Pleasantville and Biblical Feminism

Once again, this post is a translation from a chapter in my book Vrouwen, Jezus en rock-‘n-roll – Met René Girard naar een dialoog tussen het christelijk verhaal en de populaire cultuur (Women, Jesus and rock-‘n-roll. Taking René Girard to a dialogue between the Christian story and popular culture).

Pleasantville (Gary Ross, 1998) is a movie about the twins David and Jennifer who miraculously end up in David’s favorite TV-show, Pleasantville, and become Bud and Mary Sue Parker. At first everything is, also literally, very black and white in their new world. Life is very predictable, every citizen has a clearly defined role, even the roads are like the daily routine: they go in a circle. There’s nothing outside the enclosed 1950’s world order of small town Pleasantville.

Pleasantville 17Pleasantville 16

Bit by bit, however, things start to change with the arrival of David/Bud and Jennifer/Mary Sue. Some people divert from their normal activities and turn from black, grey and white into technicolor. Bill Johnson, for instance, Bud’s boss at the soda shop where he is working, discovers his creativity and artistic freedom as a painter. Other citizens become avid readers, studying books and using their minds to gain wisdom and imagine things “outside of Pleasantville”. In the end, the road doesn’t go in a circle anymore but “keeps going”. This means that life is no longer predictable, the future is open-ended, and individuals get more chances, as well as responsibilities, to work out their own project in life. In other words, the people in Pleasantville abandon the cyclical worldview that was aimed at preserving an order installed by “higher powers”. In yet other words, they move from the ancient mythical view of time as circular to a Jewish and Christian “linear” view of time: instead of leading a life according to the so-called scenario of “the powers that be”, people are liberated to write their own history.

Cyclical vs Linear

Thomas Cahill wrote a very interesting book on this shift, The Gifts of the Jews – How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels. From the cover: “The Gifts of the Jews reveals the critical change that made western civilization possible. Within the matrix of ancient religions and philosophies, life was seen as part of an endless cycle of birth and death; time was like a wheel, spinning ceaselessly. Yet somehow, the ancient Jews began to see time differently. For them, time had a beginning and an end; it was a narrative, whose triumphant conclusion would come in the future. From this insight came a new conception of men and women as individuals with unique destinies—a conception that would inform the Declaration of Independence—and our hopeful belief in progress and the sense that tomorrow can be better than today.”

On the other hand, a sense of stability and certainty seems forever lost with the arrival of the linear view of history. No wonder, then, that the anxious community in Pleasantville at first tries to suppress the newly found creativity and individual liberties: books are burned, rock ‘n’ roll music is forbidden, painters are not allowed to use colors besides black, white and grey, “(techni)colored” people are separated from the others and sexuality, in particular female sexuality, is considered inappropriate.

Pleasantville 14

Pleasantville 11

Pleasantville 13

Pleasantville 12

Indeed, the women especially begin to question the status quo of the patriarchal society in Pleasantville. Following the example of Mary Sue (a powerful “mimetic model”), girls invite their boyfriends into the garden of Lover’s Lane to explore their sexuality. Bud also imitates his sister, as he takes Margaret on a date to Lover’s Lane…

Pleasantville 9

There, Bud is offered an apple by his girlfriend. Afterwards he is reproached for eating it by the deus ex machina of the movie, a mysterious TV repairman, who yells at him that he doesn’t deserve “to live in this paradise”. This all too obvious reference to the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden in the book of Genesis raises questions about whether or not Judeo-Christian tradition supports oppressive patriarchal social structures. The story of the Fall from Eden eventually blames the woman, Eve, for being the first to succumb to an inappropriate desire, causing her man Adam to sin and resulting in them both being banned from the Garden. The obvious message of the story concerning women seems clear: like her Greek counterpart Pandora, Eve and her female boldness means trouble (for more on this, click here). So far for the Jewish critique of archetypal mythic structures, so it seems…

Pleasantville 4

Pleasantville 5

René Girard helps us understand why women are depicted as troublemakers and how they, more specifically (sexually) emancipated women, become scapegoats, unjustly held responsible for all kinds of evil in the world. The sexist reasoning often goes something like this. Emancipated women are no longer dependent on their husbands. This means that they can more easily divorce them. Divorces potentially trouble the mind of children and youngsters, who might lose the security of a “home”. Hence juvenile delinquency could increase as young people get together in gangs to create a sense of self-worth and identity. Thus the stability of society as a whole is threatened by women who refuse to remain faithful to the man they’re married off to. Moreover, sexually independent women can stir rivalry and violence between men, which once again destabilizes the internal cohesion of a community. Indeed, sex (eros) might lead to death (thanatos).

