With 2020 came many things, from quarantine and lockdown to the pop culture variety. For the sake of a bit of a break from the stress and anxiety of the former, we’re going to dive into the latter. This roundtable comes in honor of 2020 very much being the year of the queer holiday film. Hulu’s Happiest Season, directed by Clea DuVall, featured Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis as a couple spending their first Christmas together and broke Hulu streaming records after premiering over Thanksgiving weekend. Netflix’s A New York Christmas Wedding from writer-director Otoja Abit introduces Nia Fairweather as a woman who is questioning her past, present, and future and has a second chance at love with help from an angel and an alternate universe. Hallmark’s The Christmas House was a game changer for the leader in holiday film content, with the film being Hallmark’s first gay Christmas movie.
Obviously, there was much to discuss. Happiest Season kicked off weeks worth of online discourse with people discussing the romantic plot and the role of coming out in 2020 films; A New York Christmas Wedding gave Black women a rare chance at the center stage—while also doing some triggering of its own; and The Christmas House, while not anything close to radical, was a rare step from Hallmark away from its white, straight protagonists—though its gay characters are, of course, very, very white. Below, I chatted with Autostraddle staff writer Shelli Nicole and Vogue culture writer Emma Specter about the state of queer holiday films. As an added bonus, we did a bit of world-building of our own and imagined what our ideal LGBTQ films would look like (and who would star).
What LGBTQ holiday films did you watch this season?
Rachel Charlene Lewis, Bitch senior editor: This was very much the year of the queer holiday movie. I really struggled though. I enjoyed that A New York Christmas Wedding wasn’t just overloaded with white people and that it focused on Black, queer lead—but the quality had my girlfriend wanting to turn it off 15 minutes in, and the super-heavy religious plotline killed it for me. I both absolutely loved and felt frustrated by Happiest Season; it’s definitely the one I’ve watched the most at about five watches so far and will return to in years to come—though, to be honest, I thought it could use a pretty heavy edit. My girlfriend and I also watched Carol this year, though that one honestly makes me sad.
Shelli Nicole, Autostraddle staff writer: I’ve watched both Happiest Season and A New York Christmas Wedding. I [hadn’t] actually heard about The Christmas House until now, but will definitely be dropping it onto my Letterboxd watchlist. I’ll watch a movie even if it only has a dollop of dykeness. I enjoyed Happiest Season the most; it was lowkey traumatic but dope in other ways—namely Aubrey Plaza in loose-fitting blouses and lipstick.
Emma Specter, Vogue culture writer: I watched Happiest Season, Carol, and Black Swan, which I maintain is a dyke Christmas movie because ballet is always Christmas-adjacent. (Mila Kunis, drown me in a pond!) I agree with a lot of the HS takes I’ve seen about the frustration of [queer films] always being coming-out narratives—and, to be frank, the awfulness of Harper (Mackenzie Davis)—but I’m still semi-grateful-ish for its mere existence. (Agreed with Shelli: Aubrey Plaza, rescue me from that pond and then drown me again!)
Of the films you watched, which did you feel most connected to or “seen” by? Why?
SN: I’m taking “seen” a few ways here. I saw myself visually in A New York Christmas Wedding because, well, the lead is Black and queer—but that’s where the connection ends. I streamed it a few times though because I knew that since it’s hella indie folks would be harsh [in their assessments of the film]. But because it was so full of POC, I wanted to give it some numbers anyway. In Happiest Season, I saw more of what my life looks like. [I saw] my friendships in Abby (Kristen Stewart) and John (Dan Levy); [I saw] some of my father, when I first came out, in Harper’s dad; and [I] connected with Harper (Mackenzie Davis) and her siblings in their pursuit to be perfect children. I was not expecting Blackness in any way. This film did not hide that it was going to be white, and that’s fine—I don’t want Clea [DuVall, Happiest Season’s director and cowriter] and crew writing Black folks anyway.
Sidenote re: being seen: Can we stop solely casting thin people to play lesbians? Fat and curvy femmes are hot and get ass too—don’t play yourself. A lot of the lesbian community loves to say they’re body-positive and attracted to women of all sizes. Well, prove it and show me more fat and curvy femmes onscreen sitting on someone’s face or breaking someone’s heart, and do it without making their size part of the storyline.
