Diversifying the narrative as we approach our Happiest Season

Happiest Season has been labelled the first queer Christmas movie, giving voice and representation to diversity in festive storytelling while finding its place among the Christmas classics. (Image source: Happiest Season IMDb)

BY MICHELLE WAKIM | @MichelleWakim

A particular fondness is granted to the Christmas movie genre. We have a special place reserved for stories wrapped in the blanket of Christmas context. Successful Christmas films develop an immortal, cult-like following, endorsed annually through memes: a modern-day compliment if there ever was one.

The true classics are worked into our cultural vocabulary as if they are assumed knowledge: Love Actually, Home Alone, The Holiday and even Die Hard (questionable, but many sources put forth compelling arguments for its labelling as a Christmas film). Heck, even The Muppets have established themselves in the realm of Christmas cinema.

If we use Christmas films as a marker of social appetite, then it is no surprise Happiest Season, the first mainstream Christmas film with queer characters at its centre, has been propelled into our news feeds. 2020 has managed to add a triumph to its name in the form of this cosy, yet subversive, Christmas film.

This romantic comedy features Kristen Stewart’s character Abby, and her partner Harper, played by Mackenzie Davis. For Christmas, the couple find themselves staying with Harper’s upper middle class, traditional family.

Heightening the Christmas chaos is the fact that Harper has not come out to her family. In a plan to preserve this normative bubble over the holidays, Abby and Harper pretend to be friends and pose as straight.

Director, screen writer and queer woman, Clea DuVall, endeavoured to retain the Christmas tropes we lovingly embrace – the Christmas card style storyboard at the film’s opening, It’s a Wonderful Life references, and houses extravagantly ornamented with Christmas lights – while simply pivoting Happiest Season’s plot around a same-sex couple.

In choosing not to alienate the LGBTQIA+ community from conventional Christmas practices, DuVall proves (believe it or not) that queer people also celebrate Christmas, have lovingly overbearing families and feel a sense of recognition when loaned the spotlight in mainstream media.

The characters – both straight and gay – are not flat-packed caricatures, but relatable, quirky individuals connected by the pressure of keeping up appearances. There is a familiarity in the world DuVall has established, offering broad audiences of all identities a way in. The appeal of this world stems from reliable family hallmarks: the mother who incessantly takes pictures on her iPad (with the camera sound turned on); the relentless nature of sibling rivalries – comically portrayed by Alison Brie and co-screen writer Mary Holland; the lack of privacy in the family home.

The supporting characters in Happiest Season not only steal the show, but enhance the narrative with depth, colour, and comedy. Aubrey Plaza plays Riley, Harper’s high school girlfriend, and is presented as the town’s token lesbian.

Harper’s parents, a conservative councilman Ted, played by Victor Garber, and his wife Tipper, played by Mary Steenburgen, reference Riley’s career success as a saving grace for her ‘lifestyle choice’, presenting an honest reflection of real-world judgements.

As Riley befriends Abby – and they strut around town in matching black suit-jackets – the pair exhibit a chemistry fans relish, and the two form a supportive rapport crucial to the film’s storyline.

You cannot discuss Happiest Season without unpacking John, Abby’s gay best friend played by the man who stole every Netflix user’s heart, Daniel Levy. John acts as a sounding board, advocating for the multiplicity of queer experiences.

When Abby tells John about hiding her relationship, saying there is fun in having a secret, John shatters this optimism with the reminder, “yeah, I mean there’s nothing more erotic than concealing your authentic selves.” John is also the first to flag Abby’s blinkered perception of coming out, highlighting that she was lucky to have supportive parents, and this is not always a given.  

While Happiest Season is a rom com, it delicately addresses tender moments of struggle. At the detriment of her relationship with Abby, we watch Harper fearfully cling to the identity that served her in her adolescence, symbolically noted in her untouched heteronormative teenage bedroom. This clinging is a survival mechanism as, from her perspective, coming out means surrendering her place within her family.

Harper’s character also reflects the universal yet often condemned pluralistic nature of human beings: we are not limited by one marker of identification. Rather, we exist in multiple different capacities and versions, all being equally true but in flux depending on demands and environments. One can simultaneously be gay, a daughter, a mother, a woman, a career success, without selecting one as her constant leading identity.

Harper’s character in Happiest Season, shows the damage which can be done by forcing someone to portion off these versions and chose a singular indicator of self. A family Christmas is the ideal backdrop for this depiction as it’s often the place where we’re confronted with the complexities, expectations and demands that come with family. What a large lesson to add to our Christmas parables.

In an interview with The Guardian, Stewart describes Happiest Season to be “a beautiful Christmas movie about people coming together, a family getting on the other side of a misunderstanding.” This is a robust takeaway that can be applied to almost every Christmas film (although, maybe not Die Hard).

What makes Happiest Season especially successful is it confidently situates queer storytelling in Christmas culture, refusing to shy away from its original intention. Anchoring a coming out story in these festivities grants a validity and relevance to the conversation that hasn’t been attributed before. Because of this, Happiest Season should be etched in our Christmas catalogue of classics.

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