Twilight Zone and Conformity

28 Feb

A look at 1950s conformity in two creepy episodes from the mind of Rod Serling, and an even creepier video from a 1954 classroom:

Can we all agree that the most disturbing part of the harrowing tale of Barbara and Helen in the 1954 social guidance film “Habit Patterns” is the fact that it was created as an adjunct to a high school psychology textbook?

In this context, the narrator’s injunction to develop “good habits approved by custom, accepted by society” turns 1950s conformity into more than an issue of social etiquette and behavioral ideals, but a matter of mental health.  This idea is borne out by two of Rod Serling’s most critically-acclaimed episodes of The Twilight Zone, “Number 12 Looks Just Like You,” and “Eye of the Beholder.”

Like the “psychology for living” guidance films, both episodes focus primarily on young women—in particular, young women who deviate from the ideals espoused by parents, friends, and culture.  When Marilyn, the heroine of “Number 12 Looks Just Like You” refuses to pick a pattern and asks whether “Being like everyone—isn’t that like being nobody?”, she challenges the assumption that assimilation is the only way to get along in her society.

But while “the transformation” is ostensibly physical—everyone looks like a dozen or so physical ideals—the ultimate purpose is psychological.  This is revealed in the opening scene, when Marilyn argues with her mother.  Though already transformed into the beautiful Number 12 (in a highly futuristic metallic leotard and leggings, no less—this is the year 2000 after all), Lana still attends “culture class,” indicating that the true mental transformation is never finished, and must be continually reinforced.  Similarly, Serling briefly touches on the use of psychiatric drugs as a quick fix, particularly for women, in Lana’s constant exhortations to her daughter to have a glass of “instant smile,” possibly the Prozac of the future.

The nature of the transformation as a psychological one is further explored at a telling location—a government-run hospital.  Questioned by a Professor Sigmund Franz (a thinly-disguised Sigmund Freud), Marilyn is told that “the transformation must be performed young”—the point when the mind is most malleable.

This seems to be supported by Dr. Rex’s eagerness to take a brain scan of Marilyn.  While possibly used to determine her intelligence level, as he claims, his and Lana’s conspiratorial looks suggest otherwise: the ultimate transformation, after all, is more than just physical.  The horror of the episode for the viewers is in the complete turnaround of Marilyn’s personality and ideals.  While before she had read Shakespeare, Shelley, Aristotle and Keats, in the end she echoes her friend Val in simple superficiality—“Life is pretty, life is fun.  All is good, and all is one.”

Like Marilyn, Janet Tyler in “Eye of the Beholder” finds herself not only in a world where she doesn’t fit in—but in another government-supported hospital, where her differences are to be fixed, or if not that, hidden away.

Conformity is once again the ideal: like Marilyn was pushed to “pick a pattern” in the form of a number, Janet throughout is called by the nurses and doctors “Patient 307.”  And like Marilyn as well, Janet questions the right of the state to make choices for her—in this case the decision to send her to a special area she identifies correctly as a “ghetto.”  “Who are you people anyway?” she asks; “What is the State?  The State is not God!”

But in Janet’s world, the government is indeed nearly as omnipotent and omnipresent as God—large screens of “the Leader” drop down into the corridors Janet desperately runs through, trying vainly to escape, the leader shouting about “glorious conformity” and “our unified society.”  The State is almost omniscient as well, as “treason” recalls the thoughtcrime of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: Janet’s empathetic doctor is warned to be careful when he has the heretical thought, “Why shouldn’t people be allowed to be different?”

The need for conformity of thought as well as appearance parallels this same idea in “Number 12 Looks Just Like You”—that the psychological change is more important than the physical one.  When Janet Tyler is simply deformed, she is permitted to remain in a public hospital with bandages on her face, allotted a certain number of government-subsidized surgeries and experiments; it’s the moment she starts question the state’s power to do this, however, that she is held down by nurses and forcibly sedated.

Most significant, perhaps, is the focus both episodes put on female conformity.  Marilyn’s mother Lana and friend Val seem to presage the Stepford Wives stereotype—perfectly coiffed and always smiling; the use of medications such as Prozac among depressed suburban housewives in the 1950s has nearly become a cliché today as well.

Janet Tyler’s feelings about the bandages keeping her from the light and the outside world she loves—even blinded in this way she runs to her window to feel the night breeze, and constantly asks the nurses what the day was like—could be a metaphor for a woman’s sphere at the time as well: “Sometimes I feel like I’ve lived my life in a dark cave with walls of gauze.  There’s a kind of comfort… no one can ever see me.”  In a gilded cage, women were expected to have a domestic role as far from the public sphere as possible; a woman stepping outside of the culture’s gendered assumptions would be shocking—perhaps suggested by Janet’s comment that people have screamed to see her on the street.

Ultimately, conformity is the order of the day in Serling’s “Eye of the Beholder” and “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You.”  Comparing these episodes with a social guidance films for high school students, the parallels are astonishing: all three indicate the emphasis put on mental, psychological assimilation, as well as the extent to which this idea was targeted at young women.

This is a slightly-edited version of a paper written for an American Studies course at the lovely U of A: Twilight Zone Culture–to my instructor goes all the credit for the assignment and curriculum.  So, friends, don’t plagiarize me if you don’t want to end up like that dreadful Helen (Barbara, I mean dreadful Barbara)—it would be ironic, though, of this blog came up on and I was accused of plagiarizing myself.  I wonder…


One Response to “Twilight Zone and Conformity”


  1. Now Listening: The Shadow in Eternity « the Scattering - November 24, 2010

    […] If you remember, last semester I took a class called “Twilight Zone Culture.” The basic premise of the course was that The Twilight Zone–in terms of popularity and reputation as a “classic” of science fiction, I see it as the American answer to Dr. Who–was ignored by censors because it wasn’t “serious.”  Thus, fantasy and SF slipped under the radar in the McCarthy era–allowing Rod Serling to make serious social commentary in the 1960s.  Young’s podcast interested me because he said something very similar about Dr. Who: Doctor Who is also a great example of science fiction being able to make social and political comment because institutional censors dismiss it as insignificant (the Daily Mail recently noticed this; though it may have been a publicity stunt for the new series). The 2005 anti-Iraq war episode, for example, broadcast to millions the week before the UK General Election, was amazing. […]

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