Turns out, putting LGBTQ characters in a Hallmark holiday movie gives you a Hallmark holiday movie

Turns out, putting LGBTQ characters in a Hallmark holiday movie gives you a Hallmark holiday movie

The last couple of years have seen the major producers of TV holiday movies start coming out with movies centering on LGBTQ characters. That in itself may be countable as progress—if you think it’s progress to move toward the idea that LGBTQ stories can be told in the most aggressively homogenized of all genres, one dictated by an old-school notion of wholesomeness and in general characterized by utter chastity, one or two extremely low-heat kisses being the usual peak of sexual expression in these movies. In a world where plenty of people, too many of whom write laws, think that simply mentioning the existence of a child’s two fathers or two mothers, or a teacher’s same-sex partner, is an unacceptable discussion of sex for a child to be exposed to, it is progress, really it is. 

But an interesting question is whether and how this genre allows itself to be changed by telling LGBTQ stories and when and where moments of difference show up in the movies. Uncritical incorporation of new groups of people into a beloved genre is one form of cultural change. Allowing the beloved genre to shift in response is another. One way to put it is, is there anything specifically LGBTQ about any given movie? The answer, in each of these cases, is yes, though not necessarily very much—it can be an amount that feels calculated to offer a bare minimum.

Single All the Way was released by Netflix in 2021; also in 2021, Lifetime released Under the Christmas Tree. In 2022, Hallmark came out with The Holiday Sitter, Lifetime offered A Christmas to Treasure, and we got A Jenkins Family Christmas from BET. Notably, four of these five movies center on gay men, the exception being Under the Christmas Tree

RELATED STORY: Old flames, baking competitions, and saving the family business: Time for some holiday TV movies

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All of them deploy at least some of the key tropes of TV holiday movies: someone leaving the city at the holidays to go to a small town, a family or group of friends gathering, a main character reconnecting with a lost love or finding out that their true love was right in front of them all along, a family business or beloved feature of a town at risk to big money development. Of them, A Jenkins Family Christmas is most set apart not just by its primarily Black cast, but by telling a story more focused on an extended family than on one couple’s romance. It belongs at least as much to the messy-family-gathering-for-the-holidays genre of theatrical movie (think The Family StoneAlmost ChristmasHome for the Holidays) as it does to the TV holiday movie. But in its swift and neat snap over to happily ever after, it returns at the end to the genre as developed over the years by Hallmark and Lifetime.

The main characters get a meet-cute in only two of the movies: Under the Christmas Tree and The Holiday Sitter, and in the latter, if we count the moment of “that cute guy I just met is gay” recognition, it may be the most genuinely cute—and overtly gay—moment of the movie (and yes, I’m counting the big kiss at the end in that statement). In Single All the Way, the main character gets something of a meet-cute, but it’s with the guy we know all along he’s not intended for, as kind and decent and blandly dreamy as the man in question is. (I watched Single All the Way last year, so I’m not attempting a full discussion of it here.)

A conversation about how being LGBTQ shaped their lives and romantic aspirations is common to these movies, functioning sometimes as a little break to acknowledge that the generic love story is not necessarily as simple as it’s made out to be (as if it’s as simple for anyone as it is in the classic straight Hallmark movie). A statement that a character is lucky to have had supportive parents is also common, although most of the characters in these movies do have supportive parents, with a couple of key exceptions.

The set-up of The Holiday Sitter offers a teeny tiny departure from the classic Hallmark Christmas movie in that it’s set not in a small town but in the suburbs (where, as is never quite said out loud but is present as context for the plot, commuting will be possible after the happy ending). Also, you know, it’s about two men. There’s still an out-of-place city boy who, in his first scene, is looking shallow as he tries to duck out on a date who presses him about whether he wants a family someday. Rather than being aghast at the deprivations of small-town life, he’s aghast at suburban sameness and the mere existence of children, which is problematic for him, since he’s in the suburbs to watch his niece and nephew while their parents are away. Lucky for him, there’s a hot gay neighbor with a ton of nieces and nephews who’s ready to help out. City boy Sam works all the time and never seems to make it to a second date. Suburban boy Jason is looking for love but ready to start the adoption process in pursuit of his happily ever after.

I assume it goes without saying that Sam softens up and learns to value his family and the holiday—and admits, in an emotional moment, that his aversion to commitment has partly been because all his life so many forces were telling him that marriage and children were not an option for him as a gay man. “It’s hard to flip the switch to yes,” he says.

Jason was Hallmark-perfect all along, so he didn’t need to change. He just needed to be convinced that Sam had changed.

Under the Christmas Tree is a Lifetime movie that begins with a classic Hallmark framework: Charlie, who works for the government of the state of Maine, is looking for the official state Christmas tree—something that’s a significant reelection issue in the universe of TV holiday movies. Lo and behold, the perfect tree is in Alma’s backyard. Alma has traveled the world but come home to take over the family Christmas business. Christmas is everything to her, and the annual lighting ceremony at the tree in her yard is a focal point of her year. While she’s thrown off balance by her attraction and stumbling over her words from the first moment she sees Charlie, she’s not letting the tree go. Charlie, though, sees her career riding on getting the perfect tree. They’re both driven and competitive and their goals are opposed. Sure, it’s Maine, but you’ve got the big city outsider (again, by Maine standards) focused on career over holiday sentimentality, at odds with the Christmas-obsessed pillar of a small community. You’ve got a family business at risk—Alma’s family Christmas business is facing recommendations from a corporate consultant that would destroy its soul. You’ve got a ridiculous line-up of Christmas events, including a cutthroat gingerbread house-making competition. The classic TV holiday movie framework, it turns out, can easily accommodate a toast of “To the lesbians!”

