One of the New Hallmark Christmas Movies Seriously Wowed Me
“Christmas With the Darlings” broke so many molds that I’m still surprised.
While I’ll readily admit that Hallmark Christmas movies once got me through a psychologically fragile time, they have been widely criticized in recent years, and rightfully so, for dropping the ball on everything from feminism to representation. You can find dozens of critiques on this all over the internet. Have a look at this recent one by Tressie McMillan Cottom, or read some of my own criticisms — and theories about the movies’ appeal — in the aforementioned piece about my mental health.
I watched the latest release this past week from Hallmark’s 2020 holiday lineup, and it left me wowed. For real. I’m torn between wanting to sing its progressive praises and not wanting to spoil the plot, but after you read this, you have to watch Christmas With the Darlings.
Yes, that’s a painfully corny title. And when I saw the synopsis… and the first couple of minutes… I was neither impressed nor intrigued. The premise: some woman and her (insanely wealthy) boss’s (insanely wealthy) brother become temporary caretakers for three orphaned children during the Christmas holiday. So far so boring: I’m not big into Hallmark’s holidays-with-kids stories. Probably because motherhood feels very far from my reality right now. Then again, so do other Hallmark tropes like having a successful big-city career, taking hot-cocoa breaks every 20 minutes, over-wintering in postcard-worthy towns/lodges/chalets, throwing giggly gingerbread bakeoffs, and meeting men I can see a future with.
Anyway, my household’s currently recovering from the trauma of a covid hospitalization right now, so we’re spending lots of together-time around the living room TV. I buckled in and watched Christmas With the Darlings — and my liberal, sociology-grad-degree heart was pleasantly surprised on SO many levels that I was not at all expecting. Let me count the ways.
The same-sex relationship
First things first: I was shocked and delighted early in the plot to see a budding same-sex relationship. This wasn’t a read-between-the-lines attraction between two women that you could maybe kinda-sorta deduce if you used some imagination; there was blatant flirtation between these women, and the script actually acknowledged their mutual interest. Just as importantly, their relationship was presented in such a natural, casual kind of way — because same-sex relationships are natural and should be treated as such.
I remember remarking unironically to my parents that the same-sex couple had much more believable chemistry than most Hallmark couples ever do; my mom agreed. The women exchanged giddy looks (and at least one affectionate touch), went on dates, attended a fancy holiday party together — while the protagonist actively facilitated and encouraged the coupling.
Granted, the same-sex couple wasn’t the romantic lead (Hallmark, and television in general, still has far to go…), but their romance wasn’t just a blink-and-you’ll miss it trifle either… AND they were an interracial couple to boot.
Well done, Hallmark.
The uncharacteristic characterization of the male lead
Another refreshing choice. For context, men on Hallmark usually play coolly self-assured types — or alternatively brooding, somewhat-avoidant ones. Meanwhile, the (often insecure or neurotic) female lead has to figure out how to feel adequate to the prospect of inhabiting such a man’s world (e.g., the “royal” Christmas movies), or how to melt the ice of his love-averse exterior… whatever the hell his problem might be.
Alternatively, it’s the woman who’s aloof (or brooding, or avoidant), until she finally drops her walls in the last few minutes of the movie… On top of which, one party or the other is often too career-obsessed to even consider committing.
Not so in Christmas With the Darlings: here, both protagonists are warm-hearted, well-adjusted people… and the male lead is neither self-assured nor avoidant. He’s wealthy and successful, but also humble and genuinely nurturing, and he spends the movie scarcely able to imagine that the woman he adores could possibly be interested or that he could possibly deserve someone so amazing — an insecurity that he eventually confesses. To her. Openly.
Not that a paralyzing sense of personal inadequacy is anything to celebrate, but it’s a very human quality — and it’s nice to see a guy portrayed as having a softer, human side, rather than a bulletproof, cool detachment. It’s also nice to watch a man own up to feeling insecure, rather than writing the woman as the one with the walls.
Seeing such a benignly vulnerable male lead on the Hallmark Channel — easygoing, non-arrogant dude who’s so in awe of a brilliant, beautiful, caring, total-package woman that he’s shy about making a move — frankly astonished me, and I appreciated this.
The *healthy* love dynamic
If you’ve seen enough Hallmark movies, you’ll have noticed that somewhere in the second half of just about every one, some drama inevitably jeopardizes the primary love story. The childishness of some of these couples’ “problems” makes me want to roll my eyes; they’re often unhealthy. Maybe one person constantly throws barbs at the other (e.g., Christmas Scavenger Hunt). Or one person deceives another (e.g., Christmas Cookies). Or one person jumps foolishly to some negative conclusion that has no basis in reality and could’ve been resolved with a simple, flipping conversation rather than a huffy accusation (e.g., Marry Me at Christmas). Ugh.
