A woman arrives in a small American town at Christmas time. Possibly her car has broken down, or she’s there on business, or to take a job she (initially) does not want, or she’s deliberately seeking the traditional festive comforts of a small town during the holidays. (It might be that she grew up there, or that this particular town is famous for providing said comforts). Maybe an accident left her with amnesia? There might be a blizzard. More than likely, there’s some challenge she must help the town to overcome, whether it is to keep the local factory from closing, or to plan a Christmas pageant/dance/baking contest because of a particular set of skills only she possesses.
In the meantime, she drinks cocoa, bakes cookies, builds snowmen, goes ice skating, decorates a tree, and does all kinds of other seasonal activities all while romancing a local man and learning the “true meaning of Christmas,” which is defined, of course, as love, home, and family.
If this sounds familiar, you’ve probably seen a Hallmark Christmas movie. Over the last few years, these television films have become a ubiquitous cultural phenomenon, running 24 hours a day from the end of October until early January across two platforms, the Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movies & Mysteries. The films are enormously popular, especially with women; thirty-seven new offerings aired in 2018, joining many reruns from past years. According to one report, in 2017 Hallmark’s “Countdown to Christmas” programming reached 72 million viewers, and was the highest rated cable channel for women aged 25-54 during that period. And Hallmark is not the only media outlet offering seasonal holiday fare; Lifetime, Freeform, Ion, and streaming services like Netflix have gotten into the game as well.
Hallmark Christmas movies tend to be formulaic in their plots, production, tone, and messaging. Many of the same actors appear and reappear, with the biggest draws being 1980s and 1990s TV stars like Candace Cameron Bure, Danica McKellar, and Lacey Chabert, who are approximately the same age as and likely hit the nostalgia button for the women who are the films’ core audience. Critics have emphasized the films’ conservatism and lack of multicultural representation. The featured romances are chaste, heteronormative, and typically conform to Christian religiosity. Actors usually sip cocoa or eggnog instead of alcohol. Casts are almost entirely white.
The films also reinforce critiques of modern life and its threat to the “traditional family.” They lament corporate takeovers of mom-and-pop businesses, the dissolution of family ties in a mobile world, and young people’s abandonment of their small hometowns for a chance at fame, money, and adventure in the big city. Resolutions to characters’ financial or other difficulties come from family support or benevolent benefactors, not through systemic economic or political changes to the structures that cause social injustices.
In an effort to address the claims that the films have a conservative bias, Hallmark cast more people of color in supporting and lead roles during the 2018 season and has announced plans for a couple of Hanukkah-themed movies in 2019. Yet certain themes continue to recur, reflecting broader tensions and contradictions within American culture over societal structures and gender relations.
Early in their existence, Hallmark Christmas movies portrayed women focused intensely on their careers. Inevitably, these women came to a realization that love, marriage, and family were “more important,” and they abandoned their professional lives to move to a small town and be with the guy who helped them realize what “truly matters” in life.
One infamous example that has always made us want to tear our hair out is ‘Tis The Season for Love, a 2015 film about a woman who finally gets offered a part in a Broadway play after spending over a decade trying to make it as an actress. She cuts her hometown Christmas visit short in order to take the job, but after only a day of rehearsals, she decides she no longer cares about her ambition and returns home to reunite with her high school sweetheart and teach drama at a local school.
Recent Hallmark films try harder to balance the personal and the professional. The 2018 film Christmas Joy contains a subplot wherein the main character, a talented marketing executive, is increasingly disillusioned with the company she works for. At the film’s end she is offered a new job more suited to her interests in Charlotte, which is “commuting distance” to her North Carolina hometown, where she has recently found love with a high school classmate. Similarly, in Return to Christmas Creek, the app designer heroine finds new inspiration for her work by visiting her hometown at Christmas. When she falls in love with an old friend, there is no talk of her ditching her thriving career in order to “return to Christmas Creek” permanently. Instead, they discuss flying back and forth, and finding ways to “make it work.”
By portraying women confronting choices about their working and romantic lives, Hallmark movies are wading into longstanding debates about feminism and pop culture. In the 1990s, some second-wave feminists criticized female characters like Bridget Jones and Ally McBeal, who maintained successful careers but still longed for romantic love and babies. The earlier generation of feminists argued that the likes of Jones and McBeal proved that Gen X and Millennial women had given up the fight. Ally McBeal memorably appeared on a 1998 Time magazine cover along with Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem alongside the question “Is Feminism Dead?”
Yet other feminists have argued that the notion that women can “have it all” or should “lean in” puts enormous pressure on women and glosses over lingering structural difficulties to do so. As former First Lady Michelle Obama put it recently, “That shit doesn’t work all the time.” It also implies that women who choose love and family over career have sold out the movement, undoing the hard work of earlier generations who fought so they could make that choice. Yet at a basic level, feminism is about women’s agency, and by portraying women who have options and who make their own choices about work and love, some Hallmark Christmas movies actually offer a subtle feminist message.
Through their merry haze of sleigh rides, cocoa, and kisses beneath the mistletoe, Hallmark Christmas movies validate the decision to “follow your heart.” A Hallmark heroine invariably follows her heart into a new romance, but also, increasingly, to a new career more suited to her passions. In The Christmas List, we watch Alicia Witt’s character, standing in an airport departure lounge, decide to leave her boss/boyfriend and her corporate design job in San Diego for her own boutique and new love in a small town in the Pacific Northwest. The emphasis in many of the films is on choice, and the power of women to take their lives in whatever direction they wish, whether towards the personal or the professional.
For this reason women from all walks of life — even feminist lady historians like us, whose politics and worldviews don’t conform to the films’ conservative elements — find ourselves tuning in to see what will happen in Candace Cameron Bure’s latest turn as a department store executive who secretly wishes to be a photographer, or Lacey Chabert’s chance encounter with her high school nemesis (and future paramour) while home from the big city for Christmas. Will our heroines choose love and the coziness of small-town life? Will they return to the office to accept the big partnership or the surgical fellowship they’d spent much of their adult lives working for?
That they have these choices to make is a legacy of feminism. They are the choices many women ponder as we struggle to figure out what kind of lives we want to live. As literary critic Janice Radway found regarding fans of romance novels in the 1980s, women can find empowerment and emancipation even in pop culture that seems to reify the patriarchy. 1
If Hallmark is willing to own the pro-woman messages in many of its films and embrace its feminist viewers, we might see a future Christmas lineup that has a leading lady finding love at a women’s march or blowing the whistle on a sleazy boss, emboldened by the support of a “woke” boyfriend who has her back and does the Christmas baking. Warm holiday traditions with a modern political twist. Or might there even be a Christmas movie in our future wherein the heroine has a lovely holiday but ultimately chooses the job over the guy, or the big city over the small town? Hopefully, Hallmark is on track towards telling more festive stories that encompass the diversity of women’s experiences in contemporary America and enable each heroine to decide what the “true meaning” of the holiday season is for her.
- Janice Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984; 2004). Return to text.