Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
How to Spot a Hallmark Christmas Movie
And how to update the genre and everything will still be okay
I’ve been wanting to write about the genre of Hallmark Christmas movies for a while now. Thanks to Hallmark for their big blunder with pulling an ad—and now changing their decision—to get me to write this post with a new take.
First, in case you skip all news Hallmark, the recent controversy
Hallmark has been running an ad for Zola Inc, a wedding planning company, that includes a same-sex couple. Apparently, the sight of two women kissing in wedding attire was too much for delicate conservative constitutions, and Hallmark pulled the ad December 12. Fortunately, they announced December 15 that they had made the wrong decision and were reinstating the ad. Social media and inclusion win again (whether you buy Hallmarks’ contrition or not). Yay!
Still, not all is inclusive in Hallmark land
Hallmark Christmas movies have never been known for their inclusiveness, and they definitely present one worldview of women and men, family, the value of work, and love.
Allow me to present the genre of Hallmark Christmas movies
An attractive young woman (usually with long hair and carefully curled waves) leads a busy life in the big city, working too many hours but on the rise in her profession (architect, lawyer, designer, chef—no teachers that I can remember). She is unmarried, of course, though she may be engaged to a big city workaholic guy.
Something happens to call her home to the small town she grew up in (she inherits her aunt’s B&B, tries to save her father’s Christmas tree farm from bankruptcy). Or she is sent to a small town for her job (she’s assigned to buy up the land for their new resort, has to decorate the boss’s vacation house for Christmas, is planning the wedding of the century). Very occasionally, workaholic woman already lives in small town, but the genders in that version have been largely reversed in more recent years.
In any case, big city workaholic arrives in Podunk town with a job to do.
The Podunk town is inevitably charming. Its main street is filled with thriving local stores (the town bakery, small bookstore, coffee shop) and bustling with locals on the sidewalks, all greeting each other with smiles. There is snow on the street and at the curbs, but never enough to make the sidewalks slippery or the streets unsafe to drive (or even to cover the tops of cars usually, my partner would want me to point out). Any major snowstorm waits until our heroine and her new love interest are safely ensconced in a cabin in the woods, alone.
About that Love Interest
He is the local boy, tall and handsome and good with his hands (in a handyman kind of way, not a handsy kind of way. This is Hallmark, after all). He might be fixing the porch railings on that B&B, or hauling Christmas trees to customers’ cars, or carving wooden gnomes in the barn. He works with his hands, not his brain. He likely has a daughter, a cute young 6- or 7- or 8-year old girl in pigtails whose mother died tragically of cancer or in a car accident. Having learned the true meaning of life, he’s happy with his small-town life, its slower pace, and its values.
In sharp contrast to our heroine’s current fiancé
Our Hallmark heroine either resists all close human interaction in favor of her ambition or has an equally ambitious fiancé. He stays behind in the big city (at least in the first hour of the movie) for work. If she has no current love interest, it’s usually because she’s been hurt, or her parent died when she was young, or she’s afraid to get close to anyone again. If she has a fiancé, he’s usually just like her at the beginning—ambitious, working too many hours, thinking only of making money and getting ahead. Their apartments in the big city (never a house) are always streamlined contemporary stainless steel and glass with lots of leather furniture, with huge walls of windows showing city lights and a kitchen that no one seems ever to have cooked in.
Until current fiancé arrives in small town as a surprise (or early), only to discover that our heroine has meanwhile fallen for the local handsome handyman. Thanks to his influence, and all the townspeople she meets (usually including at least one older woman with gray hair and a rounder body who offers wise words about what’s really important in life—or a similar man who is clearly secretly Santa), our heroine has begun to change her values. She learns the joy of baking Christmas cookies together, of saving the historic building rather than tearing it down, of putting family ornaments on a Christmas tree, of playing in the snow with Love Interest’s delightful little girl. She has learned to slow down and value human connection over human ambition.
What happens next??
Poor dumb fiancé, who did nothing wrong but fit into our heroine’s old way of life, gets kicked to the curb. Often abruptly. Sometimes he does something that makes us glad she dumped him, but just as often he’s an okay guy who just wants different things. The things she used to want.
