After an unlikely comeback in the 1970s by turning into an annual network TV staple every Christmas, It’s A Wonderful Life is no doubt one of the greatest holiday movies ever. Revisited by millions of audiences since its 1946 theatrical release, the Frank Capra-directed masterpiece starring James Stewart and Donna Reed has become a timeless classic among popular culture, synonymous with the holiday season as it grows every year with new audiences falling in love with its saccharine charm and message. But as the sentimental vision of reality amid an ordinary man’s discovery of the extraordinary qualities he possesses is often revered by critics and fans alike, there is one part of It’s A Wonderful Life that audiences have strong feelings about.

Picking up from an alternate reality of Bedford Falls without George Bailey (Stewart) through the help of guardian angel Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers), the beloved protagonist learns the love of his life, Mary Hatch (Reed), has amounted to nothing in this world without him and touted an “old maid.” Okay, “nothing” might be dramatic but “old maid”? She’s a librarian and to be honest, it’s pretty wounding to librarians all over and possibly, elderly maids scrubbing mega-mansions. But as a film born in a time when gender roles were often rooted in archaic, patriarchal models that restricted feminist ideologies and freedoms, one can’t help but wonder if being an “old maid” really is that bad. Moreover, was it a necessary term for the Christmas classic?

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“She’s an old maid; she never married!”

Donna Reed as Mary Hatch in It's a Wonderful Life
Image via Paramount Pictures

After George goes on what feels like an acid trip for the Bailey Bros. Building and Loan banker, he learns from the lessons instilled by Clarence that he truly lived a “wonderful life.” Had he not been born, he would never have helped so many in the Bedford Falls community like Mr. Gower who became homeless, his brother Harry would have died early on, and his uncle Billy would be committed years later. Moreover, it is loud and clear how many of the women in It’s A Wonderful Life have no actual significance outside the role George provided them as seen with his mother Ma Bailey (Beulah Bondi) withdrawing into a bitter old widow and Violet Bick (Gloria Graham), who becomes, as jarring as it feels in a world without George, a prostitute.

However, it’s the revelation in the alternate universe about his one true love, Mary Hatch, that really rocks George to the core despite every other misfortune he’s encountered. In all horrors, she has become an “old maid” that works at the library. It’s kind of funny because the asexual caricature of such a trope elevates the moment as Mary is seen dressed in dark clothes, wears no makeup, has thicker eyebrows and glasses, which might be the most humorous in terms of how George’s existence somehow impacted her eyesight. But as it’s understood she’s single and not at all ready to mingle with the opposite sex, it’s also recognized she is a librarian — something librarians might be feeling the burn over. But the good news here is if we dig out the clichés and look at the choices she made (sans marriage), it can be seen how Mary is a career woman in all senses of feminist independence, challenging stereotypes, then and now.

Hot dog! Sure, it was the 1940s, but Mary working meant the “old maid” had a regular paycheck and if she worked for the local library in the New York state, chances are they were city government paid salaries endowed by the Carnegie Foundation. Not to mention, libraries don’t just hire anyone. According to Buzzfeed News, to be a librarian requires a proper education and for some libraries, a master’s degree. Mary working at a library while making good money as noted in studies means she was doing well for herself while serving the community — something she characteristically does in the real Bedford Falls with her husband, George and their children. So, being an “old maid” really isn’t all that bad in hindsight even if it’s a divisive term. She led a quiet life, owed nothing to anyone, and with her drive to be something, could potentially be anything.

But Is Mary Being an “Old Maid” in 'It's a Wonderful Life' a Real Stereotype?

James Stewart and Donna Reed in 'It's A Wonderful Life'
Image via Paramount

While stereotypes might exist on the surface for the “old maid” status of Mary, it might not have been intentional through Capra’s vision of a dominant American culture imbued in It’s A Wonderful Life. Instead, George and Mary’s life without each other is a tragic love story, either way it’s observed. Mary might have had a job, a steady paycheck, and an education but it can be argued in those 30 seconds of George confronting her outside the library in an alternate Bedford Falls that she actually led a very lonely life. Being an “old maid” not married and unattached meant the loving, caring, and sharply focused Bailey bride never met her one true love in George. Even with Sam “Hee-Haw” Wainwright (Frank Albertson) in the picture much to her mother’s enthusiasm, Mary never wanted to settle down with him.

Does this reinforce a feminist narrative of sticking to your guns and never compromising? Possibly. Reducing it to a stereotype means Mary is still not her own person without George and unable to make good choices, when in every way she has for the circumstances she found herself in. But as we know from the movie’s message, It’s A Wonderful Life plays every sense of the classic to the theme of love for a broken man in George Bailey. He finally learns how the love of family, community, friends, and a companion like Mary Hatch, a woman quick on her feet and sharp in focus, leads the charge for his personal purpose. Even in the alternate reality, George doesn’t seem to care she’s an “old maid,” he just wants to be with her again and see their children.

But as “old maid” will no doubt be trending on social media with reactions from audiences new and old whenever the film airs, it should be noted this isn’t just a tired old trope playing to antiquated norms. Hinting early on that the two are soulmates to audiences, in one scene, George reveals to Violet he was on his way to the library, implying he spends a lot of time reading and exploring literature. (This we know is also true from his early interest in reading National Geographic and wishing to explore the world as a kid while working at Mr. Gower’s pharmacy.) Later on, when George and Mary are married and moments before she tells him she’s pregnant with their first child, he asks why she married him, to which she replies, “to keep from being an old maid.” In the alternate reality of Bedford Falls without George where Mary is an “old maid” closing the library, her choice in being a librarian points to the fact that the two are legitimate soulmates. Mary being in that exact location as a single librarian in a George-less existence was her getting as close as possible to where a life with him could have been real, supporting the idea that they are a genuine match made in heaven.

When not together, George and Mary aren’t exactly whole and while this makes sense in every bit of their relationship throughout the movie as the pair become intertwined puzzle pieces in completing one another, “old maids” and librarians might still find it hard to believe.