I’ll admit I was tardy to The Twilight Zone party but losing my job due to the pandemic led to it becoming one of my most-watched shows during the shutdown. I believe it’s still streaming as I’m typing this but I ended up buying the complete original series on DVD so I’d have it for good then.
The classic science-fiction show ran from 1959-64 over five seasons. It was created and hosted by Army veteran/writer/actor Rod Serling. The Twilight Zone tackled subjects such as racism, beauty standards, and war with a degree of subtlety that ranged from minimal to non-existent.
Before Serling created the classic show, he was working as a freelance script writer for radio plays and television shows and, even though he was a freelancer, he was still facing criticisms from studios about how direct some of his stories were and corporate censors came in to water down his stories. One such story was Noon On Doomsday where a Jewish pawnbroker is lynched in the southern States. During a radio interview, Serling stated that the story was based on the events that lead up to the lynching of Emmett Till and the network censors came down on him and forced the setting of the story to be changed to the New England area and the victim to be an “unknown foreigner”. A couple of years later, Serling wrote another story based on the Till lynching and CBS still made him alter his story and it made it set a century in the past and removed the racial dynamics of the story.
Getting frustrated with censors constantly cutting his stories down and political statements and ethnic identities getting washed out, Serling decided to create his own show. Serling believed that using thematic sci-fi and even some elements of fantasy, the stories would make it past network sponsors and censors, no matter how blunt the story was or not. Serling wrote/co-wrote 92 episodes of The Twilight Zone, many times pulling from his own life experiences, but he entrusted sci-fi writers Richard Matherson and Charles Beaumont frequently to write episodes for the show, as well.
With The Twilight Zone taking the more sci-fi approach, it also leaves the stories and ideas more open to the interpretation of the viewers.
For this discussion/list, we’ll only be looking at episodes from the original run of the show. When it ended in 1964, the Stonewall Riots were still five years away and Harvey Milk was thirteen years away from being the first openly gay elected official in California.
Eye of the Beholder (season 2, episode 6) written by Rod Serling
I caught this episode one morning on tv and it’s the spark behind this list.
The master class in blocking and lighting leading up to the big reveal of the nurses and doctors with faces that resemble pig snouts helped to make this one of the most popular and memorable episodes of the show.
The episode tells the story of Miss Janet Tyler, as she waits to remove the gauze covering her face after her ninth surgery in an attempt to make her look “normal”. Through tears, she pleads with the surgeon that she never wanted to be a picturesque beauty but she just, “wanted people not to scream when they looked at me”.
Gender dysphoria can affect those are trans or nonbinary and body dysmorphia can affect anyone, especially those in the LGBTQ+ community. As open minded as many people in the community may be, there’s still some who hold beauty standards for “cis white gay men” or “passing” trans people.
The backdrop of this episode is very 1984 with the standards of beauty being set by the state and the Leader (“Big Brother”). As the surgeon begins to question what he’s been doing, asking the nurse, “Why shouldn’t people be allowed to be different?” she shushes him and he’s simply reminded of, “treason”.
If the surgery fails Janet, yet again, the surgeon tells her of a place where those who are “different” are sent to be congregated and she defiantly shouts, “Congregated? You mean segregated.” She might as well have had a pink triangle on her hospital gown or been locked inside of a room as part of conversion therapy.
The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street (season 1, episode 22) written by Serling and Will The Real Martian Please Stand Up? (season 2, episode 28) written by Serling
I’m pairing these two together because at their core they are very much the same and, thus, very much the same story of the public trans experience. Both are stories of humans vs unseen “monsters” or aliens. Both can be seen when legislation came about that limited bathroom access for trans individuals.
The transgender bathroom access discussion became a national debate when North Carolina prohibited people from using the bathrooms that matched their identity, rather forcing people to use the bathrooms with their assigned sex at birth. What followed was hysteria and violence aimed at people who were trans and nonbinary who may or may not have been using the “correct” bathroom either in schools or other public places.
During Will The Real Martian Please Stand Up? as their eyes circle the diner, trying to decide who might be the alien, one man comments, “we’re all kids in a closet here,” And isn’t it ironic, don’t ya think? Everyone has their turn taking the brunt of the suspicion over these two episodes, being suspicious of the “oddball” ones, the quiet neighbor, or the eccentric old man. People can be suspicious of the woman with the deeper voice and stubble on her chin and it can lead to someone’s death.
