Amanda Marcotte Salon, December 25, 2019
The Hallmark Channel has been having a rough go of it in the past few weeks. The cable TV behemoth, which has been minting money with its patented holiday season schmaltz, drew widespread criticism earlier this month when it pulled ads for the wedding company Zola that featured a lesbian couple kissing at their wedding. The company’s initial excuse was that they do not allow ads that feature “overt public displays of affection,” claiming the policy is “regardless of the participants.”
Hallmark then flip-flopped, apologizing for pulling the ads and claiming they have been “a progressive pioneer on television for decades” and “committed to diversity and inclusion.”
Which is, of course, laughable to anyone who has even glancing knowledge of the channel’s offerings. Running down this year’s schedule of Christmas movie offerings is like a trip into an uncanny valley of shiny-teethed, blow-dried heteronormative whiteness, with only a few token movies with characters of color. It’s like watching “The Stepford Wives,” but scarier, since the evil plot to replace normal people with robots is never actually revealed.
None of this should be a surprise, because Hallmark movies, as cloying and saccharine as they are, constitute the platonic ideal of fascist propaganda.
There’s plenty of reason that empty-headed kitsch fits neatly in the authoritarian worldview. It’s storytelling that imitates the gestures of emotion without actually engaging with real feeling. The Hallmark movie steers clear of the real passion or deeper emotion that tends to be the engine driving more artful fiction. Characters who have real feelings, after all, can prompt empathetic reactions in the audience, and empathy for others is the greatest single threat to the authoritarian mindset. And so schmaltz walks through the paces of “love” without touching on any of the messy but compelling realities of it.
Instead of characters driven by real feelings, therefore, the guiding hand of “normalcy” pulls the characters along through narratives — and unsurprisingly, that idea of “normalcy” doesn’t have a lot of room for the true diversity of American experiences.
The qualities that people cite when they defend Hallmark movies — comforting, formulaic, soothing — are all a result of the aggressively conformist impulse that drives them. And that impulse and fealty to the dominant culture stands in direct contrast to the values of diversity Hallmark facetiously claims to hold.
Hallmark movies, with their emphasis on returning home and the pleasures of the small, domestic life, also send a not-at-all subtle signal of disdain for cosmopolitanism and curiosity about the larger world, which is exactly the sort of attitude that helps breed the kind of defensive white nationalism that we see growing in strength in the Donald Trump era.
None of this, of course, means that everyone who watches Hallmark Christmas movies is some kind of fledgling fascist.
Still, it’s critical to be mindful of the role that Hallmark movies are actually playing in our society. The very fact that they’re presented as harmless fluff makes it all the more insidious, the way they work to enforce very narrow, white, heteronormative, sexist, provincial ideas of what constitutes “normal.”
Ultimately, there is probably no way to square the claim to believe in “diversity” with fascistic impulse that guides the current crop of Hallmark movies, which center always around these frankly MAGA-style ideas about what constitutes “real” America. As the Jewish movies show, the best that Hallmark can do is some token “diversity” that wipes out most of what makes people actually diverse. Their money comes from selling a vision of America that increasingly authoritarian conservatives wish to believe once existed and can be restored again — an America that excludes most of an increasingly urban, racially diverse, cosmopolitan nation. That won’t change no matter how many inclusive Zola ads the network airs.