Conformity’s Critical “Eye”

“I want to belong,” pleads a woman whose face is swathed in bandages. “I want to be like everybody.”

Nearly all of us do at one time or other. The desire to fit in can exert a seemingly irresistible force. “Conform or be cast out,” Geddy Lee sings in the Rush song “Subdivisions.” The question is, how far will we go to do so? What will it cost us? And what happens if we fail?

Perhaps more importantly, who sets the standard?

Hand Gesture1

Enter Rod Serling, and an episode of The Twilight Zone called “The Eye of the Beholder.” His 25-minute tour of a world where ugliness is a crime presents us with a terrifying specter: a society where peer pressure has been given the force of law, and conventional notions of beauty are turned on their head.

The story, in capsule form (here’s the last exit for those who have never seen the episode): Janet Tyler is in the hospital, her head encased in bandages, awaiting the results of a procedure intended to make her beautiful. But this is no elective plastic surgery. It’s a major operation mandated by law to help people deemed ugly blend in with society. When the bandages come off, the doctor and nurses recoil in horror from her … very attractive face.

Ms. Tyler Post Bandage1b

Only then do we see their faces, with distorted cheeks, twisted lips and pig-like noses.

Eye of the Beholder (2)

The operation a “failure”, Miss Tyler tries to flee, but is soon escorted away by a handsome man named Walter Smith to a colony of others with a similar “condition.”

Walking Down Corridor2

Serling’s closing narration begins as they walk away:

Now the questions that come to mind. Where is this place and when is it, what kind of world where ugliness is the norm and beauty the deviation from that norm? The answer is, it doesn’t make any difference. Because the old saying happens to be true. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, in this year or a hundred years hence, on this planet or wherever there is human life, perhaps out among the stars. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Lesson to be learned … in the Twilight Zone.

The famous unveiling scene is the episode’s centerpiece, but it’s remarkable how powerful the rest of the episode is, from first frame to last. I consider it the series’ finest, in fact. Everything clicks: the direction by TZ veteran Douglas Heyes; the acting by Maxine Stuart (Janet Tyler under the bandages), Donna Douglas (Tyler unwrapped), William D. Gordon (Dr. Bernardi) and others; the black-and-white photography by George Clemens; the soundtrack by Bernard Herrmann; the make-up by William Tuttle … and, of course, a script by Rod Serling that is both a pointed critique of a totalitarian society and a sensitive portrayal of a lonely woman.

Ms. Tyler

All of these elements come together beautifully in the show’s opening scenes, which — considering they involve conversations between people whose faces are entirely obscured — are remarkably compelling. Maxine Stuart is such a wonderfully expressive actress that although we have nothing but her voice and gestures to go by, we can’t help feeling touched by her plight, which Serling so poignantly describes:

It’s pretty bad, isn’t it? I know it’s pretty bad. Ever since I can remember, ever since I was a little girl, people have turned away from me. The very first thing I can remember is a little child screaming when she looked at me.

I never wanted to be beautiful. I never wanted to look like a painting. I never even wanted to be loved. I just wanted people not to scream when they looked at me.

Lines like this also condition viewers to expect horrendous ugliness at the final unveiling. Serling could be very efficient with his writing; he keeps stressing her humanity, even as he sets us up for that scene. One nurse remarks that if she had a face like Miss Tyler’s, “I’d bury myself in a grave somewhere.” And when Dr. Bernardi is trying to express his frustration over her case, he says: “I’ve looked underneath those bandages … Deeper than that pitiful, twisted lump of flesh. Deeper even than that misshapen skeletal mass. I’ve seen that woman’s real face, Nurse. The face of her real self. It’s a good face. It’s a human face.”

Removing Bandages5

A face that belongs to a woman who just wants to smell the flowers and feel the night air. We naturally feel incensed that this gentle soul is condemned by a society determined to change her, exile her, or kill her. “Under certain circumstances, Miss Tyler, the state does provide for the extermination of undesirables,” Dr. Bernardi says in one of the most chilling lines of the entire episode.

But this is unlikely, he says: “One of the alternatives … is simply to allow you to move into a special area in which people of your kind have been congregated.” Miss Tyler explodes: “People of my kind? Congregated? You mean segregated! You mean imprisoned, don’t you, Doctor? You’re talking about a ghetto, aren’t you? A ghetto designed for freaks!” Coming only a decade and a half after the end of World War II, this line is clearly designed to evoke the horror of the Nazi reign of terror.

Douglas Heyes cleverly hides the faces of the doctor and nurses through adroit camera moves and heavily shadowed sets. We know something is up, yes, but what?

