happiest season

How Does One Make the Yuletide Gay?

Happiest Season isn’t a perfect LGBTQ Christmas movie, but does it need to be? Photo: Hulu

There’s a truly horrid Christmas movie I watch every year called 12 Dates of Christmas. It’s a Groundhog Day–esque thing made for ABC Family in which a woman lives out Christmas Eve 12 different times until she finally gets it right. It’s low budget. It doesn’t make a terrible amount of sense as far as space and time are concerned; it’s one of those movies where they want you to believe the characters live in New York City, but, really, they’re fully in Canada. To say it’s a good film would be to tell a lie. But still, most years, I return to it.

It weighed on my mind while watching Clea Duvall’s Happiest Season. (Warning: spoilers ahead.) Billed as the first-ever Hollywood-budget LGBTQ+ Christmas movie, it stars Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis as Abby and Harper, a lesbian couple from Pittsburgh who are just about to get engaged after Harper invites Abby home for Christmas to meet her family. (Stewart’s Abby has no family of her own because she was orphaned after both her parents died when she was 19, a bit of information that gets repeated so often Abby might as well get it tattooed on her forehead.) On the drive, however, Harper reveals that not only has she not told her family that Abby is her girlfriend, but she’s not out to them at all, and could Abby please spend the duration of the trip pretending to be her straight roommate? This, as you might expect, does not go so well.

Harper’s parents, Mary Steenburgen and Victor Garber, are perfectionists driven solely by the desire to maintain an illusion of having it all together. And so Steenburgen spends most of the film trying to get Harper back together with her hunky high-school boyfriend (Jake McDorman, who, after an hour of watching, I finally placed as “the guy from Greek”). Garber is focused on a run for mayor, which will apparently come crumbling down if any of his adult children steps a toe out of line by, say, coming out of the closet or admitting their marriage is a sham. In the process, we meet Riley — Aubrey Plaza — Harper’s first girlfriend, who spent high school being bullied for being gay after Harper outed her to selfishly protect herself. She’s now a very cool suit-wearing doctor who befriends Stewart’s character and helps her cope as her girlfriend slowly morphs back into the person her family wants her to be.

Obviously, you know roughly how this is all going to end. Harper comes out to her parents and then makes a big romantic gesture in the parking lot of a gas station — the parking lot of a Love’s, because Christmas movies are nothing if not on the nose — to win Abby back. Everybody is gathered around the tree the next morning, including Abby’s best friend, Dan Levy, who arrived on Christmas Eve to rescue Abby and wound up delivering the film’s emotional climax, about how coming out isn’t ever something you can do for someone else, no matter how much you love them. Flash forward a year later, and everybody is living happily ever after and eating popcorn at the movies as the opening credits for It’s a Wonderful Life roll by. Cue the Tegan and Sara original song and fade to black.

The result is a very sweet movie with high rewatch potential. But still, I wanted so much more from Happiest Season. I wanted a modern queer romance that wasn’t tied solely to coming out, which is the beginning and end of so many gay narratives and, frankly, feels like the sort of story assigned to queer people by a heterocentric industry. I wanted a movie that didn’t feel trapped in 2007. I wanted a movie where the big monologue in a film about love between two women didn’t come from the gay best friend — where a queer woman’s revelation about her relationship isn’t crystallized for her by your mother’s Schitt’s Creek fave. (Dan Levy is perfectly fine in the role; I take issue with the role’s existence in the first place.) The only characters of color get saddled with the film’s more questionable motives; Harper’s biracial niece and nephew exist almost solely to frame Abby for shoplifting in a mall, and their father gets busted making out with Harper’s dad’s campaign manager in a closet during the all-important family Christmas Eve party. Happiest Season boils down to a funny enough story about rich white people — some of whom, it happens, are gay. (It can be quite funny at moments, though, most notably when Mary Holland, who co-wrote the script, is onscreen as Harper’s oddball sister.)

Which brings me back to 12 Dates of Christmas, a categorically bad movie but still one I turn to each year to revel in its awfulness. Because Christmas movies with straight plots are allowed to be bad. They’re allowed to be lame. They’re allowed to have narratives that revolve around things like “the Mrs. Clause,” which forces Santa to frantically hunt for a wife before Christmas Eve lest he violate his contract and lose his job. (The Santa Clause 2. Yes, really.) Sure, there is the rare actually-good-by-traditional-movie-standards holiday flick, but they’re usually the ones with budgets and A-list talent and major distribution: The Holiday. Last Holiday. The Family Stone. Love Actually.

