Making the Yuletide Movie Gay: Evaluating 2020’s Queer Christmas Narratives

When The Happiest Season debuted on Hulu in November, having been shuffled to the streaming service after the COVID-19 pandemic closed cinemas around the world, the significance of its release was somewhat muted. It was originally touted as the first major studio lesbian romantic comedy, following in the footsteps of 2017’s Love, Simon in breaking new ground for queer representation within genres exclusively imagined as heterosexual in a theatrical context. And while that fact essentially remains true, the set at Christmas film’s move to Hulu obscured that distinction, meaning The Happiest Season launched at a time when Netflix and an increasingly large number of cable channels are releasing a slew of holiday rom-coms. This places the movie it into a different conversation about how the snowy cottage industry of “Cable Christmas Movies” is navigating similar questions of inclusion, with three channels (Hallmark, Lifetime, and Paramount Network) also using queerness as a point of articulation this holiday season.

Directed by Clea DuVall, The Happiest Season has structural advantages compared to your average Hallmark or Lifetime Christmas movie: it has a veritable movie star in Kristen Stewart, supporting players like Aubrey Plaza and Alison Brie, and the budget to hire a stacked supporting cast and ensure it doesn’t aesthetically look like it was produced at the rapid pace of a daytime soap opera. It’s not really a fair fight in terms of filmmaking or the depth of the ensemble, but The Happiest Season was nonetheless faced with the same narrative question as the year’s other attempts to “Queer the Christmas Movie” on cable: how do you reconcile the continued struggle LGBTQ individuals face in finding love (and living life) with the genre’s sweeping, romantic happy endings?

I don’t present this as an impossibility, to be clear: it is not that one can’t reconcile these two things, but rather that doing so is a complicated process, and one that The Happiest Season frankly struggles to negotiate. To its credit, the film fully commits to how the politics of the closet threaten Abby and Harper’s relationship, depicting Harper’s family as toxic to the point you can’t imagine why Harper is so set on appeasing them, and Harper herself as someone with a past of hurting her partners when faced with the possibility of coming out. There is no effort to suggest that the challenges Abby and Harper are facing are “universal”: the conflict of the film is deeply rooted within their experience as queer individuals navigating both holiday and relationship rituals.

But when it comes time for the movie to pivot to its happy ending, this conflict feels waved away instead of confronted. In an interview with Variety after the movie’s release when asked about viewers who were rooting for Abby and Harper to break up, DuVall defended the choice to (spoiler alert, except duh) keep them together, arguing that

“I’ve spent four years with Harper — I feel like I understand her, and I love her so much. And I think she’s worth it. I want what’s best for all the characters in the movie. And I think the message that you can mess up, and that you can do the work and get better is really important. And be kind to yourself, and have compassion.”

And while I understand where she’s coming from, we only spent two hours with Harper and her family, and so it becomes difficult when the move wraps up by having a toxic situation do a 180 into unconditional support, literally overnight. As I wrote in a Letterboxd review, there were a number of choices the movie made that make it difficult to accept the ending presented as anything other than a fantasy, and while DuVall was consciously pushing back against a long history of tragic endings in queer cinema there’s a difference between “it gets better” and “it gets better immediately with no complications whatsoever.”

But the latter is, admittedly, par for the course for the Cable Christmas Movie, and thus The Happiest Season was the first case study of how a genre defined by a rose-colored view of romance intends to wrestle with an increased push toward LGBTQ inclusion. However, The Happiest Season’s theatrical auspices and star power make it an outlier, more interested in presenting a queer counterpart to The Holiday or The Family Stone than entering into the yearly rotation of the dozens of seemingly indistinguishable holiday films airing 24/7 across cable. Although The Happiest Season’s ending reaffirms that part of the burden of being “first” in breaking new ground in a genre is adhering to expectation, I would argue that burden is more complex when a cable channel is embedding a film within a larger lineup of similar films airing around it, with the idea that an average viewer of each year’s new films—my mother keeps a spreadsheet—can be as invested in a queer holiday-themed romance as a straight one.

