Film

The Unwatchable Whiteness of Holiday Movies

Hallmark’s brand of wholesomeness reinforces racist stereotypes of who deserves happy endings

BY


iStock / svetikd
iStock/svetikd

May your days be merry and bright
And may all your Christmases be white

-“White Christmas,” Irving Berlin, 1942

Watching a Hallmark movie is like taking half a benzo in an Ikea showroom in the middle of Stockholm. It is a mild, innocuous soporific propped up by a staged, suburban, pseudo-elegant scene populated by a large number of nice-looking white people. I was disturbed to find myself moderately engaged by Switched for Christmas, the most-viewed Hallmark telecast in history (5.8 million viewers, including me), which stars Candace Cameron Bure as a pair of barely human twin tropes—city slicker, country bumpkin—who pull a Parent Trap for the holidays. “Our lives couldn’t be more different,” one—it barely matters which—exclaims as their interchangeable, white-as-snow narratives are mildly shaken up like a marked-down snow globe.

Here, the houses are cut out of catalogues, the kids look like young Republicans, and Happy the dog gets top billing. There’s even a flour fight during a baking scene, all of which adds up to a series of vaguely animated stock images you may find by googling the word “wholesome.” Everything—the acting, the set, the story—is as flatly palatable as, well, a Hallmark card. “We are a place you can go and feel good,” Bill Abbott, the CEO of Crown Media, which owns the Hallmark Channel, recently told the Washington Post. But Abbott, it seems, has mistaken sedation for pleasure.

This particular tranquilizer is designed specifically for a white, conservative audience, enveloping the parade of Pleasantvilles in a sinister frame. Its audience loudly touts traditional family values and charity while less loudly opposing multiculturalism, gender fluidity, and homosexuality. According to the Post, Hallmark’s ratings surged in 2015 when Donald Trump arrived on the political landscape and have continued to soar since, with a number of husbands joining the predominantly female demographic. While every other channel is losing viewers to Netflix, Hallmark—which calls itself “the heart of TV”—is commanding almost as much attention as the news.

“It’s clean and I just don’t enjoy cussing,” a Georgia grandma told E! News in October. The sentiment was echoed by a North Carolina senior who said, “There is no profanity nor any offensive sex acts in any movie I have ever seen.” A middle-aged Minnesotan added, “There are no politics, there is no crime, no hate, no war.” (Even Netflix appears to be attracted, releasing its own Hallmark-style fare this year in the form of A Christmas Prince and Christmas Inheritance.)

This brand of good, clean fun, however, is not for everyone. These films are relegated to the lives of upper-middle-class white folk, the implication being that swearing and sex and strife is the province of the misguided, the folks of colour, the poor folk, the un-Christian folk. With Christmas marketed as the ultimate aspirational holiday, it’s no wonder that Hallmark responds with such anemic offerings.

The season’s yarns, however, have not always been so whitewashed. Our modern-day fascination with Christmas extends back to Charles Dickens’s 1843 tale A Christmas Carol. The celebrated novella centres on a miserly businessman, Ebenezer Scrooge, who is visited by the ghosts of Noel past, present, and future, who each hold up a mirror to the destruction wrought by his self-interest. By virtue of these spirits, Scrooge is transformed into a spirit himself, the altruistic spirit of Christmas. Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol to publicize the Industrial Revolution’s exploitation of working-class children, positioning the holidays as a time “when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”

But the commodification of Christmas over the past century has snowballed Dickens’s trimmings of turkey, gifts, carols—and not for the better. The season is now less about considering the other and more about considering one’s own. The most popular Christmas movie of all time is about a rich little white boy who is left behind in an enormous house by his Paris-bound family but is able to fight off a couple of hobo-looking burglars with his wits and wealth. Home Alone is John Hughes’s first children’s movie, but it takes the same Rockwellian approach to America as the rest of his work. This Republican Frank Capra fan believed in the American Dream, and to him, the American Dream comes in the form of a palatial abode in the suburbs (charity appears, but as an afterthought).

Hollywood’s biggest Christmas movies all tend to follow a similar formula, which is generally coded white. Beautiful, wealthy, and powerful men and women overcome minor setbacks to luxuriate in pricey yuletide accoutrements surrounded by family. Love Actually and The Holiday are thus reappraised each year, ignoring similarly situated (and higher-grossing) all-black stories, such as The Best Man Holiday, Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas, This Christmas, and The Preacher’s Wife. The Hollywood machine dreams of a white Christmas, so we do too.

Among these myopic festivities, Hallmark is the greatest gift of all. It dominates the holiday-movie genre—this year alone, the channel released thirty-three Christmas movies. Thirty-three. Twenty-one of them were previewed on the channel’s website, and they are virtually indistinguishable—an ice-sculpting romance dissolves into a tree-lighting romance dissolves into a gingerbread romance. Only a handful of non-white faces appear, none of them main characters. Each installment was reportedly produced in three weeks over the summer, with a budget of about $2 million each. Much of that money appears to fund fire-retardant foam and a rotating list of actresses, such as Lori Loughlin, the aforementioned Candace Cameron Bure, and the Plastic Xmas queen Lacey Chabert (who has reportedly appeared in no less than ten Hallmark movies).