To avoid these potential troubles patriarchal societies have the tendency to suppress the freedom of women. This means women have to pay for the potential rivalry between men and the potential lack of responsibility of other members of the society. Instead of taking responsibility for their rivalrous and even violent desires and instead of taking control of them, patriarchal men blame women for their own behavior. And instead of taking more responsibility as a parent, patriarchal men also blame women if their offspring ends up on the wrong track… Peace and order in society, according to the patriarchal system, can only be obtained by keeping women in check. In other words, women and their freedom are violently sacrificed in order to establish “peace and quiet”.

As said, the Genesis story of the Garden and the Fall (the third chapter of the book) seems to support this view and seems to legitimize the sacrificial structure of the patriarchal society. More specifically, the story seems to consider (female) sexuality taboo. Eve invites Adam “to eat from the fruits” of the “Tree of Knowledge” in a “Garden Paradise”. In ancient Middle Eastern Cultures gardens are symbolical of sexuality and female sexuality in particular. The Song of Songs for instance, one of the smallest books of the Bible, gives voice to a young woman in a dialogue with her beloved man. At some point she invites her lover to “come into her garden and taste its choice fruits”. Talk of sending a clear message… Moreover, “knowing” often has a sexual meaning or erotic tone in Hebrew. “To know someone” has to do with “intimate wisdom”, with “gaining insight” by “penetrating into” something. So eating from the “Tree of Knowledge” and discovering, afterwards, that you are “naked” adds to the interpretation of the story as containing a taboo on sexuality and the female lust for “knowledge”. No wonder then, again, that the citizens of Pleasantville fear women who “go to the library”, “think” and take the initiative to go to Lover’s Lane… Women shouldn’t become too smart, as “shrewd” women are hard to control, and the third chapter of Genesis seems yet one other sexist story that gets this message across.

Song of Solomon (Raoul Martinez)

A strange thing happens, however, when Genesis chapter three is compared to the already mentioned Song of Songs. At a certain moment, the young woman of the Song complains about the patriarchal society and its taboos. She went looking for her lover but the “watchmen of the city” violently punished her for having an intimate relationship with a man outside her family or outside the ritualized context of marriage. Thereon she eventually sighs (Song of Songs 8:1): If only you were to me like a brother, who was nursed at my mother’s breasts! Then, if I found you outside, I would kiss you, and no one would despise me.” So the Song of Songs lets the victim of patriarchal violence speak out and act against the regular patriarchal order. A comparison between Eve in Genesis and the young woman in the Song of Songs might shed new light on how to interpret the emancipation of women in the story of Pleasantville from a Biblical point of view. Here it is (CLICK THE PAGES TO ENLARGE OR CLICK HERE FOR PDF):

Pleasantville Garden of Eden and Garden of Female Sexuality

Pleasantville Watchmen

The question from this comparison is whether the God of the Genesis story is on the side of the watchmen who are supporting the patriarchal society and who harass (sexually) emancipated women. At first glance, it seems that this is the case. However, the Song of Songs does allow the victim of patriarchal violence to speak out against this kind of discrimination.

In order to get a fuller understanding of what is actually condemned by the Genesis story, the broader context of the book of Genesis is needed. Read in the broader context of Genesis and the story that immediately follows (Cain and Abel), Eve is not condemned because she is a woman, but because she cannot respect the difference between herself and someone else (“the Lord God”) – just like Cain cannot respect the difference between himself and someone else (“Abel”). Both stories condemn an anxious type of envy and even resentment! In the case of the confrontation between the young woman and her harassers in the Song of Songs, it is clear that the harassers are led by envy, resentment and fear. From the particular Biblical point of view, developed from the broader context in Genesis, they’re the ones whose acts are to be condemned. They fear the emancipation of women because this might mean that women no longer automatically obey the men they’re married off to – which is very frightening for patriarchal men’s status and sense of self-worth. Most probably their wives too resent the emancipated woman, as they secretly envy the life she leads but dare not abandon their own situation for fear of being punished.

The Gospels show how Jesus of Nazareth also takes sides with the woman as a potential victim of patriarchal violence. More specifically in John 8:1-11, when he is confronted with a woman caught in adultery. It might be good to take a fresh look at this well-known text:

Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. But early in the morning he arrived again in the temple area, and all the people started coming to him, and he sat down and taught them. Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle. They said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger. But when they continued asking him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he bent down and wrote on the ground. And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders. So he was left alone with the woman before him. Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”

A Depiction of Jesus and the Woman taken in Adultery (Vasily Polenov)

Jesus prevents the establishment of an order based on sacrifice by making people reflect on their own desires and trespasses, as they might be similar to those of the adulterous woman. Jesus believes God desires “mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13).

