Queer viewers celebrate representation but demand authentic portrayals
The holiday movie season is on again, as has queer visibility in recent years in its formulaic wintry rom-coms. For some people like Bailey, who are part of the LGBTQ community, that representation added to the holiday cheer.
“We believe that everyone deserves love and that our storytelling is enriched by reflecting the diverse voices, perspectives, traditions and families of our audiences,” Lisa Hamilton Daly, executive vice president of programming at Hallmark Media, wrote in a statement to the Washington Post. “Our top priority is to create a positive entertainment experience for all – one that all viewers can see themselves in, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, cultural background and sexual orientation.”
Some backlash ensued, reminiscent of what Disney has seen from conservatives for including gay characters in recent films. Christmas TV veteran Candace Cameron Bure left Hallmark earlier this year to join Great American Family, a conservative network that “will keep traditional marriage at its core,” she told The Wall Street Journal Magazine.
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Holiday movies with characters cheering on queer people aren’t new. Toronto singer-songwriter Cory Stewart, 38, noted that many LGBTQ Christmas fans relate to characters like the Grinch, who struggles as an outsider but makes a chosen family with his dog Max. And actresses whose work is adored by queer fans, like Jennifer Coolidge, Fran Drescher, and Lindsey Lohan, are indirectly inviting their LGBTQ followers to support their holiday projects, too.
But more studios have centered gay relationships into their rom-com storylines in recent years. In 2020 alone, Hulu released Happiest Season, Hallmark’s The Christmas House, and Lifetime’s The Christmas Setup, the network’s first original Christmas movies to feature same-sex couples. Last year, Netflix added “Single All the Way” to the LGBTQ canon. Hallmark’s The Holiday Sitter and the theatrical release of Spoiler Alert followed this year.
On the one hand, it’s refreshing to be reflected in the media and the goofy, cheesy storylines that make holiday comedy comedy, said Edmond Chang, assistant professor and researcher in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Ohio University.
But Chang also worries that the trend is just a business tactic, especially as it becomes profitable to target new audiences in the relatively inexpensive vacation genre.
“The downside of representation is that it’s sometimes flat, stereotyped, and not very nuanced,” Said.
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“Single All the Way” and other gay vacation movies like this one follow the same gritty storyline Hollywood coined for its straight equivalents, in which the attractive big-city maven returns to her small town for the holidays and finds true love. But the Netflix original also added details that added depth to the gay characters.
“You can see people who are funny and who love their parents and who are messy and complicated when it comes to love,” Bailey said.
“Single All the Way” was “the first time that it wasn’t just about a movie that was about coming out or something negative,” Stewart said. “It was more just about an accepting family and someone coming home for Christmas.”
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Other LGBTQ stories should strive to be similarly lighthearted, said Taylor Cowan, a 26-year-old Transportation Security Administration agent in Sarasota, Fla.
Aware that her opportunities to see lesbians like herself in films are limited, Cowan says she is open to watching any gay film. But especially during the holidays, she wants to see likeable queer characters who don’t suffer.
“So many gay movies are very sad to watch, and they might be really good and beautiful and everything, but they’re not entertaining per se,” she said. “Sometimes you want to watch something that puts you in a light-hearted mood.”
Cowan appreciates when LGBTQ cultural references in films are subtle and specific, she said, like when a character talks to her plants that she’s named, or when a scene is interrupted by a lesser-known Britney Spears tune.
“Everyone deserves to be represented, and if you’re at a point in your life where you’re confused or trying to come to terms with your identity, it definitely helps to see characters like this that you relate to.” identify in the media,” she said. “I sort of figured it out when I was 19, but I feel like it wouldn’t have taken me that long to figure it out if I’d seen more of it.”
Bailey said his self-discoveries were linked to films like the 1998 coming-of-age film Edge of Seventeen, particularly while growing up in a small town that didn’t have a lot of gay people. Stewart said he used to hide in his bedroom to watch “Queer as Folk,” an early 2000s Showtime drama series that featured a group of gay friends and was filmed near where Stewart lived. Watching the show, Stewart said, gave him hope that life would get better.
“Single All the Way” reminded him of that.
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“Having Christmas movies showing happy depictions of queer couples and queer life certainly has an impact on kids who are going through similar things in small towns across North America,” he said. “I am very encouraged.”
Franklin Mason, 29, felt more hesitant. Mason, who lives in Washington and works in accounting, loves to escape from life’s difficulties during the holiday season: decorate himself his Christmas tree, stock up on rich eggnog and browse BET Plus for cheesy holiday movies to watch. Last year he discovered and watched “A Jenkins Family Christmas,” which features a main character who is gay and black like him.
But Mason acknowledges that many Black films address underlying homophobia among Blacks by making gay characters palatable to straight audiences. Sometimes that means seeing some gay characters who are overly extravagant or unrealistic. On A Jenkins Family Christmas, it struck him as odd that the black gay character in the story defended his decision to only date white gay men.
“I think when you start peeling off the layers and asking more questions, it’s often rooted in … self-loathing and isn’t the full picture,” Mason said. “I find it disingenuous. It is based on stereotypes and assumptions.”
It’s not expansive either. Cisgender, able-bodied white men make up the majority of gay people on screen Depiction.
“The queer spectrum is so wide, and we only ever seem to see a fraction of it,” Stewart said.
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Having more black queer producers and directors in the writing room could help avoid these pitfalls, Mason suggested. And Chang, a professor at Ohio University, has found that more LGBTQ filmmakers are thriving in the film industry.
Over time, Chang said, they hope more queer creators will be heard. Until then, they plan to follow the growing pains of LGBTQ vacation movies anyway.
“It’s important to look at the media that we have now,” Chang said. “It gives you a chance to think about what could be different.”