How Pleasantville was almost a gorgeous ode to female autonomy

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Oct 23, 2018, 1:01 PM EDT

The movie Pleasantville was released 20 years ago. Despite its utterly stunning visuals and superb cast, with two young leads on the brink of superstardom, the Gary Ross-helmed film was a box office bomb and, while it has amassed passionate admirers over the years, it remains largely undiscussed and almost obscure relative to other films of the time. 

While cinematically gorgeous, its pops of color against black and white both visually and narratively outstanding, the film is flawed. Any film that attempts to make a statement about racism through an entirely white cast, despite its best intentions, is questionable at best. This one packs its message in a real wallop designed for white America by white America, and it is as subtle as it is pretty. 

Modern (well, in 1998) teens Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) and David (Tobey Maguire) get zapped into David's favorite TV show, Pleasantville, one of those saccharine '50s sitcoms where everyone is white, married couples sleep in twin beds, and everything is that nostalgic non-existent American mid-century ideal of "perfect," meaning women merrily took care of the house, men went to work, sex didn't exist, ignorance was bliss and there were no social issues for anyone to complain about—or anyone to complain about them, because everyone was immensely Caucasian and all of the same social status. 

At its core, the film is a send-up of that idea, mocking a thing that never really existed outside of these antennaed boxes and the very introduction of sex, art and books tears it apart. That is where the film thrives, in its first half before it becomes an overwrought racism story—metaphor is too kind a word. Pleasantville takes its message and pummels you with it. THIS IS WHAT IT IS LIKE TO BE A PERSON OF COLOR, NOTICE HOW WE ARE LITERALLY USING THE PHRASE "COLORED." I cannot overstate how deeply white and problematic this is, the idea that we understand and are suited to deliver this message without a single person of color in the entire film

Where Pleasantville succeeds, then, appears to be almost accidental because it's so subtle by comparison. 

The characters in the film, starting with its teenagers, go from black and white to color through some manner of self-discovery. Initially, it's through sex, a literal sexual awakening changing the colors of their world. Nowhere is that clearer than with Joan Allen's character, Betty Parker. Betty is curious about a life beyond her own, one of exorbitant breakfasts and perfectly timed dinners. When she hears about Lover's Lane, she asks her daughter "Mary Sue" (Witherspoon's Jennifer) about its goings-on, wondering why people are developing these strange new colors. Jennifer, who is, as the film makes very clear, the classic late '90s teen movie "slut" (meaning she is comfortable with her sexuality while the film both celebrates and denigrates that), tells her about sex and masturbation. Betty takes a bath with her new knowledge and, well...


Other characters make their self-discoveries in other ways, but ones that specifically undermine its female characters. Jeff Daniels' soda jerk Bill Johnson finds his color in art (but mostly through a presumed off-screen dalliance with Betty). Maguire's Bud/David finds his defending Betty from a group of teen boys sexually harassing her, her experience wholly in service of his plot and betterment. Jennifer/Mary Sue finds hers by reading a book and eschewing her more typical sexual nature, and it's hard to tell if the film means this in a slut-shamey way or not. A charitable view of the film might be that she is prioritizing her own needs, sexually and otherwise (she is reading Lady Chatterley's Lover) over the social demands she's put upon herself, whether she enjoys them or not. 

A less charitable view would remind us that this film literally has a moment where Marley Shelton's Margaret offers Bud/David a red apple and tells him to eat it, a moment that is then replayed by Don Knotts's mysterious repairman to remind us how not OK that is.

But then there are moments like the one between Betty and William H. Macy's George, where he, in a desperate effort to gain back the normalcy of his white-male existence in a time changing in ways he's never had to anticipate, demands Betty adhere to her role, that if she does so, her newfound color will go away.

And she says to him, simply, “I don’t want it to go away.” To his demands, she just says "no." No explanations are given. None are required. She just goes. 

The latter third of the film, while still hammering the racism metaphor hard enough to shake the earth, also focuses heavily upon the idea that female bodies give way to outrage and violence, attacking that idea but only kind of — mostly, it's presenting it as a matter-of-fact aspect of society. And it is Bud/David who stands up against that and saves the day. He gets to go home (Jennifer/Mary Sue chooses to stay for...reasons?) and rescue his wayward mother who has been seeking happiness in men and attempts to reclaim her youth. He even wipes off her smeared make-up. It's standard "my hero" stuff we deservedly roll our eyes at. 

There are plenty of Margarets in this movie, female characters whose only purpose is to further the development of a male character. But in a few precious moments, the movie's story matches its visuals, and it gets it. We are not required to provide explanations or reasons, let alone apologies, for finding beauty and color in the world, nor are the men in our lives entitled to that. That is where Pleasantville thrives, when it allows its women to do the same.

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