This is why the most buzzed about introduction of queerness into the Cable Christmas Universe this year was actually the least meaningful: Hallmark Channel has featured same-sex relationships before, but never as part of a central storyline, and much was therefore made of the debut of The Christmas House earlier this winter. But what this discourse—”Finally,” said both The Los Angeles Times and The Chicago Tribune—obscured was that the couple in question was not actually the central narrative: the gay couple may have a storyline (struggling with the adoption process), and they may share a romantic kiss, but it’s the other son who gets to find love and romance with a local divorcee, which is ultimately where the narrative burden of a Cable Christmas Movie rests. It’s a step forward that Hallmark is willing to acknowledge that gay couples both exist and can express love for one another physically, but making them secondary characters—The “B Story”—reaffirms their marginalization, and suggests Hallmark still believes that imagined (straight) audiences need the rooting interest of a straight couple front and center in order to invest in the story.

This largely mirrors the issues of racial diversity in Christmas Movies, where Hallmark has slowly evolved from people of color serving in supporting roles to serving as leads in only a sliver of their overall output. But Hallmark’s baby steps have always rung false when you have channels like Lifetime, which has moved to fill the niche of delivering stories featuring non-white leads, which this year included the Asian-American A Sugar & Spice Holiday. The result has been a case where industry logic and social pressures are pulling Hallmark in two different directions. The diversity being offered by Lifetime encourages Hallmark to stick to its largely white lineup in order to maintain a “broad” audience base compared to Lifetime’s niche, which has been further reinforced as Netflix continues to push into the space with a more diverse lineup on average. But the more movies overall that feature people of color—or queer individuals— in lead roles, the more the dearth of such movies at the channel that brands itself as “the heart of Christmas” becomes a liability. Earlier this year, months after a tepid defense of his channel’s record on diversity and after same-sex advertising controversy, exec Bill Abbott was forced out, but it’s unclear what this suggests for the future of the brand relative to diversity, and whether they’re interested in following up The Christmas House with an honest-to-goodness Cable Christmas Movie focused on a same-sex relationship in 2021.

However, this year two cable channels already beat them to it. Lifetime’s commitment to using what media scholar Michael Curtin describes as “edge”—anything that could potentially turn off one viewer but interest another more intensely, whether it be race, sexuality, etc.—in the Christmas space made it the natural home for the first of this year’s outright queer Christmas movies, The Christmas Setup. The other, however, is Paramount Network—soon to be Paramount Movie Network—making its entrance into the Christmas movie space with Dashing in December, leveraging the niche audience to signal a future investment in the Christmas movie space from parent Viacom. Both movies, unlike The Christmas House, are decidedly about same-sex relationships, although the way they actually “queer” their respective narratives are distinct, and showcase divergent approaches to balancing the desire to break new ground with the central goal of familiarity.

Dashing in December is, I would argue, the more traditional of the two narratives. Protagonist Wyatt (Peter Porte) is a big city corporate something-or-other who’s returning home for the holidays somewhat begrudgingly in order to convince his mother to sell the struggling family ranch, which he intends on leveraging for a business deal for his company. Like many such protagonists, he’s an asshole when the movie begins, both in his interactions with new ranch hand Heath (Juan Pablo Di Pace) and in the revelation that he’s barely even visited with his beloved childhood horse in recent years. Of course, his initial tension with Heath begins to soften as they get to know another better, and we peel back the layers of his cold exterior to discover unprocessed grief over the death of his father, and by movie’s end he’s found both love and a way to save the ranch and its holiday sleigh rides. It’s so familiar that if you were to change the gender of one of the two characters, the basic character types and the plot of the film wouldn’t need to change at all.

This is not to suggest that the film ignores the role queerness plays in their story. Wyatt’s complicated relationship with his hometown is in part framed through his experience coming out at High School graduation (without first telling his former girlfriend, who’s now the ranch’s vet), and his belief that the small town never fully supported him and remains homophobic enough he’s not comfortable dancing with Heath in public. Heath, meanwhile, was the victim of a situation identical to what Harper did to her ex Riley in The Happiest Season, as a college relationship with a closeted man went south, and he was turned off of relationships as a result. The healing that is central to the function of romantic love within these films is explicitly framed relative to the wounds of the discrimination felt by LGBTQ individuals, albeit within a context where other characters in the movie like Wyatt’s mother (Andie McDowell)—unlike in The Happiest Season—are all fully supportive and treat the question of sexuality as mostly irrelevant to their relationships to one another.

