By Chris Azzopardi
Happiest Season director Clea DuVall had no idea she was going to be a part of what has turned out to be A Very Queer Christmas 2020. Her rom-com about a lesbian couple caught in a Christmastime family deception, which the gay filmmaker also co-wrote, broke Hulu premiere records when it debuted on November 25. It wasn't making its point alone. With it came an army of nonhetero-led mainstream holiday movies, more than any other year in the history of pop culture: Lifetime's The Christmas Setup, Hallmark Channel's The Christmas House and Paramount Network’s Dashing in December. "I thought we were going to be the only one this year," DuVall tells MTV News. "I didn't know about these movies until fairly recently, actually."
Now, the LGBTQ+ community is finally seeing versions of themselves looking cute and coupled in outside fake-snow holidayscapes, lit softly and warmly — the light of progress in action.
Even Happiest Season’s stars, Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis, who play the onscreen couple, didn't foresee a yuletide quite this gay. Davis was shocked to find out Hallmark was doing a queer-inclusive Christmas movie since "they are historically not progressive, to say the least," she divulged in a joint interview with Stewart for PrideSource. "Now they have to be," Stewart sassed, "or else they get left behind!"
Happiest Season director Clea Duvall with stars Mackenzie Davis and Kristen Stewart.
As history has demonstrated, nothing sparks change like angry gays. Pat Mills, the director of matchmaking movie The Christmas Setup, thinks the furious backlash from the LGBTQ+ community targeted at Hallmark for pulling four commercials featuring same-sex weddings in December 2019 likely pressured the network (and subsequently other networks, like Lifetime) to diversify. “To be honest, I feel like this should have happened a while ago,” Mills says.
Last year, Hallmark execs apologized, reversed their decision, and called inclusion a “top priority” — and then they put words into action. The Christmas House, which premiered on the channel on November 22, features a gay married couple hoping to adopt who get to be as sickly happy as the straight people in these movies. And yes, they kiss.
Gay Mean Girls star Jonathan Bennett, who plays one half of the couple (actor Brad Harder portrays his husband), tells MTV News that the LGBTQ+ community "had enough of supporting these massive networks and not feeling represented in their storylines. They've had to expand the table."
All that uproarious public pressure, DuVall adds, has meant that even more conservative networks are now having to catch up to the "reality that audiences want to see all different kinds of stories" after being "presented stories through this very specific cis, white, male, straight lens for such a long time."
The expansion of LGBTQ+ representation on networks and the big screen has already been a reality in mainstream non-Christmas content. In many ways, Happiest Season is an extension of 2018’s groundbreaking rom-com Love, Simon, which also told a fairly conventional story about coming out and young love. Like Happiest Season, it was a big-studio release with a gay character in the lead role. Queer love also took center stage in the rom-com The Thing About Harry, released earlier this year on Freeform.
As for this year's queer Christmas-movie boom, Jake Helgren, who wrote and directed Dashing in December and has produced many opposite-sex Christmas romances for Lifetime and Hallmark, thinks the political and social climate of 2020 made for the perfect time to challenge the status quo. "I don't know if the environment would have felt as comfortable last year," he says. "This year, it was like we battened down the hatches and we came in full force."
DuVall's Happiest Season had been in development since the end of 2017, two years before the Hallmark controversy. Though the film was acquired by Sony TriStar, and eventually sold to Hulu due to the COVID-caused closure of theaters nationwide, DuVall says it was not a hard sell. Instead, "there were several studios that were interested in making the movie."
Meanwhile, Dashing in December began as just another straight-focused film but, thanks to producer Stephanie Slack's suggestion, evolved into a love story about two gay men (played by Peter Porte and Juan Pablo Di Pace), who meet by happenstance in rural Colorado. Execs behind the scenes encouraged Helgren to impart his own experiences as a gay man into the script. (MTV News and Paramount Network are both owned by ViacomCBS.)
Mills, however, found that, at Lifetime, the baked-in formula of holiday rom-coms is more like a Haiku. "You can change some words, but you can't actually change the structure at all," he says, relaying what The Christmas Setup writer Michael J. Murray told him. Even though he had to adhere to Lifetime's restrictions, he wanted to "satisfy queer people and people like me who are begging to see themselves represented," so he snuck in some innuendo during a scene depicting the two gay leads, portrayed by real-life married couple Ben Lewis and Blake Lee, awkwardly setting up a Christmas tree. Mills had lines like "I'll just grab the bottom" (of the tree) and "It slid right in" (as in, the tree, uh, penetrated the tight doorway) written into the movie on the day of shooting.
With Dashing in December, Helgren was excited to give the gay community what the straight community has long been able to enjoy when watching these kind of ranch winterscape flicks: some skin, gratuitous dip pans, and a guy in festive reindeer-printed boxer-briefs. "I said, hey, this is a scene that I dreamed of having in this film. Can I go do this?" Sure enough, it was a Christmas wish come true.
Mills departed from the gritty comedy style he cemented with his 2014 satirical movie Guidance to make The Christmas Setup, and in doing so learned that LGBTQ+ people, whose onscreen narratives have often dealt with difficult topics like AIDS and coming out, really just wanted what straight folks already had: basic-cable meet-cutes and holiday happily-ever-afters. "People don't watch these movies to see real life reflected back on them," he says. "I think there's something powerful about queer people in something that is not challenging at all."
But for some filmmakers, queering traditional tropes is simply not enough. "It's imperative to show something that has not been seen — that's the only way to stand out," says Otoja Abit, writer-director of A New York Christmas Wedding, a less-glossy gay Christmas love story with a Afro-Latina actress Nia Fairweather in the lead role, for Netflix. He calls it a "travesty" that this year, "with all the different variations of stories told, at major levels, mind you, not one has captured a Sapphic love story with a wedding in a church during Christmas."
Still, this surprise wave of queered Christmas movies has surely left audiences feeling merry and bright. DuVall's been showered with gratitude from those in the LGBTQ+ community who've longed for representation in the mainstream Christmas-movie canon. Many have told her that, because of Happiest Season, they're less afraid of coming out. "It really makes me feel very emotional," DuVall says. The same is true for Bennett, who was recently in tears after seeing some Facebook posts expressing how good it feels to see loving husbands embraced by family on the Hallmark Channel. "It's bigger than people think," he says.
The Christmas House director Michael Grossman tells MTV News that this is a "transformative time in our history." He says, "I have directed over 200 hours of content in my career, and this is the first time where my life experience was directly represented in the content."
Initially, Helgren thought Dashing in December was going to be a queer Christmas flick first, but when he heard there were others in the works, he knew this would be a "beautiful movement and such a beautiful time for the LGBTQ+ community."
As for Duvall, she lights up knowing she's in good, queer company with filmmakers who are revolutionizing the stale conventions of a classic form of 21st-century Christmastime Americana. And not only does she plan on watching all of their films, but, she says, like any leaders who come together for a common cause (albeit, pandemic-style now), "we all need to have a Christmas movie Zoom."