RCL: Happiest Season also felt the most closely related to my own experiences—and, honestly, it’s part of why both my partner and I struggled with it. I have also been on both ends of the closeted-couple stick, and I have definitely experienced overbearing mothers who think that public perception is more important than kids [who are] able to be their most authentic selves. Nearly all my closest friends are queer, and like Shelli, I felt really connected to Abby and John’s relationship. Their scenes were probably my favorite, as I have absolutely grabbed brunch with friends as they scolded me about being absurdly in love with someone. I always get frustrated by films and series that act like there’s normally just one day in the friend group.
I also see myself in Carol in terms of how often I’ve found myself madly in love with an older woman and following her on a random trip across the country despite having no idea what is going on or who she is! (Don’t judge me.)
ES: I guess I feel moderately “seen” any time a queer person gets an actual storyline that isn’t “fun best friend,” but I think Carol does the best job of capturing my unique blend of mommi issues and Christmas depression. It doesn’t escape my notice, though, that all three of the films I watched feature cis, white women like myself, and they’re also all thin and conventionally attractive; I hope the success of Happiest Season on Hulu (most-watched original film debut on the network, baby!) can convince the industry that there is an appetite for a wider range of queer stories that don’t look like deleted scenes from the original L Word.
What is the impact of seeing queer people and queer couples not only in films, but in holiday films specifically?
SN: Holiday films always amp up the romance factor. The declarations of love are bigger, the heartbreaks are more intense, and the happy endings are extra happy. To “allow” queer folks to be part of these extra-romantic fictional worlds is incredibly necessary. Although queer holiday films didn’t really hit the mark this year, we are pushing in and making way for stories that feature our romances to be told. It’s constantly said, but [representation] is important. Watching queer women in films fall in love, have big romantic gestures performed for them, be chased and lusted after and more, can make you feel like it can happen to you too.
Also, where were the fun, sexy scenes in this year’s queer holiday films? I am so sick of lesbians being written like all we do is hold each other’s faces and wake up sweetly in bed after making love. In rom-com holiday films there are always the fumbly sex scenes, the sordid hookup in the childhood bedroom or something like that. But in Happiest Season, for example, all we got was a photo of a clavicle that was passed off as a sext. No, I want what the cishets get: Give me two dykes ruining Christmas cookies because they have to have each other on the kitchen table. I want icing on asses and everything when Grandma catches them.
RCL: I’m always so torn when it comes to impact, because it depends so much on audience. On one hand, did Happiest Season and A New York Christmas Wedding and The Christmas House mean a lot to some LGBTQ people? For sure! And could they help straight audiences get over their bias? Maybe. But it’s always this thing where we run into the issue of who a film is made for. For example, Happiest Season [framing] Harper’s being a lesbian [as] on the same level as her sister’s relationship drama or her mom wanting to do karate (I could punch someone for that line) is absurd. Being gay isn’t a character flaw, and yet so many of these films feel stuck in the “It’s a sin we accept!” mindset instead of [reflecting that] gay is fucking cool and delightful and sometimes people are thrilled that they’re queer. I’m thrilled that I’m queer! But I haven’t seen that gratitude reflected onscreen beyond like, The L Word.
ES: Unfortunately, I am old enough to remember when the mere thought of two women kissing in a Christmas movie was either a) straight cishet male-oriented fantasy, or b) impossible. I actually do think it’s important to see queer partnerships in holiday films, because it strengthens the slowly growing notion that queer people are people, who celebrate the holidays and struggle with family and, in the case of Black Swan, engage in psychosexual dance-based mind games. (Okay, ignore the last one.)
I’ve seen a ton of people online talking about the trauma that’s so often at the center of LGBTQ films. Happiest Season, for example, brings us a number of triggering moments—outing! In 2020! Is not okay!—and A New York Christmas Wedding had a few twists that felt unnecessarily violent, or otherwise just stressful. What do you think of this pattern?
SN: I hate it. White audiences love Black stories if [they have] physical/mental violence to Black bodies; and straight audiences love queer stories if [they subject] queer folks to those same traumas. A pattern can be broken, and LGBTQ films can start by not writing films that feel like they are seeking sympathy from or teaching straight audiences—we have to stop explaining our lives to them. We’ve done so much of that work already. Let’s start creating worlds where their eyes and thoughts aren’t the focus.
