As a proud girlfriend guy, I’ve seen a lot of cheesy Hallmark Christmas movies. At first, I watched them begrudgingly. Then, I was watching them ironically. Now, I’m a full on fan.
My long-time girlfriend’s parents literally used to own a Hallmark store in Rochester, New York, so I never really stood a chance. (She’s re-watching The Princess Switch 2: Switched Again again as I type this.)
Hallmark may have invented this holiday movie sub-genre, but I believe it’s been perfected by Netflix. This holiday season, you can also watch overworked girl bosses head back to their hometowns and fall in love with charming innkeepers on Lifetime, Hulu, Prime Video and HBO Max.
The cheesy Hallmark Christmas movie has entered the American zeitgeist with all the enthusiasm of Buddy the Elf, and in between the cliche Mad Libs plots and sappy dialogue, I believe these movies have a lot to reveal about our nation’s troubled id. These movies speak to our deepest desires and innermost longings. They take our cultural grievances and innate fears as human beings and turn them into harmless caricatures.
Sure, on the surface, A Cozy Christmas Inn might be about a big city real estate executive falling in love with the handsome bed and breakfast proprietor in her hometown, but look a little deeper, and you’ll find that the movie speaks to all of the anxieties and fears of professional women in this particular cultural and historical moment. Lean-In style feminism and “You can have it all” urgings have created a generation of unmarried, childless women, a demographic that’s growing fast and amassing major political capital. Depending on where you fall on the tribal divide, these professionals are either singlehandedly destroying the American family, like the whore of Babylon herself, or they’re fiercely independent women who are on average much happier than their married friends.
But in A Cozy Christmas Inn, these fears — of a culture that’s leaving you behind, of growing old, of dying alone, of never having children, the nagging sense that somewhere along the winding path of life you made the wrong choice, the fear that it’s too late for you — is sublimated into whimsical holiday joy.
These movies are filled with cliches that actually speak to something deep inside us all. At a time of skyrocketing inequality and institutional distrust, should we be surprised that heartless business tycoons are the go-to villain of these movies? And as American society gets gayer and gayer, so too does the cheesy Hallmark Christmas movie. Last year, Kristin Stewart, Aubrey Plaza and David Levy teamed up for Hulu’s Happiest Season, a queer take on this genre. Meanwhile, Hallmark is leaning into themes of Christianity in its holiday programming, which means there truly are cheesy Hallmark movies for us all.
These movies are also about second chances, both on camera and off. This year, Lindsay Lohan made her comeback in Netflix’s “Falling for Christmas”.
Because the cheesy Hallmark Christmas movie is at its root a rom-com, they almost always feature a male love interest. And these men, played by a menagerie of C-list actors and used-to-be-famous leading men, have a lot in common.
If my theories about the cheesy Hallmark Christmas movie are correct, then we can actually learn a lot about ourselves by examining the heart-throbs at the center of these movies. And after watching some of the exemplars of the genre, I’ve observed that three types of men appear over and over in these stories.
They are the dream men that appear on the Pinterest board of the soul, and they tell us what we really want — even if we can’t admit it to ourselves.
The Handsome Widower and Single Father
At first, the handsome single dad might seem like an odd choice for a romantic interest, but this man appears over and over again in rom-coms and holiday movies. (Jude Law in The Holiday, Liam Neeson in Love, Actually, and most recently, Chord Overstreet in Falling for Christmas).
What is it about the handsome single father with a tragic past that we find so appealing? Single parents may be anathema on actual dating sites, but in the safe glow of our television screens, they offer stability and safety. Plus, the culture is obsessed with daddies at the moment, as SPY has written before.
At a time when many people put off having children until it’s too late, the handsome widower comes with a ready-made family, like a present wrapped up under the Christmas tree.
A Literal Prince
It doesn’t get more perfect than actual royalty, at least on the silver screen. There are now dozens of cheesy Hallmark Christmas movies about women having an unexpected meet-cute with a royal beau. Netflix has an entire franchise dedicated to the premise, and Vanessa Hudgens alone has starred in four separate Christmas prince movies and counting (see The Princess Switch, The Princess Switch: Switched Again, The Princess Switch 3: Romancing the Star, and The Knight Before Christmas).
While it might seem like four movies is enough to saturate the market, there are enough Christmas princes for everyone. Though he’s technically more of a Christmas Earl, Asa Butterfield takes his turn as a Christmas prince in the recently released Prime Video movie Your Christmas Or Mine? (See also: The Royal Nanny, Christmas at Castle Hart and A Castle for Christmas.)
Unlike the single dad with a tragic past, it’s easy to see the appeal of the Christmas prince. As more women put off marriage to focus on their career, it seems we still long for a knight in shining armor who can whisk us away to our dream life, where we can be pampered and feted — as we deserve.
The Small Business Owner With a Heart of Gold
The small business owner with a heart of gold is the quintessential American hero. He’s the lifeblood of his local economy. He’s a job creator. He’s constantly besieged by evil bankers, rival businesses and heartless creditors. In real life, he may be the victim of a heartless capitalist system that pits us against each other in a zero-sum, dog-eat-dog competition, but in the cheesy Hallmark Christmas movie, the struggling small business owner always comes out on top, even if it takes an actual Christmas miracle.
Maybe he owns a bakery, or a toy store. In Hallmark’s The Christmas Ornament, he literally owns a “Christmas tree shop,” whatever that means. There’s even a well-known sub-class of the struggling small business owner — that charming innkeeper.
There’s often a lot of overlap between the struggling small business owner and the widowed single father, as in Lohan’s Falling for Christmas, where Overstreet plays a widowed single father who also owns a struggling ski lodge. For another movie in this tradition, check out Hallmark’s Christmas in Homestead, where a Los Angeles movie star must choose between her hot-but-totally-wrong-for-her co-star and the the small-town innkeeper.
Honorable Mention: The Old Flame
Check out Hallmark’s schedule of Christmas movies this weekend and you’ll find no less than 12 movies featuring ex-boyfriends, high school crushes, old flames and former rivals. As with the lovable small business owner, these archetypes aren’t mutually exclusive, and it’s even better if your high school sweetheart now owns a rival inn or is navigating the trials of single fatherhood.
While he’s not quite as appealing as the Christmas prince, his appeal is obvious. Many people nurse feelings for “the one who got away” or mourn a failed relationship where the timing just never worked out. Now, you discover that your ex-boyfriend has matured beyond your wildest dreams. Ultimately, it’s another fantasy. Your high school boyfriend who stayed in your hometown hasn’t become a successful bakery owner — or the lead singer of a famous band, as in Christmas in Tahoe. He’s more likely to live with his parents and have a middle-manager job at a regional flooring distributor.
Still, a girl can dream.
If you’re watching any sappy holiday rom-coms this year, then you won’t have to look very hard to find these leading men.
These movies may be easy to mock, but if you look past the the spunky little girls, the amnesia plotlines, and the aforementioned innkeepers, you’ll find a cinematic cultural tradition that holds up a mirror to our hopes and insecurities.