It’s a Wonderful Life
Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore
Written by: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra, Jo Swerling
Directed by: Frank Capra
How good is this movie?
There’s a reason this movie is a beloved Christmas classic. George Bailey is a true hero: someone who continually does what’s best for other people rather than following his own ambitions. It has a broad cast of endearing secondary characters. The bizarro sequence neatly demonstrates how social injustice makes otherwise decent people cruel. It avoids the cliché of giving the villain his comeuppance, instead focusing on how the good guys support one another. And, of course, it has one of the most famously heartwarming endings in all of film history!
How ace is this movie?
Admittedly, I may be biased by the oddly inverted way I relate to this movie. George Bailey has, essentially, the life I’ve always dreamed of: a loving family, lots of friends, and a job that is truly meaningful. Of course I’m glad he finally learns to appreciate them! But there are also ways the film seems to resonate with my aceness – despite its sometimes insistent heteronormativity.
Heterosexual romance is a running theme in the movie. Mary declares her love for George when still just a child, and apparently remains constant in her feelings. During their rather tedious courtship scenes, George insists that he doesn’t want to get married, and that he is more interested in travel and adventure than in settling down. However, his dreams are continually frustrated, and Mary eventually gets her wish to marry him and start a family together. The implication is that getting married is better than achieving your dreams – or, at least, that it is fair compensation for having them crushed. The heterosexuality of the other characters is also asserted. Almost every guy in town seems to have a crush on Violet. And the Building & Loan is all about providing housing to nuclear families. It is also interesting that the villain, Potter, appears to be unmarried and childless.
However, the movie is not only a celebration of heteronormativity. Platonic bonds are also very important to the story. George works hard to help the people of his community, earning their friendship and respect. At the end of the movie he is declared a rich man, not just because of his family, but because of his many friends. The film even seems to critique heteronormativity slightly through the character of Violet. Violet does not follow the conventional path of marriage and motherhood, yet she is still a sympathetic character who maintains a good relationship with George. Most interesting is the scene where she kisses George on the cheek and Mr Carter infers that something is going on between them – an erroneous assumption that reveals his heteronormative bias.
And George’s story is actually one that, as an ace person, I take a lot of comfort in. As much as movies celebrate heterosexual romance, they also celebrate individual achievement, the relentless pursuit of grand dreams and success against all odds. George certainly does have grand dreams of leaving his small town and making his name in the wider world. But, unlike most movie heroes, he does not achieve these dreams. He fails, and fails, and fails again, and at the end of the movie, he is still a failure. That is, he is a failure by his own standards, by Potter’s standards, by the standards of Wall Street and the press and the U.S. Army.
What does that have to do with asexuality? Well, being ace also means failing – failing to experience sexual attraction, failing to form romantic relationships, failing to be “normal”. In my case, it means the life I have as an adult is very different from the life I imagined for myself as a child. In “The Queer Art of Failure”, J. Halberstam explicitly links failure to queerness, arguing that being queer means “failing” at the kind of gender-normative reproductive heterosexuality that society idealises. But this “failure” can actually be a form of empowerment and resistance. It invites us to question and critique mainstream notions of “success” and brings us into community with those society has left behind.
George does not become rich, famous, or powerful; he does not make a killing in plastics or win the Congressional Medal of Honor. But he does help the underprivileged to achieve a degree of dignity and security – arguably a greater accomplishment than Potter’s or Sam’s or even Harry’s. And it is only possible because George does not succeed in the conventional way. His life ends up being “wonderful” in spite – nay because – of his failure.
There may be a lesson in there for aces. If we “fail” at conventional sexuality, maybe conventional sexuality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Maybe we are, in fact, part of a community of “failures”. And maybe we have something else to offer – something that’s even better.
4 Stars; 3 Aces