Same-sex kisses under the mistletoe: Holiday movies rethink a formula

By Erik Piepenberg

Will the adorable couple adopt a baby in time to celebrate Christmas with Mom and Dad and the neighborhood kids? Sounds like a delightful holiday TV movie. But this is disruptive 2020, so here’s the thing: The couple are Brandon and Jake and the channel is Hallmark.

“The Christmas House” is one of six new original holiday films released since November with something rare: main characters in same-sex relationships. Others include Hulu’s “Happiest Season,” a lesbian coming-out comedy starring Kristen Stewart; “The Christmas Setup,” a Lifetime rom-com starring real-life husbands Ben Lewis and Blake Lee; and “Dashing in December,” a drama on the Paramount Network about two men who fall in love on a ranch.

More under the radar but still noteworthy are two indies: “A New York Christmas Wedding,” a drama on Netflix about a woman who has relationships with both a man and a woman, and the scrappy on-demand “I Hate New Year’s” (for rent on major platforms), a lesbian romance set on New Year’s Eve in Nashville, Tennessee.

LGBTQ characters aren’t new to holiday movies, and six films may not sound like a revolution. But so many leading queer love stories — and same-sex kisses! — is a sea change for Christmas cinema, a conventionally heterosexual universe with more stories about puppies than gay people.

“It’s the start of something bigger,” said Clea DuVall, director and co-writer of “Happiest Season.” She added, “Networks and streamers are starting to see the value in telling these stories that have always been there but were not given the platform to get out to wider audiences.”

According to Hulu, “Happiest Season” is the first holiday rom-com about a same-sex couple from a major Hollywood studio. Nicole Brown, president of TriStar Pictures, which sold “Happiest Season” to Hulu in October, called the queering of the Christmas picture “very organic.” So what took so long?

“Film has always been under the assumption that the safest kind of characters are the way to go,” Brown said. “Our studio felt confident that the script and Clea’s vision and her ambition were aligned to make a commercial story, and that the quality of her storytelling would bring everybody in. When something’s great, it’s great.”

This shift is most seismic for Hallmark, which has become shorthand for “holiday movie.” “The Christmas House” is one of 40 new holiday films released this year on the Hallmark Channel and its sister network Hallmark Movies & Mysteries. What’s most striking about “The Christmas House” is that Brandon and Jake, played by Jonathan Bennett and Brad Harder, are unconditionally accepted as part of the family.

LGBTQ people “work on a lot of these Christmas movies,” said Bennett, who is gay but has played straight in Hallmark films before. “For the first time we feel we belong at the holiday table.”

Last December, the Hallmark Channel faced a firestorm when it pulled four television ads with kissing brides after a conservative group petitioned the network to “reconsider airing commercials with same-sex couples” and to refrain from adding LGBTQ movies to its schedule. Days later, Hallmark apologized for removing the commercials and said it would work with GLAAD, the media advocacy organization, “to better represent the LGBTQ community.”

Michelle Vicary, executive vice president of programming and network publicity at Crown Media Family Networks, the parent company of the Hallmark Channel, said in an interview that her chief goal this year was to make “a bigger holiday table where people can see themselves on TV.” In 2021, Hallmark “will be moving forward, not backward,” she said, with more LGBTQ tales at Christmas and during the year.

“We are really focused on continuing our commitment to the authenticity in our storytelling for all of our characters, and making sure that everyone can see themselves represented on Hallmark services,” she said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Lifetime, Hallmark’s biggest Christmas competitor, has featured original holiday films with LGBTQ characters in supporting roles and storylines before; last year for the first time it ran one with a same-sex kiss. But “The Christmas Setup” — one of 34 new holiday movies on Lifetime this year — breaks ground as the channel’s first such film with an LGBTQ romance front and center.

Tanya Lopez, Lifetime’s executive vice president of movies, limited series and original movie acquisitions, said having gay leading characters in a film was “an incredible positive.” But the real breakthrough?

“Remember when we would lower our voices and say a movie has a very special holiday twist?” she whispered. “We’re not doing a ‘very special kind of Christmas.’” Gay characters “being treated normal in storytelling is what feels fresh,” she added, “and that’s the norm I want to create.”

Complaints remain. One Million Moms, the conservative group that took credit for Hallmark’s decision to pull ads last year, is boycotting the company.

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