ABC Family, Lifetime, and Hallmark Holiday Movies Upholding the Romance Status Quo
I have a secret. Maybe it’s not a deep, dark secret to people who know me. However, I have a passion for terrible films. I think it comes with being a horror movie fan, and I intend to get back to that next Halloween. However, in the search for something actually scary, you get used to sitting through terrible films. You also learn to find the joy and laughs in the zipper on the monster’s back or the terrible delivery of dialogue. When a horror movie is bad, sometimes it hits the correct note of being so awful it circles back to perfect again. Please see Birdemic: Shock and Terror or Troll 2 (with no actual trolls in it) if you don’t believe me.
That said, I’d never been a fan of romantic films. I like an old fashioned romance a la His Girl Friday, where the girl gave as good as she got dialogue wise. I’ve never been a Nicholas Sparks type, and it’s finet if some people are. I’m prefacing this all by basically saying I started watching the Hallmark/Lifetime/ABC Family endless parade of made-for-tv Christmas schlock ironically. They were being played non-stop on cable and they were good for a chuckle with their out there plots and bad acting. They were as fun as a Sharknado in their own disastrous way.
However, as I filtered through them, no matter which network the the light-hearted romance films were on, I noticed a few common threads, ones that I could laugh off at first but that after a month-long diet, I realized some people out there might be internalizing these values seriously, and that was worrisome. I want to explain some of the underlying problematic trends by first saying that not all the movies were this way and that, yes, sometimes a fluffy romance can be fun. However, when this is all people see on three channels for a month, it’s a question of what messages are we getting from this? Second, here’s a quick run down of a few of the worst offenders in brief before I tackle the one that encapsulates these problems on steroids by being head and shoulders the worst of the bunch.
Hallmark made twelve new movies just this Christmas. ABC Family seems to make at least three to four. I think that Lifetime has new ones this year, including one that is clearly trying to be A Christmas Story, but is not as interesting. I will give them credit that they do try and come up with different plots that aren’t all veiled homages to The Family Man or A Christmas Carol. Also, for what it’s worth, I think overall Christmas at Cartwright’s is awesome for having a female store Santa and making it about the quality of her work and not gender roles. Similarly, even though it’s very easy to make fun of The Nine Lives of Christmas (I boil the plot down to “our cats are friends so we can date now” to my sister), I respect it for presenting a woman who is trying to be dedicated to her career and is shown overall as more level-headed than the usual romcom lead.
Still here are some of the “gems” I’ve found this year or combing Netflix’s holiday section:
- Desperately Seeking Santa — In order to get the top spot as a vice president of a shopping mall chain, Jennifer (Laura Vandervoort) has to turn her last place performing store into the holiday’s top grosser. She comes up with the idea of a sexy Santa, complete with dance offs to audition the ab-licious hunk who will be St. Nick for her mall. Eventually, of course, she falls for the winner whose a hard luck case trying to save his family’s Italian restaurant. Also, the ending is predictable, as she refuses the promotion because corporate greed is evil and she has love now. Fellow LW writer, Megan Hussey pointed out to me that a lot of the A Christmas Carol ripoffs as well as stories about businesswomen who are lonely and looking for love at the Yuletide season often end with the woman not advancing in her career. Granted, the original Dickens ends with Scrooge changing and giving out buckets of money so I can see that parallel. Here, though, it’s not a movie based on Dickens yet still provides that false dilemma that she has to choose between the goodness of protecting her mall and her friends and love or the evils of advancing fully into the corporate world. I wish maybe there was an in between decision-wise. Also, this has to be seen for Santa dancing shirtless with women in sexy reindeer outfits. ‘Tis the season after all.
2. Nine Lives of Christmas —- Kimberley Sustad plays a woman who is finishing vet school but keeps bumping into hunky confirmed bachelor and firefighter, played by Brandon Routh. Again at least she’s shown as responsible and not flighty (even raised her sister so she had to go back to grad school later in life). However, I think a few big problems come up here. While there are characters of color (her work bff, her fellow veterinary classmate, and his fellow cad and confirmed bachelor at work), they exist only to give dating advice. Worse still, the only man at the firehouse who is encouraging Routh to fight the attraction and stay a player is also the only African American man on the squad. Again, sometimes it’s the subtle implications that can be so worrisome. Also this movie trades hard on female rivalries and backstabbing. By an amazing coincidence, the model he dates at first (those are based out of Portland right?) is the daughter of the pet store owner for whom Sustad’s character works. The model feels threatened by the attraction between her boyfriend and the vet student and, of course, gets her fired. After all, when we’re competing with and against each other, all’s fair in love and war. Am I right, ladies?
