Within the genre of Christmas classics, “It’s A Wonderful Life” is a household name. It airs on TV each year during the holiday season and continues to charm the hearts of Americans young and old for its inspirational message: “No one is a failure who has friends.”
Viewers are familiar with the basic plot, which involves a discouraged George Bailey deciding to jump off a bridge on Christmas Eve, and his guardian angel Clarence saving him by showing him what life would be like if George had never been born. A lesser but important supporting character is housewife Mary Bailey, who at first glance appears to be simply the tranquil homemaker who takes care of the house and helps raise their four young children. Upon a deeper analysis, Mary is not only indispensable to the film, but she is also an embodiment of conservative family values.
Mary Bailey’s primary role is in the home, but her actions speak volumes both inside and outside the Bailey residence. She is presented not as a housewife stuck and bored at home, but as a creative, uplifting member of her family and local society. Her creativity is shown when she chooses an abandoned, “drafty, old house” to be their home. She installs wallpaper, patches up holes, hangs posters and paintings, and beautifies their living space both frugally and efficiently.
She gives back to the community while sacrificing her own personal comfort, such as putting forward the money intended for her honeymoon in order to keep the Bailey Building and Loan afloat. She volunteers for the United Services Organization during World War II. She contents herself by loving her family and living within her means in spite of reminders from more well-off friends that she could be driving a flashier car, wearing more expensive clothes, or be married to a husband with a higher salary.
A Housewife’s Prayer
Throughout the film, she quietly follows George’s lead, whether it is blessing a family in need with provisions or patiently tending to her children while George works long hours to support his family. For all these reasons, it is clear that the young Mrs. Bailey is a respected individual in the small town of Bedford Falls when crisis strikes.
After $8,000 is misplaced at the building and loan and George’s mental health is in shambles, it is Mary who begins a phone chain to raise funds and rally prayer for her husband. In the film’s opening scene, these prayers are the very ones we hear, which waft up to the heavens and initiate Clarence’s rescue mission to prevent George from committing suicide. All theological errors and somewhat cheesy stereotypes about angels and heaven aside, this situation raises the following question: Did Clarence save George, or was it actually Mary Bailey?
Mary’s vocation as a stay-at-home mother is the opposite of how society would define a successful woman, if society can even define “woman,” that is. Not only is the role of traditional motherhood looked down upon, but women are also fed the feminist narrative that true fulfillment means accomplishing her own version of self-actualization and finding liberation from the home, husband, and children. This message is found in many places, whether it be a birth control commercial, leftist post-Roe social media campaigns, or, more recently, Meghan Markle’s new chart-topping podcast, “Archetypes.” While these sources are intended to provide empowerment to women, they actually accomplish the opposite: selfishness, dissatisfaction, and weakening of the family structure.
Postmodernism’s Ego Problem
In a recent “Archetypes” episode, the duchess of Sussex addresses some of the challenges facing mothers and wives today, paramount of which is the guilt mothers shoulder over not being able to accomplish everything they would like to for their spouses, children, and themselves. Markle and the Canadian prime minister’s wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, discuss this issue as existing on a pendulum, with the “I can do it all” mindset on one end and despair and shame on the other.
Markle and company’s solution for achieving a healthy balance plunges into postmodern, metaphysical territory. A woman should exit this rollercoaster of extremes by becoming “deeply connected to her own knowing,” as Trudeau declares, and, in Markle’s words, by “breaking free of whatever is expected.” The duchess reads an excerpt from Dr. Shefali Tsabary’s “A Radical Awakening,” stating that when a woman “drops the role of savior, she can only save herself.”
As Markle continues to converse with other women, including lesbian comedian Sam Jay and single-mom actress Pamela Adlon, it becomes clear that the only voices that matter on her podcast are ones who are interested in breaking traditional systems, abolishing the nuclear family, and redefining the roles of wife and mother to be whatever feels right to the individual. Not only are these ideas gross subversions of the family structure as our Lord designed, but they also end up putting the emphasis once again on the individual woman. It still becomes up to her to fulfill her destiny, define what it means to be a good wife or mother, and, in Tsabary’s words: “save herself.” The result of this egocentric pandering is that it turns into self-idolatry, thus moving the woman farther away from her family and their needs.
Whether we are reflecting on family values in our current culture or in Mary Bailey’s post-war America, the primary tenets of motherhood remain the same: to raise educated, healthy, content members of society. This duty does not require postmodern navel-gazing and mystical truth-defining. It requires self-sacrifice, discipline, compassion, and ideally teamwork with one’s husband — another component all but missing from Markle’s philosophy.
Although it implies that traditional family roles are stifling and archaic, the nuclear family is actually regaining traction and provides an environment for optimal child development. In many cases, this involves the husband being the breadwinner and the wife taking charge of domestic sphere tasks, a way of life that is actually more popular than the media would have us believe. Although this choice often involves women sacrificing personal and professional goals, putting family and children first is not only an honorable endeavor, but it is also crucial for society to survive — else we face a culture of Mr. Potters, warped and frustrated with no one to care for them in their old age.
This Christmas season, let us not view Frank Capra’s classic film as a quaint anecdote with outdated stereotypes, but as a tale that still carries relevance for contemporary families. More critically, we must continue to encourage and support the George and Mary Baileys of today.