This Isn’t The Christmas Movie Revolution We’ve Been Waiting For

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Stacy Lee Kong

Jan 06 2021

9 mins read

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Hi! I’m Stacy Lee Kong and this is Friday Things, a weekly newsletter about a pop culture story I can’t stop thinking about—and why it matters. If intersectional takes on media, entertainment and celebrity gossip are your jam, subscribe here.

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I started getting excited for Christmas over the summer. Or, more accurately, I started getting excited for Christmas movies over the summer. This isn’t as ridiculous as it sounds though—the two biggest players in the Christmas movie game, Hallmark and Lifetime, kept attracting media attention for the diversity in their upcoming holiday programming and I couldn’t help but look forward to seeing some (slightly) different stories on the small screen this season.

(For the record, I’m actually an extremely reasonable person who waits until November 1 to start playing my Christmas pop playlist. “Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays” forever, y’all.)

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In July, Hallmark Channel’s parent company, Crown Media Family Networks, revealed that this year’s slate of movies would include “LGBTQ storylines, characters and actors” after Twitter users side-eyed its 2020 lineup, which at the time did not have any queer representation despite consisting of 40 new Christmas movies. (That list did include seven films starring racialized actors, and even one Hanukkah movie, Love, Lights, Hanukkah! starring Mia Kirshner and Ben Savage. But we had to wait until September to find out that Mean Girls’ Jonathan Bennett would be starring in the network’s first film featuring gay protagonists: The Christmas House, about a couple trying to adopt a child during the holidays.)

Then, Lifetime revealed its 30-movie holiday lineup in August, and it included even more history-making representation. In addition to its first movie with gay protagonists—The Christmas Set Up, about a big-city lawyer whose meddling, Milwaukee-based mother tries to set him up with his high school crush, because why have one trope when you can have them all?—the network is also airing A Sugar & Spice Holiday, about a Chinese-American family in small-town Maine and Christmas Ever After, which stars Ali Stroker, who uses a wheelchair, as a romance novelist who falls for a hunky innkeeper. (Of course she does.) This is in addition to eight other movies featuring racialized protagonists, including the Tiffany Haddish-produced Christmas Unwrapped and Merry Liddle Christmas Wedding, which stars Kelly Rowland. And that’s not even including streaming services, which have produced or are distributing movies like Jingle Jangle, Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker and Happiest Season.

But now that the holidays are actually, officially here, I’m not sure if my excitement is actually warranted. Or rather, if there’s quite enough to be excited about. We’re still at the very beginning of diversifying this genre, after all, and that makes for some awkward movie moments.

How did holiday movies even become a thing?

If you’ve somehow missed the Christmas romcom phenomenon, first of all—how? And second of all, please allow me to provide backstory: It all started with Hallmark, which aired its first original holiday movie in 2000, when it was still known as Odyssey Network. The Christmas Secret, a family fantasy-drama starring Beau Bridges, was such a hit that the company began producing more original holiday content. By 2009, it had launched its annual Countdown to Christmas programming block. Over the next decade, it steadily increased the number of holiday movies it produced, many of them romances starring a rotating cast of approachable, almost exclusively white, B- and C-list actors. Think, Candace Cameron Bure, Lacey Chabert, Lori Loughlin (before the whole prison thing), Kellie Martin, Danica McKellar and Alicia Witt.

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Christmas programming became a huge financial boon for the network—in 2016, 2 million people tuned in to Hallmark during November, with another 4 million watching its movies come December. The strength of the network’s holiday-themed movies, which are mostly shot over the summer on a tight three-week schedule for about $2 million each, helped it rake in an estimated $431.3 million in revenue that year. It’s no wonder Lifetime and Netflix took note.

Diversity hasn’t historically been a strong suit

The thing is, non-Hallmark productions still tend to replicate the same tropes as Hallmark movies: big-city (insert “cool” career here) returns to her hometown (which is always small, or at least suburban), where she reconnects with a former crush/love/enemy, who is now a (insert working class or small business career here). While there, our protagonist is thrown together with the handsome former whatever to help save (v. important local landmark). They obviously fall in love, and she learns the true meaning of Christmas in the process.

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If you’re not into these movies or don’t celebrate/care about Christmas, I get how that sounds. But the predictability is the value proposition here. These movies are comforting, familiar and they always offer a happy ending. I don’t actually mind that these protagonists are always architects or journalists with remarkably flexible deadlines (ha!), or even that the storylines all kind of blur together. The fact that these stories are usually about white people who exist in strangely homogenous worlds, though? That’s harder to swallow.

