“The State Is Not God!”: How Rod Serling Addressed Social Inequality in The Twilight Zone
From “The Big Tall Wish”, The Twilight Zone, Season 1, 1960
by Michael A. Moodian
They say a dream takes only a second or so, and yet in that second a man can live a lifetime. He can suffer and die, and who’s to say which is the greater reality: the one we know or the one in dreams, between heaven, the sky, the earth in The Twilight Zone.
—Rod Serling in Perchance to Dream (Beaumont & Florey, 1959)
Throughout the course of 20th century, many great writers elaborated on their perceptions of zeitgeists that defined popular culture. Rod Serling, creator of The Twilight Zone, was one of the most successful. His science fiction series, which ran on CBS from 1959 to 1964, presented entertaining storylines covering a wide range of topics, including invaders from outer space, deadbeats inheriting mystical powers and a talking doll that murdered Telly Savalas. However, beyond the veil of the plots, Serling provided his commentary on salient topics affecting society in the midst of the Cold War: justice, war crimes, altruism, cultural imperialism, natural rights, crimes against humanity, crimes against peace, autonomy, civil liberties and multiculturalism. He focused many of his stories on matters of social inequality and societal impacts of a populous stratified by race and economic class.
Serling was able to do this because television programs such as his that focused on the supernatural allowed him creative freedom without concern for the controversy that would surface had his work focused on stories grounded in real-life situations. As Christopher Cappelluti (2012) writes in his Berfrois essay:
Though shrouded in allegorical science fiction and fantasy, Serling was able to get his message across under the censors’ radar, because they failed to delve into the deeper meaning of his scripts.
A repeated theme in Twilight Zone episodes was mankind’s quest for youth and the stigma of ageing. In “The Trade Ins”, John and Marie Holt, elderly and sick, visit New Life Corp. to take advantage of the breakthrough science of rebirth through body swapping—individuals pay for a procedure to have their elderly bodes swapped with younger, healthier bodies. “To be young again, to live without pain, to have it all over again, Marie, just you and I, the two of us,” John Holt proclaims (Serling & Silverstein, 1962). The one critical problem is that the procedure to change both of them costs $10,000, but the couple only has half that. They ultimately decide to have only John undergo the procedure since he suffers from more substantial pain. After swapping bodies with a younger male, he meets his elderly wife, and the two realize that it would be too awkward for the two of them to live together with such an age difference. As Marc Scott Zicree (1989) writes, “[John Holt] runs smack into a painful truth: that where before he and his wife are united by age, now they are separated by it; he has gained a new world while she has lost the old” (p. 292). John decides to return to his previous body, and the two depart the center with a renewed love for each other.
Through the lens of the sociological activity theory, the Holts are structurally segregated and isolated from society (Mooney, Knox & Schacht, 2009). They are elderly and lack the vigor, health and energy of the youth. Ultimately, in “The Trade-Ins” and other Twilight Zone episodes, Serling’s cynical view of the world is apparent in the despair and destitute outlook of the aged. The Holts are captives of a divided society that values youth, vitality and physical beauty.
One can learn about the man Serling was by reading his tombstone. He did not want to be remembered as a winner of numerous Emmy awards, but simply as a man who served his country during World War II. (Photo © Michael A. Moodian)
Meanwhile, in “The Big Tall Wish”, Ivan Dixon is a past-his-prime prizefighter who engages in a comeback fight in which he is pummeled, yet magically wins as a result of the dramatic wish of a boy named Henry (Serling & Winston, 1960).[i] The episode explores concepts of the hopefulness and innocence of youth versus the acceptance of dark reality that comes with hardened experience, as well as race, as an element of oppression. In many ways, professional prizefighting was a microcosm for ethnic and racial stratification in the 20th century.
The sport—ruled at the time by titans such as Archie Moore and Floyd Patterson—attracted America’s working poor, individuals who fought for a living to work their way out of poverty. Professor Jay Coakley (2009) refers to the sport as a “refuge from the violence, hopelessness, and indignity of the racism and poverty that framed their lives since birth” (p. 338).
Sociologist Loïc Wacquant examined the complete social world of a boxing gym in Chicago and found, “It is created in connection with the social forces in an ethnically segregated ghetto and its masculine street culture, but it also shelters black men from the full destructive impact of those forces” (Coakley, 2007, p. 111). He adds, “The experience of living in the social world of the boxing gym separated the men from their peers and kept them alive as they navigated their lives in dangerous neighborhoods devoid of hope or opportunity” (Coakley, 2007, p. 111).
The episode is also notorious as a display of the exploitation of professional boxers. Before the fight, Dixon breaks his hand after an argument with his corrupt manager, yet still participates in the fight, certainly because he would not be compensated if he withdrew. As Coakley (2009) indicates, most professional fighters come from low-income backgrounds and rely heavily on trainers and managers. Therefore, they trade control of their physical beings to continue competing, resulting in a situation in which they cannot negotiate the conditions of their sporting careers without adequate resources.
Class inequality was certainly a theme throughout The Twilight Zone. In “The Obsolete Man”, Romney Wordsworth is a librarian in a future totalitarian state who is ruled to be obsolete because books and libraries are no more and he believes in God, given that “the state has proven that there is no God” (Serling & Silverstein, 1961). The state has authority with absolute power and lacks a majority-democracy of reasonable pluralism. Here class structures are well defined, with power elites in complete control, infringing upon individual liberties and human rights of all citizens. The episode is also a commentary on the transcendent universalism stressed in the Bible and most world religions, such as the belief that all human beings are children of God (Bennett, 2004). After tricking the chancellor and confining him moments before he is executed by a massive explosion, Wordsworth allows him to leave when he pleads to be released “in the name of God” (Serling & Silverstein, 1961). In the end, the chancellor is ruled obsolete when he disgraces the state through his cowardly act of acknowledging God. In Serling’s closing narration, he says, “Any state, any entity, any ideology that fails to recognize the worth, the dignity, the rights of man, that state is obsolete.” The episode is a powerful commentary on the oppression of an underclass, in this case a member of the intelligentsia who is deemed useless within this societal superstructure.
