What It’s Like to Watch “Happiest Season” as a Queer, Black Woman

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Image Description: Mackenzie Davis (left), dressed in a beige coat and a white blouse with red stripes, with dark-brown, long hair and bangs, smiling at Kristen Stewart (right). Stewart is wearing a dark coat, a light grey hoodie, and a white T-shirt, with blonde hair and dark-brown lowlights mixed in. She’s also smiling, but her head is slightly bent down. They are sitting in a dimly lit movie theater, and behind them are people doing various activities as they wait for the film to start.

I don’t do rom-coms, but I’m not a rom-com hater. I don’t watch enough of them to develop any strong feelings about the genre. In fact, the last rom-com I watched was “The Lovebirds,” a Netflix original movie starring Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae, but that was early in the quarantine. I didn’t let that stop me from watching “Happiest Season” Hulu’s entry into the streaming service holiday movie competition, during the mini-Turkey Day break, though. Holiday rom-coms are a dime a dozen this time of year (just take a look at Hallmark’s programming schedule), but Happiest Season” stood out because it’s the first mainstream holiday rom-com to center around a lesbian couple, a rarity in the realm of lesbian movies and holiday rom-coms as a whole. Furthermore, the film was co-written and directed by Clea DuVall, a queer cinema icon thanks to her turn as the androgynous love interest of Natasha Lyonne’s titular cheerleader in the ‘90s cult classic “But I’m a Cheerleader.” Also, it happens to star Kristen Stewart, another queer cinema icon who made her return to mainstream Hollywood blockbusters last year with Sony’s “Charlie’s Angels” reboot, as Abby, one half of the main couple.

I’ll admit, when I saw the trailer for “Happiest Season” in my recommended queue on YouTube, my first thought was, “Oh great; another Christmas rom-com about a white couple. What makes this one different from the others?” Once Abby kissed her girlfriend Harper (Mackenzie Davis), I realized why this one was so different. Well, mostly different. “Happiest Season” is driven by a classic concept — a woman and her significant other traveling to the latter’s hometown for Christmas and spend the holidays with their family —but filtered through a queer lens, and that’s what got me excited. As I shared the trailer with friends and gushed with them about how cute Stewart and Davis were together (oh, and how funny the trailer was, too), I felt a familiar twinge of frustration. 

On one hand, I was happy that there’s now a yuletide rom-com my community could call their own. It was a refreshing break from the monotony of white, heterosexual winter rom-coms and rom-drams that dominate TV screens and streaming queues over the holidays. I can only speak for myself, but it’s hard for me — a plus size, queer Black woman — to connect with a thin, privileged, and straight white female protagonist returning to her hometown and rekindling a romance with an old flame or trying to save some Christmas-themed attraction in a small town (I mean, that’s what a third of those Hallmark and Lifetime movies are about, right?). On the other hand, watching “Happiest Season” would mean playing another tedious round of the representation game. Normally, I welcome any opportunity to see the LGBTQ+ represented by mainstream Hollywood, but the fact that, despite the wealth of diversity within the community, white is still held up as the default is irritating. But, I was willing to put that feeling off to the side and enjoy a movie that refreshingly focused on a positive queer romance.

Normally I stay away from LGBTQ+ films that put trauma over joy, and lesbian-centered films are no exception; the constant focus on trauma and pain — as well as choosing to set these films in the past, as if lesbians don’t exist in modern times — always gives me pause. When I do take the plunge and watch one, however, I notice they either overindulge in problematic tropes (e.g. “A Simple Favor”) or have male filmmakers depicting queerness with a leery and uncomfortable male gaze. Needless to say, being shut out from the cinema you want to be reflected in is rough. But I clung onto the belief that watching “Happiest Season” meant the door would later be opened for lesbian and queer women of color to make their own films and TV shows depicting positive, healthy romantic relationships. Not to mention, it would also lead to projects that were more reflective of the diversity in the LGBTQ+ community.

For all the praise “Happiest Season” has earned for queer representation, however, the film is also a frustrating reminder that Hollywood and white queer filmmakers have a long way to go on the road to being more inclusive and reflective of the LGBTQ+ community.

