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Wholeness vs. Goodness: Pleasantville (Part II)

BW or color?

In Part I, we saw big changes in Pleasantville, now: the Mayor tries to regain control of the situation by organizing a town hall meeting. He represents the fascistic part of our Super-Ego clinging on to old value systems for dear life by rallying defense mechanisms.

This part rejects, banishes, and excludes those aspects of ourselves that bring up unwanted painful and shameful emotions in order to keep things comfortable and “pleasant.”

He gives his speech:

“Up until now…everything around here has always been, well, pleasant. Recently, certain things have become unpleasant. Now, it seems to me…that the first thing we have to do…is to separate out the things that are pleasant…from the things that are unpleasant.”

This is what our psyche does when we “split off” parts of ourselves; it accepts the aspects of ourselves that we deem “pleasant,” and rejects those we find “unpleasant.” How each of us makes that division most often has its roots in what was approved or disapproved of in our family of origin.

Continuing, he says:

“No matter how upset we may get…or how frustrated we may be we’re not gonna solve our problems out in the street. It’s just the wrong way to do it. We have to find a code of conduct that we can all agree to live by.  One–all public disruption and acts of vandalism are to cease immediately.  Two–all citizens of Pleasantville are to treat each other in a courteous and pleasant manner.  Three–the area commonly known as Lovers Lane as well as the Pleasantville public library shall be closed until further notice.  Four–the only permissible recorded music shall be the following: Johnny Mathis, Perry Como, Jack Jones, the marches of John Philip Sousa or The Star-Spangled Banner.  In no event shall any music be tolerated that is not of a temperate or pleasant nature…  Seven–the only permissible paint colors shall be black, white, or gray despite the recent availability of certain alternatives.  Eight–all elementary and high school curriculum shall teach the non-changeist view of history emphasizing continuity over alteration.”

Just like the Mayor, our Super-Ego can sound reasonable at first. But as we follow this rhetoric, we see how quickly this voice turns fascistic, controlling and even deadening.

What turns people into “living color” is acknowledging and expressing the particular emotions that they have unconsciously locked away and hidden; thus each character awakens in their own way. Betty transforms when she drops the role of housewife and mother, and also discovers her sexuality; Mr. Johnson when he lives out his creative impulses and finds love with Betty. Jennifer, one of the last characters to turn into color, wonders, “How come I’m still in black and white? I’ve had tons of sex.” But then she discovers her intellect through literature, a part of herself which she had disowned; she then becomes “colored.”

David’s transformation into color is particularly noteworthy as he starts to integrate the parts of himself that are naïve and idealizing with a more realistic view of life. David learns that a perfect world like Pleasantville isn’t so perfect after all and that becoming “real” (i.e. becoming colored) means owning all parts of oneself. Just like David, as we mature and access more and more parts of ourselves, we come into living in full color, through truth, authenticity, self-empowerment and wisdom. Like David, we cannot hold on to our naiveté and grow wise at the same time.

Mr. Johnson and David are on trial for executing a subversive painting on a brick wall in town. In the courtroom, David eloquently points out the truth of the situation:

“See, I know you want it to stay “Pleasant” but there are so many things that are so much better: like Silly … or Sexy … or Dangerous … or Wild … or Brief …And every one of those things is in you all the time if you just have the guts to look for them [pointing to the “colored” section in the balcony]. Look at those faces back there. They’re no different than you are. They just happened to see something inside themselves that you don’t want to…”

David addresses George regarding Betty who has by this point left her husband for Mr. Johnson:

“Don’t you miss her? I mean, of course you do, but it isn’t just the cooking or the cleaning that you miss–it’s something else, isn’t it …Maybe you can’t even describe it. Maybe you only know it when it’s gone. Maybe it’s like there’s a whole piece of you that’s missing too. You might even call it “love.” Now don’t you think she looks just as pretty in color? Don’t you think she looks just as pretty as she did the day you met her?”

A tear falls and leaves a trace of color on George’s cheek; David has helped George to access his grief.

Important to note is that only those who become consciously aware of their feelings turn into color; those who act out unconsciously (like the book burners) remain in black and white.

The Mayor orders this mayhem to “stop at once.”

David:     But see that’s just the point. It can’t stop at once. Because it’s in you. And you can’t stop something that’s in you.
Mayor:    It’s not in ME.
David:    Oh sure it is.
Mayor:    No it isn’t.
David:    (getting up into the Mayor’s face) What do you want to do to me right now? C’mon. Everyone’s turning colors. Kids are making out in the street. No one’s getting their dinner–hell, you could have a flood any minute … Pretty soon you could have the women going off to work while the men stayed home and cooked…
Mayor:     That’s not going to happen!
David:     But it could happen.
Mayor:    No it couldn’t!
Enraged, the Mayor turns “red in the face.”

David has understood what is missing for those not yet in color and has become an agent for change, astute in his perceptions of the psychology of others.

As shown in the film, moving from black and white to color mirrors the abilities of a healthy psyche:
–    to be more spontaneous, curious and more authentic
–    to deal with disappointment, failure, frustration
–    to think outside of the box and find new creative solutions for old problems
–    to have a wider range, greater flexibility, less constriction
–    to expand our horizons
–    to be more at ease with the unknown
–    to see things as both/and (color) instead of either/or (black and white)

Many of us both long and fear to live our lives in color. Pleasantville offers some deep psychological truths and gives us some ideas of how to come into our “true colors.”

Creative Commons License photo credit: icedsoul photography .:teymur madjderey

Wholeness vs. Goodness: Pleasantville (Part II)

Marla Estes, MA

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APA Reference
Estes, M. (2019). Wholeness vs. Goodness: Pleasantville (Part II). Psych Central. Retrieved on June 6, 2020, from


Last updated: 27 Mar 2019
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