Within the grand history of storytelling there are many terrifying alternate universes. The Skynet apocalypse of the Terminator franchise, the X-Men’s Sentinel-laden “Days of Future Past” reality, the devolved, ultra capitalism of The Running Man and the brainwashed secret civilization of They Live. But perhaps none are as harrowing and vacuous as the one created and shamelessly peddled nearly 24-hours a day in the lead up to Christmas by the Hallmark Channel.
This network named after a seasonal greeting card empire is something I only recently discovered after relocating to California to live with my husband. Even though I was raised in an almost fanatically atheist environment by my overbearing dad and non-denominational mum, I’ve always loved the atmosphere that surrounds Christmas. The twinkly decorations, the idea of families spending time together, and the fun lightness that seems to follow people who celebrate the spirit of the season.
About a month ago I found myself temporarily bedridden following some some pretty hardcore dental surgery, which is how I discovered the strange universe of the Hallmark Christmas movie. On the surface, these films are presented as feel good romps set around the holiday season. They undoubtedly include a burgeoning romance and without fail manage to always feature a happy ending. After a lethargic day of convalescing when I could barely breathe let alone change the channel, I ended up watching an entire day of these movies. I quickly noticed what seemed to be a vague pattern and by the end of the evening I’d realized that these movies followed less a pattern and more a startlingly bleak set of rules.
Let’s begin with the protagonist. She is ALWAYS a white woman who’s “quirky.” According to Hallmark logic, that means that she runs a completely viable business such as “Christmas gift buying,” “failing family bakery,” or is just really passionate about “crafts.” This half baked one line synopsis of a rejected character from Sex In The City is presented as the heart and soul of our festive tale. She’s in the process of “finding herself” while subtly seeking a tall handsome man to give her stability and security.
Inevitably our protagonist will bump into–usually literally–a man from her past or the man of her future. He’ll have a perfect family, but just feels a little “out of place” in life. Occasionally, just to mix things up, he might be a cold, detached, rich man who employs our leading lady. Or, just in case two potential storylines reused across hundreds of holiday films aren’t enough for you, they’ll throw in a mysterious prince from a small sovereign state in Europe. Whatever the circumstance, she meets a man–a white man–and together they will teach each other the most important Christmas lesson of all: settling is fine as long as you’ve exhausted all of your other options. It’s just a real shame that no one ever taught the male “boss” characters about inappropriate work relationships. The Ghosts of Sexual Harassment Lawsuits Past. Now there’s a Hallmark movie I’d pay to see.
These contemporary Romeo and Juliet stories often take place in one of three locales. Most commonly, it’s the hometown of our blogger/baker/candlestick maker who experiences some kind of generic life event like a divorce or a failed business venture and has to return to the affluent suburbs that birthed her as she moves back in with her rich and lovely parents. Sometimes we’ll follow a harried yet home-owning young woman who lives in the (all white) city and works for an awful company that clearly has absolutely no HR department. There was also a period around 2011/2012 where they were solidly making films for fans of the royal wedding, as occasionally you’ll get a very strange tale of a hardworking middle class girl who ends up in a made up sovereign state somewhere in Switzerland after her long-term boyfriend lied about being the heir of a dying aristocratic house.
The oddest locale, and possibly even a one-off, was a small town called “Hollyvale.” The protagonist–who in this rare case is a well-known TV journalist–is forced on the threat of a career-ending pink slip to visit–as part of a mortifying month long televised event to “find her Christmas spirit” after accidentally knocking a guest over into a Christmas tree and declaring she hates the season on national television. Hollyvale is supposedly the “most Christmassy Town on Earth,” though the plot of the movie is essentially based around a town wide conspiracy to break our successful career woman by creating a false mystery about a missing Christmas tree. So clearly the residents are wholly too invested in the holiday and probably spend the other eleven months of the year plotting malevolent pranks to punish all who dare not to love Christmas.
Santa is obviously one of the most iconic parts of a contemporary Christmas. Fitting in perfectly with the vapid emptiness of Hallmark movies, this creepy old man who breaks into your house and was literally designed to sell you a fizzy drink is often the moral compass of these films. One of the most resoundingly spooky of Hallmark’s self-imposed tropes is that any time a mall Santa appears on screen he will undoubtedly be revealed as the “real Santa.” This is usually signposted when he makes inappropriate comments filled with information that a stranger should never know about you. If there’s a callous boss involved at some point he’ll probably get fired just to highlight how morally corrupt you would have to be to fire THE REAL SANTA.
Once you get past the obvious Twin Peaks/Stepford comparisons, you start to get a feel for what Hallmark is really selling with these interchangeable suburbs filled only with affluent white nuclear families or bustling cities filled only with white singles looking for that one special someone to move out into an interchangeable suburb with and have some kids. Because all of the white women who inhabit this world, no matter where they begin, end up with one thing–a white, cis, able bodied, male partner with whom they’ve never slept with and only ever kissed. The whiteness, heteronormativity, and ableism that pervade these films are gross in their explicitness. Even with research I’m yet to find a Hallmark Christmas movie that has a queer couple, a person of color, or a disabled person as a lead. It extends beyond their lead casting too as the human mise-en–scène of these films is almost exclusively white and straight.
A Hallmark Christmas movie often seems like a two hour long cinematic response to the perceived and innately false “War on Christmas,” a safe space for racists and homophobes who can only imagine a world that looks and thinks like them. These “idealized” versions of modern day life often watch like adverts from a near future Trump resort–an all white enclave of rich fascists perhaps–living in a straight, cis, able bodied world where the worst thing that can happen is your chosen love interest buying you a present so extravagant that it belies their commitment and gives you momentary cold feet.
Essentially these films act as a time capsule of the insidious and systematic nature of racism and homophobia that continues to permeate culture in 2016. While the police are still killing black people by the hundreds and we’re seeing an epidemic of murders of transgender people–the majority of whom are people of color and/or sex workers–along with a steep rise in all other hate crimes, this kind of whitewashed, straight baiting, blunt as a hammer aspirational bullshit being presented as wholesome family entertainment by the Hallmark Channel is more than just condescending. It’s incredibly dangerous.
The thing is there’s nothing wrong with spending your days at a tough retail job dreaming of meeting a mysterious person who’ll change your life. There’s nothing terrible about wanting to take refuge in fantastical love stories that are viewed through a candy cane striped lens. The problem comes when the only people who are allowed to see themselves in these stories are white, cis, and straight.
Hallmark doesn’t have to go very far to make their special kind of saccharine sweetness palatable for everyone. It just takes casting more inclusively and hiring creative teams that actually represent the diversity of people in America. The hard question isn’t what can Hallmark do. It’s why aren’t they already doing it?