Pleasantville: Exploring fandom through the conventions of 1950s sitcom

While Marvel’s first Disney+ show WandaVision is currently delving into the conventions of sitcoms past, now seems the perfect time to take a look back at Gary Ross’ wonderful 1998 film Pleasantville. On the surface, it’s about two teenagers who get trapped in an old TV show via a magic remote control, but like the best science fiction, it’s a metaphor using the imagined values of old to comment on the society of the day. But is it also really about pop culture and how we interact with it? Allow me to make my case.

Pleasantville follows David, played by Tobey Maguire, a reclusive teen obsessed with 1950s sitcom Pleasantville, and his outgoing and sociable sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon). With their mother away, they have an argument about the TV and break the remote . Then, a mysterious TV repairman turns up and offers them a new controller and in one push of a button, they’re stuck in the black and white world of the perfect all-American nuclear Parker family, fulfilling the roles of Bud and Mary Sue, the children of George and Betty. But their presence has an impact on this perfect town, and through their actions, the black and white world turns to colour as people discover different aspects of themselves. But with these new colours, comes fresh tension which threatens to tear the town apart.

The most obvious aspects of the meaning of Pleasantville have been talked about at length. It’s about the nostalgia for a past that never really existed. It’s about America’s odd relationship with suburbia and the flaws beneath the  apparently perfect surface (oh wait, that’s actually about the whole USA, I just got that). And it’s a metaphor for the civil rights movement and the small minds who feel threatened by anyone who is different.

But if I bring my own subtext, Pleasantville is also about fandom. And viewed from 2021, where fandoms are more connected through social media and yet somehow more divided as it fuels toxicity, that takes on even greater meaning. Are you with me? No… fine then. Let’s delve into what the hell I’m banging on about.

David is selected by the plot device repair man because he has complete knowledge; he’s watched the later episodes as much as the early ones. He’s a pure fan, one that know every storyline and every bit of trivia. In some areas of fandom, knowledge is power and that power is defined by gatekeeping. “Oh you like Pleasantville, well name every episode?” Essentially, he would be allowed to wear a Pleasantville t-shirt without any awful men asking him obscure trivia questions, although there’s a possibility, he is that awful man.

And his approach to living in Pleasantville is a conservative one; he wants to preserve what he knows, to keep things the same, repeat everything that’s gone before and make sure the characters stay in their pre-destined roles.

In contrast, Jennifer doesn’t care about the conventions and doesn’t have the baggage and is able to interact with the world in a new way. She is able to have a completely different, but no less positive, relationship with the material. And that relationship actually ends up changing the text, much to the anger of the TV repairman, who wants the teenagers to seize the opportunity to live the perfect lives offered to them, just as long as they remain within the predefined parameters.

But within today’s pop culture landscape, the parameters are changing. And factions of fandom become more pronounced, especially just down to how long-lived franchises are. It creates a generation gap where some see old stuff as the real product. But through the way our popular culture is consumed and generated, the hierarchy has shifted. What’s old and new doesn’t really matter, things are not consumed in a linear way but all things are on demand at all times.

Let’s take Star Wars as an example. For a long time, there was the original trilogy made between 1977 and 1983, masterminded by George Lucas. For many, that represents everything that Star Wars is and  ever will be. It was Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, Leia and Han, the Millennium Falcon and a battle between good and evil. Then, in the late 90s, another trilogy came – the prequels. And for a young generation, that was their Star Wars. More recently, there was a the Disney trilogy and a couple of spin-off films, and every one of these will be someone’s favourite. The Mandalorian on Disney+ marked the beginning of a new chapter.  There will be multiple shows following different characters across different time periods. All of these shows will be available on a menu. There will be no sign saying ‘this where to start’ or that one film is more prominent than another. Everything is equal. The old way, which remained in place for so long, no longer has meaning. New fans can interact with the material any way they choose, finding the episodes that mean something to them without a road map, and they can connect those however they like creating their own new meanings.

And that seems to be a threat to some old  fans. It has been toxic male fandom that has banded together to make others miserable, whether that’s gamergate, Ghostbusters bros, or Rey haters; they’ve created a lot of noise about what they hate, rather than what they love.

The ‘mentrification’ (new term to me, thanks Twitter for connecting me to smart people) of fandom has certainly played a role in this, where women’s love of something is seen as flimsy and emotional before men realise it’s worth something and dismiss the original fandom so they can discuss it seriously in dank basements while wearing cardigans and collecting ephemera and using phrases like ‘culturally significant’. To steal an example, think of the audience for The Beatles in their touring years, compared to who you’d associate as a fan now.

But if we want to stick with television, then lets consider Star Trek. While the stereotype might be the introverted white nerd (hey everyone!), Star Trek’s fandom was led by women with the first major convention organised by Joan Winston and the first ever fanzine, Spockanalia was produced Devra Langsam and Sherna Comerford with a number of women contributors. And this perhaps suggests the different relationships men and women have with the material, broadly (and possibly unhelpfully) speaking at least. Is there a tendency for men to accumulate trivia and women to create? Perhaps, and with the fanzines, comes fan fiction and eventually there’s slash fiction, where the relationships and unseen love lives of characters are explored.

Which is a roundabout way to drag this back to Pleasantville. The setting of the show is a time when people knew there supposed place, women were homemakers and loyal daughters. Men were breadwinners and sons respected their parents. But this film is about disrupting that status quo. Bored of the wholesome life and with no interest in maintaining the plot, Jennifer introduces sex into the narrative, something the locals have never even heard of. And that is the catalyst for introducing colour into that world for the first time. And it isn’t about sin in this suburban Garden of Eden, but about characters finding different facets of life to explore and enjoy. The way Jennifer experiences the material is different, but rather than being slavishly beholden to canon, she creates her own story and brings the world to life.

The colour brought to that world by Jennifer causes uproar, and the last proponents of that are the town fathers, the old white guys who run things and want to make sure that everything remains as they remember it, even as the world transforms around them. And that’s speaks to a certain orthodoxy in fandom, that there’s only one way to be a ‘real’ fan, that you have to behave a certain way, love the oldest thing or even that the new material doesn’t hold the same weight as the old and so the love given to it is somehow less meaningful. Are you a true citizen of Star Wars? If not, you’re not welcome here.

Ultimately, both lead characters’ interactions with the material lead to change. David realises that there’s more than one way to live and that things don’t have to be perfect to have meaningful and is able to leave Pleasantville behind. By living the TV show, Jennifer discovers another side of herself, one she doesn’t show in the real world, and that she can embrace her more academic side. And realising that pop culture has deeper meaning and is worth analysing is something I think has a real truth.

So what can we take from all of this? Well, we need to stop seeing fandom in black and white, right and wrong, and embrace every diverse shade and colour we see. By opening our eyes to what others love and create, we can see that engagement with pop culture can be transformative.