And, frankly, it turns out it can accommodate a little more romantic heat than the usual Hallmark/Lifetime fare. Tattiawna Jones, as Charlie, and Elise Bauman, as Alma, have some meaningful chemistry. The characters’ first kiss comes not in the final moments of the movie as a promise of happily ever after but much earlier in the plot, well before happily ever after looks like it’s on the table—two women, unabashedly drawn to each other, kissing on their first real date. The Holiday Sitter works hard to sell a happily ever after of suburban life with children, surrounded by extended family, setting its lead characters up as desexualized co-dads long before they even talk about being attracted to each other or reach the climactic first kiss that serves as a performance of commitment in front of their entire cheering families. Under the Christmas Tree, by contrast, is structured as a romance between two characters who are odds with each other over the Christmas tree but are open about their mutual attraction.

In A Christmas to Treasure, six childhood friends return to their hometown and come together to search for a treasure. But there’s tension between former best friends Austin and Everett. They were tentatively in love in high school, but Everett wasn’t ready to come out to his conservative parents and it split up their friendship. (The two are played by real-life married couple Taylor Frey and Kyle Dean Massey.) Everyone wants Austin and Everett together, convinced they are meant for each other on the basis of a romance that didn’t ever really happen beyond teen yearning and a single kiss. Talk about pressure.

The friend group is rounded out by Tipper, Austin’s best friend and business partner; Ricky, who has stayed in their hometown and continues to yearn for Tipper, somehow without everyone feeling they were meant to be; and Clay and Michelle, who as an already settled couple feature relatively little. But this has to be said: Clay is the movie’s only Black character to speak of, and he’s a professional basketball player. Sigh.

Spoiler alert: One interesting and really pretty serious way that A Christmas to Treasure diverges from the formula is that Everett, who is from the start the most committed to restoring the beloved past of their hometown, ultimately realizes that this cannot be his life’s work and seems to agree to leave for the big city to be with Austin.

Where the possibility of LGBTQ people dealing with unsupportive families gets a mention in The Holiday Sitter and Under the Christmas Tree and is a somewhat significant plot point in A Christmas to Treasure, it is central to A Jenkins Family Christmas

As previously mentioned, A Jenkins Family Christmas is a different kind of TV Christmas movie. It’s a family drama centered on a holiday gathering, and it does show a couple being rejected by family—but that’s not the only rejection, and all isn’t as it initially seems there. We first meet Baneatta, who seems to see herself stepping into a role as head of her family following her father’s death. She’s inherited his house and his car and she is the host for the family Christmas, but that first family Christmas without her father is not going smoothly.

Baneatta’s previously unknown half-sister shows up at the door asking to be recognized as a part of the family, which Baneatta is absolutely not having, refusing to confront the betrayal by her revered father. She’s tense and angry and has friction with her sister. Her daughter has shown up alone, claiming her husband has to work. Her son Kenny has shown up with his white boyfriend Logan—and she doesn’t want to acknowledge the relationship, sending Logan to sleep in the basement and refusing to even hear his name spoken. So the LGBTQ relationship is framed in the context of a hostile family—or is it? Because then we learn that the late patriarch of the family welcomed his grandson’s boyfriend into the family. What initially looks like a family not recognizing the relationship turns out to be a grieving, angry woman shutting down a welcome from the rest of the family. Baneatta’s husband—a pastor—chides her about her treatment of the whole family, culminating in, “Your own son is in love, he’s in love, Baneatta, and he’s too afraid to tell his mama. How does that sit right with you?”

That doesn’t break through her resistance, though, or her sense of righteousness even as her sister also expresses her disapproval of Baneatta’s treatment of Kenny and Logan’s relationship. Baneatta isn’t the only one frowning over Logan, though—but Kenny’s sister’s disapproval is because he is white, as Kenny’s previous serious boyfriends have been, prompting Kenny to reflect on how white men were the joyful, self-accepting models he had in our culture as he was coming out himself.

It’s a lot more intense than your Hallmark offerings, but then again it does own a place as well in the holiday family gathering genre, which does tend to be more dramatic and fraught.

Ultimately, to the extent that these movies have a kind of larger claim, it’s that LGBTQ stories and characters can be fit about 99.9% of the way into the formula, with the remaining 0.1% being a conversation about how the characters were shaped by what they saw the society and culture saying about LGBTQ people while they were growing up. How you assess that from a politics and progress standpoint will depend on your politics. If you enjoy warm fuzzy happily-ever-after stories, these should work for you in that vein. (Unless you’re suuuuuper homophobic; of note, Candace Cameron Bure left Hallmark this year to do holiday movies at Great American Media because, in part, “I knew that the people behind Great American Family were Christians that love the Lord and wanted to promote faith programming and good family entertainment.”) If you want your LGBTQ content a little more differentiated from a formula developed to be absolutely straight in every possible sense of the word, these may not be for you.

Well, that was an awesome way to finish out the 2022 election cycle! Co-hosts David Nir and David Beard revel in Raphael Warnock’s runoff victory on this week’s episode of The Downballot and take a deep dive into how it all came together. The Davids dig into the turnout shift between the first and second rounds of voting, what the demographic trends in the metro Atlanta area mean for Republicans, and why Democrats can trace their recent success in Georgia back to a race they lost: the famous Jon Ossoff special election in 2017.

We’re also joined by one of our very favorite people, Daily Kos Elections alum Matt Booker, who shares his thoughts on the midterms and tells us about his work these days as a pollster. Matt explains some of the key ways in which private polling differs from public data; how the client surveys he was privy to did not foretell a red wave; and the mechanics of how researchers put together focus groups. Matt also reminisces about his time at “DKE University” and how his experience with us prepared him for the broader world of politics.

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