This kind of drama has become so formulaic on the Hallmark Channel that, while watching Christmas With the Darlings, I actually turned to my dad and joked, “Well, we’re an hour in; when do you think they’re suddenly going to have trust issues?” But it didn’t happen. The couple-to-be made a mutually respectfully, mutually supportive team, with healthy, open communication and deeply compatible values — all the way through. In fact, the plot’s emotional climax ultimately involved the fact that one of them received an amazing career opportunity somewhere in East Asia, while the other silenced their own feelings for fear of standing in the way of their beloved’s dreams. A substantial obstacle — but the precise opposite of “drama.”
A Hallmark Christmas movie wherein the two leads don’t have some stupid fight or toxic trust issues? Winner.
The protagonist throwing a feminist barb
This was beautiful: somewhere toward the end, the protagonist was speaking with her boss about her desire to help raise the three orphaned children, and he either asked her how she could do this and still pursue her career as an attorney or simply assumed that doing both was impossible. (I can’t 100% remember which.)
Her response? She half-laughed at him incredulously and, with total confidence, reminded the guy that we’re in the modern world and women can do both.
Of course, whether it’s entirely realistic to feel so undaunted about managing both in a world that needs to do way better about creating policies that truly protect and support working and/or unmarried mothers is another question entirely… but it still felt brilliant to see a Hallmark woman essentially laugh at a man for insinuating that she’d have to ditch her career to raise a family.
Wow… is this even Hallmark anymore?
If it’s the new Hallmark, I’m all for it.
The message about childhood gender socialization
This was well-played: when the kids arrive at the palatial home where their late father grew up, the male lead (their uncle) assigns the boy to their dad’s old room and the girls to a different one. A short while later, the uncle finds his nieces’ bedroom empty — at which point the girls explain matter-of-factly that they also wanted to sleep in their dad’s room.
This scene was a subtle but powerful reminder for viewers that children of any gender can be close to and sentimental about their fathers, that female children can be close to and sentimental about their non-female parents, and that a son isn’t necessarily the “natural heir” of his father’s legacy strictly by virtue of their common gender.
The movie floated a very low-key correction to any person who unthinkingly puts children into gendered boxes.
The casting choices
So much to say here. I’m a white woman, albeit occasionally misread as a light-skinned woman of color, since some of my ancestry wasn’t (and, in some cases, still isn’t) considered white. Even so, it’s bothered me that Hallmark’s had so few actors of color for such a long time… and especially that I not-uncommonly saw actors of color getting cast in impoverished, service, or support roles.
In Christmas With the Darlings, though, actors of color played much more important parts: Katrina Law (half-Taiwanese) was the star. Another Asian actress appeared as, yes, a barista — but this particular barista was the love interest of the protagonist’s best friend; not exactly a throwaway role. Meanwhile, the protagonist’s boss-to-be at a legal firm was a Black man. And the two primary (white) male characters clamored for the approval and respect of a businessman from China.
On that last point, the actor who played the friendly, family-focused Chinese businessman was also much shorter and slighter-framed than the towering white guys who sought to impress him — and I’m going to assert that this was much more significant than it sounds: seeing two rich, white guys fawning (respectfully) over a powerful Asian man half their size felt like a refreshing step toward rectifying Western culture’s nasty habit of treating small-bodied Asian men as figuratively impotent, and small-framed men of any race as largely invisible (if not, worse, as jokes).
Short, powerful, successful, affable Asian man that everyone respects? Other actors of color in important and positive roles? Awesome. Thank you.
The eco-friendly angle
What’s a Hallmark Christmas movie without a tree-trimming scene? Well, in this one, instead of chopping a tree down or going to find a pre-cut one at a lot, the female lead proposes decorating some evergreens in the backyard — and leaving them right where they’re standing.
Also, instead of decking out these trees in shit like glass and plastic? She proposes making animal-friendly, edible garlands and ornaments so that the local wildlife can enjoy free snacks (dried fruit, popcorn, birdseed logs) safely.
Perhaps this was minor compared to all the other pleasant surprises, but the fact that Hallmark showed a “family” enjoying a more sustainable approach to holiday decorating broke the mould in a valuable way.
Was the story a little bit hokey? Yes. But to see such a smorgasbord of progressive deviations from the Hallmark Channel’s norm made me optimistic for the future of the network — and especially for people of marginalized identities who want and deserve to find themselves more routinely and sensitively represented in Hallmark’s programming.
I know that Hallmark still has a long way to go, and I’d love to see it get there quicker. But if Christmas With the Darlings truly reflects the steps the network is taking towards updating its representation, its gender politics, and its portrayal of relationship dynamics — among other progressive moves — then it looks like Hallmark is slowly but surely moving in the right direction.
Please, Hallmark: more of this.