Coming Out for the Holidays

As I’ve already mentioned, “Happiest Season” has a familiar premise: Abby travels with Harper to her childhood home to spend Christmas with her family, and Abby decides to use this trip to propose to Harper and seeks her family’s blessing to do so. But DuVall injects this wintertime romance with a shot of reality: Harper hasn’t come out to her conservative family yet. What’s worse is that they think Abby is Harper’s orphaned roommate who Harper only invited because she felt bad about leaving her alone. So, Abby is forced back in the closet to keep Harper from having an awkward conversation with her family. John (played by the excellent Dan Levy), Abby’s (also gay!) best friend, is mortified to hear that Abby is going to play it straight — literally. When Abby explains that she’s just trying to be there for Harper, John is unconvinced. “Have they ever met a lesbian?” he asks.

Despite being a romantic comedy, “Happiest Season” presents a terrifying scenario that’s likely to resonate with queer viewers, especially those who have been (or are) closeted to immediate family but live an out and open life outside them. However, the choice to frame Abby and Harper’s love story this way drew mixed responses on Twitter once the trailer dropped. Now that the film is out for everyone (with a Hulu subscription) to see, the mixed feelings have since increased with critic reviews and online reactions, and it’s understandable. While I don’t mind “Happiest Season” being another entry in the coming out sub-genre of LGBTQ+ cinema, I can understand the desire to see it grow beyond that narrative or, at least, challenge the limits of it. For a while now, mainstream Hollywood has told coming out stories couched within larger coming of age stories for teens. It makes sense, especially since they can positively influence teens who are coming to terms with their sexuality. But the reality is that coming out isn’t a one-and-done thing that happens in your teens. It’s a continual series of moments throughout your life where you come out to different people, from friends and family to significant others and even yourself. 

Despite the trailer acknowledging this oft-overlooked reality, “Happiest Season” doesn’t give this experience the depth and nuance it deserves. A majority of the film is devoted to Abby being forced to play straight, but this choice robs the audience of a better understanding of the scope and nature of Harper’s conflict. There have been plenty of mixed feelings about Harper, and while most of them don’t have much to do with Davis’s performance (to be honest, she does her best with what little she’s given), this reception seems to have more to do with the lack of focus on Harper. We watch her make questionable but (mostly) understandable choices throughout, but the script fails to give them and their impact nuance. After all, “Happiest Season” is about Harper and how her choice to stay closeted is informed by relatable fear and anxiety. But when she finally gets the spotlight, it’s far too late in the film, and it hurts both the character and the film overall.

Additionally, the film fails to give Abby’s conflict more dimension. Stewart does a great job conveying Abby’s awkwardness as she tries not to blow her cover, but the character deserved a better, more thought-out arc. There are scenes where a miserable Abby watches Harper immerse herself back into her upper-class, conservative world with ease, but they act as throwaway moments rather than plot-driven scenes. DuVall and co-writer Mary Holland (who also delivers a winning performance as Harper’s middle sister Jane) could have given her arc more layers. I get that this is a comedy and that comedies usually work to not wear out their welcome immediately, but it’s hard to empathize with characters who are barely developed. 

For a rom-com that’s supposed to be noteworthy for its queer representation, not only does “Happiest Season” struggle with depicting the difficult reality of being queer over the holidays, but it also struggles to do right by its central couple. It’s almost as if the film was just making the main couple a lesbian one for the diversity brownie points; there was zero effort put into creating a realistic queer couple, and that highlights the noticeable disconnect between the film’s depiction of being queer and closeted to family and the actual reality of such an experience.

A Very White Christmas

I wish I could say the depiction of queerness was the movie’s only shortcoming. That way, I’d be able to chalk it up to the fact “Happiest Season” was advertised as a lighthearted, escapist rom-com, so there’s no need for me to mull over it for a long time, let alone write a review about it. After all, holiday rom-coms don’t operate by real-world rules so there are no limits to what they can do; that’s why people love them so much. But that wouldn’t be fair to queer viewers who are hoping for genuine representation. Truth be told, the lack of nuance and depth DuVall and Holland give to Abby and Harper’s romance and the obstacles they face make their love story inauthentic at best and performative at worst. What makes that disconnect more frustrating is that Abby and Harper’s love story is more or less informed by how white the movie is. Save for Aubrey Plaza, who is half Puerto Rican, as Harper’s high school acquaintance Riley, and Burl Moseley as Eric, the Black husband of Harper’s older sister Sloane (Alison Brie, “GLOW”), the “Happiest Season” cast is mostly white, and they’re playing privileged people. 