It is telling that Jesus approaches the woman, who already committed adultery, mildly while he firmly condemns men who merely think of adultery (Matthew 5:27-30):

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.”

It’s his hyperbolic verbal way of compensating for the double standard in patriarchal societies, where adulterous men are often all too easily justified as “victims” of “evil, seductive women” (who are all too easily condemned by the patriarchal system). Apart from this, there are other “feminist” traits in the behavior of Jesus. The situation between Jesus, the crowd and the adulterous woman as it is told in the Gospel of John contains a subtle clue for a subversive, anti-patriarchal reading of the third chapter in Genesis (John 8:3): The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle.” Indeed, the woman is said to stand “in the middle”. Compare this to Genesis 3:3, as Eve responds to the snake: God told us, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden. You must not even touch it, or you will die.‘” In other words, Jesus wants to prevent the crowd from “touching” what “stands in the middle” just like the God figure in the Genesis story wants to prevent Adam and Eve from eating from the tree “in the middle of the garden”. In both situations, the acts of “touching what’s in the middle” imply that people are led by envy, resentment and lust for prestige, that they are unable to respect “the other”, and that they want to erase the differences between themselves and the other (by killing themselves or the other – for more on this: click here).

In consonance with Genesis, Jesus calls out for love of one’s neighbor and a refusal of the sacrifice of the other to establish a “peace”. That’s why he says (Matthew 10:34-36):Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law— a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.” The “sword” Jesus talks about is not the sword of “violence” (indeed, in Matthew 26:52 Jesus, upon being arrested, clearly warns against violence, when he demands one of his companions who tries to defend him: Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.”). It is reminiscent of the sword at the end of the Genesis story about the Fall: The Lord God placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and the flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life. This sword is a symbol of a Love that creates and preserves differences between people – differences of “color” and personality that is, not of “hierarchy”.

not peace but a swordPeace I leave with you

Jesus time and again questions a peace, order and unity based on the expulsion of a common enemy (a “scapegoat”) and on dictatorial, oppressive leadership (often of a “patriarch”). He tells people, “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44), which causes conflicts within the groups people belong to but once again prevents people from establishing a community at the expense of certain “enemy victims”. That’s why he can say that his kingdom – his way of organizing society – is, most of the time, “not of this world” (John 18:36). And that’s why he can also say: Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

In short, Jesus as a Jew, in consonance with the Scriptures of the Jewish people, wants to establish a peace that allows for non-violent conflicts between people (as people dare to show their “true colors” and thus might clash with each other), while he refuses to establish a violent “easy” peace based on sacrifice (the “Pax Romana”).

In Pleasantville, Bud prevents the community of condemning his mother Betty. She committed adultery, leaving her husband George for Bill Johnson, the owner of the soda shop. Bill painted a portrait of a naked Betty on the front window of his shop, after which an agitated and scandalized crowd “stoned” it. Like Jesus confronted with a crowd and a woman caught in adultery, Bud prevents further violence. He enables people to discover that they’re not so different from Betty and other “coloreds” – which, paradoxically, allows them to respect Betty’s and the others’ own “color” and choices in life.

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Of course, life doesn’t become much easier if we’re trying to respect one another, protesting against “easy sacrifices” of vulnerable victims. Society does become more complex, the future more open and uncertain, but also more interesting, fertile and creative. It certainly is a challenge to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, to allow for relationships that are based on a Love born from freedom, and not based on a fear for punishment or a desire to be rewarded and compensated. But hey, it’s better to have an emancipated woman love her man than to have a bitter, scared “slave” stick to her husband, isn’t it? In the words of 1 John 4:18:

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

no fear in love

‘Guess we all still have some growing to do, but on a personal note: deep down inside, I do prefer the peace of Christ’s “critical” and flexible Love to the peace of the sacrificial powers in our world. A lot of growing to do, though, but happy to…

To conclude, Bruce Springsteen on the “secret garden she hides…” – CLICK HERE…

More from my book Vrouwen, Jezus en rock-‘n-roll – Met René Girard naar een dialoog tussen het christelijk verhaal en de populaire cultuur (Women, Jesus and rock-‘n-roll. Taking René Girard to a dialogue between the Christian story and popular culture):

  1. Mimetic Theory in High School (click to read)
  2. Types of the Scapegoat Mechanism (click to read)
  3. Scapegoating in American Beauty (click to read)
  4. Philosophy in American Beauty (click to read)
  5. Real Life Cases of Ressentiment (click to read)
  6. Eminem Reads the Bible (click to read)
  7. The Grace of Prostitutes (click to read)

See also: Achever… the Social Sciences (click to read)

One comment

  1. Hanna Mäkelä · May 17, 2015

    🙂

    Like

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