Confessions of a Hallmark Channel Holiday Movie Watcher

Bless me, Scholars, for I have sinned. 

But let me explain.

I totally get that Hallmark, as a corporate media entity, represents the values of elitist America. During the holiday season especially, Hallmark celebrates a very White Christmas: it is the story of fantastic white people who, despite their peculiar adversities in life, have somehow managed to be financially successful, to save the spirit of Christmas, and to fall in love. The characters, settings, and sequence of events change, but the ending is always the same (and can usually be predicted before the second commercial break): two attractive white, heterosexual characters, through some fateful/magical intervention, have overcome all obstacles and internal conflicts and, during the final scene, embrace and engage in a prolonged kiss (a very “clean” kiss, of course). They have achieved moral victories, and the targeted audience of 50 to 90 year-old middle/upper middle class celebrates with them.

Critics can point directly to the roots of the channel’s sponsorship as the source of its evil: Folgers Coffee, for more than half a century and until 2009, had been in partnership with Proctor and Gamble, the notorious mega-corporation responsible for atrocious and unforgivable acts of environmental destruction and animal experimentation.

There is no doubt that what Hallmark sells is a grossly sanitized image of modern America. This falls in line with the post- WWII white picket fence American fantasy capitalized on by so many of the TV producers of the ’50s and ’60s. It is an updated version of the Great American Lie that was so starkly revealed in Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize and Academy Award winning novel/film The Hours, and so adroitly dismembered in Gary Ross’ cult classic film Pleasantville.

Certainly it would be a great research project for a graduate student in American Studies at some university, as it is rife with issues of race, gender, and class. Consider that the only parts for Black, Hispanic, or Asian actors are supporting roles. Typically there are just one or two minority persons written into in the script. Although we should not view them as tokens, we can’t overlook that they appear somehow anomalous, if not lonely and out of place in this bleached TV world. Nevertheless, as characters, they seem to find comfort and meaning in life by being a supportive friend to and/or employee of one of the movie’s white protagonists.

There are no homosexuals, only the occasional supporting cast member who is energetic and good natured, but a little bit odd, exhibiting some eccentric qualities. We might be led to wonder about them, but, like in the ’50s and ’60s, we are supposed to push those thoughts away. The closet door remains firmly shut. 

As for women, the updated version allows them to have career ambitions and to make critical decisions on their own. They are typically cast in one of three roles: 1) an attractive young single woman trying to blaze a career in business  who has become workaholic with no time for matters of the heart  2) an attractive single mom (more often widowed than divorced) struggling to care for her child and working in low paying but sentimentally viable jobs like a family restaurant or in some form of the Arts, 3) an attractive but  mildly embittered woman who has become desensitized to the spirit of the holidays and needs a man to help her regain belief in the goodness of the world.

This is Hallmark – host of the most facile, predictable, banal, and formulaic programming on TV. So why would anyone with a kernel of critical thinking ability engage in this brand of storytelling over and over again? A few reasons, coming from this 60-year-old viewer:

  • It is a safe and relaxing form of Escapism. A fairy tale ending with real adults is somehow comforting. Certainly it is better than guzzling bourbon or dropping acid.
  • So much Eye and Ear Candy. Hallmark lead actors have such wondrous eyes, such endearing facial expressions, such lovely speaking voices. These are GOOD people! And we are allowed to think, without embarrassment, “If I were 30 years younger and had the chance. . . .” Such an array of beauty from which to choose!
  • No Demons here! Hallmark forbids the existence of any lasting evil. No matter how much of a Scrooge or monster any character may appear initially, Hallmark will exorcise the bad root and reveal the humanity within. There will be sighs of relief and tears of joy in the end. This is the best Utopia ever!
  • Hope. The experience of watching a Hallmark film is something like Huck’s ride down the river. There will be hazards and missteps and unpleasant displays of human behavior. Yet we sense a kind of gentle humor and sense of compassion within the narration that floats hope–we are always moving toward something better, and we know that we will eventually dock at some iconic American village where people are kind and generous.

During this season of truly great new films in the theaters–most notably Manchester by the Sea, Lion, and Jackie–I have been awed by their respective representations of reality. These are outstanding works of Art that speak to some of the most important aspects of humanity. In a Trump America, we need to embrace the real artistic talent and will need to fight to preserve it, as it appears he neither understands nor appreciates it. Nonetheless, I reserve my right to be simpleminded. Hallmark is my Pablum, my Soma, my Drooze.

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Pete Howard works as an English teacher, a musician, a writer, and a house painter.