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Pleasantville is a fascinating movie that captures the differences in society during the current time era and the time era of the 1950s (Ross, 1998). When the main characters of the movie go back in time through a sitcom TV show they watch, one can see how the characters are expected to fit certain gender roles. The forcing of traditional gender roles can be seen throughout the movie, especially in scenes where the husband is astounded by not having dinner ready for him, where the female character gives life and color to the rest of the town’s girls by introducing them to sex implying that the town’s girls lived a colorless life although however moral, and where the whole community is disturbed by the undeniable changes in traditional gender roles throughout the movie. What’s most interesting about the movie is seeing the complete transformation the society of Pleasantville ultimately goes through, which can be seen in the way everyone changed from black and white to that of being full of color. In the beginning of the movie, women are always expected to be beautiful, stay-at-home wives that are capable of cooking, cleaning, and making their husband happy while being completely moral. However, towards the end, women are more independent and free where they’re able to appreciate the beauties of life such as art, sex, books, and music. Inevitably, there was a portion of the community that was disturbed by the changes taking place, as some men didn’t want to give up their dominant power role, and others saw women’s new-found independence as an invitation for foul play. This paper will provide a gender analysis for Pleasantville by examining the different gender roles within the movie, analyzing the relation of the gender roles within the movie to the current society, and delving into the reasons why much of the community was against the changes taking place in Pleasantville.
The movie begins with an introduction to Jennifer and David, who are brother and sister, attend the same school, and live in the 90’s when they are being introduced. This introduction to Jennifer’s and David’s life is given so when they transport to the 1950’s sitcom, one can see the substantial differences between their old lives and their new lives, and specifically, the differences in the gender roles they have to adopt. For instance, although David is any regular teenage schoolboy in his normal life, he is expected to work and earn an income as a cashier at a burger spot in his 1950’s life. As for Jennifer, although she is independent, outgoing, and deeply interested in boys in her normal life, she is expected to be conservative, gullible, and dependent in her 1950’s life. When Jennifer goes out with one of the town’s most popular, and arguably the most handsome, boys on a date to the café, she is disturbed by how he is expecting of her to be modest and thus not making any moves, since Jennifer is used to flirting with guys and hearing compliments from them. However, in the 1950’s era they transported to, women were expected to be modest, so it would be insensible for a guy to make any flirtatious moves towards them. Prior to heading off to Pleasantville, Jennifer is shown to be waiting for hot boyfriend, so they can watch movies together as a date, whereas David is shown to be just relaxing at home and watching movie. As they find out when they head to Pleasantville, such life luxuries weren’t existent in Pleasantville. Skip is shocked and excited by the idea of even holding hands with Jennifer, let alone stay alone together to watch a movie, and David is expected to contribute to the income of the house, and not lay around doing anything. Thus, from the very beginning, one can easily distinguish between the different gender roles in the two eras.
Life in Pleasantville was a disturbing one. There wasn’t a world outside of Pleasantville (as the geography maps of students within school implicated), couples didn’t have sex, and no one was even aware of the idea of sex (couples slept on separate single beds), and books were looked down upon as dangerous artifacts (believed to corrupt and infiltrate the younger populations’ mind). Pleasantville wasn’t only black-and-white in appearance, but also black-and-white in being. The people of Pleasantville weren’t truly alive, they didn’t enjoy a single pleasurable thing that life has to offer. In order to have modesty and harmony, the people of Pleasantville had given up their own happiness and livelihood. Moreover, as implicated by numerous scenes within the movie, the modesty established in Pleasantville consists of forcing men and women into traditional gender roles, which Jennifer and David were definitely not used to. Besides all the disturbing things that already occur in Pleasantville, it’s crucial to note that prior to David and Jennifer’s arrival to the town, there wasn’t even any fire or rain within it, almost implicating that David and Jennifer’s arrival brought on change which is “bad”.
Jennifer being the one who approached Skip to go to Lover’s Lane was shocking to Skip, as he hadn’t even pinned her yet, which could be translated to him haven’t even asking her to go out yet. However, Jennifer having sex with Skip also brought the first sign of color within Pleasantville, the color of red to a rose. “This sets off a chain of events in which the entire town begins to ‘liberate’ itself by giving into passion. The teens begin having sex at Lover’s Lane, Jennifer teaches her TV mother Joycelyn Elders’ favorite form of sexual satisfaction, which then leads the mother to an extramarital affair with the local soda shop owner” (Giganti & York, 1998). Once people are introduced to the sexual adventures that Jennifer is telling them of, the citizens of Pleasantville begin to change from their black-and-white color to being full of color. The color is symbolic of that particular person developing from traditional gender roles to modern gender roles, where they are more open-minded, understand themselves better, and aren’t tying themselves down by the unsaid regulations of society. As girls left their modest ways behind and began to kiss boys out in public they gained color, which was a sign of their newly-found freedom and independence. The movie offered such fascinating and thought-provoking scenes, such as a black-and-white guy kissing a girl who is full of color; almost implicating that the guy is still not ready to leave behind his dominant side to be in touch with a more sensitive side, or the scene where a girl is black-and-white but the gum she is blowing is bright pink, indicating her leniency towards being full of color and changing her ways. Each scene in the movie can have numerous pages written on it; they are full of symbols, implications, and provide wonderful insight as to how one should approach the gender role problems of our current day.
