Romance for the Holidays
The romance genre is aimed at women, but is it actually what we want to see?
Elizabeth Kestle | Writing Contributor
In 1898, the first Christmas film debuted in the United Kingdom, a two-minute silent film that gave birth to the modern depiction of Santa Claus and allowed Kris Kringle to become the figurehead of the secular holiday.
Today’s extensive library of holiday classics is a large part of the season’s celebrations. The 20th-century entertainment industry churned out classics and large film companies have since controlled most of the so-called traditional holiday centered media that the public views.
Since the ‘90s, Hollywood has evolved to include two main formulas for Christmas films, classics and romances. Popular television channels such as Hallmark and Lifetime have since capitalized on the secular holiday and geared their filems toward women.
But a deep dive into the Hallmark romance formula uncovers an anti-modern agenda that audiences tend to ignore in favor of the Christmas spirit weaved within the story. These so-called Christmas rom coms still align with traditional approaches to a woman’s place in society.
The key word here being traditional.
Traditionalism Kills Forward Progress
Looking back through the extensive collection of movies from the 1900s, women tend to take the back burner. There are still very few movies with lead female protagonists that when sharing the screen with a male character fit into the all-American stereotype from the early 20th century.
Traditionally women stayed home, cooked, and cleaned, cared for the children, and catered to the whims of men. Even though newer movies evolve into more modern depictions women always fall into at least one stereotype.
There is nothing wrong with these ideals if it is a choice that the woman intends to make. To depict this choice repeatedly in most movies, allows the viewers to begin conforming to the ideal. To take the choice away entirely demeans every progressive step forward.
“It is tricky for viewers because we like some of these ideals. I love baking cookies from scratch with my kids, but I don’t necessarily want to slide all the way over into endorsing gender and relationship norms that are old fashioned,” says Dr. Meredith Bagley, an associate professor within the College of Communications and Information’s Sciences, at The University of Alabama.
Forced conformity through media manipulation, through the depiction of ideals women, have fought to overcome, and thus stripping these matriarchal figures of their autonomy, highlights the idea that this is okay to young impressionable viewers.
“In that old fashioned, nostalgic traditional sort of way, rituals are supposed to be repeated over time and so they root us to the past and that often can be empowering but in general those traditions have that old fashion lean to them,” says Bagley. “A very traditional heteronormative marriage expectation is coming right in with this ritualisticness.”
The problem lies within the desire to replicate without modernization. If the traditional ideals of Christmas are what these producers are striving to replicate, they can modernize without jeopardizing the spirit of the holiday.
The Flame is Fake
The root of all Hallmark movies is, at its core, romance. Factor in the spirit of Christmas and everything seems a little more magical, the romance seems a little more like fate and the story is cheesier. Not to say this is a terrible thing, every woman loves a fairytale but even fairytales have a hint of realism to them.
The most unrealistic part of these films is the timeline in which everything happens. It takes men, on average, 88 days (about three months) to fall in love and women an additional 46 days (about one and a half months). These movies depict timelines of days, even a few weeks, and usually, the attraction between the two leads is due to a problem they need to fix mutually.
These connections are not born from realistic situations, nor are their interactions with each other. To add a romantic partner into a movie for the sake of fixing the lead is an affront to the connections we attempt to form in real life.
“To me, what’s frustrating about these very PG-rated hallmark movies is that we are not using our art to explore desire or romantic longing in any sort of interesting meaningful way. I do not know if we’re fixing a problem, I think we’re censoring it rather than addressing it,” says Dr. Alyxandra Vesey, an associate professor at The University of Alabama with research areas in feminist media studies.
It is also an affront to the seemingly independent female heroine most of these rom coms try to portray.
In the early 2000’s Hollywood standardized the format for romantic comedies. These movies depended on a distressed damsel and a heroic witty man whose entire purpose is to fix it. This gives the idea that women need assistance, and we cannot live a truly fulfilled life without love.
These movies also alienated single women. They paint single, accomplished women as dull, shrewd, and callous. By promoting the work-driven lifestyle as unfulfilling and an environment where women evolve into cold-hearted ice queens, they allow the audience to develop and project this notion into the real world.
These false nuances of romance undermine the relationships we build in real life and set unattainable standards that women, as the main audience, attempt to meet. These movies, ones that we attempt to replicate in our own lives, set us up for failure for the sake of fantasy and a temporary escape from life.
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s harmful to our society, but I do think that an unwillingness to deal with that sort of stuff in our real lives is prevalently reflected in the very sort of censored media content that we consume in our day to day lives,” says Vesey.
At the end of the day the concept for all romance movies is the same; boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins back girl. This concept continuously relies on the victimization of the female and the heroic empowerment of the male. Even the concept puts the male in a position of action making the women seem powerless to make decisions.
These concepts and formulas entrap women into feeling as if these notions are reflective of true societal norms and they try to replicate these notions in their own lives. This reflection sets women up for a predetermined imbalance of power within their relationships.
The Sex is Not Sexy
One of the aspects of romance that Christmas channels like Hallmark and Lifetime do not venture into is physical intimacy. And while showing the softer, more innocent sides of a relationship is good, it is not realistic when the depiction is entirely misleading – especially considering that there is no middle ground in film or television.
“While I appreciate that there are shows that depict sexual content a lot of it is pretty sex negative. A lot of the consequences that the female characters must deal with are troubling and instead of imagining a world where females can be these sorts of sexual beings and have positive experiences, they push what they think will sell,” says Vesey.
The perfect environment to experiment with positive sexual experiences would be in a romantic movie. Physical intimacy in its most positive form should take place with a loving partner, one that cares for another’s emotional and physical well-being. If a true romantic relationship is one that Hollywood wants to push, then including all aspects is important.
“There’s not a lot of examples where young people in these films are having positive, nurturing, and mutually beneficial sexual experiences. There is this sort of repressive romance Hallmark culture and then there is this world where you can have incredibly explicit adventurous sex, but it is going to cost you,” says Vesey.
The Bottom Line
What Hollywood fails to recognize is that modern, forward-thinking women want the truth. She wants to turn on the television and see herself within these fantastical programs- instead, she sees a repressed codependent mirror image. Hollywood fails to meet expectations by reverting to societal norms set by white cis-gendered heterosexual males that set the precedent years ago.
By modernizing the stories, creating storylines that reflect the women of today’s society, and truly recognizing the role women have in the world, Hollywood can craft romance movies that fit all women. Hollywood needs to stop hiding behind the traditionalism of Christmas and start producing movies that all women can watch and visualize themselves onscreen.
Elizabeth Kestle serves as a writing contributor. She is a freshman majoring in news media with minors in criminal justice and French. This is her first year with Alice.