Politics and Visual Rhetoric in Film: The Apologetics of Pleasantville

Matthew Crippen


Moving images, whether in film, television or videogames, dominate industrialized regions. They are accordingly primary modes through which many encounter the world, and in this sense become virtual realities. They can also be virtual in the sense of being artificial and simulated. The movie Pleasantville (1998) is a case in point. The movie does not even offer an imitation of historical events as much as an imitation of ready-made narratives circulating in mass media and culture. In this regard, it offers a variation of what Roland Barthes called mythic imagery, that is, a kind of sign language based in established discourses. Specifically, it employs common movie tropes representing fascism and racial segregation, along with symbolic representations of diversity, with the former associated with antagonists and the latter with protagonists. Because of this alignment, the movie, on the face of it, appears to have a progressive message. However, this appearance is misleading. Concretely speaking, most character developments are towards the mainstream and diversity diminishes at the end of the film, but with the visual rhetoric suggesting just the reverse. Consequently most audiences and indeed the writer-director fail to see that the movie is little more than an uncritical affirmation of mainstream American culture. Pleasantville accordingly stands as an illustrative example of how iconographic representations of social and moral ideals that we unthinkingly reject or accept can be used to sell the reverse of what they celebrate.

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.3311/ope.199


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