By Sabienna Bowman
The Twilight Zone was known for pushing the boundary of our imaginations, but the series nearly pushed that boundary to its breaking point when it introduced us to a reality where ‘60s sex symbol Donna Douglas was considered hideous. The episode in question is the iconic season two outing “Eye of the Beholder,” starring both Douglas and Maxine Stuart as Janet Tyler, a lonely woman who undergoes 11 experimental treatments in the hopes of altering her appearance just enough to live within a society that values conformity above all else.
As Rod Serling intones at the start of the episode, Janet “lives in a very private world of darkness, a universe whose dimensions are the size, thickness, length of the swath of bandages that cover her face.” The hook of the episode is that we do not see Janet’s face—or the faces of any other character—until the final moments of the episode. Until then, Janet remains swathed in bandages, leaving the viewer to conjure up horrible images of what might lie beneath until the final reveal. The episode is so famous now that the big twist is common knowledge: Janet is, by all accepted standards, a great beauty, while the rest of the members of her society sport monstrous, twisted faces.
Rod Serling wrote the episode himself, and his intent was not to comment on physical beauty standards but to address the McCarthy-era pressure to conform. When the episode aired in 1960, Hollywood was just beginning to reemerge from the shadow of the blacklist, and the injustices of the era were still lingering in the cultural consciousness. In response to the dangerous ideology of conformism that Sen. Joseph McCarthy and others of his ilk espoused, Serling created a rigid, all-controlling state of twisted pig-faced people and plopped Janet, a woman with a face that even Helen of Troy would envy, right in the middle of it and labeled her the transgressor. It’s not a subtle metaphor, but it is effective. Who among us would think a world where someone who looked like Douglas was persecuted for her appearance was a just one?
Serling had an agenda of his own to service, and for that reason Janet is less of a character and more of a symbol. She represents the danger of giving the government, or any entity, too much control over our lives. Like many of the poor souls that wandered through the fourth dimension, she finds herself trapped in a cautionary tale from which there is no escape.
A character with so little canon to explore would generally not be noteworthy, but despite her minimal screen time, Janet is inarguably iconic. It is her desire to conform, or barring that, to challenge the notion that people should conform, that has left a lasting impact on the pop culture landscape. She endures not because she is remarkable, but because she is relatable. We have all felt the pressures to conform, to fit in, to look, dress or behave in a manner that the society we live in deems acceptable. Her story is intended to be an allegory for McCarthyism, but it also acts as a not-so-subtle reflection of the society we live in today, where body policing, particularly where women are concerned, is still the norm.
When we first meet Janet she is in the hospital undergoing her eleventh attempt to twist her features into something “normal” that will allow her to live among people without them cowering away from her in fear. If the eleventh attempt fails, Janet is told that she will be sent to a community for people who are like her—an idea that causes the otherwise desperate woman to lash out at her doctor. “You’re talking about a ghetto, a ghetto designed for freaks!” she screams before insisting that “the state is not God.” Serling could have easily made Janet a helpless victim who accepts her fate willingly, but he wisely chose to give her some fight. We get the sense that there is a revolutionary’s heart lurking beneath those bandages and the innumerable layers of insecurities that stem from having people literally recoil from her in revulsion. The moments where Janet lashes out at the doctors and nurses who treat her as a thing to be pitied more than as a human being (they refer to her by the dehumanizing moniker of Patient 307) are as cathartic as the moments when Janet sinks into despair are painful.
The great irony of the episode is that for all of its postulating about how beauty is in the eye of the beholder and nonconformity is the way to go, it ultimately plays into traditional beauty stereotypes. For the majority of the episode, Janet is played by character actress, Maxine Stuart. Stuart has starred in dozens of television programs over the years, including The Donna Reed Show, Chicago Hope, and Trapper John, M.D. It was the actress’s sympathetic voice that landed her the role of Janet. Without the benefit of seeing her face, our only chance to connect with Janet comes from her impassioned monologues about loneliness and her desire to lead a normal life. For the conceit to work, our hearts have to break as we listen to her plead to be allowed to sit in the garden at night so that she might feel like she’s truly a part of the world, if only for a moment. And our heart does break because Stuart sells every single line of dialogue, even the most heavy-handed of lines, with absolute conviction. Because of Stuart’s talent, we feel Janet’s desperation and the weight of her sorrow.
But her voice could only carry her so far. When the time came for the bandages to come off, Stuart had to hand the character over to the more traditionally beautiful Douglas, who would go on to play Elly May Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies. Viewers could sympathize with Stuart’s voice, but her face was not deemed beautiful enough to provide the necessary shock for the final reveal. In that way, Serling played right into accepted notions of beauty. It seems average looks versus humans sporting melted pig faces just wouldn’t cause the viewers at home to feel outraged enough on Janet’s behalf. She couldn’t just be pretty, she had to be stunning. The idea directly undercuts the nonconformist theme of the episode, and it’s hard not to wonder how the impact might have been changed had Stuart been allowed to see the character through to the end. Still, the two performances come together to create one fascinating character.
At one point in the episode, Janet plaintively asks, “Why shouldn’t people be allowed to look different?” Knowing that Stuart was under the bandages at the time makes the moment all the more poignant. It’s not as if casting Douglas was an intentional slight against Stuart; as a woman who had worked and would continue to work in Hollywood for years to come, she surely understood that was simply the nature of the business. Traditional beauty reigns supreme and even an episode of television that preached the value of embracing the things that make us different couldn’t upset the status quo of Hollywood casting.
Our final image of Janet is one of her walking away with a man who is her equal in looks. He’s leading her to her new home, the community that earlier in the episode she feared would be a ghetto, giving the story an inverted fairy tale ending. Janet is rescued by a handsome prince, even if she sees him as a monster. Nothing is truly resolved, the controlling regime is not toppled… conformity wins onscreen and off, but therein lies the sneaky greatness of the episode: Janet does not escape the societal pressures to conform and neither can we, at least not completely, making the classic episode, and Janet herself, eternally relevant. (Cue The Twilight Zone theme song.)
Previously on Women in the Box: Katherine Chancellor, The Young and the Restless
Sabienna Bowman is a freelance writer and regular contributor at TV Equals and Film Equals. You can find her previous work at Wit & Fancy. Fun fact: “Eye of the Beholder” was the first episode of The Twilight Zone that she ever watched. Follow her on Twitter @sljbowman.