If I asked you to name an example of a libertarian film, you’d probably offer some science fiction dystopia in which an oppressive government makes life miserable for the people. Minority Report, Equilibrium, the Giver, the Hunger Games, even the recent adaptations of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.
These are all good examples, but I have always considered the most effective political messages in pop culture to be the implicit ones, the ones that sneak up on you, so that you don’t even realize what the message is until you’ve already internalized it. When you hit someone over the head with a message, their natural instinct is to resist it, which I guess is pretty libertarian in itself. But when you paint a picture of a world that speaks to people’s basic desires on an instinctual level, that’s when you really reach them.
With that in mind, I’d like to offer up an example of a film hardly anyone would call political, but which may be the most libertarian movie I know. It’s an almost forgotten little gem from the late 90s called Pleasantville.
When this film popped up on my Netflix queue the other day, I had almost forgotten it existed. I hadn’t seen it since it first came out nearly 20 years ago, before I even knew what libertarianism was. But upon reviewing it, I was surprised at how well it encapsulates the basics of that philosophy without ever coming off as even slightly political.
The plot of the film is basically this: two teenagers get sucked through their TV into the world of a black and white Leave It to Beaver type show depicting an idyllic 50s neighborhood of malt shops and “aw shucks” morality. Unlike the dystopia movies mentioned above, there’s nothing sinister about the town of Pleasantville. Everything’s nice, everything’s pleasant, but the world is as limited in its realm of experiences as it is in its color palette. It isn’t what it might be, because the powers that be, in this case not so much the government as the rules of the world itself, place limits on individual freedom, or as Aldous Huxley said, the freedom to be unhappy. Husband and wives sleep in separate beds. It’s always 72 degrees and sunny, and the school basketball team never loses a game.
But when Reese Witherspoon’s slutty high school character introduces some of the local boys to sex, things begin to change. People start to have new experiences, as well as new emotions, and gradually the black and white gives way to stunning technicolor.
Not all these changes are improvements. Along with love and excitement come jealousy and anger. When the formerly blank library books begin to fill with words, the locals get exposed to new ideas, including Mark Twain’s treatment of slavery in Huckleberry Finn. For the first time ever, rain clouds darken Pleasantville’s previously sunny streets, and like Prometheus’ gift of fire to mankind, the knowledge of good and evil is not without a cost.
Of course, there are those who resist these changes, who preferred the old ways, that things always be nice and predictable and stable, but the vast majority of the population revels in their newfound freedom. They prefer danger and uncertainty to comfort and security, because the later can only exist in a pale, shadow of a world without any of the richness that makes life worth living.
This is the essence of libertarianism. We prefer freedom, for all its messiness, to the life of a bird in a gilded cage. The fact that few viewers of Pleasantville would wish to live in so limited a world shows that, deep down, most Americans prefer freedom as well, even as they vote for policies that restrict speech, gun rights, and economic liberty in the name of security. The challenge is making that mental leap between what they implicitly recognize as desirable, and what they explicitly ask of their political representatives. But as long as media is being produced that shows the benefits of freedom in spite of its dangers, the cause of liberty will not be without hope. (For more from the author of “The Libertarian Statement No One Expected From Actress Reese Witherspoon” please click HERE)