At the same time, though, Dashing in December is also very much invested in a normatively masculine version of queerness: Wyatt is straight-passing enough that Heath doesn’t know he’s gay until he wrongly presumes the “Lindsay” Wyatt was previously in a relationship was a woman and is corrected. This is not to say that a Cable Christmas Movie must depict a certain type of queer identity in order to be authentically “queer,” but it’s a symbol of how the movie resists other ways of integrating queerness into the story. There are no other queer characters, the spaces the characters occupy—due to the film’s setting—have no relationship to queerness, and the storytelling contains no gestures to camp or other forms of queer affect that might otherwise articulate the “edge” inherent to the film’s existence (although there’s a Fire Island joke in the finale). It’s not that hyper-masculine gay men like Wyatt don’t exist, but rather that his presence in this type of movie reads as a conscious effort to present “broad” audiences with recognizable—or, as my students are obsessed with saying, relatable—depictions of masculinity to avoid amplifying the queerness of the narrative being presented.

The Christmas Setup, on paper, has a similar framing to Dashing in December and a wide array of Christmas movies: Hugo (Ben Lewis) is a big-city attorney in Manhattan, and he’s angling for a big promotion, both common tropes in these movies. But after he takes a stand with his boss that he believes he deserves a promotion, we immediately see Hugo freaking out about what he’s done. He’s not comfortable playing the bravado and confidence he put on in the meeting, and the movie plays into his awkwardness when he returns to his mother’s for Christmas and revisits his teenage years when his mother plays matchmaker with philanthropic Patrick (Lewis’ real-life husband Blake Lee), who sold his successful app and has retired home to Milwaukee in search of his next step in life. It’s not a wildly original setup—protagonists often reconnect with their high school crush, it’s central to both The Christmas House and A Sugar & Spice Holiday—but the way the film allows Hugo to be neurotic and stumble his way through the meet cutes and subsequent small talk with Patrick resists the more traditional male narratives we see in these movies, and which Wyatt demonstrates so clearly in Dashing in December. The film also leans more heavily on a comedy over drama as they chart out their relationship, their first interactions filled with double entendre about balls and bottoms that use plausible deniability to add a bit of cheekiness to an inherently chaste genre.

There is an inherent queerness to Hugo’s masculinity that is new for the genre, but the most distinctive quality of The Christmas Setup is that the film engages more directly with queerness as lived experience beyond being attracted to someone of the same sex. When Hugo and his brother are working on the wooden village Hugo started building with his father before his death, the brother says he wants to handle the glitter snow, and Hugo says he’s “made your gay brother very proud.” There is no comparable moment in Dashing in December where Wyatt articulates his queerness in the same way. The film also directly addresses the queerness of Christmas as a holiday: as they’re decorating the historical train station, which is being threatened by redevelopment, Hugo suggests “Christmas is made for our people,” and the movie commits to this idea when the characters attend a holiday drag revue later in the film.

The introduction of an explicitly queer space is significant, and the show also expands its queer narrative by exploring the history of the train station, which reveals a local developer who left everything to his male partner after his death. While Wyatt and Heath talk about their relationship to their own queerness in Dashing in December, it feels exclusively defined by their romantic relationships, and not by the rest of their lives. By comparison, Patrick speaks to how much has changed in Milwaukee since their own high school days, with drag revues and queer youth centers, and the idea that these characters populate that world is critical to the film. While still centrally focused on ideas of love, community, and family in the way that Cable Christmas Movies are, Michael Murray’s script—he talks about his approach to the responsibility of representation here—uses the train station storyline in particular to anchor queerness within these principles. It makes it impossible to imagine the film as a whole without its inherent queerness, which is not the case with Dashing in December.

