness, destitution, debt, and all other forms of class struggle or exploitation. Pleasantville is the 1990s bourgeois narrative of sexual and intellectual liberalization brought to the screen. Having vanquished its enemies Repression and Censorship, it leaves the town in an apparently Edenic state, a little white capitalist utopia as pure as it was before the time travelers started mucking with everything.

It can still be appreciated as an anti-nostalgic gesture from Hollywood, which of course has gone on merrily strip-mining people’s sentimentality from here to China. All the same, its version of “debunking” official narratives of history has to be considered critically and from the vantage point of the oppressed to see its limitations.

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