We all love a romantic Christmas movie, right? The snow outside, the roaring fire inside and a discovery of romance distilled into an hour and a half viewing session – what more could you want? A film that doesn’t set feminism back a century, apparently.
A bad case of tonsillitis recently had me on a Netflix binge of cheesy Christmas films that I outwardly cringed at, but secretly enjoyed. Unfortunately, by the fourth film of the day, I started to notice a disturbing trend. It’s easy to recognise the cliches of a typical Netflix Christmas romance movie: a woman with a high-flying career journeys to a small Christmas-obsessed town to rediscover her love of the season with the help of an averagely good-looking local man. However, I began to realise that there was a message being not-so-discreetly nudged at the viewer. It was telling viewers that a successful career in the city was not for a woman; instead, settling down with a boy-next-door figure just in time for Christmas was the best thing that could happen to them. Not only are these films anti-female empowerment, but they also limit women to domesticity and a life revolving around a male counterpart. Put this in the shape of a Christmas film which can be carted out year upon year, and you’ve got the recipe for a feminist nightmare.
I first noticed this rejection of the modern woman in ‘Christmas Wonderland’ (2018). The film centres around Heidi, a gallery curator in New York who has to urgently return to her hometown to babysit her sister’s children. During the visit, which is helpfully extended by her sister and brother-in-law being stranded in another state, she reconnects with her high-school sweetheart, Chris, while helping him to put on a school dance. Over the course of the film, Heidi realises her impressive job in the city is distracting her from her true passion – painting (despite her job in the art industry providing her with the opportunity to go further with her dream, but whatever). In one of the penultimate scenes, she dramatically quits her job and runs back to meet her love interest at the school dance, where they smooch in front of a barn full of underage children.
After watching ‘Christmas Wonderland’, I recognised a similar, if not identical, storyline in some of Netflix’s other mediocre ‘masterpieces’. One of these was ‘My Christmas Inn’ (2018), featuring Tia Mowry as Jen, a successful advertising executive who inherits an inn from a distant relative at the most festive time of year. Spoiler: she meets a bland white man and falls in love!! A surprise to literally no one except her boss – who she quits in front of despite just receiving an impressive promotion.
Again, in ‘Christmasland’ (2015), Jules, a marketing genius, inherits a house and the surrounding land from her grandmother, eventually rejecting a million-dollar offer to be the owner of the titular Christmas land. (This one honestly struck me as being a bit cultish but that’s a whole other conversation). During her rediscovery of all things Christmas, she meets a carpenter/lawyer who persuades her to not sell up and instead, ditch her life in the city for a cheery yet quiet one in Christmas land. And with scarcely a second thought, she does it.
A recurrent theme here seems to be centred around family and women’s roles. Whether it’s caring for children or extended family, the women in these seasonal rom coms are limited to what they can be used for. The only feasible option for them is to fulfil the role of wife and homemaker. While they start in high-powered positions, by the time the credits roll they are in new lives with new men. This encourages the ‘American dream’ idealism of a nuclear family of decades past, just wrapped up in sparkly Christmas wrapping paper with a bow on top. There is no progression, no possible other route. The fact that all of the main characters are single women around their thirties without children is highlighting that their potential to procreate is coming to an end, thus their usefulness, and anyone else in this position must also find a husband now! A little girl is the trigger for Jules to save the town in ‘Christmasland’, and Jen’s small-town piece of eye candy is entranced by the way she decorates cookies with small children in ‘My Christmas Inn’. Let’s not forget that the whole plot of ‘Christmas Wonderland’ is Heidi reconnecting with her high school sweetheart whilst caring for her niece and nephew. Newsflash: women are for more than making babies!
The men are always the same cookie-cutter version too – family-orientated, caring, and full of disdain towards the careers their romantic partners have built for themselves. They are also never white-collar workers, pursuing more labour intensive or ‘hands-on’ careers, compared to their office-based female counterparts. This again reflects the view of a traditional family structure, with the man being the main breadwinner in a blue-collar role. This kind of structure only serves to disempower women and reduce them to a lesser capacity. I argue that these women should be looked up to as hard-working professionals in a typically male-dominated workplace, as a study carried out by EMR Recruitment found that in marketing, “women made up the majority of junior roles, whilst the overwhelming majority of top positions, such as CMOs and Directors, were male.” Therefore, both female leads in ‘My Christmas Inn’ and ‘Christmasland’ have clearly reached impressive heights in their careers and so the male rejection of this is an even stronger blow, and begs the question: why would they just quit their job over a love interest? The directors of these films have shown to the audience that they do not think female careers are worth much more than a plot point to begin a romance story. It may not be a surprise that all 3 directors are middle aged white men who are using this platform to push an outdated agenda that works in their favour. Of course, this may be a push but a quick visit to their IMDb pages shows a long list of identical Christmas rom coms with malignant and misogynist undertones.
The solution? I say we need more female writers and directors who understand the impact these films can have on the subconscious of the audience. On top of this, more positive representations of female characters in high powered jobs, rather than the worn-out trope of the bitchy career woman.
Yes, the fact that these women are able to have these jobs in the beginning of the movies is more progressive than them already slaving away over Christmas cookies in a rustic kitchen, but the eventual removal of them from the positions simply seems harmful to me. “Around half of Netflix subscribers watched at least one of the streaming service’s original holiday films” in 2019 in all 190 countries Netflix streams to. So, this media is consumed every second by people around the world, and I think it’s fair to say it is targeted to younger, typically female audiences. This is an extremely wide-reaching platform – just look at previous success like A Christmas Prince and The Knight Before Christmas. Therefore, not only is this lazy storytelling, it’s also increasingly harmful to the young women – and of course men – who are faced with a barrage of the same message: city career bad, suburban family good! Don’t get me wrong, there is no problem with having a comfortable happy life with a husband and approximately 2.4 kids in a friendly neighbourhood; in fact, it sounds idyllic. But juxtaposing this with the job-focused single woman living in the big bad city comes across as old-fashioned and problematic. Especially at a time when the new year is looming and people start to evaluate where they stand in their lives, a message like this – quitting your job to follow a (pretty sexist) Christmas dream – has the potential to truly do harm. We need strong female leads who stay strong for the whole film, not mould themselves to fit whatever image their heartthrob desires. I will always love cheesy Christmas romances, but the formula needs to change as soon as possible.