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The Problem with "It's a Wonderful Life"

Would Donna Reed's character really have lost her sight without Jimmy Stewart?

Key points

  • The movies we grew up watching should be judged in the context of their time, but also be seen for the myths they handed us.
  • The fearful specter of an unmarried woman haunts "It's a Wonderful Life" as profoundly as alcoholism and suicide.
  • Why did librarians appear terrifying in old movies? Was it because any woman holding a book was marginal, or outcast, and therefore dangerous?
  • You can cherish a work of art and yet criticize it; having problems with an old movie doesn't mean you can't still hold it in your heart.

The problem with the Christmas movie It's a Wonderful Life?

Remember Donna Reed's character, Mary?

During the part of the movie when Jimmy Stewart's character, George, gets to see what the world would have been like had he never been born, he witnesses all sorts of tragedies: the death of his beloved brother, the alcoholism and ruin of his boss, and—horror of horrors—the unmarried life of the Donna Reed character.

It is one of the climaxes of the film: George Bailey realizes with misery and terror that, had he never been born, Mary would now be not only single but—gasp!—a librarian!

He concludes, therefore, that his life was meaningful, if only because he saved people from death, ruin, and the sheer misery of a single woman who is perpetually in circulation.

I first wrote about that scene in my 1993 book, Perfect Husbands (and Other Fairy Tales), but decided to revisit it this holiday season.

I put the passage from Perfect Husbands on Facebook and my page lit up, well, like a Christmas tree.

Discovering that I'm not the only one who feels this way about one of America's most iconic holiday films was a relief and a delight.

As soon as I decided to risk exposing myself as a non-lover of the film and posted my Scrooge-like comment on Facebook, my friend humorist Amy Hartl Sherman quipped that "Donna Reed, being the hideous, unlovable person that she was, could not have possibly found another partner, right? But hey, books v. men? Is it really a loss?"

Or as Joanne Brokaw put it, “Thank God George saved her from a life of independence and learning.”

Here I’d been, preparing myself for an onslaught of criticism from the oppressively optimistic (they’re always the first to protest), and instead I was being cheered by a sense of companionship amongst the unconventional, unconvinced, and un-Clarenced.

I sighed and started enjoying the words of my fellow curmudgeons, whom I prefer to refer to as the Righteous and Wise.

“Librarians are freaking superheroes,” wrote my friend from college Lisa Foy. “When I look back over my academic life there was always a librarian swooping in to save the day! By marrying her, Stewart’s character George probably ruined countless lives. It's all about whose lens we look through.”

Speaking of lenses, I hadn’t noticed that Lone Mary—the one in the alternative narrative—was wearing glasses whereas Married Mary didn’t need corrective lenses. Only when I read the following exchange between Anna Maria Trusky and Bonnie Jean Feldkamp was I made aware of this difference. Trusky pointed out that “Bizarro World Mary WORE GLASSES! No wonder nobody else ever made passes at her,” to which Feldkamp replied “I can only assume she wore glasses because if you do it without a partner... you'll go blind.” Added Risa Nye, “And she’s doomed to a life without tweezers, apparently.” (Mary’s eyebrows are rather rangy.)

Providing an excellent example of precisely this is former UConn English major Kellan Beale, who hints that we should not be surprised at Lone Mary’s shock and distaste at being accosted by the George character she’s never met in her alternative life: “Can anybody blame her for not feeling big romantic or sexual feelings for a guy she doesn't know who starts molesting her on the street?”

As you get older, you notice the details. As you become a feminist and aware of how images of gender are formed by the culture, you start to reconsider passages, scenes, and dynamics you once took for granted as “natural.”

Yes, of course the movie was made in 1946 and reflected the issues and values of its day: How could it not? Yes, Capra and Stewart had both seen horrors during WWII, which informed their work in a film grasping at joy from within the framework of PTSD (under a different name), emotional depression, suicidal ideation, fear of failure, the crisis of masculinity as it was being redefined in a family-oriented and civilian setting, and the question of immortality.

No, Mary’s eyebrows are not as significant as Zuzu’s petals—even I'm not cranky enough to make that claim.

But examining the origin stories of our own mythologies—If women don’t marry, or if they don’t marry young, or if they have to have careers, or if they wear glasses, or if they don’t have children, or if they don’t pluck their facial hair, their lives are not worth living even if angels exist—can make us aware of how of our beliefs were formed. We can still enjoy the original works of art.

Or not.