Holiday Rom-Coms Go Beyond Diversity To Center New Christmas Stars

Dec 18, 2020
Originally published on December 20, 2020 10:59 pm

Christmas romantic comedies are known for cozy sweaters, roaring fireplaces, meaningful glances over cups of hot chocolate and stars who, until recently, looked like a bunch of models from a Land's End catalog circa 1985.

Rare were the Christmas rom-coms with Asian, queer, Latinx or disabled characters. When Black characters started to show up, they generally played sidekicks — or they starred in family holiday movies, not the kind of Christmas rom-coms where Mom's always there to help with a thorny relationship dilemma, the cider is forever mulled and not a single problem can't be solved by declaring love under the mistletoe.

2020, of all the years, might be the one where all this decisively changed. It's been happening for a while, but holiday rom-coms this year are centering like never before on characters who only slowly started appearing in these movies, at first in the margins.

"People see themselves in our programming and feel welcome here," explains Amy Winter, head of programming for Lifetime and Lifetime Movie Network. "We have over 20 diverse leads and over 80 diverse characters in the course of this premiere season. So, we're doing pretty well."

Rochelle Aytes and Mark Taylor star in one of the Hallmark Channel's many new holiday rom-coms, A Christmas Tree Grows in Colorado.
Ryan Plummer / 2020 Crown Media

It should be said there's a full-on Christmas rom-com arms race between Lifetime and the Hallmark Channel. This year, Lifetime premiered 34 original Christmas movies to Hallmark's 40. (Last year, Lifetime gave us 19, Hallmark, 16.) Perhaps when there are so darn many Christmas movies, it's easier to feature leads who are Asian American (A Sugar & Spice Holiday), gay men (The Christmas Set-up and The Christmas House) and wheelchair users (Christmas Ever After), as well as Latinx (Feliz NaviDAD, Jingle Bell Bride) and Black (too many this year to name!)

"Diversity among 'people of color' has been a priority for us for many years," Allison Bennett told NPR in an email. She's Crown Media's vice president of corporate communications, which owns the Hallmark Channel. Both Hallmark and Lifetime have now established successful Christmas rom-com franchises with mostly Black casts: Christmas in Evergreen and the Merry Liddle Christmas series.

"Just put them in my veins. I'll watch them back to back," jokes Brittany Luse. Cultural critic and host of The Nod, Luse is also an unabashed Christmas rom-com fan who's followed Black representation in these movies at least, she says, since The Preacher's Wife came out in 1996, starring Denzel Washington ("couldn't have been hotter") and Whitney Houston ("at her most devastatingly beautiful.") But she points out that movie denied its main characters the kind of happy ending rom-com lovers expect.

Since then, Luse says, these saccharine, cinematic bon-bons have become increasingly embraced in the mainstream. And while cheesy, they pack a cultural punch. Which may be partly why you see famous names like Kelly Rowland or Kristen Stewart showing up in the Merry Liddle movies and Happiest Season — the lesbian rom-com that happened to be Hulu's biggest holiday hit this year.

"We're seeing that kind of progress and growth happening socioculturally among all kinds of marginalized people in so many areas of pop culture," Luse observes. "But all of this is happening in a year when so many have evoked Breonna Taylor's name, and things are — not good for so many marginalized people. As much as I enjoy these films, I can't help but think we're getting the most diverse slate of Christmas romantic comedies that the world has ever seen, but people who are living the reality of those identities on a daily basis are having a really hard time right now."

Escapism is deeply human. While crying over silly peccadilloes in romantic comedies won't save the world, it won't hurt it either. During this horrible year, Luse admits to finding relief in such Christmas movies as The Princess Switch 2 on Netflix and The Christmas Aunt on Lifetime, starring Keshia Knight Pulliam — who a generation of fans remember as little Rudy from The Cosby Show — as an grown-up art curator falling in love with her handsome high school crush. (Luse: "Was Lifetime stalking me? Like, did they read my emails?")

Ali Stroker and Daniel di Tomasso in Lifetime's Christmas Ever After.
Courtesy of Lifetime

Lifetime's Amy Winter says the network makes a point of not just sticking diverse actors in Christmas rom-coms without also hiring writers, directors and decision-makers who share their cultural perspectives. That said, there was one exception this year. Christmas Ever After stars an actress in a wheelchair. It was written for an able-bodied lead, but Ali Stroker — who'd just made history by winning a Tony for Oklahoma! — was beautiful, talented, charismatic and available. So, of course Lifetime hired her to play a romance novelist who finds love in a charming B&B in one of their 34 Christmas romcoms.

