More thoughts on one of my favorite movies
Beats me why I'm on a sudden streak of wanting to write about these things. Might have something to do with my recurring bouts of the flu that land me in front of the TV for hours at a time. Anyway, I was thinking about the post I wrote recently on "It's a Wondeful Life", and how I criticized the scene where George Bailey finds out that his wife would have been, horror of horrors, unmarried if he had never been born. I am always jarred by that false note, but there are other ways that I really like the way that their relationship in portrayed.
One scene that really stays with me, and a lot of viewers I'm sure, is the scene where George goes bananas with his anger, scaring his wife and his children. His wife is angry with him, but ultimately impotent to do much about it except invoke his responsibilities as a father to guilt him into calming down. (Obviously, it doesn't work.) The dynamic at work is so very, very common in intimate relationships between men and women it is cringe-inducing.
Even happy people in happy homes go through foul moods and existential crisises. In my house, existential crisises are a dime a dozen. I think that's common with creative people--the two big existential crisises being, "What am I doing with my life?" and "Why do I feel so alone?"
Crisises and foul moods are things to get over or to indulge, and there is no doubt that who gets indulged and who has to slap on a smile and get over it are groups that are sifted out by gender, as well as by social class. (I remember many a time in college being amazed at fellow students who didn't take on a full classload but just lived off their parents while they were finding themselves. I would have been cut off and told to work for a living for my own good.) But my interest here is in gender roles in who gets indulged and who has to get over it, because in the context of a marriage, like the one in "It's a Wonderful Life", the husband and wife are usually of the same social class.
I cannot for the life of me imagine a scene in a movie playing out in exactly the same way as George Bailey's temper tantrum with the sexes reversed. Can you imagine Mary Bailey screaming and yelling like that? Yeah, didn't think so, even though she is facing the same dashed dreams and financial ruin as George. It's not necessarily that women are naturally more gentle, though it reads like this in the film. It's just that female temper tantrums are not indulged, as a general rule. If the scene had played just like that with Mary, instead of George, losing her temper, the audience wouldn't have maintained sympathy throughout but would have instead been horrified at her ineptness as a mother--and as a wife.
There's strict gender role-playing in that scene. Authority and responsibility for everything are Men's jobs and we cluck in sympathy when they suffer from the burden. (That George the person is breaking under real pressures doesn't change the gender roles at play here, I don't think.) But Women's only real responsibility is to comfort their hard-working men and they must live frivilous lives in order to keep the good cheer that their men can find comfort in. (Think of how Mary is busy with the frivilous task of hanging Christmas decorations while George is suffering.) It's the angel-in-the-house view of marriage that is put forth in this scene, and it works on the audience almost unconsciously.
These gender roles are pretty hard to escape. One big frustration in my life is how to subvert this kind of mindless role-playing in my own relationships with men. It's difficult to avoid petty squabbles and resentments when one person's foul moods are Romantic whereas the other's are Pouting. And it's even harder when I realize how thoroughly I've absorbed the notion, albeit unconsciously, that my problems need to be covered up while I have usually done what I can to comfort the men in my life and give them respect for their burdens. Suffice it to say, in trying to get past these mindless patterns, I've had my creativity taxed.
Of course, the argument can be made that the film ultimately rejects the version of manhood where suffering is Romantic and argues instead that we should see ourselves mostly as members of our community and part of a larger whole. I definitely am impressed by how well that point comes across, and how it's an excellent refutation of the John Wayne image of manhood.