I also think a big fear is money. Queer filmmakers are still having to use cishet money to tell stories. That would be fine if taking [that] money didn’t mean [conforming] to straighter standards. The folks with the money know that, sadly, queer trauma on screen equals cash. Queer folks have money too, though—there are lots of rich dykes just sitting on cash. If we use our own money and resources to create, while encouraging imagination, maybe that will translate into less triggering and traumatic queer films.
RCL: You explained this beautifully, Shelli. As long as we have to cater to straight audiences on any level, I just don’t see how these films are going to land for their supposed target audience. I also think there’s something about films versus series. How is it that Schitt’s Creek was able to give us one of the most beautiful love stories I’ve ever seen despite not being “the gay television show”—but Happiest Season, as the gay holiday rom-com of 2020, felt more crushing than romantic? Films so often shove as much as humanly possible into two hours, and any queer romance, particularly between women, is left to subtext (hi, Portait of a Lady on Fire, my nemesis) so that not-queer folks don’t have to “see all that” onscreen. I’ll also say that I think that, sometimes, writers and filmmakers and actors who make any sort of stride for queer people become the sort of people you’re not supposed to critique, and it becomes obvious when they’re sort of running wild with their ideas without anyone who can honestly give them feedback and say, hmm, I know this is your queer experience, but it’s not mine, and that one scene that means so much to you might actually land badly. We need to be able to push each other a bit more than it feels like we’re currently allowed to.
ES: I’m so conflicted because I don’t want, like, Love Actually with an all-queer cast. I want there to be room for nuance and difficulty and confusion in queer stories, but I agree there’s far too much straight voyeurism going on in the telling of those stories. Not every part of lesbianism is crying with your secret lover on a beach! Sometimes we cry indoors! In all honesty though, the holidays can be extremely difficult for everyone, not just queers, so maybe what I want is for more mainstream, “straight” movies to acknowledge that so that queer folks don’t have to do all the emotional heavy lifting?
Shelli, I [agree] that Hollywood often operates from a place of fear and panic rather than innovation. Why not let two queer people be happy and human together onscreen and see if it draws an audience, rather than mining trauma for dollars? If we’re still putting Mel Gibson in movies, surely we can take a chance on a more nuanced queer story or two.
RCL: Emma, I would love Love Actually with an all-queer cast.
I’ve also seen a lot of arguing, in the context of Happiest Season, about whether or not we still need coming-out stories. It’s a nuanced conversation and a valuable one that becomes messy because it feels so sensitive for so many of us. What are your thoughts?
SN: With Happiest Season, my issue was not with the fact that Harper was closeted—you come out when you want to, babe. My issue was that she essentially forced her girlfriend back into the closet and didn’t care about the effect that may have on her. If we are only telling coming-out stories, we aren’t showing [what] comes after, the part [that] is often so beautiful—full of lovers, lifelong friends, and newfound confidence. So many of us are leading gorgeously full lives and that part of the story needs to be onscreen too. If we don’t make films that show life after coming out, we’re telling our community that they have nothing to hope for—and that is simply not true.
RCL: I’m not against coming-out stories. I also think those stories give into this weird idea that we only come out once, in a massive, splashy, traumatizing way. I came out very simply to my mom. I never came out to my dad; I just had a girlfriend one day and it was, generally, fine. I’ve dated people with the literal opposite experiences. I’ve dated people who aren’t out and have friends who aren’t out and would literally never require it of a person. And while coming out has shaped who we are, of course, it isn’t all that we are—and even when those moments were painful, they also, as Shelli said, resulted in some of the most loving and kind relationships I’ve ever had. Being queer is so enriching and impossible to explain, and I want more films that are willing to sit with that. I’ll also say that Lindsay Sproul’s We Were Promised Spotlights managed to do a gay-protagonist-outs-other-gay-person storyline, and I didn’t hate her main character nearly as much as I hated Harper. It’s an issue with the writing, not the idea.
Also, one more thing. Maybe don’t put a TRAUMATIC COMING-OUT STORY in your happy gay holiday rom-com and act shocked when people are heartbroken?