Although many people perceive Pleasantville as a movie of only Jennifer challenging traditional gender roles, David also strongly challenges traditional gender roles, but in his own way. While Jennifer addresses the lack of sexuality in Pleasantville, David addresses the lack of higher pleasures, such as enjoying artwork or books. He is disturbed by how Pleasantville’s books have no words in them, how the only thing school studies is the geography of Pleasantville which is only a few streets, and how there is a lack of art. David realized that the black-and-white facet of Pleasantville didn’t only succeed in enforcing traditional gender roles, but it also ensured that the citizens of Pleasantville didn’t have their own individuality and lacked original thought, which enabled them to be satisfied with the little Pleasantville has to offer. Rather, the people of Pleasantville were very mechanical in their manners, and so accepting of their traditional gender roles. Every night George walked in the house, stating “Honey, I’m home”, and every morning Betty stuffed the family with an overload of fatty foods, believing to be fulfilling her motherly and wife duties. “Mom, wearing a little oppressed-housewife apron and hopelessly ignorant of dietary dogma, stuffs the whole darned family with foods dangerously rich in animal fat” (Baker, 1998). With the point that’s being made here, the movie successfully connects the idea of forcing oneself into traditional gender roles and losing one’s individuality and preventing from their true-self to bloom. There’s an undeniable connection between the society of Pleasantville not being able to educate themselves, and being accepting of their current traditional gender roles. As soon as David started giving hints of another world and another reality that exists outside of Pleasantville, the society was extremely curious and intrigued, so it’s not as if they are purposefully being against a modern gender role, rather they were never introduced to it to begin with.
Jennifer shows her TV-mother, who is almost a depiction of Eve with her innocence and obedience to her husband, how to masturbate. Her mother was curious as to why so many of the young kids are hanging out at Lover’s Lane nowadays, and Jennifer took it upon herself to explain the entire truth. The mother was now filled with thoughts of pleasuring herself, something she was embarrassed of because she knew her husband would never partake in such an activity. Nevertheless, the mother was curious and explored herself which caused the first flames to appear within Pleasantville. It’s as if the city was crying that change was taking place, change that would disrupt the balance of Pleasantville, and change that is generally not accepted within Pleasantville. As Jennifer’s TV-mother explored feelings that were unfamiliar to her, color began blooming on her face, and all throughout her body. She was aware that this newly-acquired color is associated with the change that is being seen all around Pleasantville, and she wanted to hide it, being embarrassed of it. This is mainly because of the divided perspective of the town on the changes that were taking place. Although the majority of the young population were embracing the changes and implementing themselves into it, so they can be a part of the change, the dominant male figures in town were entirely against the changes that were happening.
There was a collective distraught by the male figures within the society when they started noticing the changes, such as the younger population always having books in their hands, and boys and girls publicly kissing and hanging out together in a romantic way. It’s important to note that within Pleasantville’s society and era, men were meant to be the dominant, independent and formidable figures of the house. Women weren’t supposed to constantly hang outside when they should be cooking and cleaning at home, and men were expected to work and earn an income, not chase after useless books. The TV-mother was going to be the changing point in Pleasantville. One of the most famous scenes of this movie is when Betty, Jennifer and David’s TV-mother, is not home when the father, George arrives. George, who has worked all day at his job, expects to find dinner on his table when he returns home, made and prepared by his ever-abiding wife. However, this time George not only didn’t find his dinner, but Betty was also nowhere to be found. After exploring herself, Betty was a new woman now, with a curiosity for other pleasures and excitements life has to offer, such as examining artwork and committing adultery, which she succeeded in doing by Mr. Johnson’s side. But George not having his dinner ready for him was the last straw the dominant men of the society could stand for. They didn’t want independent women, they wanted housewives who would care for them and their children! The idea of a man having to prepare dinner for himself after a long day at work was completely ridiculous for them, and the mayor gave an outcry, stating that anyone of them could be next, anyone of them could come home to find no dinner, and to find their wives full of color, full of change.