Group3

Heyes also heightens the surprise of the unveiling through a simple audio trick: He deliberately cast actors with very sympathetic voices as the doctor and nurses. He also selected Maxine Stuart in part because her somewhat harsh voice suggested someone who wasn’t beautiful. And he cast Donna Douglas (later to play Elly May on The Beverly Hillbillies, as well as guest star on an episode of Night Gallery) as the unbandaged Miss Tyler, who tries to escape after Dr. Bernardi cries out: “No change!”

As she races frantically down the hallways of the hospital, the full horror of the situation stands revealed. Omnipresent TV screens (a premonition of today?) bring us the latest speech by “Our Leader,” an impassioned orator who harangues Miss Tyler at every turn:

Screen and Girl

I say to you now that there is no such thing as a permissive society, because such a society cannot exist! They will scream at you and rant and rave and conjure up some dead and decadent picture of an ancient time when they said that all men are created equal! But to them equality was an equality of opportunity, an equality of status, an equality of aspiration!

And then, in what must surely be the pinnacle of insanity, the absolute in inconsistency, they would have had us believe that this equality did not apply to form, to creed. They permitted a polyglot, accident-bred, mongrel-like mass of diversification to blanket the earth, to infiltrate and weaken!

Well, we know now that there must be a single purpose! A single norm! A single approach! A single entity of peoples! A single virtue! A single morality! A single frame of reference! A single philosophy of government! We cannot permit… we must not permit the encroaching sentimentality of a past age to weaken our resolve. We must cut out all that is different like a cancerous growth!

It is essential in this society that we not only have a norm, but that we conform to that norm. Differences weaken us. Variations destroy us. An incredible permissiveness to deviation from this norm is what has ended nations and brought them to their knees. Conformity we must worship and hold sacred. Conformity is the key to survival.

Survival? Perhaps. But to what purpose? To live a life in which you are merely an interchangeable cog in a vast wheel that allegedly represents progress? To be nothing more than an unhappy piece of someone else’s puzzle? To sacrifice everything that makes you different in order to please a society that views you as nothing but a faceless building block — one that will think nothing of discarding you if you stand out? That will change you, shun you or murder you for the unspeakable crime of being different?

Doctor and Ms. Tyler

As Miss Tyler so aptly tells the doctor:

Who are you people anyway? What is this State? Who makes all these rules and conditions and statutes that people who are different have to stay away from the people who are normal? The State isn’t God, Doctor. The State is not God! It hasn’t the right to penalize somebody for an accident of birth! It hasn’t the right to make ugliness a crime!

When Mr. Smith leads Miss Tyler away, he reminds her of the classic saying on which the episode’s title is based, and adds: “When we leave here, when we go to the village, try to think of that, Miss Tyler. Say it over and over to yourself.”

Hand Gesture6

That’s all Miss Tyler can do, really. But here’s a suggestion for those of us who want to avoid living in such a dystopian society: Never forget that “the State is not God.”

In fact, say it over and over to yourself. If we keep that thought alive, it might help us avoid one of the darker corners … of the Twilight Zone.

***

Photos courtesy of my “Gal Friday,” artist Wendy Brydge. For a daily dose of Serling, you can follow me on Twitter, Facebook or Pinterest. You can also get email notifications of future posts by entering your address under “Follow S&S Via Email” on the upper left-hand side of this post. WordPress followers, just hit “follow” at the top of the page.

Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!

About Paul

Hard-working, hard-playing fan of all pop culture, especially the Twilight Zone. Which led to a Twitter page. And then to a blog. And then to ... stay tuned. Yes, that's a picture of Rod Serling, not me. You can find the real me under the "Your Host" tab on my blog, along with biographical details that, while 100 percent accurate, sound kind of boastful and braggy. Sorry.

Posted on 11/11/2012, in Rod Serling, Twilight Zone and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 107 Comments.

  1. Excellent, in-depth post! I just watched this episode a few days ago. I didn’t think about the flat screen TVs everywhere being so…normal today. Whew – the State is not God, the State is not God. Seems like many in our State need to be reminded of that!

    • Thanks, Mandy! “In-depth,” you say, and yet I felt as if I could have said a lot more! As it stands, this post is already significantly longer than any I’ve done before. But “Eye” is such a landmark episode, it more than justifies it, as far as I’m concerned. Question: Do you mean you just saw it for the first time, or that you saw it again?

  2. I haven’t rated this as one of my favorite episodes, but it IS one of the most powerful messages I can think of in the Twilight Zone “arsenal.” It speaks so much to “wanting” or “needing” to fit in. Needing to “just be you.” And who defines the public “anything,” anyway? But it also showed that at least someone in the “public norm” had enough heart to allow her to “just be her” with “others of her kind”—a better fate than extermination? Well, that would be for the individual to decide. Yes, Paul, a powerful episode and a powerful analysis on your part! Excellent job!

  3. “In-depth” blog post – we all know you could write a book! :)
    And no, I’ve seen it several times, but I just watched it again the other day. It’s been awhile – streaming is allowing me to watch several I haven’t seen in quite a few years!