Something happens to let our heroine stay in the small town. She takes over the family Christmas tree farm or B&B, buys the local bakery, gets a job in the big city nearby, or follows her dream to the writing or crafting or house decorating she has always wanted to do and becomes a small-town entrepreneur.
And of course she and the Love Interest hook up. Well, no, they don’t. They kiss, which seems to be the same thing in a Hallmark movie. Often they kiss as the very last scene, with snow falling gently around them and music rising to greet them. Or maybe in front of the family room Christmas tree with delightful daughter and wise old family members looking on.
And they live happily ever after.
Are you surprised? Yeah, I didn’t think so
What doesn’t happen
Our Love Interest doesn’t move to the big city with our heroine so that she can take that big promotion she was offered. Usually, his work doesn’t change at all, unless his gnome carving saves the family tree farm from bankruptcy
Our Love Interest is not African American, or Latino, or Native American, or anything other than snow white. The best friend might be a person of color, but we learn nothing about her except that she listens well and advises our heroine to follow her heart
And our heroine definitely doesn’t fall in love with the local handy-woman, leading to the two brides softly kissing at the end
And now for the parody
It may have sounded like a parody, but my description so far includes story elements from actual movies. Saturday Night Live, though, did do a parody, offering a Hallmark game show that demonstrated that the goal of every woman is to be husbanded
Why does anyone watch?
To be able to recount the genre so fully, I forced myself to watch a lot of Hallmark Christmas movies. It was tough, but somebody had to do it.
In truth, I’m confessing my shameful secret—that I’ve watched those movies for a few years now. The feminist me blushes as I admit the truth. I’m well aware of how they reduce women and men to caricatures, insist that women value family and marriage over work or adventure, idealize small town life and demonize big cities. And so much more.
But they also make life seem simpler for the moment, tug at the heartstrings of our childhoods and love for family or friends, and assure us that everything works out at the end.
Suggestions for Hallmark
So thanks to Hallmark for apologizing and returning to valuing all people and all kinds of love. Now they just need to update their Hallmark Christmas movie. After all, every genre changes as the world in which it exists changes.
So let’s have a Hallmark Christmas movie with a same-sex couple.
And couples of multiple races and identities.
And heroines and Love Interests who weigh more than 100 pounds.
And live with disabilities
And older than 25. Heck, maybe even older than 55! or 65!!
Let’s see the couple work out creative solutions for maintaining purposeful jobs while staying together. Let’s hear them discuss how they’re going to pay the bills if she quits her job to make Christmas cookies
Let’s recognize the economic realities of small towns and show the townspeople struggling to make jobs for the heroine (or their college-educated children) to return to
Everything can still end happily at the end. I don’t want to take away the guilty pleasure of a simple story that shows everything will be okay.
But Hallmark could reduce the guilt part with a few tweaks to fit the genre into the current world. That’s what genres do
The heroine can still have long hair with waves curled just so. And the snow can still look pretty without being slippery. And the movie can end with a kiss.
It can be just as romanticized as that Zola ad. And everything will still be okay
12/16/2019 03:46:27 pm
Finace's mother watches Hallmark nearly every day. The whole family makes fun of her for it. I'll have to ask her if that would change if the actors changed or if there was a difference in the formula of the story.
12/16/2019 06:24:55 pm
Thank you for the comment, Chris! I do wonder how old Hallmark’s audience is. After a comment on Facebook, I added a suggestion that the heroine could be older than 25. I can imagine a whole plot for someone nearing retirement!
12/19/2019 10:58:24 am
I loved reading this, and it feels accurate to me. I say this not having watched many Hallmark movies--at least not consciously/intentionally. But clearly they have seeped into my consciousness: I recognize all of these (so nicely stated) elements. (I don't say that I haven't watched Hallmark movies with pride. I know myself to be quite sentimental. I can cry at the weddings or funerals of people I don't know. I cry way too easily...) Merry Christmas!
12/26/2019 12:55:42 pm
I'm glad you liked it, Lisa, and that the genre was recognizable. There have been lots of great pieces written about Hallmark Christmas movies this month, after the ad controversy. Those other perspectives have made me even more aware of how much conservatism, as well as sentiment, is in these movies.
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