George, who is expecting of his dinner, calls out each time, “Honey, I’m home,” which is an indirect order stating, “Where is my dinner?”. It’s not as if they have this loving and sweet relationship full of trust, as it was depicted when David was watching from his couch at home. Rather, Betty and George have a relationship that’s built on chores and responsibilities, where Betty is expected to take care of things at home, and George things outside of home. This is most evident in how George is more concerned about being without dinner than being concerned about the whereabouts of his wife. Each time George calls out “Honey, I’m home,” the audience can hear roaring thunders in the background, again emphasizing the negativity of the change that is happening all around Pleasantville. Soon after the dinner scene, the audience is shown Betty again, who is now by Mr. Johnson’s side. Betty is by Mr. Johnson’s side because he makes her happy and makes her feel good about herself. Even though she is embarrassed of being full of color, Mr. Johnson talks about her beauty, and speaks of how she wants to make a painting of her. At this point, Betty who is aware that her husband is most likely waiting for her at home for a dinner, is finally putting her own wants, needs, and desires before her husband’s and ultimately, showing some attention to herself, as any human being should.
There is also a scene where Betty and George are in the kitchen of their home, discussing the changes that are taking place. George seems to be disgusted with Betty, because she is full of color at this point, and it implicates how George is against the changes taking place. George is planning to attend a town meeting so all of the problems, which are the changes within Pleasantville, can be addressed and a solution could be found for it. However, Betty doesn’t want to attend the town meeting to begin with, now opposing the state of mind the town authority has, and either way, George urges, almost forces, Betty to go with him. George also tells Betty to put some make-up on, so she can hide the colorfulness of her skin. This is yet another way the movie demonstrates the forcing of traditional gender roles; Pleasantville expects women to be beautiful, appropriate, and obedient to their husbands. Betty’s TV-son, David/Bud, is saddened by the events and doesn’t want Betty to be badly influenced by the changes. With good intentions, “her son helps her by getting her make-up and putting some of the gray powder on her; and one has the sense of the painting of a corpse, that the covering up of color is a kind of death” (Garrett, 2013). Even though it’s with make-up, by covering up the colorfulness of her skin, Betty is denying her true desires and wants, as she is embarrassed of it and ashamed, since her husband went out of his way to make her feel so, which again shows the lack of love the relationship between Betty and George has.
The audience can easily see the changes in Betty regarding her make-up habits. Although Betty allowed David to apply make-up on her because she was ashamed of her color, after spending the night with Mr. Johnson, Betty gained a new outlook on life. When her husband demanded that she put on make-up, cook her dinner, and come with him to the meeting, rather than meekly doing what she was told, Betty respectfully said no and just left. This powerful scene shows how the Eve of Pleasantville finally gained her confidence, and through her confidence, her freedom. However, with the adoption of modern gender roles there came new problems as well, which is very relevant to the current society’s gender role problems. Just because women were now more independent and accepting of their sexuality, some men saw this as an advantage to force women in the gender roles of being sexual tools.
Mr. Johnson had painted a breath-taking painting of Betty, but she was featured as nude on it. When some of the young boys got a look at the painting, rather than enjoying the art of it, were eager to get their hands on Betty, which shows their ignorance of her independence and rather focuses on the possibility that Betty is offering her sexuality for all of the men of Pleasantville to enjoy. “Several black-and-white youths corner ‘Bud’s’ mother in what appears to be a rape in the making. David intervenes and punches one of the boys. David has finally taken a moral stand and now he also turns color” (Joseph, 2000) This is a crucial scene for the current society. As young women and girls are trying to find themselves and learn about who they are, they are constantly being exposed to advertisements and popular media that depicts women in a sexual manner, trying to give the implication that one’s revealing of their sexuality is a symbol of their freedom. Sexuality and the exposure of Betty’s body within Pleasantville wasn’t used as a means of submission for men, but rather as a powerful statement that Betty and Mr. Johnson are making through art-work. Advertisements nowadays, rather than empowering women, uses women’s sexuality against them to place them in a submissive position.
As can be seen, Pleasantville is perceived as a comedy movie, but actually is an incredible eye-opener to the nature of gender roles within history as well as in the current society. 1950’s was an era were women were oppressed and were forced to accept the gender role of being a submissive housewife that was obedient to their husband. Jennifer and David’s arrival within Pleasantville stirred the values and manners of those living within Pleasantville, but it also allowed them to finally reach a state of happiness and pleasure, which they were never introduced to before. The movie makes an excellent connection between the forcing of gender roles and the loss of one’s individuality. “Pleasantville shows that, beneath the idyllic and placid aspect of American society in the fifties, there were underlying secrets that would disturb this image” (Gomez Galisteo, 2009).
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