From “Eye of the Beholder”, The Wilight Zone, Season 2, 1960
In “Eye of the Beholder”, Janet Tyler completes her eleventh and final medical procedure to try to convert from what society considers an ugly face to one that is normal. After her bandages are removed, Tyler resembles an attractive human being, while the doctors and nurses, representative of normal looking people, have faces that would appear to our society as ugly and severely disfigured. In the end, she is transferred to a “communal group of people with [her] disability” (Serling & Heyes, 1960), what she earlier refers to as “a ghetto designed for freaks,” segregating those who are dissimilar from those who are ordinary. Again, the state has ultimate control. Most noteworthy is that Tyler, the lead character in the program, is a woman. This alludes to the social construction of gender in contemporary society. As a result of the cult of domesticity, a patriarchal society works to undermine the self-worth of women (Bonvillain, 2001; Coltraine, 1998). In return, a massive-scale body dismorphia exists in which women have tremendous pressure to conform to imposed societal norms. In his address to the nation, the leader stresses the need for “glorious conformity” and a “unified society” (Serling & Heyes, 1960). Frustrated by the power of the state, Tyler shouts, “The state is not God!”
Through the lens of the gender schema theory, society imposes norms on cultural definitions for gender (Coltraine, 1998). “When the culture (language, art, customs, economy, polity, etc.) is stereotyped according to gender, children become gender schematic without even realizing it” (p. 121). Tyler, as with many women in androcentric Western society, is a prisoner in her body; no matter how many medical procedures she completes, she is unable to look like others based on gender constructs and models, as well as culturally-based assumptions (Bonvillain, 2001).
Beyond The Twilight Zone, Serling addressed important concepts in his movie The Man, which draws parallels with current times in which an African American becomes president of the United States (in the case of Serling’s story, through the lines of succession).[ii] In the film, bigotry and racial tensions reach an ultimate pinnacle, which is eerily similar to the reactions of some Americans to Barack Obama’s election. Serling also cowrote the screenplay for the original Planet of the Apes, though the final script was significantly different from his initial vision. The movie presents a variety of themes, including xenophobia, religious freedom and animal cruelty.
We were deprived of decades of Rod Serling’s artistic virtuosity when he died at the untimely age of 50. He once said, “We’re developing a new citizenry. One that will be very selective about cereals and automobiles, but won’t be able to think” (Brandt, 2000). This prediction has come true, thus Serling’s work is as essential and relevant as it ever has been. Through The Twilight Zone, his masterful ability to provide social commentaries will continue to live.
[i] I elaborate on The Big Tall Wish in my paper, Paranoia, Intercultural Conflict and Social Inequality: An Analysis of The Big Tall Wish and The Shelter. Read it here: www.moodian.com/serlingpaper.pdf.
[ii] Serling reworked the Irving Wallace novel. Read a New York Times review of the movie here: http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9A0DE6D71F31E73BBC4851DFB1668389669EDE.
Beaumont, C. (Writer), & Florey, R. (Director). (1959). Perchance to dream [Television series episode]. In B. Houghton (Producer), The Twilight Zone. Los Angeles, CA: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Bennett, M.J. (2004). Becoming interculturally competent. In J. Wurzel (Ed.), Toward multiculturalism: A reader in multicultural education (2nd ed., pp. 62–77). Newton, MA: Intercultural Resource Corporation.
Bonvillain, N. (2001). Women and men: Cultural constructs of gender (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Brandt, L.J. (2000). Rod Serling on the way to fame. Retrieved April 8, 2012, from the Rod Serling Memorial Foundation Web site: http://www.rodserling.com/ljay.htm
Cappelluti, C. (2012, February 16). Rod Serling’s time and space craft. Retrieved April 3, 2012, from the Berfrois Web site: https://www.berfrois.com/2012/02/world-full-of-maple-streets/
Coakley, J. (2009). Sports and society: Issues and controversies. New York: McGraw Hill.
Coltraine, S. (1998). Gender and families. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.
Mooney, L.A., Knox, D., & Schacht, C. (2009). Understanding social problems. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.
Serling, R. (Writer), & Heyes, D. (Director). (1960). Eye of the beholder [Television series episode]. In B. Houghton (Producer), The Twilight Zone. Los Angeles, CA: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Serling, R. (Writer), & Silverstein, E. (Director). (1961). The obsolete man [Television series episode]. In B. Houghton (Producer), The Twilight Zone. Los Angeles, CA: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Serling, R. (Writer), & Silverstein, E. (Director). (1962). The trade-ins [Television series episode]. In B. Houghton (Producer), The Twilight Zone. Los Angeles, CA: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Serling, R. (Writer), & Winston, R. (Director). (1960). The big tall wish [Television series episode]. In B. Houghton (Producer), The Twilight Zone. Los Angeles, CA: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Zicree, M. S. (1989). The Twilight Zone companion (2nd ed.). Beverly Hills, CA: Silman-James.
About the Author:
Michael A. Moodian (pictured with Carol Serling) is a writer from Southern California. He spoke on the topic of social inequality in The Twilight Zone at the 2011 Rod Serling Conference in Ithaca, NY. Contact him through his website, follow him on Twitter (@mikemoodian) and subscribe to his Facebook updates.