no. 13: Our Christmas Queens! (and the culture of The Hallmark Channel)

in which Sydney tackles the complicated moral culture of The Hallmark Channel and Kati recommends a not-so-Hallmarkian wlw love story, which plays against the formulaic tropes

no. 13: Our Christmas Queens! (and the culture of The Hallmark Channel)
The Christmas House (which has a 2021 sequel) features a gay couple in its main cast.

We're getting into the Christmas spirit today with our first Christmas/wintery issue. Quite a few surprises in the next couple of weeks—subscribe so you don't miss a thing!

The Hallmark Channel's relationship with queerness, Christianity, and "family values"

by Sydney Bollinger

Hallmark Movies are the reason for the Christmas season...kind of. Every year, the channel delights moms and grandmas (and people like me) with their formulaic romcoms set during the Christmas season. The films are the definition of wholesome; in the world of Hallmark, things always work out, Christmas is always saved, and love is always in the air. Danger never lurks around the corner. At worst, someone may miss a text or watch their love interest get a promotion they were vying for (even though they didn’t really get the promotion...the boss just wanted to talk to them). These are movies played in the background. You can bake your Christmas cookies while glancing at the screen every few minutes and still follow the narrative.

Noelle (Bure) wears a red dress and holds a wrapped gift at a Christmas party, while looking at a display of inspiring photography.
Candance Cameron Bure plays the materialistic Noelle in A Shoe Addict's Christmas, which is kind of like A Christmas Carol but less spooky.

Familiar faces always crop up on The Hallmark Channel. Candace Cameron Bure (DJ Tanner from Full House) has been a mainstay for a while, known as The Queen of Christmas due to her presence on the channel during their annual Christmas movie season. The actresses (and actors) in these films are themselves “wholesome” in a very specific American kind of way—the wholesome of church ladies and everyone’s favorite neighborhood mom. Even when Bure plays a shoe addict, it’s a forgivable materialism, wrapped with a cutesy bow. Over the years, other actresses have moved to Hallmark including Bure’s Full House castmate Jodie Sweetin and Lacey Chabert, who tried to make “fetch” happen as Gretchen Wieners in Mean Girls.

Despite her role in one of the best-known teen movies of all time—which had its share of harsh words and vindictive actions—Chabert seems to have turned away from this life and instead moved toward the saccharine paradise that is The Hallmark Channel. For Chabert and her costars, including Bure, Hallmark is a type of safe haven that allows actors to work in the industry without compromising their values. Both women proclaim Christianity and love for Jesus as central parts of their lives. It’s not surprising, then, that The Hallmark Channel is the perfect outlet to continue acting while maintaining “traditional” values.

A lesbian couple holds their hands up in celebration after being married in a greenhouse.
The happily married lesbian couple in A Wedding Every Weekend, a film about a man and a woman who attend the same four weddings in consecutive weekends (and presumably fall in love).

The films themselves don’t preach religious ideology, but everything from the screenplay to the costuming projects these evangelical ideals to viewers. Sure, I like Hallmark Christmas movies, but I would either be blind or ignorant to say that the channel’s productions didn’t follow an American Christian mythos. Whether The Hallmark Channel intends to change the perception of their programming or not, the channel has taken steps in the past two years to be more inclusive. 2020’s Wedding Every Weekend was the first production from the channel to feature a queer wedding. This, of course, led to a backlash from conservative Christians who now decry the channel’s move toward secular interests—but the channel has never proclaimed to be solely influenced by Christian (evangelical) doctrine.  

Even its portrayal of Christmas is not particularly Christian—many of the most devout push back against the consumerist culture and neverending holiday cheer of the films because these narratives lack a Christ-centered Christmas. Writer Catherine Segars takes issue with this, lamenting the lack of God in Hallmark films:

If God being central to a film were a perquisite for media consumption, there would be precious little a Christian could watch. We would be divorced from our culture altogether if a Christian worldview were necessary criteria for engaging with the silver screen or the tube.

But it is sad that the largest and most wholesome Christmas destination on television manages to leave the Christ out of Christmas. Every time. You might see a church or even a church service, but God is rarely, if ever, mentioned.

This perspective is indicative of our culture, which pushes God to the periphery if they mention Him at all.

