A Past That Never Existed, a Future That Will Never Arrive

Lessons from watching every single Hallmark holiday movie

Credit: 1950sUnlimited via flickr/CC BY 2.0

In November 2017, the Hallmark Channel released a movie called The Christmas Train, in which a Spielbergian movie producer (Danny Glover) stuffs a cross-country train full of actors to dupe two former war correspondents (Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Dermot Mulroney) into falling in love again. It also strongly implies that Glover is God. The night it aired, the movie was the most-watched show on cable, drawing 4.87 million viewers.

This year, Hallmark will release 22 more Christmas movies. The first offering in its Countdown to Christmas, an insultingly low-effort cash-in on eternal Jane Austen mania called Christmas at Pemberley Manor, snagged roughly 4.6 million total viewers. It’s a safe bet that all 21 movies that follow will easily vie for winning the night among non-sports cable offerings. The question then is: Just who the hell are these people?

I’m one. Last year, my friend David Roth and I started a podcast dedicated to sincerely reviewing these movies on their own terms, even if the process entails a lot of teasing about the channel’s conspicuous dedication to filling plots with literal angels, literal Santa Clauses, and overabundant ziggurats of dinner rolls. We did it for the same reason many people turned to marathoning beloved TV shows in the aftermath of the 2016 election: However implausible, soft, supernatural, or overdetermined they might be, their goal is to not be about our Hell World.

This is not to say that Hallmark films are not themselves problematic and accidentally reflective of our world. After more than 150 movies, the network only recently announced plans to film two about Hanukkah, and Jewish characters remain largely absent from its Christmas and other seasonal plots. While “gay best friend” roles are hinted at, their orientation exists only by implication; out-and-proud characters remain nonexistent. This is the first year in which the Countdown to Christmas features African-American leading characters, rather than “magical negro” trope-people whose sole purpose is shoving two useless white crushes toward their mutual destiny.

Despite their claims to create a “safe space” away from politics for Middle America, the movies are as inherently political as anything else.

Even if you’re a straight white woman and thus a member of the channel’s core audience, Hallmark offerings can fare a little better. While the network seems to be making an attempt to create more strong, independent women characters, with mixed results (Erika Christiansen as the apparent CFO of a billion-dollar company in 2016’s Anything for Love, or Kellie Pickler as a junior bank executive in this year’s Christmas at Graceland, which makes up for a dismal lack of Elvis content by giving her a promotion in the banking industry and more free time to parent), women’s roles often amount to pandering so intense that it teeters on the precipice of insult.

Probably the most common women’s work in the Hallmark universe is “coordinator,” followed by “party planner,” blogger/journalist, baker, or someone whose job somehow literally is Christmas. (In Miss Christmas, the delightful Brooke D’Orsay’s job entails spending 300-plus days per year finding the annual Christmas tree for Chicago’s fictional Rockefeller Center knockoff, “the Radcliffe Center.”) While each of these jobs is presented as a serious, remunerative career that empowers the woman holding it, it’s also hard to escape the realization that most of the roles constitute the tasks inherent to being a mom extruded into the workplace, as if to say, “Don’t worry, ladies, you didn’t miss anything.”

Is getting all those rugrats ready for school a nightmare? You have what it takes to be a coordinator. Can you keep 30 children from tearing your house apart during a birthday party? You could be a professional party planner. Like writing about your kids? Okay, you’re a mommy blogger — but paid, and the two-page profile you write about an extreme-sports photographer is going on the cover of a glossy Condé Nast–style travel magazine. The only difference between the baking you do now and a successful patisserie is a small-business loan and/or angelic intervention.

And despite their claims to create a “safe space” away from politics for Middle America, the movies are as inherently political as anything else. The Hallmark universe is one of midcentury hamlets, houses with wraparound porches, and an anti-urban bias. Even movies set in New York’s five boroughs take pains to reject any opportunity to embrace what makes New York great. A character named Taylor is plucked from Ohio to run a high-end fashion boutique, rescues it with sidewalk sales, and converts her snarky goth co-workers into people who wear purple on the strength of her ability to wear T-shirts and oxfords tucked into cutoff jeans over green stockings, like a 21st-century Six from the series Blossom.

