It’s a Wonderful Life of Toxic Masculinity

Meleah York, Editor-in-Chief

Most of us know the classic film It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) directed by Frank Capra. It’s a warm-hearted Christmas movie enjoyed by families around America, encapsulating the life of an average man named George Bailey living in the town of Bedford Falls. He longs to escape his small town to go to college and travel around the world. Following the death of his father, George takes over the building and loans company after threats by rival Mr. Potter to destroy its efforts of helping the people of Bedford Falls through fair and lenient loans.

When Potter steals vital money needed to keep the building and loans open, George feels his life is in ruin, and attempts to commit suicide before being saved by an angel named Clarence, who shows him what would have happened to Bedford Falls if he had never been born. Seeing this phenomenon helps George realize his true impact on the world, and the movie ends with him returning home to the townspeople donating some of their own money to him, helping him after he had helped so many of them for years.

As beautifully portrayed as the movie is, it’s very telling of the times back then. I’ve always been drawn to this film for a specific reason: the actions of George Bailey and how he handles his emotions as a man in the society of the 1940s.

Beginning with George’s childhood, we see a significant instance of adult male superiority being asserted by his boss, the town pharmacist. As a young boy, George worked delivering medicines and running the ice cream bar. When George catches his boss, Mr. Gower, in an emotional drunken state over the sudden death of his son, filling up medications with poison, he hesitates to tell him about the mistake as he is instructed to deliver the medicine.

After a failed attempt to ask his father what to do, George returns to the store to face a drunk and angry Mr. Gower questioning why he received a call from a client asking when their medication would arrive. In the back room of the pharmacy, Gower slaps the sides of George’s face as he explains through his tears that there was poison in the capsules, which Gower tests and realizes his mistake. Gower falls to the ground holding George in his arms and apologizing profusely.

This is a prime example of the male mentality in the mid-1900s, asserting dominance with physical force as a result of emotional trauma. Society’s pressure on men to suppress emotion oftentimes leads it to explode in a destructive way. My personal theory is that George, upon seeing Gower’s outburst, made a mental reminder of what emotion can do to a man. Seeing a retaliation such as this could have contributed to George being given the wrong impression of how one should be able to express emotion.

George Bailey kept everything built up inside. Every time he had a chance to leave Bedford Falls, he didn’t take it because another situation would always come up. Choosing others before yourself, and more importantly your own dream, takes energy, and George never took the time to fully process those emotions of being held back.

Everything gathered inside George and when it exploded, it had an extreme negative effect. We see him walking into his house after losing the money they needed, and while the home is warm and filled with Christmas decor, George finds minor things to get upset over, lashing out at his family before sitting down and grabbing his youngest child, holding him close and crying.

The sudden shift he makes from anger and frustration to sadness is evidently a result of pressure he has put on himself, the man of the house, the breadwinner, and because society trained him to not acknowledge his own emotions.

One of the telling instances that corroborates this theory is how extreme George’s reaction is, as it reaches to the point where he seriously considers suicide. George has a seemingly fulfilling middle-class style life and nothing up to this point has indicated suicidal behavior.

We’ve come a long way from the stronger eras of toxic masculinity, but we still see its effects today. Although this is an analysis mostly done for my thoughts on this movie to be more organized, it’s still insanely important to bring to light the destructive and crippling effect of society telling men to “man up,” telling them not to cry as children, and giving them examples of violence through action that give them incorrect interpretations of what letting out emotions is supposed to be.

Encourage the men and boys around you to be human. Give them a safe space where you listen and support them. Maybe we can redefine what it means to be a man.


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