    • I have given quite a bit of thought to writing a book, Mandy. You may well see it published one of these days! Thanks for the vote of confidence.

  4. This piece is as surely a masterpiece as “Eye of the Beholder” itself. Mr. Serling couldn’t have written it better. You never fail to impress, Paul. Beautiful job.

    I remember the first time I watched this episode (many years ago) and how the unveiling of Donna’s face just floored me. It was so unexpected, such a shock, the whole idea of what we consider beautiful being portrayed as ugly was just such a foreign concept. Of all the episodes of the Twilight Zone, this one truly is the embodiment of the show’s humanity. And your piece, as well as Serling’s script, has soul.

    Your conclusion truly moved me the way that Serling’s end narration did. No, the state is NOT God, and we would all do well to remember that.

    You’re a very talented writer, Paul, and your passion shines through this piece (and all your work) like the sun itself. I hope someday to see your name in print — on the cover of a best seller. And I don’t need the Mystic Seer to tell me that’s exactly what the future holds.

  5. Thank you so much for this glowing testimonial, Wendy. This episode, as you can tell, means a lot to me, so it’s very gratifying to know that I’ve conveyed my enthusiasm for it so well. It’s a “home run” for Serling, so I’m naturally pleased to think that my blog post is a fitting tribute to it.

    You’re right — this episode truly embodies the show’s humanity. That’s a major part of the reason why I rate it as my all-time favorite. The themes are so heartfelt, and the writing so lyrical, that it never fails to move me on a deep emotional level.

    In fact, I’ll confess that when I was re-watching the episode (yet again) to prepare myself to write this post, one scene brought a tear to my eye. It was when Janet Tyler tells the doctor how she never wanted to be beautiful — that she just wanted to not have people scream at the sight of her face. She leans forward, hugs his arm, and tears up. At that moment, I did too.

    My hope in writing this was to impart some of that feeling. I’m very heartened to think I may have succeeded. It’s a dream of mine to do so on a larger scale someday — in, yes, a book about TZ. When (not if) that happens, it will be because readers such as yourself were kind enough to encourage me. So thank you, Wendy. More than you know.

  6. Heck yeah, Paul, you should do a book! And Wendy can “art it up” and Mandy write the Foreword!

    • FP, you’re about to be recruited as Paul’s agent and promoter! Welcome aboard! ;D

    • Hey, I’ll do that for free! :) Foreword from a former Twitterer who just happened to stumble upon…The Night Gallery.

      • Good to see you return. Did you get LOST in the Night Gallery? :-] Would be great to see a book, huh?

      • I may well take you up on that offer, Mandy! :)

      • Anytime, Paul.

        Frank (do you go by Frank or prefer F.P.?), if only Twitter had been half as interesting as getting lost in the Night Gallery! I abandoned social media (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) a month ago (exception: Pinterest), and although I don’t regret it at all, I realize my 6 months or so on Twitter had its purpose in my life – it introduced me to this blog (and yours) and all of you fine TZ people!

      • I go by “Frank.”

        Well, soc media has it’s “own way” about itself, and it can be maddening…not to mention time consuming. It’s hard for me to even try to tread its waters, but I’m a writer of fiction and this gets me “out there.” As you say, gets me to meet all kinds of COOL people like all of you! You have to find what suits you, Mandy! Take care, and hope you continue to check us all out…in the Twilight Zone (or Night Gallery)!

  7. I love the Twilight Zone and will have to take a look at that episode. Maybe it’s on YouTube… I love it when a show makes you think.
    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

    • Thanks, Susie! Yes, it’s well-worth seeking out. I don’t think the whole thing is up on YouTube, but it’s available to stream on Neflix. It’s also on Amazon’s instant watch and on i-Tunes. And of course it’s on DVD and Blu-ray. Feel free to come back and leave a comment after you see it.

  8. Now I can’t get the tune out of my head. Not a complaint, mind you.

  9. This one and “Number 12 is just like you” make commentary on similar issues. If you can watch that one also, it’s worth it.

    One nice touch I recall from this ep is when the unwrapped heroine runs around a corner smack into the great-looking (to us) young guy who escorts her away.

    She screams and jumps back from him.

    • “Number 12″ is an excellent companion episode to this one, no question. Written by the incomparable Charles Beaumont.

      • In some ways, I think it’s actually creepier than this one. In this one, deviation is mandated, but in “Number 12,” it’s done in this very creepy passive-aggressive way where they keep at the girl pretty relentlessly at the same time as telling her, “Now, you don’t have to do it if you don’t want to.” *shudder*

      • Sorry, conformity is mandated and deviation automatically stamped out.

      • Good point. Yes, the double-speak aspect of “Number 12″ does make it more troubling, in a way.