That having been said, although The Christmas Setup is more invested in its queerness, it is in many ways more conservative than Dashing in December in terms of how it confronts the marginalization of LGBTQ individuals, embedded as it is within “It Got Better” as a framing mechanism. Hugo was closeted in high school, but his past contains no trauma related to this topic, and while Patrick insists he was lonelier than Hugo believed he was in high school, the film doesn’t frame either of their relationship statuses through any form of pain or suffering. Dashing in December embraces the pain of queerness as a way to emphasize the healing power of love to reconcile it, while The Christmas Setup largely chooses to live in a utopic world free of discrimination, using the historical experience of the train station’s owner and his hidden love as a point of contrast. It’s a more romanticized film, and yet it’s a romance that is more rooted in queer narratives, working to convince a normative audience that the genre’s big feelings and romantic love exist for gay men, albeit with more impromptu performances at drag shows along the way.

In comparing the two films, it’s not a question of which approach is more inherently authentic, or even inherently better; obviously, they are able to co-exist, and in a perfect world all marginalized groups would feature in a wide range of Cable Christmas Movies with different approaches. My interest in comparing them is considering how each film confronts the imagined—yet industrially powerful—incompatibility between queerness and the Cable Christmas Movie. Speaking personally as someone with a fairly cynical view on the genre (my mother would contest the “fairly” part of this sentence), The Christmas Setup is both better made and inherently more fun, and the fact that neither character ever acts like an asshole means that the various obstacles presented to the couple play out in a more nuanced fashion. While the third act of Dashing in December hinges on Wyatt blowing up a dinner by cruelly attacking Heath for not putting himself out there, effectively minimizing his trauma, The Christmas Setup presents logistical hurdles to Hugo and Patrick’s relationship that they handle without sabotaging their connection, defined less by wild swings of emotion and instead by the general anxiety of navigating relationships. It’s maybe a less “realistic” portrayal of the discrimination that LGBTQ individuals still face even in urban spaces like Milwaukee, but it’s a far more grounded film in the day-to-day experience of queerness, and this makes the film a much more meaningful step forward than Dashing in December when taken as a whole.

The cast of The Christmas Setup (Lifetime)

And yet while both films undoubtedly center on a queer relationship, they both do something The Happiest Season does not, which is actively include heterosexual relationships as supporting parts of the story. This is, of course, where queer narratives have historically lived, and that these films include “B Stories” featuring straight characters is not a huge surprise. In Dashing in December, there’s a minimal runner about Wyatt’s ex Blake’s efforts to conceive with her Doctors Without Borders husband who returns home in time for the holidays at the film’s conclusion, while Andie McDowell gets a mature romance—often used to appeal to older demos—with a neighboring rancher as she struggles to move on after her husband’s death years earlier. In The Christmas Setup, meanwhile, Fran Drescher’s meddling mother finds time to shift her focus from Hugo and Patrick to Hugo’s friend Madelyn (Ellen Wong, late of GLOW and the short-lived gem The Carrie Diaries) and her other son, Aiden, who start flirting and eventually decide to spend more time together heading into New Year’s. But despite being commonplace for the genre, something about the existence of these secondary narratives feels like a crutch in context: even though none of these relationships are ever framed as equal to the central ones, and none get the same sweeping romantic kisses that bring the main stories to a close, part of me wondered if it wouldn’t be more meaningful if they were to let a same-sex relationship stand as the sole narrative focus.

When I wrote an article about Hulu’s Love, Simon spinoff Love, Victor over the summer, some of the response I received was—to bluntly paraphrase a more complex discourse—that it was harmful to criticize queer representations in the media, as it runs the risk of convincing the industry not to continue investing in them. And as much as I understand this concern, I think the reality is that integrating queer narratives into normative spaces like romantic comedies, or coming-of-age teen shows, or Cable Christmas Movies, is an ongoing process, and one where critical perspectives offer insight both into how the industry can improve its representations and how we can as a society understand what the stakes are for such inclusion. The very fact that Hallmark’s “first gay couple” was lauded with superlative headlines despite not being the film’s central narrative is a reminder that accepting progress without placing it in context risks convincing the industry that half-measures are acceptable, and not a small step toward something more significant required in the future. If a film or television series fails to leverage that inclusion, and if they lean toward universalizing rather than articulating distinction, then it’s important that we acknowledge that and push them to continue moving forward instead of patting themselves on the back for a job well done.

