How does the Emmy winning 1960 Twilight Zone episode "Eye of the Beholder" address the concepts of reality and enlightenment? How are the McCarthy era and the Civil Rights Movement tied to these themes?
The late Rod Serling seemed to be channeling his inner George Orwell when he wrote the script for an episode of his television series Twilight Zone titled Eye of the Beholder. Not only does Serling borrow heavily from Orwell’s dystopian futuristic society in 1984, with its omniscient autocratic regime and perversion of language for political purposes – video monitors throughout the hospital that read, “Obedience Leads to Harmony” – but he also seemed to be influenced by Joseph Losey’s 1948 film The Boy with the Green Hair, about a child whose hair turns green, resulting in his treatment as a social outcast. Eye of the Beholder, of course, tells the story of a woman, Janet Tyler, Patient 307, whose physical appearance is concealed behind heavy layers of bandages. We are led to believe that she is hideous, possibly the result of birth defects or scars from some kind of horrific accident. That something is not quite right, however, becomes rapidly apparent. We never see the faces of any characters – until near the end, when they are all revealed to be hideously ugly and Patient 307 – the dehumanizing use of a numerical moniker further emphasizes her alienation from the rest of society – is strikingly beautiful, at least from our contemporary subjective perspective.
Serling’s dialogue is heavily tilted towards the tyrannical emphasis he hopes to bestow upon the viewer. It is also heavily oriented towards those very subjective perspectives of physical beauty that lead humans to categorize those deemed attractive as somehow superior to those considered unattractive, leaving those with disfigured appearances, or those born without the physical attributes commonly associated with physical beauty, marginalized and even ostracized. When Janet Tyler shrieks hysterically, “I don’t want to live among the freaks; I want to live among normal people,” she is expressing the natural reservation among much of mankind about living among those with whom we do not share an appearance. The implications are clear: racism is an illness just as undemocratic as the tyrannical dictates that require those like Patient 307 to be ostracized and cast out among the proverbial lepers, forced to live in their own villages with similarly unattractive people.
Eye of the Beholder is Serling’s indictment of social and political movements that marginalize and even criminalize those with whom we do not agree. In a rare display of emotional objectivity, the doctor, previously an orthodox representative of the tyranny of the majority (“I’m just a doctor; only the state an determine social policy”), begins to question the autocratic society in which he is forced to function, asking rhetorically, “Why? Why shouldn’t people be allowed to be different?” Meanwhile, the Great Leader appears on the video screens that line hallway walls to sermonize against nonconformity (“Tonight I shall talk to you about glorious conformity”). “Dissent,” the leader opines, “was once assumed to be a natural and healthy adjunct to society.”
Eye of the Beholder is a screed against tyrannies of the majority, including that which tore the nation apart during the era known as McCarthyism. It is an indictment against the policies of racial segregation that continued to permeate the American South. The Voting Rights Act was still five years into the future when Serling wrote the script for his popular television series, and the height of social tensions that would explode across the United States had yet to materialize. This episode, however, marked Serling and director Douglas Heyes’ (the episode would be remade in 2003 by director David Ellis) public stance against the narrow-mindedness that was continuing to prove too resilient across the American political landscape. What the episode lacked in subtlety (“Who decides what’s normal? The State isn’t God!”) it more than made up for in the moral courage.