This 1998 feature film, directed by Gary Ross portrays two squabbling siblings are transported into a 1950s black and white sitcom called Pleasantville, where their modernized persona’s liven up the place in a colorful way.
David, played by Toby Maguire is an introverted, rule following teen who is obsessed with the sitcom. Jennifer, played by Reece Witherspoon is a popular kid, who worries mostly about how to get more popular and dating the coolest guy at school. One evening, when the two are fighting over the TV remote, a quirky TV repair man happens to come knocking when the two manage to break the remote entirely. The repair man replaces the remote with a time transporting sci-fi one, which sucks the two siblings out of their living room right into the television screen and into the vintage world of Pleasantville.
The more the characters learn of another world outside of Pleasantville, and alternate values, the more colour is visible, in flowers, cars and the people themselves.
I related to the character, Bud the most, which is rare as I typically relate to a female character. His level of nostalgia stems from his unsettled reality. He doesn’t have a father figure in his life, he doesn’t get along with his sister at all, he doesn’t have many friends and no love interests. His only comfort is his dedication to the the TV show. Jennifer – being popular ‘n all means she’s not that likeable, by default. She’s constantly trying to climb up the cool ladder and has no interest in education or knowledge.
This film tackles many issues, some more openly than others. The two decades that are explored, literally side-by-side are uniquely interesting. The ’90s saw the third wave of feminism emerging from the punk rock feminist music of the Riot GRR: Revolution. People who were born in the ’60s, ’70s had a broader understanding of society, technology and the economy. Whereas the ’50s housewife was a thing…
David and Jennifer assume the roles of the sitcom’s leading sibling; Bud and Mary-Sue. If were up to David, the two would conform to the pre-determined plot that he knows oh so well, but alas Jennifer got transported into the world too with her awakened ’90s feminism.
Later in the film, David talks to George, played by William H. Macy, who is distraught over the colorful turn of his wife, Betty. When David explains that people change, George asks if they can change back and David responds, ‘yes, but I think it’s harder’. I think this perfectly sums up Jennifer’s situation. She’s experienced life in the ’90s as a woman, she’s not going to be jumping for joy to go back to oppression.
Jennifer is the initial driving force behind the awakening of the peaceful town. She introduced sex on a first date and teaches her ‘tv’ mother – Betty about masturbation. This slowly spread and the sexual revolution 10 years before it does in reality. A character I find very interesting is Betty, played by Joan Allen, who’s performance is heartbreakingly accurate. A caged bird, who, upon learning about the possibilities of life, wants more. The sitcom is an idealized version of a 1950’s American reality, but not far off, when it comes to marriage. Couple would marry based on practicality, rather than love.
Sooner or later, the more girls experience carnal desires, the more colour they see in the world. It can be related to the idea of the Scarlet Letter, so brilliantly explored in the film Easy A, 2011 where the main character brands herself with a Scarlett A to show she’s not ashamed of being sexually active. The film comically captures the role of women and the make expectations that existed in the era. The sitcom portrays the groundhog day aspect of women’s lives, which reveled around cleaning, cooking, ensuring the dinner was on the table in time for her husband’s arrival home from work. When Betty breaks, George returns to an empty house and *gasp*, shock horror – no dinner.
1950s David/Bud is quite a hit with the girls and even has a girlfriend who he gifts a red umbrella when she sheds her monochrome aesthetic, when two popular guys drive past and mock him for having a ‘coloured’ girlfriend. At this point, the ‘colour’ aspect can be interpreted as symbolic of the racial inequality of the era and the horrific segregation that occurred. There is a scene is a court case which places the rainbow people at the top tier and the grayscale people below. I’m not sure if the intention was to showcase segregation or any racial aspects, or if the direction was more a direct comment on the social evolution between era’s.
If the director wanted to address race, it could be symbolic of people embracing to educate themselves and come together as community, they will embrace the different cultures and races in the world. The film portrays the ‘rainbow’ people as more evolved, progressive, joyful and friendly and the people stuck in grayscale as old fashioned, unreasonable and mean.
There is an online discussion that I came across in March this year through the vintage content creator, Rachel Maksy, who made a wonderful, enlightening video about the misconceptions on people who have a nostalgia for vintage fashion, ideals, lifestyles and how people assume these ‘fans’ believe they were born in the wrong era. Maksy attempts to dismantle this thought by calling for a more progressive view on the matter.
The video brilliantly highlights the way in which lovers of vintage fashion, music, aesthetic, entertainment can make a living through creating content online. The vintage community detail how many of them would not have the same opportunities and rights if they were to live in another time, due to the primitive, under-developed and archaic views racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia.
The tagline of this discussion, that adorns many an Instagram bio is:
‘Vintage Fashion, not Vintage Values’.
I kept this mind during my viewing of the film, how my nostalgic view on past era’s is not rooted in anything other than the aesthetic, music and film. I consider myself to be progressive and liberal so the ideals of the 50s would not suit me very well at all. But at the same time, David’s emotive response to his reality resonates with me, as when you experience unsettling home life, you often crave an idealistic and unrealistic world where family’s remain nuclear and there is no global warming.
The film captures, if not hyperbolically, the sentiment in the 1990’s where society was beginning to really recognize climate grief, but did not put it to any action.
There are a lot of topics addressed in this film, through metaphor and symbolism that I will leave for you to experience the magic for yourself, but as a resounding statement, I would say to remember next time you find yourself fantasizing about living in a bygone era, to remember that it’s bygone for a reason. Human nature is to adapt and evolve.