It’s unclear what that future holds for the Queer Cable Christmas Movie. Per the chart above, The Christmas Setup drew an audience comparable in size to the channel’s other “inclusive” Christmas offerings (which also include films with African-American leads and, in the case of Christmas Ever Again, Tony winner Ali Stroker as the first Cable Christmas lead with a disability), while Dashing in December drew decent if unspectacular viewership across at least two channels of its simulcast debut across four of Viacom’s cable properties (Paramount, TV Land, Pop, and Logo). Does Paramount see queer audiences as a continued target for Paramount Movie Network’s 2021 lineup of Christmas Movies, or was this a one-off experiment? Is Lifetime going to continue hunting for “firsts” and embrace the intersectionality of a diverse queer romance, or exploring the other parts of LGBTQ+? And was Hallmark happy enough with The Christmas House’s ratings performance and the pats on the back they received for its queer “B Story” enough to greenlight something where a same-sex relationship is worthy of the “A Story?”

Similar questions certainly face major studios, which—outside of a delayed Billy Eichner vehicle—are currently devoid of future development in the space of The Happiest Season. But while there are other factors—struggles at the box office, the shift to streaming—threatening the future of mid-budget romantic comedies in the theatrical space, the space of Cable Christmas Movies remains a boom market, making any delays in future inclusion particularly egregious. The Year of the Queer Cable Christmas Movie may not “broken the mold” so much as it worked to either fit queer characters into or add glitter snow to the existing molds, but it’s a first step to further progress if the industry chooses to use it as one.

Cultural Observations

  • The Cable Christmas Movie is an inherently chaste genre, which means that sex and even the explict acknowledgment of sexual attraction is mostly absent, but Dashing in December notably indulges in some half-nakedness, and the camera follows Heath’s gaze as Wyatt stumbles into an occupied bathroom in his seasonal underwear. It follows the lead of Netflix’s holiday output in this respect, which more often leans on male physique for sex appeal in a way Hallmark and Lifetime don’t.
  • The lack of proper ratings data for The Happiest Season—Hulu released only vague data about “highest viewership for an original film” and attracting an unspecified record for new subscribers—makes it hard to gauge how the industry will respond to it as compared to box office results, but that may be for the best given how much a poor box office run would have (unjustly) derailed further inclusion.
  • The Christmas Setup and A Sugar & Spice Holiday both use the “I’m up for a promotion at work, oh no they want me to move to a different continent” plot device, but reach two separate conclusions: Patrick never seems to really consider going to London with Hugo, as “returning home” is given incredible value, while in A Sugar & Spice Holiday the protagonist’s love interest (also late of Silicon Valley, coincidentally) happily leaves behind his family’s toy store to be with her in Australia.
  • On the note of ratings, while all Nielsen ratings are inherently suspect and based on wild estimates, this is especially true when you’re dealing with tenths of ratings points as you are with basic cable. The difference between a 0.09 and a 1.14 is pretty much impossible to discern, so I present that data with a grain of salt.

2 Comments

Filed under Christmas Movies

2 responses to “Making the Yuletide Movie Gay: Evaluating 2020’s Queer Christmas Narratives

  1. Dave

    I like the Christmas setup, but I wish you could get it on DVD by it self. I’m a sucker and a romantic for two men in love…..it never happened to me personally? But I so like watching it.

  2. Dave

    I like the movie, The Christmas Setup! But I wish it came out on dvd by it self and not with other movies. I’m an extremely romantic and I like romance between two men. It happened to me once but he died of pancreatic cancer in 2003 then I had a close friend pass some years later then my mother passed 4 days before my birthday of this year. I personally have no one in my life at the moment. I just don’t want to be alone anymore!

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