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