Let’s start with the ubiquitous Main Street opener. Picture a quaint Small Town decorated to the max with Christmas lights, wreaths, and signage. A light snow falls. Often, it’s an aerial view followed by shots on the street, where merry shoppers mill about. Generic Western town, usually.
That is, of course, unless we’re starting at Corporate Gal’s office in the Giant, Cold City where it is revealed that she’s lost her Christmas spirit. Arrangements to return to Small Town are required because her Mother/Aunt has died or perhaps she ‘s been assigned to cover a Small Town event for her job.
Big City Boyfriend, if there is one, is delayed or reluctant, giving her time to reconnect with New Love Interest who is sometimes her former beau. New Love Interest understands the values of family, small towns, and Christmas. He manages to fall just short of handsome, but don’t dwell on it otherwise you could spend an entire movie trying to determine why, exactly (is it the jaw? the eyes being a little too small? that awful beard?)
If Big City Boyfriend arrives in Small Town, he will be made to seem shallow, materialistic, and utterly lacking in Christmas Spirit. He will offer no real contest to new Love Interest who wears plaid flannel shirts, drives a pick up, and runs his father’s Christmas tree farm which is — oh no! — in financial peril!
Heroine always has shoulder length hair that she wears down, in soft curls. Usually blonde. Sister/Best Friend often has the exact same hair cut and styling. Heroine will be classically pretty, but may be sporting a too-big-for-prime-time ass and hips. Her or her soon-to-be-beau’s mother will be played by an actress 15-20 years too young for the role.
Look for a Small Town seized with a crisis — oh no! the Holiday Pageant is in trouble! The coordinator of the Christmas Baking Contest has fallen ill! The Outdoor Christmas Music Fest is short of funds! The tradition must go on! Heroine gets roped in to helping and meets up with Love Interest. Overcoming various trials and tribulations (and by December 25th no less!), Heroine proves that she has Small Town values and implausible skill sets.
There’s the obligatory Christmas tree shopping scene, often with smarmy child making the selection. Insert snowball fight, followed by hot cocoa scene. Baking Christmas cookie scene is an absolute must (although Gingerbread house variation is acceptable). Christmas lights might feature prominently — they’re tangled, they’re blowing a fuse, they’re lighting up the angelic face of the smarmy 10-year old child who more than anything in the whole world wants Hero and Heroine to get married.
Ugly Christmas sweaters abound — often upwards of a dozen. Extra points for reindeer socks or ties. Look for a Black character or two strolling about the Holiday Music Store in their Ugly Christmas Sweater. Since Hallmark sprinkles their movies with Black characters, we needn’t call them ‘token,’ but don’t be fooled — they’re all white people walking around in black skin.* A recent movie featured an Asian-American heroine, who was — guess what? A violin virtuoso!
Reindeer or angels will be talked about at least once.
The smarmy child shows up often and generally plays the role of Cupid to Mother/Father. Mother/Father tend to be single or have dead spouses (soldiers, if the latter). There are almost no divorces in the Hallmark universe.
Estates feature prominently. Big City Gal returns to clean out her Mother/Aunt’s mother’s house. The massive chore turns into a series of epiphanies about Small Town Life and Family Love and precipitates a Crisis: will she or won’t she move back? Moving back equals opting for True Love and living out an exemplary (Christian) life of Small Town values.
Look for a reluctant Heroine being convinced to decorate her space with the help of the Love Interest. He may show up at door with a Christmas tree, unbidden. There may be a box of the deceased parent or aunt’s ornaments. Angels! Reindeer! Messages from the Dead! Et Voila! The life-affirming desire to remain in Small Town asserts itself.
If settled, expect 20-somethings to live in palatial homes that run in the 1.8MM to 2.5MM range, with perfectly furnished rooms — places that in real life said characters couldn’t even afford to rent a room in. All interiors will be decorated to within an inch of their lives, unless our Heroine has lost her Christmas spirit, in which case decorating will be a pivotal and redemptive scene (see above).
Prior to 2020: almost no kissing! There’s the chaste scene in a sleigh (extra points for falling snow), where our characters cuddle side by side and MAYBE hold hands. Or, picture a finale when finally all the right decisions have been made and there’s — wait for it — a HUG. Both characters might be wearing Holiday Aprons and perhaps there’s a smarmy 10-year old grinning nearby.
If Hero or Heroine has parents, they are almost as unbearably corny and predictable as the smarmy child Cupid. Married forever. They decorate their houses with an excess of lights, garlands, bows, figurines. They bake cookies in their impossibly spacious kitchens, serve hot cocoa, build roaring fires — often exchanging knowing glances about their Son or Daughter’s yet-to-be admitted love interest.
Look for characters named Melody, Noelle, Ivy, Holly, Kris, or Nick. Listen for the phrase: the magic of Christmas. Count poinsettias. Be sure to note Christmas caroling, generally including at least one smarmy child. Be on the lookout for: Christmas Brooch, Salvation Army bell-ringer, red bows, outfits of red and green. A bitchy business competitor might appear. A failing toy store in need of salvation. Lots of perfect teeth.
Sometimes characters are forced together because snow closes a road, a vehicle malfunctions, or a plane connection is missed. They are invariably stranded in a Small Town where Christmas festivities are well underway and it’s snowing.
Acceptable jobs for Heroine include: decorator, PR person, paralegal, florist, baker. Acceptable jobs for Hero: physical therapist (oh no! the violin virtuoso has injured her hand), car repairman, heir-apparent to his father’s business (doesn’t matter what), which he doesn’t want and must believe in himself to reject (by means of, what else? — the magic of Christmas). Acceptable jobs for Current-about-to-be-former Beau: lawyer, corporate consultant, heir-apparent to father’s business (which he desperately wants and is prepared to be ruthless to obtain).
There’s a whole sub-genre of Hallmark Christmas movies featuring royalty. For some reason, I don’t watch those.
Predictable, cloying, poorly scripted, filled with nostalgic Christmas objects and over-the-top Christian lessons on generosity, family, the power of believing, and true love, these shows are the perfect balm during this season (years) of excruciating politics.
If you can make it through an entire Hallmark movie without groaning, spitting, pausing to go for a run, or throwing things at the TV, let me know.
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*See Tressie MacMillan Cottom’s recent Medium article, The Feminist Hallmark Movie, which begins:
“Hallmark movies are not feminist, except in that vague nonsensical way in which anything with a woman in it is somehow feminist. The scripts trade in every trope of unexamined whiteness, class warfare, gender conformity and patriarchal family norms. I watch them because there is no subtext and no surprises. There are only three things that turn off my critical survival lens and Hallmark movies are one of the three. I suspect that is because I do not need a single new skill to anticipate them. That’s because: The monster in Hallmark movies is exactly the same monster in my actual life — whiteness. They are comforting in that way.”
Reading her article confirmed my view that the Black characters are really white characters. Also, from MacMillan Cottom I learned that Hallmark movies feature an usually high number of women writers, producers, and directors and additionally, that the sets are very family friendly, making them popular among working mom actresses.