Alexander Ludwig as Andrew and Kat Graham as Erica in Operation Christmas Drop (2020 ) (© Netflix / IMDB)
In 2019 I was targeted by Facebook ads; the algorithm knows I’m a sucker for a Netflix romantic comedy promo. I watched the trailers for two Netflix Christmas movies, The Knight Before Christmas, starring Vanessa Hudgens and Josh Whitehouse, and Holiday in the Wild, starring Kristen Davis and Rob Lowe. I couldn’t look away, mouth agape, from the requisite circumstances to achieve love implied by these premises.
In The Knight Before Christmas, a time-traveling 14th-century knight suddenly appears directly in front of Vanessa’s car; she almost hits him. She spends the rest of the film housing and clothing him until she can figure out where he came from. In Holiday in the Wild, Davis ends up on a detour from a Zambian safari in an elephant sanctuary, stuck with her pilot (Lowe), as they nurse a baby elephant back to health. Both trailers include a scene, almost at the exact same moment (56 seconds in the former, 1:11 in the latter) in which the female character walks in on the male character, whom she just recently met, while he’s at least half-naked, to establish that she finds him attractive. More likely, this is for the viewers, presumably straight women between 18 and 34.
The primary struggle of each film seems to be that, unfortunately, everyone will have to go home at some point because Christmas is only one day, and the holiday’s escapism can only last so long. This pesky obstacle will surely be overcome by the strength of feelings these characters have developed over the course of 90 minutes, and they all will live happily ever after.
Hallmark and Lifetime have long been the kingpins of the Christmas movie game. In 2018, Hallmark’s Countdown to Christmas reached 70 million unique viewers. In the last couple of years, though, Netflix began to compete for the holiday film audience. This year, Netflix put out seven new Christmas-themed films, including Holidate (starring Emma Roberts and Luke Bracey), Operation Christmas Drop (starring Kat Graham and Alexander Ludwig), and The Princess Switch: Switched Again (starring Vanessa Hudgens, again). All three present varying degrees of dubious situations, respectively: 1. apparent social pressure to have a romantic partner for St. Patrick’s Day, Mother’s Day, and Cinco de Mayo; 2. a U.S. Air Force program that drops holiday gifts on remote islands at Christmas; and 3. Vanessa Hudgens playing three different people who are all trying to impersonate each other. (Note: It turns out Operation Christmas Drop is a real thing and the people of Guam were not happy with the portrayal.)
The predictability of the onslaught of these films is in some ways comforting, given the unpredictability of our current world. It is not news that Christmas films require suspension of disbelief; part of their charm is the wacky circumstances that allow people to find love in strange places. The fanciful nature of Christmas films satisfies viewers who don’t want to think too hard, or be seasonally depressed, about the circumstances of their lives that don’t fit as neatly into the boxes that Hallmark, Lifetime, and now Netflix builds for their fictional characters, particularly during cuffing season.
Vanessa Hudgens as Stacy / Margaret / Fiona in The Princess Switch: Switched Again ( 2020) (IMDB)
As Vox writer Emily Vanderwerff, explains, “Hallmark Christmas movies feel nostalgic for something half-understood, like those episodes of The Twilight Zone where somebody travels back to the 1890s or the 1910s in hopes of chasing some America that has been lost to the mists of time. Except, where the Twilight Zone traveler eventually realizes the error of his or her ways, a Hallmark protagonist comes to love living in the bubble — or the snow globe, if you will.”
Many Christmas films go further than the absurd storylines above and defy the laws of physics to mine plot devices. Two of note on Hallmark Channel, Journey Back to Christmas, starring Candace Cameron Burre, and Family for Christmas, starring Lacey Chabert (of Mean Girls fame), employ a time travel or parallel universe theme.