This week, I also watched A New York Christmas Wedding on Netflix, a movie about a queer Afro-Latina woman who wakes up in an alternate reality in which she gets to marry her childhood best friend, also a woman, in a Catholic church thanks to one very liberal priest (played by Mr. Big of Sex and the City fame). In contrast to Happiest Season, A New York Christmas Wedding features a diverse cast that reflects a very real New York. What it lacks is the same Hollywood treatment. Where it lost me, however, was not the film’s low-budget feel, or its subsequent plot holes, but rather a hyper-Christian right-to-life B-plot that left me squirming and rehashing repressed memories of a childhood spent in Catholic school. If you can handle that, though, it’s a love story that offers up something so many queer adults have longed for: the chance to go back in time and do life again, out and proud. The final scenes are surprisingly tender, and it concludes without ever centering whiteness in that typical holiday-movie way. Carmen Phillips over at Autostraddle has an excellent review that gets into the good and the bad of A New York Christmas Wedding, pointing out the frustration in its inevitable comparison to the other, bigger LGBTQ+ Christmas movies this year.

Also on that list of bigger 2020 LGBTQ+ Christmas movies is Hallmark’s The Christmas House, which marks the network’s first major LGBTQ+ story line and a marked turnaround for the network that took flak in 2019 for pulling an ad featuring a lesbian kiss. It stars Jonathan Bennett (Mean Girls), whom I met last year at Hallmark’s ChristmasCon, a three-day event at a convention center in New Jersey devoted to all things merry and bright. Bennett, who is openly gay, brought Daniel Franzese, the actor who played Damian in Mean Girls, onstage as a surprise panel guest. Franzese talked all about the importance of playing an out queer character in 2004, while Bennett remained mostly quiet. Earlier in the day, I’d asked Melissa Joan Hart — a tentpole of the Lifetime Christmas-movie universe — if she thought we’d ever see a Christmas movie with an LGBTQ+ plot. She looked at me, perplexed, and said, “Well … Love Actually.” (False.) The whole day made me feel a little sad, as a lesbian who counts the days to put up a tree and start watching sickly sweet movies all December long.

I think that’s where a movie like Happiest Season gets set up to fail. I found its focus on a Christmastime marriage proposal to be frustrating; part of the joy of Christmas movies is their reliable tropes, but I want queer holiday movies to have space to have their own tropes. There’s something very familiar, if you’re queer, about feeling the conflict of wanting to provide “good” representation, the kind that fits into heteronormative expectations about what LGBTQ stories should look like, and simultaneously wanting authentic representation that might further other queer people in potentially harmful ways. (Dan Levy has an admittedly great line where he likens Stewart asking her girlfriend’s parents for their daughter’s hand in marriage to asking permission to own an adult human woman. His skepticism about the traditional marriage mold felt, to me, like one of the film’s queerer moments.) Yet despite it shortcomings, this really is the first mainstream gay Christmas movie to hit the market. Which meant, while watching it, I found myself overcome with this desperate need for it to achieve a ridiculous level of perfection. For it to not miss on any level lest this be the only Christmas crumb queer people ever get.

For that to be even remotely possible, though, queer people would have to be a monolith. Which we clearly are not. It’s sort of the whole point. I wouldn’t hold it against a crappy made-for-TV Christmas movie if the thing felt trite and packed with tropes — if the happy ending was predictable and the snow started falling at just the right second. That’s what you expect, and even want, from a movie like that. The thing is, saying “representation matters” about LGBTQ+ stories is as much about the details of those stories as it is about the quantity of those stories. We don’t necessarily need Happiest Season to be better so much as we need a hundred more movies just like it. Movies about queer people at all stages of queerness, ones who aren’t just white and thin and, well, Kristen Stewart. For now, it’s a start, even if it’s nowhere near enough. But, really, no single Christmas story could be. Even my beloved 12 Dates needed a dozen tries to get it right.

How Does One Make the Yuletide Gay?