  10. Such a powerful and deeply human subject. I honestly loved your post and though I have never seen this episode, I now want to watch it for all it has to offer. I read things like this and wonder if I will ever be able to convey such powerful ideas into my stories. It is so easy to take for granted the time and effort it takes to create things that can touch the soul.

  11. I love Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone. Also Night Gallery, The Outer Limits, and Tales From the Crypt which I feel were loyal to Serling’s O Henry aesthetic. Thanks for posting, loved being reminded of one of my favorites.

  12. It has a strong message.

  13. Great analysis of one of my favored episodes. Reminds me of Hitchcock in the way that he makes the user’s imagination create the suspense and as you mentioned, viewers were caught off guard by the soft tones in their voices making it even more intriguing.

    • I appreciate that, Mrs. P! Yes, there was a distinct Hitchcockian flavor to the story. Imagination is a key ingredient in any piece that relies on suspence, and “Eye of the Beholder” certainly does that.

  14. Thank you so much for this article. This helps me a lot, really.

  15. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed. I very much enjoyed the reminisce with Twilight Zone and your analysis…Thank you

  16. What a fantastic post, I really enjoyed reading it. I pride myself on my individuality, but I don’t really like being the center of attention, so it’s a tough one not to conform when you don’t feel strong enough to stand out.

  17. What a very interesting turn on the topic of uniformity and also beauty! One of the best posts ever, and congrats of your fresh pressing.

  18. What a great blog … I found you on FP .. congratulations! I loved TZ when I was a kid and still do to this very day. Great post and I look forward to reading more.

  19. Love this! Reminds me of ‘Invisible Monsters’ by Chuck Palahniuk – a must-read =D congrats on being freshly pressed!

  20. Terrific post. I haven’t seen this, but I’d really like to. I remember seeing this spoofed on Saturday Night Live years ago. Pamela Anderson played Miss Tyler.

  21. What great digital photos! Love this blog!

  22. One of my favorite series of all times. Really interesting movie summary/analysis.

  23. Reblogged this on misentopop and commented:
    Add your thoughts here… (optional)

  24. With all this talk about genetic engineering and the potential that ugliness could be lumped in with genetic deformities this TZ episode does not seem so far-fetched. Are we mature enough to not choose this path? I suppose time will tell.

    • I know what you mean. Some of the classic TZ episodes seem almost like a premonition of the future. Indeed, they’re almost more relevant today than when they first aired.

  25. When I think of the Twilight Zone, I always think of two episodes. The episode where aliens came to eat us all and this one. Love the reminder and the truths you pointed out.

  26. Very good. I am liking it.

  27. Reblogged this on Living in a World of Us and commented:
    The State is not God. God is God, and He made you just the way you are. God doesn’t make mistakes; he makes originals, priceless in value.
    Are you a copy? Or are you an original? It’s your choice.

  28. My friend recommended that I read this, and I’m glad I did.

    It’s hard to get rid of the ideas that are implanted in our minds, but I think breaking free of them is important to every individual so we can see to the truth of things.

    Beautifully expressed :)

  29. It’s my first time to hear of The Twilight Zone (forgive me for my ignorance), but I think I’ll like it. From what I’ve gathered from your interesting post here about it, the work seems to be thought-provoking and is one that pushes the envelope in terms of discussing the society and its many unspoken rules and ways. I think we all need a refresher in terms of reviewing how our society is running these days and how we’re contributing to what is slowly becoming a more judgmental, selfish, and ugly society. Thank you for this post and for introducing me to The Twilight Zone! :)

  30. I’ve watched this episode many times, and even though now when I watch it, it still hits me with a multitude of emotions.
    Rod Serling showed his genius and insight when writing the episodes for the Twilight Zone, especially in this one.
    You did an excellent job writing your commentary on this episode, you have the writer’s gift no doubt about it. :)

    • Thank you! I appreciate the kind words.

      You’re right — this episode showcases so much of what made Serling a top-notch writer. It’s a clinic, really, in how to make an important point in a dramatically interesting, compelling and entertaining way.

  31. The State is not God… it is more real than that.

    Nice comprehensive post, cheers.

  32. Art has no place for passive resignation to social mores and folkways.

  33. I think that episode can’t only be about ugliness. It’s about racism, sexism, and ethnicity.

    • There are several important themes at work, no question. It was my hope to explore those themes, in fact, that led me to write this post.

  34. “Leader’s on tonight.” The nurses in this episode were great.

  35. Well done. This is certainly one of my favorite TZ episodes. Who knew that Ellie May (Mae?) Clampett could do a dramatic role so well? My favorite line, though, from any episode (other than, of course, every single thing that Talky Tina says), is “It’s a cookbook!”

    • Much appreciated! It’s “Elly May,” but we’re more interested in her here as Janet Tyler, of course. And yes, what a great dramatic performance she gave. Glad you enjoyed the post!

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