Bonus Post: The Growing Need for Queer Holiday Stories

In a new essay for Medium, I look at responses to Hulu’s Happiest Season and efforts by Hallmark, Lifetime, and Netflix to offer LGBTQ holiday stories. The total effect is that queer holiday stories are still lacking and when they do exist, are disappointing. So I propose viewers turn to queer publishing, where LGBTQ holiday novels are growing in number.

You can read the full essay on Medium.

A screenshot of the Lambda Literary Foundation’s bookshelf of queer holiday romance.

Hallmark Pretends the Past Didn’t Happen, Promises Us Queer Characters

Will the Hallmark Channel and I get back together? There’s a reason they say you should never get back with an ex.

Before we dive into the latest news, let me give you a brief history of my love affair with the Hallmark Channel. I began watching obsessively around 2014. I don’t remember what started it or what the first movie was, but I must have been at a point in my life when I wanted cheesy, simple romance. Within a year, I was pretty much watching Hallmark exclusively. I’d seen every single made-for-TV movie on the Movies and Mysteries Channel. (Yes, including the ones with Aunt Becky.) I had favorite Vancouver actors I looked forward to seeing during Spring Fling and Fall Harvest. (These are real seasonal “events” on the main network.) I could tell you which other movies an actor had been in – and often which shows on the CW. I delighted in taking “Hallmark naps,” in which I’d fall asleep watching a movie and somehow wake up with twenty or so minutes left into it, and be able to figure out everything I’d miss. I loved the formula. I loved the repetition. I loved the familiarity.

I knew the relationship was problematic and one-sided. By 2018, I think I’d see a total of three actors of color, all of whom had maybe one line in a movie. I knew the network skirted open discussions of religion but did not welcome me and my kind. Characters became engaged without even kissing, so I’m pretty sure girl-on-girl sex was off the table, right? But it was okay. I was watching ironically, I thought. I was a researcher, learning about the craft of romance. I wasn’t the target audience.

And then came Summer of Dreams in 2016. The movie starred Debbie Gibson. *The* Debbie Gibson, the one I’d grown up listening to with a cassette tape in my pink boombox. “Electric Youth” Debbie Gibson. “Only in My Dreams” Debbie Gibson, which she sang in the movie. Suddenly I became aware that I was not ironically watching a network intended for people way older and way more conservative than me. I was exactly who Hallmark thought was watching.

Damn you, Debbie Gibson!

When we moved and lost access to Hallmark Movies and Mysteries, and the spouse began insisting that we watch other things (literally anything, she didn’t care, anything but Hallmark), my encyclopedic knowledge of the network lessened, and my interest waned. And then came the Zola ad debacle. If you need a refresher, Zola is a wedding planning site that had a commercial featuring a whirlwind of weddings, one of which had two brides holding hands on the altar. The image lasted maybe one second and didn’t play that big a role in the commercial. Zola’s ad was supposed to air on Hallmark because of course a wedding site wants to advertise on Hallmark, but there was furor over the one second of lesbianism, which prompted Hallmark to declare it was pulling the ad. Hallmark said its goal was to be “family friendly.” Everyone and their mother recognized this as a homophobic move and called the network out. (Watching executives scramble to appear LGBTQ-friendly on social media without pissing off the corporation that pays their mortgages was kind of interesting in an awful way.) Three days later, Hallmark reversed its decision on the ad, but Zola decided it didn’t want to work with Hallmark anymore.

Now Hallmark has announced that it is in active negotiations for movies with LGBTQ characters and stories. Let’s get real: it’s probably just L and G characters. We don’t know if they will be the leads in movies or not, we don’t know what the stories will be. We don’t know if the characters will get to express healthy intimacy and sexuality, like hand-holding or kissing. All we know is that Hallmark promises it’s coming and says they have always had a focus on diversity and inclusion. In a promo for an upcoming movie with a white, straight couple, there is a one-second image of two women on the altar holding hands. It’s almost the same image and same duration as the Zola ad, as if Hallmark is quietly insisting they’ve changed.

It reminds me of the misguided time I dated a man, who never really did anything romantic or special and only ever complained about not having money. After I dumped him, he insisted on taking me to dinner and bought roses from the woman who came table to table selling individual flowers for exorbitant amounts. Now that I’d broken up with him, he was willing to spend money on roses, sure. Too little, too late.

Will it be the same with Hallmark?

The LGBTIQA community isn’t stupid. We remember when Chik-Fil-A (I never know how to spell it and don’t look it up because I don’t want it in my search history) did this. They pledged to stop giving money to anti-LGBTQ causes, and the queers celebrated while the religious right protested. A few days later, they reversed their decision. Bottom line: don’t eat the chicken.

