The Hallmark Channel has created one of the most successful brands out there, at least in terms of conjuring a distinct image in the minds of anyone who thinks of the company’s movies. Beautiful, shiny, blonde woman, typically working at some vague firm, visits small town USA (that looks straight out of a Christmas snow globe) only to fall in love with the neighborhood carpenter, with her snob city-boy fiancé acting as the brief and so-easily-resolved conflict. However, Hallmark has recently begun shifting from this glossy image of love and the real world to make slow (slow) steps towards a more inclusive picture. For a company that faced outrage from a conservative group One Million Moms after airing commercials featuring same-sex couples, this move is both long overdue and a bold statement.
The Hallmark Channel and the Hallmark Movies and Mysteries Channel have yet to produce a movie starring a same-sex couple. Yet, this lack of representation is unfortunately par for the course in romance, particularly the holiday-themed romances Hallmark airs at every chance. Happiest Season is the first holiday movie from a major Hollywood studio to star a same-sex couple, and Lifetime, essentially Hallmark’s more scandalous cousin channel, aired its first movie starring a same-sex couple, The Christmas Set-up, this holiday season and a year after their first movie with a same-sex kiss.
The Christmas House was the first Hallmark movie that had an in-depth side plot featuring a same-sex couple, though they have aired multiple movies this year with same-sex couples further in the background. Wedding Every Weekend, for example, featured the wedding of two women and, as one of the first movies with an obvious same-sex couple since their commercial contreversy, acted almost as a direct (and late) response to One Million Mother’s outrage.
What sets The Christmas House apart from the casual representation of LGBTQIA+ individuals in Hallmark movies is that the same-sex couple were more than present, they were central to the main plot, welcome in their own family, and had their own conflict and story too. They showed affection rather than just being stiff figures, as most Hallmark side characters are. Their struggle with adopting a child as a same-sex couple made them sympathetic, realistic characters — moreso than most heterosexual stock characters on the channel.
The Christmas House broke the formulaic mold of Hallmark Movies. It bring conflicts (however, still religated to the background of the typical straight romance) of starting a family as a gay couple and aging parents growing apart that hit much closer to home than the usual, trivial conflicts that could be resolved within a 30-second conversation. “We are really focused on continuing our commitment to the authenticity in our storytelling for all of our characters, and making sure that everyone can see themselves represented on Hallmark services,” Michelle Vicary, executive vice president of programming and network publicity at Crown Media Family Networks (the parent company of the Hallmark Channel), said. “It’s the right thing to do.” Since Hallmark has shown starry-eyed romance as inherently straight, the question that remains now is: will non-straight romances always be relegated to the background?
LGBTQIA+ representation is not the only place the Hallmark Channel has slacked. It’s no secret that Hallmark has painted happily ever after with a white brush (in terms of snow and characters) for a long time. While racial and ethnic representation has increased in Hallmark movies lately, it is still not proportional and it often appeared that, in the past few years, the most frequent leads of color were Carlos and Alexa PeñaVega. Of the 40 movies released on Hallmark and Hallmark Movies and Mysteries this holiday season, only five starred Black people as romantic leads, with only a handful more having Latinx or Asian leads, and a few breaking from a White Christmas to feature a Happy Hanukkah. In many cases, this is just casual representation, with people playing the typical characters, but some have gone deeper to incorporate this casting in the character (or vice versa).
The Christmas House showcases one of the love interest’s family’s tradition of (over)decorating their house, and the others’ tradition of tamale-making. Racial and ethnic representation is behind on all screens, with people of color making up less than 25 percent of characters although composing 37.8 percent of the U.S. population. Even with the recent increase in representation, Hallmark has long perpetuated the narrative that shows warm and fuzzy romances as overwhelmingly white.
Still, these are not the only areas of representation that Hallmark has stepped up in. Are Hallmark movies ready to admit that (children, cover your eyes) sex can be a part of romance? Love, Lights, Hanukkah!, Hallmark’s first movie featuring Hanukkah in the title, followed a woman who was adopted as she found her birth mother. Her mother fell in love with an Italian soldier while studying abroad, got married, got divorced (premarital sex is apparently still off the table), and found out she was pregnant after returning to the U.S. and the father was deployed. In A Christmas Love Story, the lead love interest admits to giving a child up for adoption when she was young, which, of course, becomes central to the plot. Hallmark is beginning to acknowledge that families don’t all look like the traditional, neat packages, and that there are conflicts that arise in romance and life that a quick embrace and exit music cannot resolve.
Hallmark also debuted two films this Holiday season which centered the romantic lead’s adoption of children. In Christmas With the Darlings, an assistant decides to watch her boss’s nieces and nephews (questionable work practice) and, after she falls in love with their uncle and her boss’s brother while convincing him that, yes, children are loveable and worthy, the brother decides to adopt them rather than ship them off to boarding school. Holly and Ivy follows a recent graduate of Library Sciences, Melody, struggling to get a job in Wisconsin (with quite a few pointed digs at Wisconsin politics and the lack of funding of libraries in general) who befriends her neighbor, midwest charm personified.
However, her neighbor quickly learns her lymphoma has returned for the third time and she doesn’t want her children to end up in the foster care system. With no relatives and the father out of the picture, Melody, who grew up in the foster care system, agrees to adopt her neighbors’ children if she dies (spoiler alert: she does). As the leading lady, this potential adoption throws a wrench in her romantic plot with the local contractor/carpenter, but, as usual, this is smoothed over. However, it did (however briefly) highlight that being a young, single, adoptive mother has obstacles to overcome, while still maintaining the idea that the Hallmark romance overcomes all.
It remains unclear whether these are Hallmark’s first steps towards providing representation for hopeless romantics everywhere or to walk the fine line between too much and not enough representation according to certain audiences (such as One Million Moms). As much as Hallmark has historically steered clear from topics seen as political, their audience is very much a political matter. Hallmark’s content has aligned more with the values of conservative views: they’re modest romances, they’ve centered traditional families, and prefer protagonists that are not conflicted. Then, it’s really no surprise that Hallmark movies do better among audiences in the red states of Midwest and South. “A lot of the Hallmark movies are pretty much the same stories over and over again, but they are still uplifting, and I tend to go there first because I want to feel good about life and feel good about the world,” said Sheri Lynn DiGiovanna, a Hallmark fan who runs the fan website for the series When Calls the Heart.
Yet, what is Hallmark saying when these same stories still lack a more equitable vision of representation? Perhaps Hallmark is not significantly behind other networks, but the struggle for diversity in even the simplest of stories shows how whiteness and heteronormativity have long been centered in the entertainment industry. “Diverse audiences can go elsewhere to find entertainment options that speak to them and their lives so if cinema is to remain relevant and continue having a cultural impact, it must attract these audiences by delivering more representative content,” said William Palmer, chief executive of Movio, a company that finds marketing solutions for the film industry. Hallmark’s lack of representation is the crux of the matter: representation has become so politicized that stock characters are now built around whiteness and straightness that makes them apolitical. Hallmark does not lack representation because their audience lacks those demographics; their audience lacks diverse demographics because they lack representation.
Featured Photo: Courtesy of Crown Media