The Feminist Hallmark Movie Universe

It is that time of the year. I am deep in my Hallmark Christmas movie grind. Between judging the banality of cults of femininity and laughing at Kellie Pickler, I want to make the case for Hallmark movies as feminist* fare.

Like a critical consumer of every Hallmark movie set in Chicago, Canada, you will have to extend me a little grace. The argument turns on one’s idea of feminist.

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:

When you watch as many Hallmark movies as I have watched, you start to notice those title sequences. That is where my fragile argument for a feminist reading of Hallmark movies begin.

  1. Hallmark Put A Ring On It — In The Credits

These title sequences feel like they feature a lot of women’s names. These are not just the actresses but the producer, director, casting, scriptwriters and so on. Women directed only 10 percent of major Hollywood movies in 2019…and that was an increase so significant that it warranted news coverage:

From the earliest days of Hollywood, women directors have been staggeringly outnumbered by men. While that still holds true, in 2019 there was a notable shift.

According to new research, more than 10 percent of the directors on last year’s top films were women, which was more than twice as many as in 2018 and the highest number in over a decade. “More Women Than Ever Are Directing Major Films, Study Says” by Cara Buckley (New York Times)

The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film says that 19% of Hollywood’s screenwriters (in the top 100 grossing films) in 2019. And, women don’t get to talk much in Hollywood productions. Just 34% of named female characters from the same list and year…actually speak words.

In the Hallmark Movie Universe (HMU) you are guaranteed to hear a woman speak in every single movie. She may not say much but your ears are going to hear a female voice for 62 straight minutes.

You are also a bit more likely to hear from women writers. By my count of credited writers on Hallmark’s forty Christmas movies in 2019, 37 percent of them are women.

The HMU doesn’t do as great across the line with women directors as I would have thought they did. In 2019, only 8 percent of the movies on that same Christmas list were directed by women. If anyone took HMU seriously, they might look at why that is…

Women in the Hallmark Movie Universe may give it all up to marry a plumber in Evergreen, Oregon because he buys her a Christmas tree. But on a few important measures like women who speak and women who put words in people’s mouths, HMU behind-the-scenes scores “feminist” points.

2. Werking Mothers On Set

A basic “big feminist” claim is that women in leadership matter to women’s work environment. Research mostly supports that idea, albeit with several notable caveats. Not all women like other women. A single woman in charge doesn’t really make a difference in pay, status or work culture for women writ large. A single female leadership hire can, in fact, be more hostile to other women to defend her fragile turf. The biggie, of course, is that “women” is an overly-broad category that covers up a host of -isms that women inflict on other women. Still, women-led organizations tend to report greater work satisfaction and opportunity for women down the line.

The women behind-the-scenes may be why HMU marquee actresses gush about working on set. Whether it is public relations spin or not, actresses like Lacey Chabert, Danica McKellar and Alicia Witt cannot say enough about how much they enjoy the environment on set. The schedule allows them to practice their trade and have families. The network head encourages family-friendly work schedules. Directors happily shoot around late-stage pregnancies. If you have kids, HMU sounds like a good work culture:

“Hallmark Channel is very family oriented, so they have respect for us hard-working mamas” — Holly Robinson Peete in Glamour

Contrast that with women’s horror stories on mainstream television and movie sets. You can literally do a basic google search of “breastfeeding harassment in Hollywood”, like I did. It is that bad. I have a particular distaste for Brad Kern from CBS:

Variety reported that CBS TV Studios opened two human resources investigations into allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination against Kern, the showrunner of NCIS: New Orleans, in 2016. The allegations included making sexualized remarks about women, giving women massages without their consent and mocking a nursing mother in front of her colleagues. — “Here Are All the Public Figures Who’ve Been Accused of Sexual Misconduct After Harvey Weinstein” by Samantha Cooney (Time Magazine)

In some respects, HMU appears to have solved the problem of working women and mothers on set. It is a problem that Hollywood mostly still denies is even a problem.