Bottom line with Hallmark: I’m not fooled. You can’t woo me back. You may indeed have same-sex couples, but I know that at heart you’re not really interested in serving us. And even if you were, you would only be interested in the middle-class, white, cis gays anyway. I’m holding out hope for the start-up platforms promising us more diversity and more queerness. In the meantime, I’ve got romance novels.

The Glorious Awfulness of Sequels

Now that we’ve gotten my attention-catching headline out of the way, let’s acknowledge that some sequels rock. Some are even better than the original. The films The Godfather II and Toy Story 3 and the novel Rainbow High all stand out to me as stronger than the original from which they were drawn, as the story world became richer and the creators knew the material more deeply.

But it’s not that hard to come up with a list of sequels that were terrible and leave us wondering why they were made in the first place. You probably have five in mind already. Instead of breaking down the economics of the film industry and guesswork of audience interest or the craft of writing, I’d like to reposition the conversation about terrible sequels away from craft, art, technique, whatever you want to call it and toward what they’re really created for: emotion.

By the time a sequel rolls around, whether it’s a book or a film, we have spent time with the characters and fallen in love with them. Their world is interesting to us, and we know it better. Sequels give us a chance to reenter that space again, to imagine briefly that we are part of the characters’ lives. They give us a chance to fall in love again.

Case Study: Netflix’s A Christmas Prince

A Christmas Prince is part of Netflix’s new strategy to create original rom-coms in competition with Hallmark. Like Hallmark, many of Netflix’s movies are focused on Christmas. They are short in duration, quick-paced, light in conflict, and heavy on tropes. Unlike Hallmark, Netflix movies feature LGBTQ characters, people of color, and sometimes dirty jokes.

A Christmas Prince was released in 2017. Its narrative is the same as most royal romances, with a few pieces slightly tweaked for the sake of originality. An American journalist named Amber is assigned to interview the prince of a made-up country, and when she can’t interview him, she infiltrates the palace, is mistaken for the kid sister’s tutor, and begins working for the family. She and the prince, Richard, fall in love, and she has to come clean about who she is. Because this is a romance, he doesn’t care, and they live happily for now.

Last winter, Netflix released a sequel. You can already guess the plot. Now that our happy couple have been established, they need to wed. A Christmas Prince 2: The Royal Wedding depicted their struggles leading up to matrimony. Amber isn’t sure what her place in the made-up country is, and she has to leave her dad and New York behind to move to the made-up country. This is much less developed than sight gags about the ugly wedding dresses the horrible wedding planner makes Amber try on. You can guess the ending. It all works out: she gets a pretty dress, they marry, and she becomes queen. Now the story is really wrapped up. They live happily ever after.

Except not. Because these films garnered so many streams and so much buzz on social media, today Netflix released the third installment. With Amber and Richard happily wed, there’s only one real option for this second sequel: they have to have a baby. Where A Christmas Prince was charming in its adaptation of popular romance tropes, A Royal Wedding offered us the chance to see Amber and Richard’s more mature relationship. What does A Royal Baby offer? Pretty much nothing. The movie is cheesier than a Midwestern casserole, with really bad dialogue that’s supposed to feel heart-warming. There is some conflict and plot. An important historical document is lost in the middle of a blizzard, and it has to be found by Christmas Eve. But the search for the document is laughably slow and unsuccessful – to the point that you’d fire all the palace staff if you were the monarch – in order to prolong the movie and give us more scenes of Amber twisting her belly bump counter-clockwise like Meghan Markle.

In other words, it’s bad.

Except not. Because the ideal viewer isn’t watching for the plot. We’re watching because we love Amber and Richard together. We love the supportive cast of secondary characters. The foolish nature of the drawn-out plot gives us more screen time to watch these characters interact with each other. We get to glimpse their private world and see how they’ve formed a community after we saw them meet as strangers. And that is the real beauty of a sequel.

For authors, the question of whether a sequel can be commercially successful is a little trickier. Fifty Shades of Grey managed to do it, banking on fans’ continued desire to see Ana and Christian marry and have a child. But commercial success aside, you only need to do a cursory scan of Amazon reviews to see that fans respond positively to sequels because they tap into our emotional connection with the story and characters, plot be damned.

I’ve got 11 minutes left in A Christmas Prince 3: A Royal Baby. I’ve put aside my wish that the writers hadn’t given Amber and Richard a baby so soon into their marriage, my distaste for Amber’s old lady hair, and my skepticism at her choice to wear pantyhose under her silk pajamas. I’m not thinking consciously about how we’re repeatedly told the roads and airports are closed, yet the characters saunter into town, where the ground is completely bare. Forget the terrible search for the missing document, which doesn’t have any real stakes because it’s not why I’m really watching. I’m really watching because I’ve been with these characters for a long time, and getting another chance to look inside their relationship – even when it’s saccharine – is a pleasurable distraction from reality.