"We didn't make a movie about a woman in a wheelchair at Christmas," Winter says. "We made a Christmas movie that stars a woman in a wheelchair."

Don't call this Christmas casting magic, she adds. This is Christmas common sense.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Are you in the mood for a little Christmas escapism? Yeah, us too.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A SUGAR AND SPICE HOLIDAY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I want you to try and have some Christmas fun while you're home. Find someone to melt your marshmallow and ring your bell.

MARTIN: Melt your marshmallow. Tis the season for Christmas romantic comedies. There are more and more every year. And as NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, the newest in the genre are bringing a more inclusive vision of Christmas.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Last year, Lifetime premiered 19 original Christmas romantic comedies this year, 34.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED FILM)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Merry Christmas.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Merry Christmas.

AMY WINTER: It seems like there's quite a few more this year, doesn't it?

ULABY: Amy Winter runs programming for Lifetime.

WINTER: We felt like everybody needed it so badly.

ULABY: Of these 34 new Christmas romantic comedies, she says more than 20 have leads who are Black, Asian, Latinx, disabled or gay...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE CHRISTMAS SETUP")

BEN LEWIS: (As Hugo) Patrick Ryan?

ULABY: ...All baking cookies, putting up mistletoe and falling in love with someone who shows them what's really important in life.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED FILM)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) This is where my heart is.

BRITTANY LUSE: Just put it in my veins. I'll watch them back to back.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED FILM)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) I'm home.

ULABY: Brittany Luse is a cultural critic, a host of podcasts and shows like "The Nod." But this is her season. She loves Christmas romantic comedies, especially the new ones on Lifetime, Netflix and Hallmark featuring Black women.

LUSE: At the center, the very center of the Christmas magic.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED FILM)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) I think you're the whole package, Rebecca.

LUSE: You know, being able to be the person who gets to have somebody rush in at the last minute and make a speech about how they're going to leave New York City, they're going to stay in Phoenix for you (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED FILM)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) I've been in love with you for as long as I can remember.

LUSE: They accept you for who you are. It is nice to see more people sort of getting to have that Christmas magic.

ULABY: Even a hardcore Christmas rom-com fan like Brittany Luse admits there might be something silly about these movies. Still, she says it's significant to see long-marginalized characters at the center of them. Look, she says, at Hulu's biggest holiday hit, "Happiest Season." The main characters are lesbians.

LUSE: Kristen Stewart's character, for example, represents somebody who maybe 10 to 20 years ago was not in the Christmas romantic comedy, five years ago was playing the friend and then in 2020 is the romantic lead of the Christmas romantic comedy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way.

ULABY: Lifetime filmed its first-ever Christmas rom-com sequel this year with the same mostly Black cast. The original was Lifetime's highest rated film last year - period.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MERRY LIDDLE CHRISTMAS WEDDING")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) Look at all the Black love in this room.

ULABY: "Merry Liddle Christmas Wedding" is on track to be Lifetime's top film for 2020. Rom-com audiences may not care who plays the lead as long as they get their fix. But executive Amy Winter says Lifetime does not just stick diverse actors in its Christmas rom-coms without also hiring writers, directors and decision-makers who share their cultural perspectives. That said, this year there was an exception.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHRISTMAS EVER AFTER")

ALI STROKER: (As Izzi Simmons, singing) Wassail, wassail, all over the town.

ULABY: "Christmas Ever After" stars an actress in a wheelchair. It was written for an able-bodied lead. But Ali Stroker, who had just won a Tony, was beautiful, talented, charismatic and available. So Lifetime thought, of course, we'll hire her for one of our 34 Christmas rom-coms.

WINTER: We didn't make a movie about a woman in a wheelchair at Christmas. We made a Christmas movie that starred a woman in a wheelchair.

ULABY: This wasn't Christmas casting magic, says Winter. This was Christmas common sense. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS YOU")

MARIAH CAREY: (Singing) All I want for Christmas is you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.