ES: Coming out is often coded as a moral imperative, rather than a personal choice and a privilege. That narrative makes a lot of people who aren’t out—to their families, friends, coworkers, what have you—feel like there’s something wrong with them, when they’re often just doing what feels right or necessary to keep themselves safe. This isn’t to underplay the pain and difficulty that can come with being the partner of someone who is keeping you “a secret,” but I just don’t think increased shame helps anyone. I have experienced a lot of the messiness around coming out, both initially as a queer person and, most recently, as a bisexual-ish dyke trying to explore her sexual identity safely during a pandemic, so it’s not that I don’t think those stories are relevant. But what stories aren’t being told because we’re so focused on coming out
Okay, last question: What is your dream queer holiday film? What’s the plot? And who’s in it?
SN: Okay, let’s absolutely get into this. My main girl just got her first book deal, and, after a breakup, [has] sworn off dating until she gets a sign from the universe. She goes home for the holidays to work on the book. Her brother owns a cafe and asks her to use her old barista skills one day to help. A hottie comes in and places a coffee order that’s exactly the same as hers…is this the sign?! They start falling for each other—but then the ex tries to win her back. I don’t know what else happens, but I know there is a scene with a half-naked tipsy snowball fight that ends with the classic “laugh, fall, and kiss.”
Desiree Akhavan directs and cowrites with me, Samira Wiley is the coffee hottie, VJ Bani is the ex, and Chika writes the title song. I’d love for my lead to be a new, gorgeous, Black, dark- skinned, thick actress because—well, that’s me, but I can’t act to save my life. Oh, and Niecy Nash is my cute but overbearing mom.
RCL: Samira Wiley. Yes. I have a candle with her face on it right on my desk. Okay, my thoughts: I want a fast-paced, high-quality adventure with a ton of sex and laughing and best friends and drama. Two best friends—can I just steal the Trinkets cast because I love them so much and they’re so queer?—played by Brianna Hildebrand and Quintessa Swindell work together in a fancy office with massive glass windows. They do something with advertising. One day, out walks this extremely hot woman (Rose Rollins, aka Tasha from The L Word and one of my first crushes), and they both basically collapse. She’s there for some short-term consulting gig. The bulk of the plot is Brianna and Quintessa going on adventures to try to learn more about Rose. They peek at her from behind menus in a cute brunch place (Dan Levy cameos as their waiter, obviously); they go buy really good suits from a thrift store so they can look more mature at work; they make silly playlists and lie around in their apartments and talk about how cool it would be to have a Hot Cool Wife.
It’s not creepy because Rose, being an adult, knows exactly what is going on and finds it funny and just lives her best life knowing everyone is in love with her because obviously. It culminates in this huge holiday party, and they get all dressed up to impress Rose. But they realize at the party that Rose is actually having her own love affair with their boss (who is, of course, played by Lily Tomlin). Drama! Minor heartbreak! So many good suits! Brianna and Quintessa realize they’ve been in love with each other the entire time, Rose and Lily get gay married in the final ten minutes of the film—Janelle Monáe appears to sing their first dance—and Brianna and Quintessa do nonsense dancing and it’s fun and happy and everyone is thriving. The end.
ES: Oh my God, this is my favorite question ever. I want to explore the life of a dreamboat-y soft butch (Roberta Colindrez) who moves from Montreal to NYC to sell Christmas trees and engages in a seasonal, fleeting, incredibly hot affair with a passionate, futch-y Strand bookseller (Alia Shawkat) planning a general strike against the bookstore’s shitty management that coincides with a big Christmas Eve reading. In the end, the Strand management won’t cave to its workers’ demands, so the employee quits and moves to Montreal with her lover. They break up in the closing credits, and the sequel is all about them staying friends post-breakup.
I will also find a role for Rosemarie DeWitt in this film; DeWitt is not, to my knowledge, openly queer, but I have been in love with her since I first saw her on Mad Men as a teenager, and would cast her just to “casually” meet her at the wrap party. Maybe she plays the mean Strand boss? We’ll find something.
SN: Alia Shawkat and Roberta Colindrez are two of my top five crushes. Please just let me on set for 12–22 minutes.
RCL: Are we all geniuses? I want these films. Thanks!