Watching holiday movies was never a big part of my family’s Christmas rituals, growing up. We watched A Charlie Brown Christmas, Frosty the Snowman and those early claymation flicks featuring Rudolph and Jack Frost, but that was it. Big blockbuster ‘must watch’ holiday classics like A Christmas Story, Miracle on 34th Street and It’s A Wonderful Life never made my radar until after I got married. When it comes to this genre, certain members of my husband’s family are devoted cinephiles, and it was through them that my introductions to A Christmas Story & Co were made. On Christmas day, I watched It’s A Wonderful Life for the first time.
It’s a great movie with a good plot. There’s no disputing that. Though it was by all counts a flop at the box office when it was released in 1946, it has gone on to endear itself to audiences worldwide more than 70 years on – no doubt (by now) recouping any losses it suffered after its immediate release. Did you know Hoover’s FBI investigated the film for being un-American and pro-Communist? Once I found that out, it made me love the film all the more. Hoover’s FBI stood in direct opposition of all the ideals America hold’s most dear today.
As the film drew to a close, I found myself misty-eyed as the people of Bedford Falls clamored around to shower George Bailey with much needed cash to save his father’s loan company. He’d gone to the villainous Mr. Potter – the ruthless Wall Streetesque banker who had chanced upon eight thousand of Mr. Bailey’s bank’s dollars – and begged him for help in the form of a loan. Instead of returning the money he knew belonged to the younger man, Mr. Potter derided and ridiculed him, challenged him to ask his riffraff neighbors for help and then called the cops on him for alleged corruption, y’all! George Bailey was in such a state of despair that he ran home, cussed out his wife and kids and their elementary school teacher, had a meltdown during which he flung several household items around, got drunk, crashed his car and decided to end it all by jumping off a bridge. He is saved by his guardian angel, Clarence, who shows him what the world would’ve been like had he never been born. And though George Bailey was convinced that the world was bleak with him in it, it turned out it was far bleaker for those whom he held most dear without his presence. Bleakest of all was for his long-suffering wife, Mary.
You see, had George never been born, Mary would’ve suffered the most tragic fate to ever befall a woman of her time (and ours, if you live in Ghana): She became an old maid. A spinster. An UNMARRIED – yet gainfully employed – woman. Gasp!
It’s A Wonderful Life will take you on a roller coaster with your emotions. George Bailey’s regrets, sorrows, satisfaction with small accomplishments, his resignation and resolve are all almost so tangible that you feel like you are inhabiting his body, experiencing those emotions in tandem. As warm and fuzzy as I felt witnessing a communal coup de main, I could not overcome the slight frost that crept into my soul whenever I considered Mary.
The film’s two female protagonists are Mary and Violet. They are like the sun and the moon, similar only in their shape. While Mary is cautious and coy, Violet is direct and assertive. They both demonstrate their interest in (the comically oblivious) George in their unique ways, but in the end, it’s Mary that gets the guy. Violet is street smart and canny, whereas Mary is college educated and demure. She shows streaks of passion, but only when George is concerned. I could not abide this about her.
After a childhood separation, the future couple is reunited at a high school dance where half the town shows up. (There’s little to do in a place like Bedford Falls.) After a prank gone awry, both Mary and George are obligated to strip of their clothing and walk home in borrowed clothes, Mary clad in nothing but a robe. They walk along home innocently enough, until a burly pipe-smoking neighbor impatiently screams for George to kiss Mary and stop talking her to death. George screams back that he’ll suck her face off (his words, not mine) if the man would hold on. Mary looks on wide a dumb, wide eyed stare, as though the two men were discussing a can of baked beans and she was a mere observer at the market. Eventually and quite by accident, George disrobes her. She hides in some bushes to protect her modesty. Instead of handing her back her clothes immediately, he wonders aloud if he should sell tickets to the peep show. I know, I know. It was a “joke”. Still, niggro WHAT???
This marks the beginning of their romance – George treating Mary like crap, and she feeding into it, enabling it. I’m sure his ‘charm’ helped her accept his ascorbic treatment of her. At one point in the film, when George is feeling his lowest, he asks her why she’d want to marry a guy like him.
“Because I don’t want to be an old maid,” she joked. (Or so I thought) “And because I want my children to look like you.”
This is how she announced the impending arrival of the first of their four children. Cute.
But you know what wasn’t cute? That same wide-eyed stare she offered when he angrily demanded to know why they had to live in that big, “drafty house” and why they “had to have all these kids.” As though his wife – like the good Virgin herself – simply yielded her body to a deity and got pregnant four times over all on her own. Here’s a thought: Keep ya thang-thang in your pants or wrap it up if you have an issue with all these kids, Georgie!
By the time he’s walked through his alternative reality where he discovers a washed out, dowdy Mary who lives an unfulfilling existence as a librarian and I am too through with them both. But my ire is particularly raised against Mary for wasting everyone else’s resources. I don’t know if she got through school on a Pell Grant or a full ride scholarship, somebody paid for her education. She was a talented visual artist. She dressed well and had a fine sense of humor. There should’ve been no reason or way she ended up as a shell of a woman, simply because George might have never been born. And that this idea – that a woman’s worth is intrinsically dependent on some strange man’s existence – has been propagated through the ages and still persists today is what makes me hate Mary’s character and low-key question the complete worth of this film.
We can talk about the portrayal of Annie, the only Black character in the film, on another day in February.
Had I watched It’s A Wonderful Life when I was young(er) and far less woke, I might be okay with this portrayal of peak Pick Me femininity, but in the year of our Lord, too-thoozin and sebenteen, I can’t allow myself to be. My husband is of the opinion that my feelings of angst are unwarranted because the film’s portrayal of women is a reflection of a by-gone age. However, one only has to take a stroll through the streets of African twitter on a Friday afternoon to know that this is not true. Some things have indeed changed, but a lot has stayed the same.
And that’s not Mary’s fault…but I loathe her for the reminder.
Have you seen It’s A Wonderful Life? What do you think? As we learn more about our humanity, are many of our beloved Christmas classics going to prove problematic – and if they are, are we better off ignoring them for the benefit of the season? You tell me. Discuss!