As I think about the farcical plots in holiday movies that force characters to endure outlandish circumstances and overcome clashing personality stereotypes in order to finally seal their relationship with a kiss, I realize that most romantic comedies, even the good ones, also portray this abridged version of love. In most of these films, all conflicts occur before the relationship begins. Perhaps the characters first meet and hate each other, or one is already in a relationship with the wrong person, or has sworn off the idea of being in a relationship, or is too focused on her job (which is probably a journalist). But once they decide to be together, they live happily ever after.
And the fantastical schemes are not limited to Christmas movies — the 2018-19 wide release films I Feel Pretty, What Men Want, and Isn’t it Romantic all use magic to both facilitate conflict and culminate in blissful romance. So many romantic films involve time travel; many star Rachel McAdams. But once the lead characters overcome these supernatural barriers and fall in love, the story ends, and the viewers don’t get to see the characters navigate their new relationship.
We should demand more realism in our romantic comedies. Rather than bonkers situations that occur before a relationship even starts, films could center on real problems that people face in partnership. Romantic comedies that demonstrate friction between people in love can still provide the consolation and levity we seek in the genre and can still reinforce the lesson that dealing with conflict in a healthy way might lead to a happy ending.
This yearning for the illusion of the easiness and cheesiness of love in Christmas films and other romantic comedies germinates from some audiences’ inherent inability to discuss what healthy love looks like. As bell hooks raises in her book All About Love, “many of us learn early on to think of love as a feeling. When we feel deeply drawn to someone…we invest emotion in them…[But] to truly love we must learn to mix various ingredients: care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, trust, as well as open and honest communication.” hooks argues that much of our unhealthy behavior around love is a result of messages that love is intangible, undefined, and confusing.
Some definitions of love even allow it to coexist with abuse and lies. We know this from many romantic comedies that are predicated on bets or otherwise manipulative behavior — Failure to Launch, Never Been Kissed, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Hitch, and You’ve Got Mail, to name a few. (I explicitly exclude 10 Things I Hate About You from this catalogue because it’s a perfect movie and I don’t deign to criticize the work of writing team Karen McCullah and Kirsten Smith.)
Particularly in a US context of Christian hegemony, patriarchy, and toxic masculinity, we don’t have a rom-com guidebook for how to deal with conflict and remain in a healthy, loving relationship. Our media is certainly no help. In romantic comedies, particularly, which we turn to for comfort and hope, we don’t often get to see how to build trust when a partner has been dishonest in the past, how to receive love when grieving, or how to negotiate political differences or professional challenges with a partner. These conflicts are legitimate, interesting, and could be instructive to an audience of viewers. A film that recounts what comes after the Big Damn Kiss would be more riveting because it would be real.
A recent positive example is the much-anticipated Hulu’s Happiest Season, directed by Clea Duvall. This film gives audiences what they want — Christmas lights, Mary Steenburgen, a physical sibling fight, quips from a sassy best friend character, some over-eager mall cops, and a marriage proposal. However, it also navigates the genuine relationship conflict of being asked to hide one’s identity to appease a partner’s parents and do so with grace, humor, and compassion. It perhaps should not be shocking that this is a lesbian movie and therefore more easily breaks Christmas movie tropes — Harper and Abby (played by Mackenzie Davis and Kristen Stewart, respectively) don’t fit the heteronormative fairytale of most romantic comedies, so they have a bit more room to play.
Romantic comedies like Happiest Season could be ideal vehicles for exploring the life of relationships. We can move past material for relationship discord that’s completely self-constructed or science fiction — the twin swaps, the dead spouse who comes back as an angel, the business rival who gets caught in the same storm — and instead mine reality for healthy models of post-finalé-kiss-life.
I hope for a holiday film world where we resist the tug of escapism and demand more from the stories we consume. We can exert influence over our algorithms and seek out stories that we want to be told, instead of acquiescing to the Facebook ads, as I once did. We must reckon with the fact that, at some point, the snow globe breaks, the safari ends, the magic fades, the time travel was just a dream, we all must return to our routines and begin the slow work of building true, real-life empathy for one another.
Happiest Season (2020) (IMDB)