Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Gary Ross (director and writer), Pleasantville (1998)

The fantasy-concept film Pleasantville (1998), written, directed and co-produced by Gary Ross, presents a critique of the conservative small-town American values that were mainstream in the 1950s and represented in many of the black and white television situation comedies produced at that time.  The film celebrates and advocates the transcendence of this 1950s world by adopting the values and attitudes of the salient political and social movements of the 1960s, notably those of the New Left and (hippy) counter-culture, most of which are values and attitudes (like feminism) that would be currently understood as political correctness. 

The values and media representations of this1950s world are satirically and critically deconstructed.  Gary Ross believes that conservative small-town America saw itself as wholesome, prosperous, fair, decent, safe, secure, and friendly.  Problems in this ideal world were therefore minor and easily resolved. This film argues that this 1950s world was actually delusional, narrow-minded, inward-looking, insular, insulated, complacent, ignorant of the wider world, oppressively patriarchal, sexually repressed, homogenised, racist, and dominated by privileged white males who sought to preserve a system that served their business and other interests.  It was also hostile to unpalatable realities that needed to be faced, such as being hostile to individuality, hostile to sexual freedom, hostile to knowledge and new ideas, and, above all, hostile to change.  It is shown to quickly resort to ‘fascism’ when the status quo that benefits the privileged is challenged by individuals seeking greater individual freedom to become truer versions of themselves. 

The film also presents a warning that alienated young people who are struggling socially and who feel confronted  by the complex realities of modern existence (such as adjusting to their parents’ divorce) may be susceptible to the lure of the reassuring sanitised falsehoods of the ideology of conservative America that found representation in the situation comedies of the 1950s. 

The filmmakers present the ideology of conservative America as inherently false and ultimately oppressive but as still being alluring to many, while the ideology of the New Left and counter-culture is presented as inherently truthful and ultimately liberating (being in tune with objective reality and what is vital to one’s humanity) yet it is taken up slowly at first before it eventually triumphs.

The desire for sexual expression that originates in innate, natural desires, and the courage to break with the unquestioned routines of one’s suburban existence, are presented as precipitating a chain reaction of social and cultural revolution that eventually liberates the entire town.  This chain reaction driving change initially encounters much resistance and even counter-revolutionary hostility from those most wedded to the old ways who are slow to realise the benefits of the kinds of changes advocated by the film.  However, when these changes triumph the appreciation is depicted as universal.  As those who were part of the New Left and the counter-culture believed was the case in the 1960s, this revolution was led by youth.  This transformation is visually represented by the black and white world of the 1950s being replaced by the glorious colour of the 1960s and beyond. 

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

© Mark Lopez 2019 All RIGHTS RESERVED

The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: Pleasantville meaning, Pleasantville themes, Pleasantville analysis, Pleasantville notes