Nothing underscores the politics of this universe like the tension it exhibits between consumerism and anti-materialism, labor and leisure, communal interdependency and benevolent capitalism rejecting government intervention. These movies are, after all, primarily a vehicle for inducing the sort of nostalgia that makes you drop $100 on Christmas cards and decorations, yet at the same time adults are encouraged to take a cue from children and retirees and recognize the spiritual necessity of not working.

While the town of Christmas in Angel Falls is devastated by factory closure, and while the movie evinces an outright proto-Marxist communal politics, the solution to local austerity lies in people without wealth coming together to spend on Christmas decorations to feel better about catastrophic unemployment. This year’s Christmas in Love rather explicitly endorses a labor theory of value, but its solution to bad capitalism is lucking into being employed by good capitalists. Is LeAnn Rimes coming to your town to shut down all the extracurricular programs in your bankrupted school system? Forget a property tax levy; hold a Christmas concert and wait for donations.

Which, again, makes you wonder why anyone would watch such a confused universe in which people who aren’t straight, white, and middle class are erased by the begged-question constructions of what makes Real America for a company selling nostalgic images of Real America back to a lucrative and aging white demographic. Beyond the escapism, they’re fun.

There is a powerful sort of hauntology to them — the nostalgia for lost futures — for people on both sides of the aisle.

Part of the popularity of Twitter hashtags like #hallmarkmoviesin5words is that anyone can enjoy giggling at the silly stuff. It’s funny to keep finding evidence for my friend Sara Kate Wilkinson’s as yet unassailed theory that 9/11 simply never happened in the Hallmark universe — that firehouses don’t have posters of the World Trade Center; that people can still wander onto any airplane they like, even carrying easels for a presentation; and that boarding passes are written in Comic Sans and have listed destinations like “Zimbabwe.” It’s funny when a major league relief ace pitches for “Botown” and has the arm slot and strength of Kevin Costner on quaaludes. There is an entire series dedicated to essentially Christian postal detectives solving dead-letter cases in a room that looks like an Ivy League library, led by a Yoo-hoo-quaffing Sherlock portrayed by Eric Mabius in aggressively formfitting slacks.

But there is also a powerful sort of hauntology to them — the nostalgia for lost futures — for people on both sides of the aisle. For conservative viewers, Hallmark pairs exquisitely well with Fox News. The latter shows you the world as it is and the nightmare it will become, and Hallmark offers the salve of what it was and could be again. Fox is the defense that comes between the rest of the world and the Hallmark universe; its anger has never been so urgent, because neither has this world’s peril.

For the widow or widower, they show that you can find the one who got away and resume the joyful life you abandoned when a little thing went wrong. The housebound mom can take comfort in the idea that the crafts employed in (or abandoned for) parenting could have blossomed into actual careers — that the baking or sewing or flower arranging you excel at represent a dream that can still be real, that all that emotional and personal labor could have had a dollar sign attached.

That hauntology is perhaps stronger for millennial viewers, for people who didn’t grow up in Hallmark’s America and can never move there because they lack the money and the time machine required. If homeownership, leisure, and making a comforting living doing crafts and blue-collar work remain a fantasy, they are an even more powerful fantasy for people with postgraduate degrees, six-figure debt, cratering industries, and no help on the horizon. It is a cruelty of America that the nostalgia that reared us all is one that only ever truly applied to one demographic in one span of time; that every story we tell ourselves about the possibility of this country is one that ends with the home, family, community, and security depicted in these movies; and that, for a lot of people, this is the closest they’ll get.

In the meantime, then, there is escapism, and gentleness, and politics whose failures are those of assumption and omission but not overt malice. And besides, there’s Mariah Carey on the screen, looking like she was almost completely airbrushed out of the Hallmark movie that she herself directed, Mean-girling her way through a midday PTA meeting, in a movie where the janitor vanishes post-conversation because, again, he is literally Santa Claus.

Former political correspondent at Rolling Stone, The Guardian, Esquire and Vice. Co-host, Dave and Jeb Aren’t Mean:

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