Published October 1, 1998
It cannot have escaped the notice of my readers that a favorite trope of liberals and other lefties — who more often call themselves “progressives” these days — is that all conservatism is just reflexive resistance to change, and that conservative political proposals are ipso facto designed with the more or less deliberate aim in view of bringing back the manners and mores of the 1950s — which is their own chosen paradigm of the decade which resisted change. In this version of history, the various “liberations” waiting in the wings for the relaxation of the 1960s were inevitable and beneficial and permanent changes that were part of an unstoppable progressive tide which those uptight, anti-communist, martini-drinking, patriarchal, Ike-liking 1950s nevertheless foolishly tried to stop. Conservatives of the 1990s are fighting the same hopeless rear-guard action and so can be dismissed as mere anachronisms.
I trust I do not need to demonstrate to faithful readers the falsity — indeed, the idiocy — of this political point of view. But too many conservatives remain unaware of the whole-hearted eagerness with which Hollywood and the entertainment industry have rushed to act as its propagandists. A particularly clear example of such propaganda is on display in Pleasantville, written and directed by Gary Ross and starring Tobey Maguire as David, a geeky, awkward, unsocial teenager, the product of a broken home, who spends all his time watching re-runs on the “TV Time Network” of a 1950s sitcom called “Pleasantville.” This black-and-white show looks like a cross between “Ozzie and Harriet” and “Father Knows Best” and stars William H. Macy as “George” and Joan Allen as his submissive wife “Betty.”
But “Bud” and “Mary Sue,” their two perfect sitcom children, are soon replaced by David himself and his slutty sister, Jen (Reese Witherspoon), who are both horrified, though for quite different reasons, to find themselves transported to 1958 and the self-contained, monochromatic world of Pleasantville, unable to escape.”We’re, like, stuck in Nerdville,” says Jen, furiously to her brother. “I knew you couldn’t be so hopelessly geeky for so long without serious consequences.” Yet it is in its own way a perfect world. In the lavatory there are no toilets because no one in this artificial world ever has to answer the call of nature. The weather forecast is the same every day: Sunny with a high of 72 and a low of 72. The basketball team always wins. No one knows anything about sex beyond the wholesome desire of teenage boys and girls to hold hands.
In geography class they only study the geography of Pleasantville. When Jen/Mary Sue asks the teacher what’s outside Pleasantville, neither she nor anyone in the class can even understand the question. The two of them are forced to rely on David/Bud’s knowledge of the place from watching TV, but he solemnly warns his sister that “If we don’t play along, we can alter their whole universe.” The prospect holds no terrors for Jen/Mary Sue and, finding that the dishy captain of the basketball team is attracted to her, she hauls him off to Pleasantville’s “Lovers’ Lane” and introduces him to real sex. All of a sudden things start to change. “You’re messing with their whole goddamned universe,” agonizes David/Bud.
“Maybe it needs to be messed with,” she replies.
And so thinks Mr. Ross too. In fact, he frames his progressive parable at one point explicitly in terms of a reverse Fall of Man. When David/Bud, too, finds a willing sexual partner and so triumphs over his nerdiness, the girl presents him by way of a love-offering with the only spot of color in Pleasantville’s sea of grey, a red, red apple. Soon everything is beginning to change from black and white to color as a determined band of right-wing crazies, led by the late J.T. Walsh, decrees that color should be banned, that the schools should “teach the non changeist version of history” and that no music should be played except for Johnny Mathis, Perry Como, Jack Jones, the marches of John Philip Sousa and the Star Spangled Banner. The sexually liberated people, now in color, are shunned by other Pleasantvillites who put up signs saying “No Colored Allowed.” They also insist that women stay home and keep house while their husbands go out to work.
You get the idea. All the mythologies of the new American left about patriarchy and racism and sexual repression are here pulled together to reinforce the familiar and by now highly dubious hippie ethic that all you need is love. Conversely, say no to a sexual impulse and the next thing you know you’re burning books, as Walsh’s thugs naturally proceed to do for no obvious reason apart from the fact that they haven’t had books in Pleasantville before. This claim by the left on literacy, by the way, is perhaps the most curious aspect to the film’s childish version of a discredited theology. Jen/Mary Sue, having been a slut already before arriving in Pleasantville, cannot discover her true self through sex like everyone else but instead discovers it through reading—albeit reading Lady Chatterly’s Lover. But why should we suppose that before the arrival of these youthful prophets of sex the Pleasantvillians had no books, or no writing in the books, and no art? The visitors from the 1990s have to inform the 1950s kids about Huckleberry Finn and Catcher in the Rye and Rembrandt and Titian? Huh?
Would you ever have guessed, without Hollywood to tell you so, that doing what you feel like makes you smarter as well as happier and more authentic?