For years, Christmas movies were hetero-territory. That’s not to say they weren’t quality viewing material – Love, Actually is and will always be a classic – but few have featured queer characters at all, let alone as lead protagonists. Apparently, all the gays in the world disappear come December 25th.
This year however, the queer community’s prayers were finally answered and we were graced with not one but several queer holiday flicks, one being Happiest Season starring Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis.
The film, which premiered on Hulu due to the pandemic (it was produced by Sony and initially set to be released in cinemas), received a mixed response; while some felt it breathed life into the outdated rom-com genre, others thought that it was created out of a desire for political correctness.
Regardless of the response, the question of why it’s taken so long for a queer Christmas movie remains prevalent; is the world finally ready for an LGBTQ+ festive love story?
Throughout cinema, queer people have notoriously been side-lined as camp/butch best friends, fashionable sidekicks or pervy PE teachers. Though representation on screen has vastly improved with high-profile movies such as Call Me By Your Name and The Favourite paving the way, rarely are the storylines positive or uplifting, and most often shrouded in despair.
The ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope, which depicts queer people as more expendable than their heterosexual counterparts, is one still seen too often in film and television, with lesbians often singled out. As for trans characters, they were non-existent in 2019 cinema – for the third year in a row.
When it comes to the genre of rom-com, it’s a famously straight playing field. Out of the millions of romantic comedies that exist in the world, few feature characters that identify as queer. None have queer leads. Add a Christmas spin, and Happiest Season is the first of its kind.
In a recent interview with IndieWire, director and lesbian royalty Clea DuVall explained her reasoning behind making the film. “I love Christmas movies, but I had never seen my experience represented in a Christmas film,” she explained.
DuVall, who is openly gay, felt that the romantic comedy genre needed a modern day, relatable twist. “It’s a very heterosexual genre and to be able to have all the same feelings and see a story that feels familiar, that you connect with, but that also has two women at the center, it shouldn’t seem that radical, but it kind of is,” she said.
Radical it may be, but it’s also record-breaking. 2020 has the highest amount of queer representation ever seen in holiday movies; The Christmas House, starring Jonathan Bennet (Mean Girls’ Aaron Samuels) premiered on the Hallmark Channel this November and is the first ever Hallmark production to feature a lead gay couple. Lifetime’s The Christmas Setup features real-life couple Ben Lewis and Blake Lee who play love interests being set up by Lewis’ mother.
This inclusion and acceptance of LGBTQ+ people in such a heteronormative space is an essential step towards equality, though there is still a lot of work to be done.
Fans of Happiest Season flew to its defense after Ben Shapiro, the host of The Ben Shapiro Show, launched a homophobic tirade at the film, claiming that Hallmark’s audience “is largely religious families with small children” who have no interest in seeing two women enjoying each other’s company beyond the realm of friendship.
Shapiro, who is well known for his controversial opinions and reactionary politics, is a voice many American conservatives are mindful of and shows that attitudes on queerness are still very divided in the country.
His claim that holiday programming “tends to be the kind of stuff that is really not socially justice-oriented” highlights the warped notion of homosexuality as a political movement rather than a human right, a dangerous ideology for progression.
Nevertheless, Happiest Season was generally well received; Rotten Tomatoes gave it 83%, while publications such as The Guardian and The New York Times hailed it as ‘festive’ and ‘heartfelt’.
The film didn’t get the release it was originally destined for, but just a few days after it premiered the film broke records as the Most-Watched Original Film Debut on Hulu. Though we will never see how the first mainstream lesbian rom-com would have performed in cinemas, it’s inspiring to see such positive reactions to such a revolutionary project.
Subverting a genre that is so well-loved is both a frightening and valiant move, but Happiest Season manages to keep intact all of the tropes that are cherished in a romantic comedy. There are misunderstandings, gawky ramblings and a touch of slapstick nearing the end that the movie could have done without, leading up to the imminent Happily Ever After. It’s also actually funny; Kristen Stewart’s Abby fumbles around with a natural and quaint awkwardness, while Daniel Levy flips the ‘gay best friend’ trope on its head and ends up producing some of the most profound lines in the movie.
Happiest Season is far from perfect and it won’t be winning any Oscars, but for the queer community it’s an auditory and collective sigh of relief. We deserve a Christmas movie that not only acknowledges our existence, but transcends the stereotypes and allows for a regular holiday experience.
Movies should reflect the world we live in and represent all aspects of society, not just the dominant ones. Though independent cinema has always been there as a way for queer people to tell their stories, seeing mainstream actors in a movie about coming out to your parents at Christmas is not something to be sneered at; it’s a situation many LGBTQ+ people find all too familiar.
It’s taken a long time to get here, but the movie industry is finally acknowledging queers love Christmas too – even if they are full of awkward, tinsel shrouded moments.
Happiest Season is available to rent on Prime Video now.