It’s a Wonderful Life, Unless You’re a Man (Guest Voice)
It’s A Wonderful Life Unless You’re a Man
by Daniel Sherman
Real men and the women who knew their place are a dying species these days. Decades of a feminizing culture have led to American decline and decay. Or so a fair chunk of the aggrieved white male block on the right would have it.
We’re not talking about troglodytes like Alex Jones and Steve Bannon. Nor the gullible and credulous, who bumbled into a Trump rally almost by accident because Joel Osteen is in town next week. Those people will write a check for anything.
Let’s take a look at the hypertensive guys on the middle right. The straight white ones. The ones who believe that life was, and could become again fundamentally fair. It’s hard to imagine a member of a racial or sexual minority suffering the same delusion, so straight white conservative men is today’s topic.
Their definition of masculinity is a key to where they think things went wrong and how they could be made right again. As we rappel into this dark cavern of male anger, we encounter all the usual fauna skittering across walls or hanging in the nooks: the ideas that strong men take what they want, they are anointed leaders and kings and if women gave them what they wanted instead of being so bitchy all the time even more would get done.
Rappel further down and we stir up a colony of sophomoric words flitting about on the alt-right. “Cuck” or “cuckold,” a preferred term of derision for conservatives who are able to disguise their anger at women and minorities. It’s a dichromatic world in which men are “alphas” or “betas”. Women are either sexually attractive and compliant or histrionic lesbian harpies.
We don’t need to go all the way to the fermented guano pile at the bottom where the Jones’s and Bannons live; in fact let’s hoist ourselves back to daylight, go home, take a long hot shower, and see what’s on the tube tonight.
Ah yes, eggnog and rum in hand, here we are in the season of holiday classics. Now those were days of real men and real women, when America won wars every time, Detroit made cars with true steel, and the colored help was always smiling. That was the forging of the Original American Man, solver of problems and taker of no shit.
If any movie can be said to wrap up the ideals and gender roles of the Americans who won World War II and built the world after, it has to be Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. The lead was Jimmy Stewart, that’s a classic American male if there ever was one.
Yet the ideal of white, straight manhood presented by this Greatest Generation morality play is at the antipodes of what’s being touted as “manhood” today.
First off, Stewart’s character George Bailey was a great dancer. I am not kidding. In his day, dancing well was not an option or a hobby, it was required woman-wooing activity. Foxtrot, waltz, jitterbug. Bailey rocks The Charleston right into the swimming pool. Why is this important? Because men back then didn’t take themselves too seriously. Today’s constipated grumps don’t dance because they don’t think they’ll be good at it, and they don’t want to be bothered to have to impress women. Yesterday’s guys weren’t so vain or preening, like it or not the inability to dance would have been seriously disqualifying.
George Bailey wasn’t suave or a seducer, in fact he was a hapless goofball in the face of Mary Hatch’s advances (played by the wholesome Donna Reed). His hammy line about lassoing the moon for her was what men had to come up with to show sweetness. Contrast with “grab a woman by the…” Well, you get it. In 1946 small town America a comment like that about a local girl could have uncles and brothers showing up to straighten a feller out right quick.
As Bailey spirals towards his moment on the bridge, a hot-headed conversation with his daughter’s school teacher leads to him getting punched right in the kisser by her husband. See, back then men defended their wives whether or not it was convenient. Sorry about that, Mrs. Cruz.
Bailey wasn’t a hard-ass, but he sure wasn’t a complainer. Half-deaf, unfit for military service, ambitions thwarted by family demands, he did what he could and didn’t blame others. Compare to the jeremiads of a Trump rally, the endless lamentations and casting of blame. It takes an enormous chunk of daytime hours to attend a political rally, if we’re not talking about students or the retired, the people who are busy improving their lives and careers couldn’t carve out the hours and energy required.
Idealized men were doting fathers in 1946. We don’t see Mr. Bailey changing diapers, but he’s warm and affectionate with his kids. When parenting stresses him out and he boils over, he’s quick to apologize and show remorse. Today’s right advocates the increased beating of children.
Bailey’s stance on foreigners was clear, he goes out of his way to lend money to accented immigrants, even showing up on their doorstep to congratulate them on their new home. One can safely doubt he’d want to finance building a wall through the fictional town of New Bedford.
Like many men today, life’s pressures drive Bailey to drink and contemplation of suicide. In the movie an angel intervenes, but it’s really a prop to stage the intervention of his friends. That’s what rescues his savings and loans and culminates in the central theme of the movie: “No man is a failure who has friends.”
Do today’s disgruntled men have friends? Not a drinking buddy or cohort at the office. I mean friends with jumper cables. Friends who, when you lose your job, write you a check. Friends who tell you when you’ve been a public jackass. And remind you of it for years.
Sauced on drink and pills, troubled men today wind up on the same bridge Bailey did, but in our world neither angels nor friends appear. They jump or they don’t, but if life goes on it would be remarkable if it included a single best friend.
Back in the real 40’s and 50’s friendship was integral to manhood. You joined the Rotary Club or the Lions, or got on the board of a charity, or fixed up hot-rods. And they had a blast, it was all ashtrays and drinks and hi-jinks. Crew-cut military officers in Southern California started swapping wives at key parties in the 50’s. That’s a group of buddies. If you didn’t belong to a group or have other men from whom you could seek advice and help from, your character was suspect already. What kind of man are you?
The ideal of manhood being peddled by and to “conservative” men is in fact radical and unprecedented. The definition of manhood has never failed to include the vulnerability, failure, loss, and sacrifice that is required to transition from boy to man. Bailey’s succumbing to desperation and panic, and reliance on his friends to survive is not a regrettable detour but the very path to the halcyon ending: loving and loved father and husband, small business owner of no great fortune but sterling ethics.
Trump’s voters have a basket of motives, but the untested boys who think we need more pure testosterone in the system have signed themselves up for an economic shtupping of legendary proportions. White conservative males are prostrate and weakening. The world will continue to change whether they like at or not, and their parochialism and regressive values will only hurt them. To put it in the sniggering adolescent terms they might prefer, the next four years are going to be less It’s a Wonderful Life and more like Deliverance for them.
Daniel Sherman is an entrepreneur in the import/export business. He divides his time between Italy and Chicago. He is developing a book, Good Enough, for adolescence on the topic of ethics.