But it’s also part of what it means to be racialized in a white supremacist society. Even the seemingly simple, unimportant things take on outsized meaning because they are yet another example of a world that doesn’t see us, or even acknowledge that we exist. (Seriously—count how many racialized people appear in Christmas movies that aren’t explicitly about Black people. The number usually hovers somewhere between zero and two—if there’s a sassy POC BFF and she has a love interest, too.)

Honestly? It’s only marginally better this year

And that’s why the announcements from Hallmark and Lifetime were initially so exciting. Movies that not only acknowledge that people of colour, gay people and people with disabilities are here, but also centre us? An actual Christmas miracle!

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But now that I’m actually watching these movies—or at least, have them on in the background while I do other things—I’ve realized that they’re not quite the diversity win that I thought they’d be. Yes, there have been some really lovely moments that make me feel seen, even if it’s not actually my culture onscreen. There is something deeply satisfying about seeing racialized people, and especially Black women, portrayed as deserving of love and happy endings. I love seeing families that remind me of my own doing regular old holiday things. And yes, it still gives me a little thrill to see people who look like me in spaces where I’ve rarely seen them before.

But… these movies are often just as cookie cutter and superficial as the ones starring Loughlin and the gang, which means they’re not really handling race (or anything else) super thoughtfully. In some ways, that’s fine—that’s what they are after all. But I still want them to accurately represent these communities and identities… and that’s a lot to ask of fluffy movies that get written, filmed, edited and aired in the span of a couple of months.

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Also, even when they are made with a lot of thought, they can still get it wrong. Take Happiest Season for example. I haven’t watched it yet (it’s not out in Canada until Dec. 9), but I’ve been reading all the reviews because a) I don’t care about spoilers and b) I’m excited for this one, even though there are some well-established problems with the plot. And everything I’ve read makes a similar point: this movie isn’t perfect. In fact, its premise is actually pretty cruel. But there are only a few movies in this genre featuring a love story between two women, so is any kind of critique actually possible? As Rachel Charlene Lewis put it in her very thoughtful review of the movie for Bitch, “we haven’t reached the point where there are enough of these films for me to feel like I can really pass any sort of judgment; how do you judge the first, second, or third of something?”

But I still want them to succeed, even if they’re not perfect

Of course, it’s not just that there aren’t a lot of movies like Happiest Season or Merry Liddle Christmas Wedding. It’s also that audiences are savvy; we understand that these things get made because someone believes they will make money, so we feel pressure to make sure “our” movies do well, even if they’re not perfect, so that studios see the value in telling our stories. Alex Zaragoza made a similar point in her review of Selena: The Series, which premieres on Netflix today.

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Selena: The Series | Official Trailer | Netflix - YouTube


Before she became the Queen of Tejano Music, Selena Quintanilla was a young girl from Texas with big dreams and an even bigger voice. Selena: The Series expl…


“It’s clear that Selena sells—she’s a figure so revered within the Latinx community, the series can’t lose. The people will stream,” she writes. “But it’s hard not to feel pandered to, especially when the series isn’t doing anything major to further Latinx representation aside from being… available? Others may feel differently and that’s more than their right. Still, the tacit threat hanging over Latinx viewers’ heads is that if we don’t watch a film or series, or god forbid we don’t like it and want to watch, then we’ll never get anything else for years. That sucks.”

That’s not to say we can’t enjoy what we’ve been given this year. It’s been a tough one—of course we can try to shut our brains off and just enjoy the pretty people falling in love. But I don’t think we should get complacent either. Simply swapping white people out for BIPOC folks or telling variations on the same few stories we’ve already seen isn’t enough. We deserve this year’s diverse holiday movie lineup and better. As Lewis wrote about Happiest Season, “there is room for growth. There is room for more. There is room for us to, one day, really see ourselves onscreen.”

And Did You Hear About…

Bon Appétit’s latest misstep. Sigh.

This thoughtful essay about Elliot Page’s announcement that he’s trans, and why it’s so important that it was joyful.

Former J. Crew creative director Jenna Lyons’ next phase.

Cardi B’s Billboard profile, which includes the best quote of all time: “I want to show people that you can do positive things, but you can also be yourself. I like justice. I like to work and be creative. But I also like popping my pussy.” An icon!

Twitter’s (slightly dramatic) reaction to Spotify’s Unwrapped stats.

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