To the untrained eye, these moments might seem disconnected, but in the words of the only book everyone reads in the Hallmark universe, they were the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future arriving all at once. The world of Hallmark often resembles a kind of rear-guard action in a culture war that the network’s prime demographic is losing. The jobs, homes, community and security in the bleached pastoral hamlets showcased in the Hallmark universe are dwindling, increasingly as unreal as their TV presentation.
“Nostalgic Christmas,” one of the 40 new movies Hallmark rolled out this season, was about a toy company executive who gives up on the rollout of a “computerized programmable horse that you can teach to talk” in favor of maintaining her father’s small-town shop selling handcrafted wooden toys, while a rich person kept a local mill open out of the goodness of deus ex machina. Calling a Hallmark Christmas movie “nostalgic” is like calling steak “beefy.” All the information was implied, but you went and made it overt anyway. No enthusiast of either mistakes the content. Hallmark deliberately evokes the visual language of Norman Rockwell’s Christmas paintings, a postwar consensus of peak fictional Americana that purportedly exists beyond the political.
But like, well, literally everything, this vision of America is the result of political choices. Hallmark’s movies are stridently anti-metropolitan, almost always beginning with a heroine fleeing the city on some pretext or another. The geography of her personal rescue takes the form of small towns and pastoral settings, where everyone has a nice house and a car and is probably a small-business owner or about to improve themselves by becoming one. Blue-collar jobs exist, but they pay at artisanal rates. And cratered school budgets and bankrupt shelters are rescued by private donors; in a world that cannot mention taxes, the commons only ever existed via the goodness of unnamed hearts.
The few minority characters who luck into having more definition than a name and bipedal form invariably exist to twinkle at glockenspiel-shattering frequencies and push two oblivious white people toward each other until they collide lips-first. Often, they are little more than white roles cast with black actors, leading to moments like a scene in 2018′s “Christmas at Graceland,” where Kellie Pickler enters her black best friend’s house to discover decor that looks like what would happen if Williams Sonoma updated the walls of a TGI Friday’s. This year, Hallmark aired what was initially billed as its first “Hanukkah” movie — a Christmas movie in which a Jewish man poses as a fake WASP boyfriend for the holiday.
As it happens, fellow journalist David Roth and I co-host a podcast in which we spend a lot of time gently riffing on this fictional world. We were drawn to the network for the same reasons as most Hallmark viewers: The real world is horrible, and this one is not, even if it is sometimes unwittingly absurd and its pacing, plotting and characterization often need work. Nobody gets hurt in Hallmark movies. There are never bad guys, only the wrong ones, and even the most Bluetooth-earpiece-wearing, “what happened to our five-year plan, babe?” cretin redeems himself by finding a lesson out of getting dumped suddenly and amicably.
Which is why the network surely saw the lesbian kiss problem coming.
One Million Moms — a division of the anti-gay American Family Association whose pitch to new members is: “Mom, are you fed up with the filth many segments of our society, especially the entertainment media, are throwing at our children?” — quickly gathered 30,000 signatures to say that, in a nation where caging children in subhuman conditions is considered a smart deterrent, the real threat to the concept of family is two adults starting one. The ads, apparently, had shattered the Rockwell amber the network is preserved in.
What One Million Moms did wasn’t subtle or new, and neither was Hallmark’s reaction. Activists certainly know that few viewers write letters thanking networks for “doing a fine job again,” that LGBTQ viewers weren’t writing in to praise movies about them that were never made in the first place, and that an email forward with a prewritten angry letter to Hallmark will often drown out everything else. Hallmark, meanwhile, knew enough to undertake an action that seemed to protect its core demographic — then knew that the backlash against pulling Zola’s ads provided sufficient cover to do what it already wanted to do anyway, which was to demonstrate willingness to cash checks from advertisers. Every angry letter- or editorial-writing campaign has its own identity, but to corporate media, they all look like beards.
In all likelihood, Hallmark hoped Zola’s stab at inclusiveness could slip under the radar of its most dedicated viewers, a low-key statement to advertisers that it was willing to expand its reach beyond the demographically siloed. After all, the ads might reflect a broader American experience, but the plots they bookend will still feature women achieving self-actualization by bailing on a C-Suite gig after accidentally snagging the job of “mom” in some widower’s family. But every noble experiment lasts only until the electric bill comes due. While its year-over-year numbers might remain competitive, unless the audience or the network changes, the latter will be forced to continue to rely on wringing more hours per day out of its existing viewership, knowing that catering to a less conservative vision of America can provide only uncertain audience gains and guaranteed losses. It’s the TV demographic equivalent of trying to become the No. 1 coal mine of the 21st century.
The culture war binding Hallmark leadership wasn’t settled by this skirmish, and now One Million Moms is trying to rally its members to get behind the bleak prospect of a Christmas week (gulp) with no Hallmark Channel at all. But returning to a formula of selling a fictional Christmas past to appease the fictional ideations of a core demographic’s Christmas present won’t hold for long. The makeup of the country to which Hallmark sells Christmas, family and sentiment will continue to change, no matter how tightly or how tall Hallmark builds the wall keeping their viewers from changing the channel. Hallmark is a family network anchored by a stretch of year when it becomes the Christmas network, but Christmas isn’t a segregated holiday, and America still has nonwhite families in it. When you’ve made 40 new Christmas movies this year alone, the fact that you’ve made fewer than 10 with nonwhite or LGBTQ leads in your entire history isn’t going to cut it anymore. It’s time to tell different stories — or tell a different story about your network. All the aspirationally inclusive news releases in the world won’t change the fact that, if demographics are destiny, the Hallmark Channel has a bleak Christmas future waiting for it.