3. Not All Women But Some

HMU is still whiter than Prairie Home Companion and straighter than Prairie Home Companion pretended to be. There is no two ways about this. HMU is white. Even their negligible non-white talent somehow manages to be white. It is a real feat. But, the network’s few Black talents seem to get the same shot at production credits as their white actresses. (There are no Asian or Native actresses that I could find and only one questionable Latina.)

A lot of those women’s names in the title sequence include the names of Hallmark marquee actresses. Before she was cast off the island for being scandalous, Lori Loughlin was a top HMU property. She nailed the Hallmark trifecta of guilelessness, thinness, and an emotive eyebrow. Paired with her nostalgic tie to a 1980s network family sitcom, Loughlin was born to dominate in the HMU. And she did, moving from actress to series lead and eventually to executive producer of most of her Hallmark properties. That is notable for a woman, generally, but it is virtually unheard of for a Black woman in film or television at any level of prestige.

But, Holly Robinson Peete also nabbed executive producer credits after proving her suitability to HMU’s specific tastes. (Vivica A. Fox seemed to be on that path but she has partnered with Lifetime network instead. It’s a better fit. Vivica’s eyebrow says “I have had sex and I will do it again.” Not very HMU.)

If you don’t mind your feminism aiming for the low hanging fruit, you could do worse than the HMU. Producers hire women writers, make movies where women speak and occasionally rewards women with director credits. Along the way, directors and producers don’t appear to grope women when they come to work and Hallmark rewards performance with equity stakes. Sometimes they even do it for a woman who isn’t white. That is at least as feminist as anything I bet you’re watching during the pandemic.

Of course, this feminism is all possible within a patriarchal parent company that rewards obedience to fecund motherhood as the height of women’s ambitions and aggressively dodges worker’s unions. There is a whole thesis to be written about Peete calling herself a “mama”, which I have previously argued as a Judeo-Christian white identity politic that is as poisonous to public life as is “MAGA”. But y’all ain’t ready for that.

My Scientific, Irrefutable “Don’t Argue With Me; Argue With Your Mama” Reviews of the 2020 Hallmark Christmas Movies (So Far)

Jingle Bell Bride is one of HMUs new interracial love stories. It is not good. Hallmark hasn’t yet learned that you cannot just color the characters in the brown crayon and keep the same formula. Or, you can, but then you risk awkward scenarios like the “meet cute” where the female lead ignores the male lead in an empty airport hangar. When they’re both white, its a meet cute. When the male lead is a Black man? Your female lead just became casually racist. Pass.

Chateau Christmas is kind of bad but also kind of okay. Margot is fine. She has a suitable woman talent. She plays piano. But her male co-lead, Jackson, is named Jackson. I already do not like that. He is also a music professor who got a PhD and supposedly wants to be Department Chair. I don’t trust anyone who wants to be a Real Housewife of any city but Atlanta or an academic Department Chair. Those just aren’t real things to want. And I don’t like this guy’s face. It has too many points. But it won’t make you sick or anything. Soft Pass.

One Royal Holiday did not stand a chance with me. I hate royalty fantasies. If I am going to fantasize about being a colonizer, I will watch the Beyonce Lion King. But I got roped in because someone on Twitter said there is a Black woman in it. She is the sassy Black friend and the mayor. HMU likes to make Black women the mayor. It is reparations for not having Black women leads. The Black woman has naturally curly hair so she is allowed to have a secondary love interest. They’re fine. Still, it is a royalty movie nostalgic for Nordic fantasies of whiteness. Hard Pass.

On The 12th Date of Christmas is hilarious because the male lead is one of my HMU favorites. He seems to hate his job. Not his pretend job, which in this film is some tech bro app company. Apps are the only technology currency that HMU understands, by the way. Well, apps and blogging. Anyway, this actor’s face is just always fed up with the whole pretense of the genre. And he has a beard. In HMU, that basically makes him Walter White. The woman is silly but whatever. We are here for Walter White. Watch.

More to come, maybe…

Sociologist. Writer. Professor. MacArthur Fellow. Books, speaking, podcast:

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