The lack of diversity would be glaring either way, but it is particularly disconcerting in the context of Christmas. Just under 85 percent of Americans celebrate the holiday, according to a Public Religion Research Institute 2013 report (the numbers are likely similar for Canada). And yet, while Caucasians account for the majority of the population in both countries, minority populations are experiencing not only more, but faster, growth. Add this to the fact that our national conversations have lately focused on the underrepresentation of minorities in many aspects of the public sphere, including media and pop culture, and the choice to rely primarily on white actors to represent Christmas is, at best, a major oversight—and, at worst, a form of propaganda.

“The casting of a Hallmark movie gives a whole new meaning to the idea of ‘white Christmas,’” Brian Moylan wrote in Vulture last December. “Occasionally, one of the lead characters will have a black best friend, but it usually looks like a GOP congressman’s staff Christmas card.” Salon writer Melanie McFarland joked last year that she and her fellow critics couldn’t “get drunk or even mildly tipsy” at a Hallmark event during which they took a swig every time an African American, Latinx, Asian, or Native American actor popped up on the sizzle reel of the channel’s upcoming productions (that same year, Affinity Magazine found seventy-one recurring appearances in Hallmark movies, only six of which were non-white actors).

When Salon confronted Crown CEO Bill Abbott last year about the whiteness of Hallmark movies, he cited the company’s high production volume and Canadian sets—logic that is tenuous at best. More recently, Michelle Vicary, Hallmark’s executive vice-president of programming and network publicity, told the A.V. Club that the channel will continue to use the same actors because, “it’s been hugely successful for us.” She cited Cameron Bure specifically as having the number-one Christmas movie three years in a row. What she didn’t mention was that Cameron Bure, Chabert, and Loughlin and are all openly religious (the former two are also openly Republican). “Being a Christian affects every aspect of my life. It plays a part in all the roles and projects I choose to be a part of,” Cameron Bure told the Christian Post in 2013. “I want to honor Christ in all that I do, and that’s why it’s important to stay in the family friendly role of television and movies.”

Little wonder Hallmark can act as a sanctuary for religious conservatives considering its origins are in faith-based programming. In 1998, Crown Media Holdings (along with the Jim Henson Company) bought the Odyssey network, which was previously known as the Faith and Values Channel and, before that, as two religious cable channels. Vision Interfaith Satellite Network and American Christian Television System had both offered evangelical programming, with the latter also airing family-oriented “clean, entertaining and uplifting shows,” according to then ACTV president, Jimmy R. Allen. In 1984, he told the Washington Post: “We have a responsibility to communicate the value system we think is right.”

More than three decades later, that mindset endures—though it is no longer explicit. In 2001, Odyssey became the Hallmark Channel and dropped the overt religion, but retained the conservative values. When you consider the whiteness of Hallmark’s cast members in the context of the channel’s growth in the Age of Trump—whose core beliefs seem to centre on traditional family values and money—it becomes clear why, despite the number of evangelical Christians in America who are not white, the channel would focus on those who are.

Hollywood, like Hallmark, also considers the made-for-Christmas audience to be white and well-off, though for reasons that are less political and more old-fashioned prejudiced. Despite the success of a number of all-black Christmas movies, holiday movies with non-white casts remain rare, with Native American, Asian, and Latinx actors barely figuring. In a 2014 IndieWire article, entitled “Why White People Don’t Like Black Movies,” film scholar Andre Seewood outlined a sociological phenomenon known as the racial empathy gap, which posits that people struggle to identify with those who are outside of their own race.

He offered examples of white audience members ditching films with powerful black central characters and acknowledged that black audience members do not behave equivalently with powerful white central characters. “We watch Whites exercise power, privilege and control in ‘White’ films because some of us aspire to exercise that same type of agency ourselves so we, for lack of a better phrase, roll with the Whiteness that we see on the screen,” Seewood wrote, noting, “Even as the United States becomes increasingly less White (in its population aggregate) the notions of privilege, power and control associated with upper class status is still seen through the prism of Whiteness on the movie screen.”

That same prism distorts the notion of Christmas on that same movie screen. But, God bless us, everyone, this is changing. Four years after he released the highest-grossing Christmas movie with an all-black cast ever (The Best Man Holiday), Malcolm D. Lee has presented us with Girls Trip. The raunchy rom-com about a group of black girlfriends on vacation was a hit earlier this year, attracting such a huge audience that it made $138.6 million at the box office and, in its opening weekend, was second only to Christopher Nolan’s highly anticipated blockbuster Dunkirk. Breakout star Tiffany Haddish recently became the first black female stand-up to host Saturday Night Live, landed a lead role in the sitcom The Last O.G., and will star opposite John Cho in a satirical thriller called The Oath. The film is produced by the company behind Jordan Peele’s Get Out, a creepy genreless meditation on race starring Daniel Kaluuya, which grossed $254 million (on a budget of $4.5) this year and may even win the Oscar for best picture.

In short, two of the most successful films of the year have passed Manohla Dargis’s Bechdel-inspired DuVernay test, “in which African-Americans and other minorities have fully realized lives rather than serve as scenery in white stories.” That’s the Christmas spirit Dickens was talking about.

Soraya Roberts (@sorayaroberts) is the author of In My Humble Opinion: My So-Called Life. She is a regular contributor to Hazlitt and is currently working on a memoir.

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