As the temperatures drop and Starbucks brings out those coveted red cups, that only means one thing: cheesy, delightful holiday movies that are all about the power of family, love, and, of course, Christmas cheer. But there’s something obnoxiously similar about many of these movies: they are all about cisgender, heterosexual couples. They reinforce stereotypical gender dynamics, and while yes they are just movies, they speak volumes about the kinds of love that society deems the most important.
But, director Clea DuVall is looking to change that this year with her feature film Happiest Season, coming to Hulu on November 25th. Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis play Abby and Harper, respectively, a lesbian couple who are head over heels in love with each other. Abby is ready to propose, but not before she goes home with Harper for the holidays. That’s where it gets complicated: Harper is not out to her family, so she’s told them that Abby is her lesbian orphan roommate.
Hijinks inevitably ensue and feelings are hurt, but since it’s a Christmas movie, everything ends happily ever after. Stewart confirms this in an interview with Variety: “The audience should be afraid that they might not get together,” she says, “but it’s a rom-com — they’re going to get back together!” It is the heartwarming gay love story without life-or-death stakes that the queer community has been craving.
Since the film’s announcement — and more so since its trailer dropped — excitement has been buzzing on Twitter, to say the least. It isn’t just because Stewart and Davis, plus Daniel Levy, Aubrey Plaza, and everyone’s favorite mom Mary Steenburgen star in Happiest Season. It’s also due to the fact that this is a cheesy rom-com set during Christmas about a gay couple. Unfortunately in 2020, it’s rather revolutionary.
Just a quick Google search for gay Christmas movies brings up only two results: Holiday Heart, about a gay drag queen who befriends a mother and her daughter; and Make the Yuletide Gay, a traditional rom-com of errors. Neither are studio films, with the former premiering on the Hallmark Channel in 2000 and the latter making the festival circuit in 2009 without a large release. These are the only two relatively well-known films that center on gay experiences during the holidays.
Queer inclusion in holiday movies comes, instead, mainly from gay side-characters who more often than not are sprinkled in to offer comedic relief or drama. One particularly uncomfortable example of this is in The Family Stone. Centered on a relationship between Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Everrett (Dermott Mulroney), the 2005 film follows the couple as they travel to Everrett’s family home for the holidays. Meredith meets all of his siblings, including brother Patrick and his husband Thad, who are so loved by everyone and there’s no obvious family drama over their sexuality.
However, they are used as a backdrop for Meredith to make homophobic comments that only further reveal how stiff and uncomfortable she is as a person. The only two gay characters in the film are merely used for Meredith’s character development as the script humiliates them in front of the entire family.
In other films, such as 1995’s Home for the Holidays, the gay family member (in this case played by Robert Downey, Jr.) is the black sheep, looked down upon and treated like a failure. He is just another burden for the main character, Claudia (Holly Hunter), to watch over and worry about. Due to his eccentric and flamboyant nature, a.k.a. his sexuality, he is also the impetus for many family fights.
There is, of course, positive queer representation in films such as Lifetime’s Twinkle All The Way and Netflix’s Let It Snow, but its still relegated to side characters. Gay romance gets a brief moment in the snow-filled spotlight before attention is turned back to the main heterosexual couple.
Happiest Season’s central conflict, though, has some worried about reducing gay couples to narratives about coming out experiences. But this is just one movie that cannot carry all of the wants and desires for queer cinema. Mainstream queer representation is growing very slowly, and placing all of the pressure on a single rom-com to entice the entire queer population is unrealistic. Instead, the focus should be that there is finally a studio release about lesbians during Christmas.
Yet it isn’t the only movie looking to bring the holiday queer this season. Cable channels such as Lifetime and Hallmark are also striving for better representation. Lifetime is debuting its first LGBTQ+ holiday movie, The Christmas Setup (December 12th), starring two gay male leads. Hallmark is releasing The Christmas House (November 22nd), about a gay couple waiting to adopt their first child. Paramount TV has a gay cowboy flick, Dashing to December (December 13th), galloping onto screens. And even Netflix recently released A New York Christmas Wedding, about two women of color falling in love.
While seemingly following Hulu’s lead, they are paying attention to what audiences want and aren’t afraid to start shifting the tried-and-true narratives. Yes, Lifetime and Hallmark are known for an almost impossible output of movies around the holidays that drip with absurd amounts of tinsel and kisses in the snow. But without them, Happiest Season would be the only gay Christmas movie of 2020 to discuss.
Happiest Season is a blueprint for a bright, and gay, cinematic future. It’s a movie about lesbians starring queer actors, directed by a lesbian, written by two women, scored by a woman, edited by a woman, the list goes on. This isn’t Hulu just trying to gain inclusivity points; it’s an earnest production about gay women based on a gay woman’s experience. This is why Happiest Season is so important: it’s a genuine holiday rom-com that revels in more than just heterosexual love.
When it comes down to it, Christmas movies are joyful and cheesy. Why can’t queer people get in on the fun? The queer community needs these kinds of narratives focused on gay couples experiencing joy. They exist in these spaces and absolutely deserve to be the center of a rom-com narrative that uses those well-worn tropes in exciting ways. Representation is not just about the struggles and heartbreak that queer people have experienced; it’s also about their joy and silly family confrontations that don’t have tragic consequences.
Love is love, as they say, and that love deserves to be represented in all forms, including during the most wonderful time of the year.