The social construction of race and gender

When two different groups of people interact in mass, there are often great deals of conflict. Sometimes this turns outwardly violent, but often the two manage to assimilate, although with great amounts of intolerance and distrust between the two at first. In a country like the United States, which is made up of a great variety of people, these types of conflicts have occurred many times over. Each new wave of an immigrant group has dealt with distrust from the general population, where they were treated as inferior, sometimes even being referred to as a separate lower species. This is a topic that has been a source of inspiration for many pieces of literature and film. An example of this is the film Pleasantville, which does not deal with race by name, but it still cleverly comments on racial struggles, predominantly the type faced by African Americans in the period between their emancipation and the civil rights movement.

One common theme of many large racial interactions is that the existing race begins living with a different race, who they see as not merely different, but less virtuous for their differences. For example, a common justification for slavery of African Americans and mistreatment of other ethnic groups in the United States was that they were genetically better suited for this type of work. “Anglo landowners claimed that ‘Orientals’ and Mexicans were naturally suited to perform certain kinds of brutal farm labor to which whites were ‘physically unable to adapt’” (Rothenberg 8). In essence, this meant that they simply weren’t just of a different origin or skin color, but not suited for many kinds of work the supposedly more virtuous slave owners were. As can be seen in Rothenberg’s writings, race was seen as not just an outward matter of fact, but an indicator of a less pure moral system, character, and social values.

One movie that does an excellent job symbolizing these types of racial struggles and conflicts is Pleasantville. In the movie a brother and sister from the 1990s are magically transported into the black-and-white world of the titular 1950s sitcom, taking on the lives of the show’s main characters. Life there seems perfect, as the fire department exists solely to get cats out of trees and not only has the high school basketball team never lost a game, but no one knows how to react when a team member misses a shot. The two characters begin to introduce the townspeople to things that do not exist in their town such as art, literature, and sex. Some characters embrace these new experiences and begin to appear in color, while the ones who reject these new things remain in black-and-white. This distinction between the majority of the population and the colored people is how the movie tackles the issue of racism without a single non Caucasian character. Eventually, the black and white characters pass laws looking to suppress the actions of colored. They also turn violent, rioting and destroying a burger shop owned by Mr. Johnson, an artist who paints in vivid colors.

In the movie, there are definite differences in the characteristics of colored and black and white people, just as there are differences between the characteristics of members of different races. The reasons for these differences are not the same, as in the movie it is embracing these characteristics that leads to their colored appearances, while in reality the reasons for different cultural beliefs and attitudes amongst people of different races are not as easy to ascertain.

The connections between historical institutional racism and the discrimination of the colored people in the film are numerous and often well done. One sign advertising for an anti-coloreds meeting urges “all true Pleasantville citizens” to attend, similar to how different races are seen as less legitimate residents of an area by the previously established race. Certain public areas are declared off limits to those no longer in black and white, a clear nod to segregation policies of Jim Crow. One of the best examples of this is during a trial scene, where the balcony section is filled with vividly colored citizens, and the lower sections entirely in black and white outside of the two defendants. There are also laws passed restricting the culture of the colored, as color paintings are banned and the list of acceptable music cut down to a laughably short list of traditional songs. This represents a form of institutional racism, which goes beyond just the daily interactions minorities may face, but through legal or ingrained societal practices against them. “People of color may feel inferior or different because they have come to believe the dominant societal message that they are different and do not belong (Osajima 135).

Another theme of the movie is the lower roles women have been expected to fulfill during large periods of society. The wives in this movie are expected to just serve the family, characterized best by the scene when one male is bewildered walking around the house unable to figure out why he can’t find the dinner his wife made him. The answer is that his wife has left the house without making it to pursue her own dependence. In fact, the women, along with the teenagers, are the most likely to come into color in the movie as social construction has hurt them the most, similar to real life. “Individuals learn what is expected, see what is expected, act and react in expected ways, and thus construct and maintain the social order” (Lorber). Pleasantville initially has a defined order stronger than what exists in our world, yet in both cases the actions of different genders is largely based on social expectations opposed to individual desires. Conversely, the committee attempting to preserve the traditional values of Pleasantville is made up entirely of men. This is a reflection by the movie of the typical paternalistic nature of society which delegates women to lower social positions while the mean make up the majority of the power structures that can ensure the traditional values remain in place.

One of the central personal conflicts in the movie is between the mother and father of the central characters. As in any classic sitcom, they have a seemingly perfect relationship, as he always returns from work to find a well cooked meal waiting. This changes as the mother, Betty, is amongst the first to embrace the new values when her daughter teaches her how to masturbate. Soon, she is appearing in color although she hides it initially. Her husband, George is recruited by the mayor to help his efforts to thwart the changes that they both feel are damaging to the town of Pleasantville. When a meeting is held to try and help these efforts, he is stunned when his wife refuses to attend with her. She has finally embraced her color and wants no part of the organization looking to oppress her and the others. She walks out on him, but not before leaving him multiple meals as he has no idea how to prepare food for himself. Her status as a different type of person and his refusal to accept that is too much for the relationship to with stand. In the climactic scene, he is convinced to attempt to win her back, as he has come to accept her. However, the end of the movie leaves it unclear if she will end up with him or Mr. Johnson, who she showed an affinity towards throughout the movie.

One way that I have felt abnormal is through my basic social interactions. I have always felt less confident in my socializing skills than I imagine most peers do. The result of this feeling is naturally a tendency to avoid this type of situation, limiting the number of incidents where this can clearly manifest itself. Despite this, I still feel that it marks a difference in me that can be noticed by those who know me well, including members of my family. In ways, this difference is very significantly dissimilar from the interactions experienced by opposed races with poor views of each other or of the non black-and-white characters of Pleasantville. Specifically it is more difficult to become aware of and is not treated with the same level of hatred many different races treat each other with. However, it often makes me feel like an outsider amongst groups that otherwise similar to me.

Differences between groups that can be present in culture, appearance, gender, values, or characteristics seem to inevitably lead to conflicts when a new class of people migrates to an area with existing people. Often the initial group, which largely has power uses its more established positions to suppress the new group. This is done under the guise of protecting traditional values that are important for the survival of society. Sometimes it is possible for these groups to assimilate and largely accept the differences, but until then the interactions are often very damaging to the less respected class.

Works Cited


Pleasantville. Dir. Gary Ross. Perf. Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon. New Line Cinema,       1998. DVD.

Rothenberg, Struhl Paula. Race, Class, and Gender in the United States. New York: Worth,      2001. Print.