New LGBTQ holiday movies bring joy — and ‘disingenuous’ stereotypes

Queer viewers celebrate representation but call for authentic portrayals

Single All The Way. Philemon Chambers as Nick and Michael Urie as Peter, in Single All The Way. (Washington Post Illustration; Philippe Bosse/Netflix; iStock)

Cheesy rom-coms aren’t usually Robby Bailey’s preferred genre during the holiday season, but after he watched Netflix’s gay Christmas movie “Single All the Way” with his partner, he was pleasantly surprised.

Gay characters in other movies often seem like caricatures, written by someone who “met a gay person once,” Bailey, 37, said. But these characters were “just like everybody else,” he said. “It felt more relatable.”

Holiday movie season is ramping up again, and so is queer visibility in recent years in its formulaic wintry rom-coms. For some people like Bailey who are part of the LGBTQ community, that representation has added to the holiday joy.

“We believe that everyone deserves love and that our storytelling is enriched by reflecting the diverse voices, perspectives, traditions and families of our audience,” Lisa Hamilton Daly, Hallmark Media’s executive vice president of programming, wrote in a statement to The Washington Post. “Our top priority is to create a positive entertainment experience for everyone — one in which all viewers can see themselves, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, cultural background, and sexual orientation.”

Some backlash has followed, reminiscent of what Disney has faced from conservatives for including gay characters in recent movies. Candace Cameron Bure, a veteran of TV Christmas cinema, left Hallmark this year to join Great American Family, a conservative network that “will keep traditional marriage at the core,” she told the Wall Street Journal Magazine.

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Holiday movies that incorporate characters who queer people root for aren’t new. Toronto singer-songwriter Cory Stewart, 38, noted that many LGBTQ Christmas fans relate to characters like the Grinch, who struggles as an outsider but forms a chosen family with his dog, Max. And actresses whose work is adored by queer fans, such as Jennifer Coolidge, Fran Drescher and Lindsey Lohan, indirectly invite their LGBTQ followings to support their holiday projects, too.

But more studios in recent years have centered gay relationships in their rom-com storylines. In 2020 alone, Hulu released “Happiest Season,” Hallmark “The Christmas House,” and Lifetime “The Christmas Setup,” the networks’ first original holiday movies to feature same-sex couples prominently. Last year, Netflix added “Single All the Way” to the LGBTQ canon. Hallmark’s “The Holiday Sitter” and the theatrical release of “Spoiler Alert” followed this year.

On one hand, it’s refreshing to be reflected in media and the silly, campy plotlines that make up holiday rom-coms, said Edmond Chang, an assistant professor, and a women’s, gender and sexuality studies scholar at Ohio University.

But Chang also worries that the trend is just a business tactic, especially as it becomes profitable to tap into new audiences in the relatively low-cost holiday genre.

“The downside of representation is sometimes it’s flat, it’s stereotypical, it’s not very nuanced,” they said.

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“Single All the Way,” and other gay holiday movies like it, follow the same rough storyline Hollywood shaped for their heterosexual equivalents, in which the attractive big city maven returns to their small town for the holidays and finds true love. But the Netflix original also infused details that brought depth to the gay characters.

“You can see people who are funny and who love their parents and are messy and complicated when it comes to love,” Bailey said.

“Single All the Way” was “the first time where it wasn’t a movie just about coming out or something negative,” said Stewart. “It was more just about an accepting family and someone coming home for Christmas.”

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More LGBTQ stories should strive to be similarly cheerful, said Taylor Cowan, a 26-year-old Transportation Security Administration agent in Sarasota, Fla.

Aware that her options to see lesbians like herself in movies are limited, Cowan says she’s open to watching any gay movie. But especially during the holidays, she wants to see relatable queer characters who aren’t suffering.

“So many gay movies are very sad to watch, and they might be really good and beautiful and everything, but they’re not enjoyable, per se,” she said. “Sometimes you want to watch something that puts you in a lighthearted mood.”

Cowan appreciates when LGBTQ cultural references in films are subtle and specific, she said, like when a character is talking to their plants they named or when a scene is punctuated by a lesser-known Britney Spears tune.

“Everybody deserves to see themselves represented, and if you are at a point in your life where you’re confused about your identity or you’re trying to come to terms with it, it’s definitely helpful to see characters like that that you can relate to in media,” she said. “I kind of figured it out when I was 19 years old, but I feel like it wouldn’t have taken me so long to figure it out had I seen more of that represented.”

Bailey said his self-discoveries were tied to movies such as the 1998 coming-of-age film “Edge of Seventeen,” especially while growing up in a small town where there weren’t many gay people. Stewart said he used to hide away in his bedroom to watch “Queer as Folk,” an early-2000s Showtime drama series that showcased a group of gay friends and was filmed near where Stewart lived. Watching the show, Stewart said, gave him hope that life would get better.

“Single All the Way” reminded him of it.

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“For Christmas movies to be shown where there are happy representations of queer couples and queer life I’m sure has made an impact on kids who are going through similar things right now in small towns all over North America,” he said. “I’m very encouraged.”

Franklin Mason, 29, was feeling more hesitant. Mason, who lives in Washington, and works in accounting, loves escaping life’s difficulties during Christmastime: decking out his Christmas tree, stocking up on rich eggnog and perusing BET Plus for cheesy holiday movies to watch. Last year, he found and watched “A Jenkins Family Christmas,” which includes a lead character who’s gay and Black, like he is.

But Mason recognizes that many Black movies cater to underlying homophobia among Black people, with gay characters made palatable for straight audiences. Sometimes, that means seeing some gay characters who are overly flamboyant or unrealistic. With “A Jenkins Family Christmas,” it struck him as odd to see the Black, gay character in the story defend his decision to only date White, gay men.

“I do think when you start peeling back the layers and asking more questions, it’s often rooted in … self-hate and isn’t the full picture,” Mason said. “I think it’s disingenuous. It’s based off stereotypes and assumptions.”

Nor is it expansive. Cisgender, able-bodied White men make up the bulk of gay on-screen representation.

“The queer spectrum is so large, and we only ever seem to see a fragment of it,” Stewart said.

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Having more Black queer producers and directors in the writing room could help avoid those pitfalls, Mason suggested. And Chang, the Ohio University professor, has found that more LGBTQ filmmakers are succeeding in the film industry.

In time, Chang said, they hope more queer creators are listened to. Until then, they plan to follow the growing pains of LGBTQ holiday movies anyhow.

“It’s important to see the media that we have right now,” Chang said. “That gives you the leverage to think about what could be different.”

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