When Segars (in this article from 2019) claims that Hallmark fails to represent God in its programming, it seems to connect to a larger issue: is anything free of an agenda?  

Lacey Chabert looks on at a handsome man while at an outdoor Christmas decoration stall in a wintery small Irish village.
Lacey Chabert in A Christmas at Castle Hart. She's mistaken for an event planner (she's not an event planner) and is hired to host Castle Hart's Christmas party—which makes no sense, but it's probably still fun to watch!

If Hallmark is pushing an agenda, it’s definitely not the gay one. The channel’s portrayal of queer couples is analagous to its portrayal of straight couples; this is not queer liberation by any means. Thought the inclusion of queer characters in their films may upset (evangelical) Christian viewers, Hallmark’s value system has not changed. The films themselves are still focused on true love sealed with one (chaste) kiss at the end.  In an article from 2020, Segars similarly decries Hallmark’s transition from a “family friendly” channel to one that is set on pushing for an agenda—the gay one, specifically:

Hallmark was one of the few bastions of agenda-free, family-friendly programming left on television. It’s not surprising that this cultural shift has found its way to the Christmas movie capital of the world.

Not to tear apart the words of one film critic, but Hallmark still very much has an agenda. The films are family friendly and they continue to promote traditional values; these are movies focused on centering the life of the family, rejecting the fast-paced, dangerous world of cities, and choosing the comforts of home and love rather than material pursuits—I can’t count the number of high-powered businesspeople have left their well-paying jobs to takeover the smalltown family business.  Despite this one small “transgression,” The Hallmark Channel hasn’t changed its values. The majority of its content still appeals to conservative Christians, smalltown folks, and people who just like watching fluffy seasonal romance films.  

Chabert and Bure still confidently express their views about Jesus, despite the network’s move toward inclusivity. Perhaps they are motivated by money, but they very well may just accept the fact that queer people exist and are part of our world.

I’m still watching Hallmark Christmas films.

Further Reading:

Screen Break

by Kati Bowden

Written in the Stars cover, featuring two women holding each other romantically against a silhoutte of Seattle under constellations

If we're going to talk about beautifully tropey, predictable, delightful love stories a la Hallmark, then we're going to talk about Written In The Stars by Alexandria Bellefleur. Written In The Stars features a fake-dating scheme concocted by the serious, skeptic Darcy Lowell when she grows tired of her brother's many, many failed attempts at setting her up with blind dates. After the latest disaster, Darcy simply lies to her brother and tells him that her night with his coworker, Elle Jones, was absolutely delightful. Confused but with her own problems, Elle agrees to the ploy only if Darcy helps her survive her own overbearing family drama during the upcoming holiday season. They'll pretend to be deeply in love for a few weeks and "break up" on New Year's Eve. Easy-peasy, no one gets hurt. But of course, everything quickly snowballs into real feelings, real drama, and real love–who could have guessed!

So how is this different than any of the tropey queer Hallmark scripts we're seeing now? Well, for one, Written In The Stars actually commits to its queer characters. Elle and Darcy aren't just generically bland women who are labelled gay and made palatable for a heterosexual audience. Bellefleur elevates her characters with her own queerness, fleshing them out with informed views and understandings of lesbian and gay culture and self-expression. Elle embodies a queer stereotype in a way that is uniquely built by an inherent and interior knowledge of queer identity: Elle Jones is the ultimate sapphic astrology bitch and one of the heads of the popular Twitter astrology account "Oh My Stars." Elle is searching for a soulmate as ordained by the stars—a truly idealistic, queer experience. There's a natural and intimate building of character in Elle that only another sapphic can truly construct.

Where Elle keeps her head in the clouds, Darcy is a serious, logical woman who doesn't necessarily not believe in soulmates, but she's pretty sure that she isn't going to find one through randomly selected matches. Still, she can't deny her true nature as a hopeless romantic with a mushy center that aches to be loved. While this may not be exclusive to a queer experience, there is a specific brand of yearning that the gays have mastered and that Darcy personifies. In case it is't clear, fellow lesbians, Bellefleur is keeping us absolutely fed with this story. With nods to both Pride and Prejudice and the ever-iconic Bridget Jones series, Written In The Stars is a lovely holiday read for any and all WLWs who are left not-quite-satisfied by Hallmark this year.

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