3. Christmas Bounty — It’s more a hot mess than anything else. It falls more into the trope of “strong female character” only means she looks hot in leather pants and hits like a guy. However, in this film, Tory Bell (played by Francia Raisa) has been trying to live a respectable life in Manhattan as an exclusive prep school teacher. She’s dragged back into her old life as a bounty hunter (think Dog the Bounty Hunter homage) when her sworn enemy escapes and vows to track her down. Sparks fly agian between her and her old beau, Mikey Muscles. No really. It’s cheesy, over the top, and barely has anything to do with Christmas. Here, I would say it’s more the stereotyping that larger figured or plus-sized women don’t usually get happy endings. Her sworn enemy has escaped in a side plot mostly to help his sister “Big Donna” tie the knot. Due to everyone else going to jail, he’ll be the only family member at Donna’s ceremony. Of course, Tory gives up her former dreams to go back to the bounty hunting life and the larger-figured female characters like her mother or Big Donna are written off as either buffoons or evil (sometimes both).
However, what really takes the cake is one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. Again, it’s the worst in a Sharknado or Tommy Wiseau’s The Room way. It’s terrible but you can’t look away from the sheer awe its badness inspires. My friends, I am talking about Holiday in Handcuffs, starring former teenage witch, Melissa Joan Hart, and Saved by the Bell alum, Mario Lopez. It has almost everything the other movies skirted, amped up: objectification of men and women, barely visible characters of color who exist to prop up the plot overall, sexist insistence that you have to be married or in a serious relationship with the right man to make Christmas (and life) complete, and female rivalries.
Here’s the basic plot: Trudie Chandler (Hart) has had a terrible day where she’s lost out on a job interview her father set up, has been dumped by her boyfriend, and fried her hair off in a bad perm. Time is running out before she has to go to the annual Christmas cabin her family rents all alone. Her sister is a successful law student and her brother has a steady girlfriend as well as a stable stockbroker job. She’s a struggling artist who waits tables at an Indian restaurant. In walks the perfect boyfriend stand-in, David Martin (Lopez), whom she abducts by gun point and takes all the way to the mountains.
It’s a creepy premise. I have seen this, to be fair, played with the gender roles reversed in The Chase with Charlie Sheen abducting Kristy Swanson. However, I think we can all say that no matter the gender of the captor, taking someone anywhere against their consent is a crime and kidnapping. Also, Stockholm Syndrome, no matter what Beauty and the Beast wants you to believe, is not actually romantic.
Oh but it gets worse.
She gets there and convinces her family that her boyfriend has a bad sense of humor and likes to pretend he’s been kidnapped. This makes her family laugh off David’s very real cries for help (hilarious, especially on a network run by Disney and aimed at children). There are escapades that unfurl as he tries to escape from a cabin with no landline and where Trudie’s been put in charge of cells and computers so the family has to be “in the moment” and not talk to others. Also, per all other romcom formulas, they eventually start bonding over ice hockey and chess and other cute things and she confesses to him that all she wants is for her parents to stop being disappointed in her as the jobless, unmarried one.
Eventually, David’s able to sneak a call to his long-time girlfriend (he was going to propose to her that night) who comes to his rescue with cops. David, predictably, has had a change of heart and does not press charges on the family. A few months later, she’s upset, thinking that he’s going to marry into Jessica’s wealthy upper crust family, but he shows up at her art show and “kidnaps” her this time. He’s decided to create a gallery to combine her love for art and his architecture dreams. Oh, and of course he loves Trudie now and they kiss.
So basically, you can call this movie from the minute the title card is shown, even down to the wacky hijinks with David almost convincing a gas station attendant he’s been abducted, only for the attendant to be encouraging “young love” by providing Trudie with fuzzy handcuffs to replace the scarves David’s tied with so far in the car. Yet at the end, true love (and Stockholm Syndrome) prevail. Even though a normal person would have pressed charges for such a violation, it all turns out to be a way for David to realize he’s missy something in his life and to fall in love with Trudie,
So, basically, unrealistic to offensive levels but we just knew “true love” would end up trumping some jail time in this case. ‘Tis the season for Christmas magic, after all.
Let me break down a few of the most troubling aspects:
- The kidnapping is funny. Like I said, I have it seen played for laughs in films before or as the start of a romance, I just don’t agree with it. It trivializes what a crime this is, the severity of Stockholm Syndrome, and also the fact that, yes, men can be abused too. It’s worse when films like this make fun of that because so few men feel like they can come forward. Here David is initially begging people to believe him and they all think it’s about kinky sex.
- Trudie’s relationship with her parents. Her mother is literally written as clutching her pearls in one scene and super conservative. To me, this is the plot line that matches the general trend of about 60% of these films, even the less ridiculous ones. Usually, the woman usually has to either stress out about the fact she’s single and will be near her mom at Christmas or, if it goes that next step, that she’s single and has to have a ruse (hires a boyfriend, kidnaps one, makes one up) in order to try and not be the “pathetic single sibling” at home. If the movies sometimes ended with the woman being happy she’s single or accepting that as part of her life right now, that’d be great, but the empathy we feel for their situation by the end is thwarted when we see that they’ve found their perfect match and soulmate (and it’s always an attractive white man) by the end of Christmas. Similarly, this plays into the way female relationships are shown often unhealthy in these films. In this case, Trudie can’t live up to her mother’s high expectations so is always anxious and upset around her.
