While so many Americans are constantly complaining of all the ways the world has worsened in the past fifty years, Gary Ross’ Pleasantville argues that life as a whole has actually improved.
The movie makes this argument by repeatedly allowing Pleasantville citizens to become colorized after they become more like David and Jennifer. Since (1) becoming colorized is symbolic of progress and (2) David and Jennifer are symbolic of the modern age, it follows that (3) a character who becomes both colorized and like David and Jennifer is symbolic of the progress of the modern age. Let’s look at four ways in which the movie uses this symbolism to argue that society has progressed.
(1) The movie claims that Americans have become more in touch with their emotions. Early in the film, the townspeople’s actions are determined by their socially defined roles, not by their emotions. Such behavior sharply contrasts with David and Jennifer, who act as they feel, even when doing so is “improper.” For instance, they passionately fight over control of the remote control early in the film; also, Jennifer aggressively seduces Skip during their first outing to Lover’s Lane. As the townspeople become in touch with their feelings, they begin to gain color. The most notable example of this is the mild-manner, all-too-pleasant mayor, who becomes colorized right after his angry outburst at David in the courtroom.
(2) The movie claims that Americans have become more aware and accepting of other cultures. When David and Jennifer first arrive in Pleasantville, the town’s citizens are not aware that anything exists outside of Pleasantville. But once they begin learning that there is life beyond Main Street, new colors begin appearing. For example, books become colorized once David and Jennifer begin to impart their contents. Additionally, images of Egypt and Paris appear on one of the TVs in television shop once the entire town is colorized.
(3) The movie claims that Americans have become less sexist. Both David and Jennifer embrace the equality of women—as is evidenced when they encourage Betty in her newfound identity. Once the townspeople come around to this way of thinking, they start to gain color. For example, George gains color when he acknowledges in the courtroom that he likes the new, more assertive, more independent Betty.
(4) The movie claims that Americans have become more connected with their sexuality. Jennifer is clearly in touch with her sexuality. She, for example, teaches the birds and the bees to Betty; moreover, numerous references are made to her fairly active sex life. After she introduces sex into Pleasantville and a number of teenagers lose their virginity at Lover’s Lane, they start to gain color. Additionally, Betty becomes colorized shortly after she takes a bath and experiences her first orgasm.
Although optimistic, the movie isn’t naïve about our modern age. With all of its progress, it concedes that society today faces a number of problems not even imagined fifty years ago. For example, early in the film, some teachers at David and Jennifer’s school remind their students that they have inherited a world plagued with economic instability, a growing AIDS epidemic, and a number of worsening ecological problems.
When David’s date asks him what life is like outside of Pleasantville, he tells her, “It’s louder. And scarier, I guess. And it’s a lot more dangerous.” Much to the surprise of many of our modern pessimists, her response is: “It sounds fantastic.” Although life today is louder, scarier, and more dangerous than it was in the Fifties, Pleasantville argues that the twenty-first century is fantastic, offering freedom and knowledge and hope not dreamed of before.