At first, I identified with Harper’s struggle to be loved and accepted by her family. The tightrope Harper has to walk is similar to the one for lesbian and queer women of color, but their tightrope is at a higher elevation in the real world. Sadly, it’s not that realistic here. Once viewers see her glossy conservative world, Harper’s story becomes less relatable, let alone realistic. Throughout the film, I wondered if Harper was more concerned about losing access to her privileged world, which she’ll still be part of regardless thanks to her whiteness, rather than not being accepted by her family. I know that sounds bad, but Harper’s life is far from representative of the realities that lesbian and queer women of color are faced with. She has lived comfortably in the warm blanket of white privilege (and her parents’ wealth, but mostly white privilege), but her biggest gripe is that she and her sisters aren’t allowed to live how they want because they fear they won’t live up to their parents’ expectations. As Nia Tucker put it bluntly in her review for The Spool, Harper’s situation is “hardly the high stakes dilemma faced by more vulnerable queer people.”

Whereas Harper has to worry about being shut out by her parents, the reality of coming out for lesbian and queer women of color is a matter of life and death. Sometimes, staying closeted is its own perverse form of protection and security, even though it is deeply painful. In “Happiest Season,” however, staying closeted and coming out are often the same tired punchline of most of, if not all of, the film’s jokes. Watching comedy being made out of Abby and Harper sneaking around the family to spend time together felt somewhat insulting, mostly because it’s a reminder that Harper is relatively safe. However, let the film tell it like she’s at risk of losing everything. 

But if this affluent, conservative family — which DuVall and Holland (unconvincingly) try to pass off as kooky and dysfunctional-ish — is really that stringent about their (mysteriously ambiguous) beliefs, then they’d be unhappy about one of their daughters marrying a Black man and having kids with him. Yet, “Happiest Season” tries to convince you that Harper’s family is totally fine with Sloane and Eric’s relationship, but they are angry that she didn’t pursue a law career after graduating from Yale. And if that doesn’t make you scratch your head, then how Eric and his children are depicted will.

In a late third act twist, the relatively stable Eric is suddenly revealed to be a cheater and Sloane has been keeping their impending divorce a secret. Moreover, their kids are depicted from the get-go as mischievous troublemakers who catch Harper and Abby together — thus implicating them in their lie — and later as shoplifters because why not? I mean, the filmmakers must have thought that having Black people in the movie counts as representation as long as you ignore the implications of presenting the film’s sole Black male character as a cheater and his kids as shoplifters… I guess

When they’re juxtaposed against the rest of the family, Eric and his kids come off as one-dimensional racial stereotypes, but DuVall and Holland try to insist that that’s not the problem. The real problem here is that being a white, privileged lesbian woman is harder than being Black, but the two just aren’t the same. While, yes, Harper’s conflict is something to be taken seriously, it’s hard to do that when the movie implies that a privileged white lesbian woman belongs in the same category of victimhood as Black folks whose experiences in America are far different than that of privileged white people, let alone privileged, queer ones. In fact, the experience of being a Black queer, trans or non-binary person in America is distinct from being a cishet Black person in America, but DuVall and Holland seem woefully ignorant of this. It’s unfortunate that a film that has already been hailed as “groundbreaking” (lol sure) for its queer representation failed to deliver meaningful racially diverse characters in a genre that’s been white for far too long. For all the stereotypes that “Happiest Season is game to challenge regarding the Christmas movie genre, why is this the one they choose to avoid?

A Queer Rom-Com for the Straight Christmas Movie Lover

I didn’t want to watch “Happiest Season” alone, so I (virtually) invited my friend to watch along, and she was also disappointed. We had plenty of shared critiques (some of which can be found throughout the review), but the most interesting one we kept coming back to the feeling that “Happiest Season” wasn’t made for queer people, let alone lesbian women. Rather, we speculated whether the real target audience was straight Christmas movie lovers. From the one-dimensional and stereotypical Black characters to the lack of development for every queer character, including Abby and Harper, it made sense why we thought that. Despite DuVall tweeting earlier this year about why she made this movie and how she’d likely gone through an experience similar to her lead characters, queer viewers were the last viewers “Happiest Season” was trying to appeal to.

