Friday, December 24, 2021

Green Phoenix - Let's Talk...Lifetime/Hallmark Christmas Movie Tropes

Merry Christmas everybody!

This time of year is the time for Christmas specials and holiday movies and, as is my custom, my annual Christmas special editorial. Last year, I wrote about the Rankin Bass Christmas Film Cinematic Universe, showing all the claymation films connected to each other by their shared mythologies and characters. It was a hell of a good time and far more immersive and substantial than I had initially anticipated. It was a ton of fun to write and motivated me to take a closer look at and discuss another aspect of the holiday season that I'm sure everyone is at least tangentially familiar with, for good or ill.

So this year, I will be discussing the tropes and common narrative elements behind the Lifetime/Hallmark Christmas movies. These films have a not undeserved reputation for their repetitive natures, common story beats and almost disgustingly predictable plot lines. With such a reputation, how could I not end a year that has been filled with so many moments of transformation for myself than by discussing a psuedo-genre of films which are nearly identical?

It's only logical really.

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Now what exactly do I mean when I describe a film as a Lifetime/Hallmark Christmas movie? Am I referring specifically to films made only by these companies? Or something more broad, based on specific narrative and thematic characteristics?

If any of you have read my previous articles, you'll know that I always lean more towards the latter point when discussing specific groupings of films. This is such a case. When I say "Lifetime/Hallmark Christmas Movie", I am referring less to the companies and rather a specific collection of film characteristics seen in films released by these two companies which are so similar in narrative intentions and sheer quantity as to represent almost a genre of film unto themselves. Almost completely separate from your run of the mill Christmas film like The Santa Clause, Elf, or National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.

So what exactly makes a Lifetime/Hallmark Christmas movie? Let me explain by describing a film. See if you can think of any films that might match this description:
 
Our main heroine is a strong independent woman who works an important job in the city, either as a reporter or some marketing guru. She is extremely dedicated to her job, almost to the detriment of her social life, according to her friends. She is either single or has a boyfriend/fiancee who is also a pompous city slicker who just doesn't understand small town values.
 
The main heroine is given an assignment by her work to visit a small town in the process of preparing for their annual Christmas event. She goes there despite protests to her boss and the cynicism of her boyfriend/fiancee. While there she befriends a few of the residents and slowly becomes appreciative of the small town values and Christmas spirit which pervades the town, though she does come into conflict with a local man who is kind of distant and ridicules her city values, but is respected in the town for some reason.

As the movie goes on, the main heroine finds herself attracted to the small town man, often coming into conflict with her boyfriend/fiancee who doesn't understand the small town appeal. When the annual Christmas event is put at risk because of some misunderstanding or problem that the heroine or her boyfriend caused, she will have to find the spirit of Christmas and get together with the small town local man to save the day and ensure a great Christmas for everyone. She will then stay in the small town with the local man, having discovered the real values of Christmas.

If you are at all familiar with any of the Christmas movies that are playing on Lifetime or Hallmark this time of year, then this plot is probably ringing more than a few bells through your head. I know for a fact that every time I mention it to my mother that she has this look of abashed humor, as if she doesn't want to acknowledge how accurate it actually is.

But why? Why is this story line so ubiquitous in this "genre" of films? Is it simply the nature of Christmas movies to be largely repetitive and cover the same basic themes and topics or is there more going-on that locks us as a culture into this focus on "small town values vs. big city cynicism"?

The first reason is likely the most obvious. This plot line is repeated because it keeps bringing in people to watch them. In short, its repeated because it works. While I might find this plot line repetitive and somewhat stupid, I also cannot deny that I end up watching these movies in some form or another every year because of my mother's absolute love of these movies. She keeps watching them, which motivates filmmakers to keep making them. The fact that these films are also comparatively easy to make with a narrative blueprint already available to them allows for quick turn around and production times, which are often the hardest part of any film production process, also aids in their creation.

Another element to consider when looking at Lifetime/Hallmark Christmas movies and their obsession with "small town values" may stem from the underlying political affiliations of the demographics of these movies. I think it is not all that surprising to consider that the primary audience for Lifetime/Hallmark Christmas movies might belong to a predominantly middle-class white female religiously conservative community, particularly of the generation of Baby boomers. Such communities, especially with regards to the religious right in the United States, have a deep seeded loathing of what could be considered urban values, that is more liberal and secular values, compared to the more religious-stereotyped impressions of rural communities.

As a result of this perceived political divide, the themes which so often typifies Christmas movies, that being questions of faith, a focus on family, and the transformative power of "psuedo-religious" miracles during the holidays, including romance, becomes quintessentially linked to the target audiences pre-established biases towards certain communities depending upon whether they are rural, suburban or urban in their mindset, even when such values are largely shifting as new generations move away from the suburbs to more affordable regions and shift the political landscape of the United States once again.

The Christmas Setup (2020) poster.jpg
It is actually this perspective of looking at Hallmark/Lifetime Christmas movies through the lens of politics that I think reveals a fascinating potential future for this genre of films. As the generation of baby boomers become less involved in the economic and political decisions of the United States, in favor of Gen X and the Millennials, I truly see many of these films shifting away from "small town conservatism" versus "big city cynicism" into something perhaps a bit more nuanced, and ultimately more moderate or even liberal, as the Millennial generation is far more leftist than its preceding generations. For example, the last few years have seen a marked increase in diversity with regards to race and especially LGBT representation (as seen in Lifetime's 2020 A Christmas Setup) in such films, even if it is still often shrouded in stereotype and tokenism. Such baby steps have historically been the stepping stones towards more positive relations, especially with companies as conservative as Hallmark is.
 
As strange as it might seem to think, for as ubiquitous as the Lifetime/Hallmark Christmas movies may seem to be in this day and age. The sheer passage of time and the need for these companies to cater to the audience most likely to provide them reliable viewpoints may ultimately shift the tropes of such Christmas movies away from self-established confident big city working white women whose only real problem is no social or love life coming into conflict with small town values into a more nuanced and thematic complex story. The focus on faith and the power of family will likely always remain staples of the Christmas film genre, its sort of the reason for the season after all; but we may see far more variation and focus less on romance and more on diversity and focuses on the nature of family and secular approaches to faith as boomers give way to the next generation in an economic sense.

Though given the nature of how religious conservatives and especially American evangelicals tend to treat the loss of cultural influence, this will likely take a long time and not be without its critics so I imagine we will be suffering through more terribly predictable Christmas movies for at least a few more decades or so.

I'd like to thank you all for reading all of my work for the last year. Coming the first Friday in January will once again be my 2021 in Review article, where I will analyze my work over the past year and indicate my plans for the next year. Then we will be back in full swing with more articles for you all to enjoy.

With that said, I hope you all have a Happy Holidays this year! And I hope you all stay safe and COVID free as you spend time with family and friends.

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