- We continue with bad female relationships and competition themes again. Here, Jessica, David’s fiancee, wants to press charges on her. That’s normal enough but throughout the film she’s shown as entitled, shrill and overall horrible so we’re deliberately rooting against her. In these films the competition is always not only more traditionally attractive but also shown to be cruel and haughty, the quintessential wrong woman. Why is it that the other woman isn’t shown also as a fully rounded character with her own flaws and positive characteristics? Why can’t she and the heroine sometimes have things in common and get along?
- Race. Oh man, it’s complicated in this film. Again, it’s not uncommon for actors of an ethnic background (Lopez’s family is from Mexico) to play whitewashed. With David’s anglo last name and no mention of Hispanic roots, I assume he’s supposed to be white. Okay, cool, that happens. So let’s say David Martin’s ethnic identity is separate from Mario Lopez’s. Then why is David Martin the only male lead in these films who’s presented as wealthy but by the end is revealed to be comfortable but still working his way up at Jessica’s father’s company? In the other films I’ve seen across Lifetime, ABC Family, and Hallmark Channel, when the female lead meets a successful man in a suit, this man turns out to be just rich or well off on their own. In other words, what you see with the rich man lead is what you get.
- Race continued — This gets more confusing and, frankly, racist, when David reveals he worked his way through college as a landscaper. Again, after watching a ton of these films where the rich character when played by a white actor is always just rich, this reveal of what should be our meet-cute straight-laced rich dude to Trudie’s fumbling artsy self as someone who is currently just a temp who’s done yard work in the past is glaring. Also, the only actual declared character of color in the film is, of course, Jessica’s family’s maid (she’s Hispanic) and exists mostly to be angry at Jessica’s bratty antics.
- Sexuality and heteronormativity — That’s the hardest part with all these films. For there to be a happy ending, the female lead must find her true love male love interest by the film’s end. I understand that ABC Family is owned by parent company, Disney, and that Hallmark Channel is geared for senior citizens but still. There are hundreds of these things between the networks making them for years. Think how many Lifetime Christmas movies must have been pumped out over the decades? Still, it’s always one woman finds the right man and they’re a happy couple forever because of Christmas magic. That’s one story. There’s never two men, two women, polyamorous relationships, transgender romance. There’s never even a story where either a single man or woman realizes they’re okay on their own. Nope, Christmas (there also aren’t any other winter holidays ever featured) is a holiday for thirty something men and women to fall in love and become soulmates only. The reason that Holiday in Handcuffs sticks out as so egregious is actually because it thinks it’s being progressive.
- Sexuality and Heteronormativity continued —The part that they tried to be open-minded about was that her brother reveals he broke up with his girlfriend and has actually started seriously dating a man. He comes out at the Christmas dinner starting a confession-a-thon from everyone. Basically, his mother’s reaction is to literally laugh, chug more wine, and go “I knew it.” To be fair, Trudie is supportive of him and kind to his boyfriend when both attend her art show. However, their attempt at being progressive fails when later in the movie, a shop owner miscontrues gestures from Trudie’s father to indicate that Trudie’s father and David are in a relationship. When it’s just the two of them, the shopowner calls David a “pervert.” Similarly, Trudie is fretting to a friend at the beginning of the film that if she goes home again without a boyfriend that her family “will think I’m a lesbian.” Clearly, being thought of as gay or single is some degenerate crime compared to having a steady man.
Thus no cookies for you film
Some of these movies are fun and have their light sides. They are at least fun if you leave your brain at the door and munch on some popcorn. For example, if you’re interested Desperately Seeking Santa, Christmas Bounty, and Holiday in Handcuffs are on Netflix. Hallmark Channel will be replaying The Nine Lives of Christmas through New Year’s Day. However, for all their faults and some clearly have more than others, I’m not down on the idea of romcoms or on romance films as a whole. I just wish that these channels would branch out to show films where it wasn’t usually pretty white kids with problems coming together as a happy heterosexual couple at the end, where often the woman has sacrificed part of herself or career goals to have a man or, like Trudie, the man has magically gifted her a career option in the eleventh hour.
Maybe Lifetime, ABC Family, and Hallmark Channel could bring us stories where it’s okay to be single at Christmas, whether you identify as a man or a woman. God, maybe they should film stories of people of color in love (the best they do is the occasional interracial film always with white male leads) or stories of LGBT couples finding connections as well. Right now, when all you hear is the same narrative on a loop, it makes it feel as if it’s the only narrative when we all know that’s not true.
Also, on that note, can we get some Winter Solstice, Yule, or Hanukkah? I’ll even take Festivus too. There are other religious festivals both in winter and in not, times of feasting and celebration to set films to. Maybe these networks have to work so hard to add kooky angles like thieves and bounty hunters to the mix because even they know their stories are tired, but that’s not the diversity their films actually need.