To say that “Happiest Season” is representative of every lived experience of lesbian and queer women — especially lesbian and queer women of color — would be disrespectful to those who cannot see themselves in this movie and its characters. Moreover, it would be disrespectful to those who do but recognize that it’s lacking much-needed and appreciated authenticity. Too often, the movie plays out like a straight person’s idea of a lesbian couple, especially when it delves into the toxicity surrounding Harper. The more we learn about Harper — like how she (SPOILER ALERT/TRIGGER WARNING) outed Riley to their classmates to protect herself from coming out — the more apparent it becomes that Harper is clearly struggling with internalized homophobia and gay shame. (ED. NOTE: As if one coming out scene isn’t triggering enough, the film’s climax is the big, expected coming out scene, and it’s equally as triggering as the first one, if not more so. If you’re a lesbian or queer viewer and you find scenes like this triggering, please proceed with precaution.) Yet, “Happiest Season” spends more time trying to make Abby and Harper’s relationship appear as average as apple pie, as if to prove that LGBTQ+ couples struggle with relationship issues just like straight couples. This would’ve been fine had the screenplay given their relationship more development. 

It’s clear that Harper and Abby are struggling with relationship issues different from the ones in straight relationships, but “Happiest Season” could have portrayed their relationship as a balance of sweet and serious rather than making not being out seem like the biggest threat to any queer relationship. Furthermore, the toxicity within and surrounding Harper has a “see, straight people? We’re just like you!” vibe to it, and, just like everything else related to Harper and Abby, is awkwardly and insultingly played for laughs throughout.

Call me too demanding, but if a filmmaker centers their movie around serious subject matter like trauma or gay shame, then they should do the work necessary to flesh it out. While I admire “Happiest Season” for tweaking a familiar plot device to be more inclusive of queer people, it feels too much like an appeal to straight people to be more comfortable around us and be proud of their “progressiveness” because they chose to watch a lesbian holiday rom-com over a straight one. I wonder how many straight viewers watched the movie and think they walked away with knowledge of a common yet complex situation queer people face without the nuance. Moreover, I wonder how many will make broad assumptions about them based on this movie. I’ve said it once, but I’ll say it again: the LGBTQ+ community is not only diverse in terms of people, but also in experience. I wish “Happiest Season” knew that and spent less time trying to gain the approval of straight, white moviegoers.

In Conclusion

“Happiest Season” is a rarity in both the Christmastime rom-com canon and the mainstream queer Hollywood film canon, largely because it’s co-written and directed by a queer woman working in a genre that is normally closed off to people like her. Typically, Hollywood enjoys making LGBTQ+ films that stay in familiar, limiting spaces, so it seemed like “Happiest Season” was trying something new, all while brightening up an unusually dreary and surreal holiday season. Sadly, it’s more of the same here. DuVall and Holland’s screenplay frames its central romance as part of a larger coming out story but fails to give the main couple — or any queer characters around them, for that matter — any depth. As a result, it’s hard to get invested in Harper and Abby’s romance (maybe that’s why people ship Abby and Riley) or the obstacles Harper faces with being closeted. DuVall and Holland wind up intersecting the film’s queerness with whiteness and class in a way that reinforces just how inauthentic and performative it all is. There’s nothing groundbreaking or representative — let alone joyous — about watching a white lesbian woman fall into the safety net of privilege.

Although I know that there will never be a film that gets everything right, and that no queer-centered film will be wholly representative of the LGBTQ+ community, I can’t necessarily agree with the critics who’ve reviewed“Happiest Season” very warmly. Watching rich, white, and skinny women be happy and queer isn’t representation. Neither is Hollywood giving white women their own time on the big screen before people of color, who’ve been the subject of racial prejudice since Hollywood’s inception. If the representation they’re shooting for is white female representation, however, then they’re on the right track.

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