At the end of Will The Real Martian Please Stand Up? it’s revealed that there were really two aliens in the diner; not just one. One of the aliens hails from Mars, the other Venus. Looking at solar system symbols, the Venus symbol is the female symbol we see and the Mars symbol is the symbol for males. While it was common for sci-fi stories of the 1950s to talk about “invaders from Mars”, it’s quite the tale of Mars and Venus coming together when people become paranoid about the gender expressions of those around them.
As we hit the climax of The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street, Charlie panics and shoots at a figure walking towards them, killing it. Turns out, it was Pete van Horn, the neighbor who went over to the next block to see if the strange happenings were going on over there, too. He pleads his case, ”how was I supposed to know he wasn’t a monster or something?” as he was defending himself. The gay/LGBTQ+ “panic” defense is a way to bolster a defense strategy in assault, manslaughter, or murder cases that, “asks a jury to find that a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity/expression is to blame for a defendant’s violent reaction”.
The defense strategy has been banned in sixteen states, including the District of Columbia, with legislation to ban the bullshit defense having been introduced in ten more states but not passed at the time of this article.
Serling’s closing monologue for The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street is really the blanket monologue for this list. It reads as such,
“The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices, to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own for the children and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone.”
A Piano In The House (season 3, episode 22) written by Earl Hamner Jr.
For the birthday of his young girlfriend, rich and arrogant Fitzgerald buys a player piano. He doesn’t know when he buys it, but the tunes the piano plays reveal peoples’ “true souls”. Once he realizes that people are very “susceptible to the power of music” when it plays, he lets the power of the knowledge go to his head to try and get people to be truthful about feelings that they may have been hiding.
One party guest, Marge, a robust woman, reveals an alternate side to her named Tina who enjoys dancing and that she also finds herself a fair, slender, and lovely snowflake. After the piano stops, and the laughter at Marge’s expense stops, Fitzgerald admits he picked her because she’d be the butt of the joke, a spot that many fat people, LGBTQ+ people, and especially fat LGBTQ+ people have landed in fiction and reality.
The Trade-Ins (season 3, episode 31) written by Serling
Elderly couple John and Marie Holt are in the market to buy fresh, young bodies for themselves in hopes to alleviate the physical pain of aging. The “New Life Corporation” offers them a chance at “rebirth”, for a price, of course. The salesman assures them though that, “instead of the end, it would be the beginning”.
There are many trans people don’t come out until later in life and it could be for a multitude of reasons. Seeing a violent world against the LGBTQ+ community, religious backgrounds, or maybe even fearing that their own children would reject them.
It’s the cost that scares John and Marie the most and the New Life Corporation doesn’t offer credit. The couple only have enough money to pay for one of them to get the transference to the younger body and that’s after they’ve drained their entire savings. John tries to gamble to get the rest of the money so they can both get the transference and can be happy together. In 1972, John Wojtowicz attempted to rob a Chase Manhattan bank in Brooklyn, NY, to get money for his lover Liz Eden, to pay for gender affirming surgery. The story later inspired the 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon with Al Pacino starring as Wojtowicz.
The Masks (season 5, episode 25) written by Serling
Just looking at the title of the episode, you can probably tell where this one is heading. An elderly man, Jason Foster, is on his deathbed. He arranges for his children and grandchildren to gather for a party for the reading of his will where he has arranged masks for all of them to wear. The rules are that, “one tries to select a mask that is the antithesis of what the wearer is,” and that they have to keep the mask on until the clock strikes midnight. The one who wins will win his entire estate.
The traits on trial in this episode are greed, disrespect, bravery, cowardice, selflessness, vanity, civility, and, ultimately, life and death. In the most negative way, the masks that members of the LGBTQ+ wear are those of dishonesty. We’re back into corners and have to wear masks to protect ourselves. Masks that say we’re heterosexual or masks that line up with the sex we were assigned at birth with strictly masculine or feminine traits and nothing else. The masks that the LGBTQ+ wear are masks to protect us as much as possible from the violence and cruelty that can be targeted at us.
At the end of this episode, none of the kids win and their faces become permanently grotesquely distorted, mirroring the look of the masks that they were wearing, damning them, “they now wear the faces of all that was inside them.” For those who are in the LGBTQ+ community, taking the mask off has the opposite effect where it can be a weight off of your shoulders and leads to expressions of beauty and happiness.