What makes a good queer Christmas film?
BY Rosalind Moran
20th Dec 2023 Film & TV
5 min read
More queer Christmas films are being made—yet there remains plenty of untapped creative potential within the genre
Christmas is no universally happy time, but the yuletide is at least growing gayer in one domain: the film industry. Films centring LGBTQIA+ characters have become more common as major streaming platforms, channels and studios recognised that audiences exist for these films, creators wish to make them, and queer content can earn money.
Moreover, in 2023, progressive social values surrounding gay rights are happily far more widespread than in previous decades, at least in the West, which adds incentive for studios to make queer Christmas films. For example, the Hallmark Channel released its first Christmas film with a queer storyline in 2020 (The Christmas House), its first gay-led Christmas film in 2022 (The Holiday Sitter) and will release two new queer Christmas films in December 2023. It is heartening to see efforts to create more inclusive stories, even within a highly sanitised scope.
"The yuletide is at least growing gayer in one domain: the film industry"
Yet as a newly inclusive Christmas film season fast approaches, a question stands. What even makes a good queer Christmas film?
Opinions diverge and—of course—there is no homogenous perspective held by all LGBTQIA+ people. Nevertheless, as queer Christmas films grow more common, it’s worth considering how queer stories are combined with historically conventional structures and hallmarks, and whether this is done in a way that feels authentic and meaningful or could be improved.
Shaking up tradition (or not)
The growing push to create queer Christmas films juxtaposes different genres and hallmarks. Christmas films have historically been among the most conventional films ever made—think middle-class homes, old-school values, matching jumper sets, good teeth and eerily harmonious families. Through presenting a conservative, typically American style of Christmas as aspirational, Christmas films elevate this form of celebration in cultural consciousness, which can alienate viewers who find it cloying or claustrophobic.
Yet they also capture a facet of life in which many queer people wish to be represented, or at least included. Some people yearn for conventional family Christmases. Others might not wish to attend Hallmark-style Christmas gatherings, but they’d still appreciate an invitation.
Combining queer stories with such an historically exclusive film genre can be challenging. A tension inherent to making good queer Christmas films is that these films’ creators likely wish to balance positive representation and uplifting stories with meaningful plots and convincing characters and situations. Queer representation in forgettable yet uplifting films, like Hallmark offerings, can be welcome in terms of positive representation. Yet critics of such films find them sanitised and insubstantial.
A queer story amalgamated into a traditional Christmas film mould, with characters conforming to almost all norms of a cookie-cutter American family, might simply feel like sanitisation, and a conservative choice that muffles the verve and nuances of queer culture. This argument goes: one can participate in the idealised Christmas, but only if one does so the straight way.
Happiness and comedy
Conversely, uplifting and even saccharine queer Christmas films have their place. Too much queer cinema emphasises sadness: consider the “bury your gays” trope, referring to the pattern wherein gay characters frequently die before the credits roll. This pattern began deliberately through Hays Code censorship, which required—among other purportedly morality-related restrictions—that homosexuals onscreen meet bitter ends, thereby sending audiences a message. Through a combination of habit, lack of imagination, and focusing on queer people’s challenges rather than their joys, much film and television featuring queer characters continue to foreground loss and death (Blue Is The Warmest Colour, The 100, Orange is the New Black, etc). It’s great that more shamelessly happy queer films—including Christmas films—exist.
" It’s great that more shamelessly happy queer films exist"
It’s also notable how some queer Christmas films—even ones billed as feel-good comedies—resort to stereotypical narratives about “the gay experience” rather than simply constructing a story set at Christmastime that happens to star a gay lead or couple. Take Happiest Season (2020), billed as the first Christmas romcom starring lesbians. The plot revolves around one lead being closeted and hiding her girlfriend from her family: one protagonist yearns to be acknowledged and the other is terrified of disclosing her identity. With such stakes and stories familiar to many queer viewers, it’s a surprisingly stressful comedy.
Granted, the storyline of hiding one’s identity or partner plays into classic romcom comedy-of-errors plots. Yet given four per cent of gay and lesbian people and 26 per cent of bisexual people in the US are not “out” to at least one important person in their lives, adopting such storylines for supposedly light-hearted queer films doesn’t always have the same effect as in films about straight romances.
What might make better queer Christmas films?
Taste in films is subjective. Nevertheless, there are ways queer Christmas films might be made better that remain underexplored.
Less conservatism would be exciting. Plenty of the more electrifying queer content made in recent years contains a different sort of cultural language: consider the world of It’s a Sin (2021), or the character vivacity and complexity in creations as diverse as Schitt’s Creek (2015–2020), Killing Eve (2018–2022), and Rafiki (2018). It would be refreshing to incorporate more multifaceted characters—and a “queer gaze”, if you will—into the Christmas film genre, rather than rendering gay couples as culturally heteronormative and middle-of-the-road as possible to fit them into the existing Christmas film mould.
"Less conservatism would be exciting"
Greater diversity in physical appearance, class, and backstories of characters would also prove refreshing for Christmas films. Tangerine (2015) is a prime example of how successfully the genre’s mould can be broken: the acclaimed comedy-drama follows a transgender sex worker who learns on Christmas Eve that her boyfriend has been cheating on her and sets out to confront him. It’s unexpectedly moving and creates a buddy-comedy in a rarely represented social context, with protagonists from an underrepresented segment of the LGBTQIA+ community. How exciting queer Christmas films might be were there more creations like Tangerine.
I’d also be personally remiss if I didn’t mention Carol (2015), which is both one of my favourite films and an underrated queer Christmas gem. Set in 1950s New York, it follows the love affair between a glamourous woman leaving an unhappy marriage, and an aspiring photographer in the process of stepping out from behind her camera and developing stronger selfhood. Carol captures the conflicting expectations, melancholy, and hope that mix during yuletide, complexifying and transcending conventional hallmarks of the genre through acknowledging their bittersweetness. It’s a great example of how a film can be both a queer Christmas offering and a work of art.
On a personal level, too, this queer Christmas film was the first piece of cinema I saw that made me feel more comfortable, and even optimistic, about the reality of being bisexual. It portrays queer women in a compelling, embodied manner, giving them presence onscreen as more than mere ciphers for ideas about lesbians. They are desirable; the film respects them. Their story isn’t patronising or saccharine; nor does it deny its characters hope or love.
Perhaps the true gift of Carol and similar films is that they don’t exist to promote a message, either of uncanny perfection or relentlessly bleak commentary. Their characters feel human, and their stories are personal first, political second.
Embodied humanity is at the heart of many good films. Good queer Christmas films are no exception.
Cover image: Carol © The Weinstein Company
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