The Meet Cute

How Romance Characters Meet and What It Says about Them

When I first heard the term “meet cute,” it was 2009. I was reading an academic article about the short-lived sci fi series Farscape. The writer described two characters crashing into each other, with one landing on top of the other in what could be a sexual position, as a “meet cute.” I thought maybe she needed a grammar lesson.

Flash forward to my entry into romance writing and scholarship. The “meet cute” – which is actually the real term! – describes any situation in which the two main characters of a romance first meet. If it’s a screwball comedy or light-hearted romance, that meeting should be cute. It should set the tone for the rest of the their interactions, their building attraction, and their hesitation.

This sketch from Saturday Night Live parodies how the meet cute often presumes characters’ immediate belief they are meant to be together but neglects some of the realities of life.

In honor of my Twitter followers who wanted this week’s blog post to be about the meet cute, here are some of my favorite tropes with my favorite examples.

The Awkward Encounter

In my forthcoming novel, the two characters meet when one, Dana, is stranded along the interstate in a snowstorm. Cursing her way down the off-ramp to find help, Dana slips. The other character, Charlie, pulls up beside her and calls her out on falling on her butt. Dana is embarrassed and attracted, and the seat of her pants is wet from landing in the snow, and she doesn’t really know how to handle this new person who has stumbled into her life. This meet cute sets the tone for the rest of their relationship as we see them in the novel: Dana making gaffs, feeling self-conscious, and Charlie delighting in talking openly about the embarrassing things Dana wishes would go unspoken. Charlie ribs Dana affectionately, and the more flustered and frustrated Dana becomes, the more attracted she grows to Charlie’s swagger.

The awkward first encounter is a favorite within screwball comedies and lighthearted romances. Movies for the Hallmark Channel, for instance, delight in having our adorable heroine slip and fall, spill coffee, or otherwise embarrass herself to show that, even though she’s got her own house, a stellar career, and an amazingly obedient dog, she is not so perfect as to be someone we can’t love.

The Antagonistic Run-In

My current work in progress has a more antagonistic meet cute. A wealthy European royal is trying to live without the benefits of their wealth by starting school in the U.S. As they are trying to move into a graduate apartment, a beautiful woman takes the last cart and loads it with her boxes. The two fight over who has the right to use the cart, ultimately resulting in some items of value getting broken. The characters don’t see this meeting as cute at all. In fact, they really don’t like each other, but we find it cute because it’s a romance novel, so we know the fun will be watching them evolve from this antagonistic beginning to falling deeply in love.

The antagonistic run-in works well when the theme of the romance is enemies-to-lovers or opposites attract. By showing the two characters meeting with hostility, a writer can build anticipation for their barriers to slowly begin to fall as they come increasingly more attracted to each other.

The Case of Mistaken Identity

My royal romance is an example of this, since the American presumes our hero is just a rich jerk (and later finds out they are a rich jerk who is also royalty). In a mistaken identity meet cute, Character A thinks Character B is someone else – because of some adorably simple misunderstanding or some plot scheme. Because of this meeting, Character B will have to continue the charade throughout the story, thus making their meet cute set the tone for the entire plot formula. The mistaken identity meet cute works really well for royal romances and other situations in which one character is vastly wealthy than the other or when the characters are competitors in business or family rivals. In Shakespeare in Love (1998), Shakespeare first meets “Thomas Kent” (who is really a woman named Viola) at an audition and is intrigued, but because of social circumstances that prohibit a woman of status acting on stage, Viola must continue playing Thomas, which also creates obstacles for Shakespeare in terms of sexuality. In My Man Godfrey (1933), Irene participates in a scavenger hunt that includes finding a homeless man, Godfrey. But Godfrey is actually a wealthy man posing as homeless to avoid his own family. In both movies, the mistaken identity serves as an obstacle to the romance; once it’s cleared up, the characters are free to love openly.

I would be negligent not to note that Shakespeare in Love, which propelled Gwyneth Paltrow to stardom, was produced by Harvey Weinstein for Miramax, and so the movie’s lighthearted tone must be considered in the wake of the horrors we now know women at Miramax experienced.

I would also be silly not to mention that I – and plenty of you, perhaps – would have been fine with Thomas Kent always being Thomas Kent, and Shakespeare just dating him.

The Reunion

A meet cute doesn’t always have to be the first time two characters meet. A popular trope is a reunion meet cute, in which characters who haven’t seen each other in years are reunited. This works best if they parted on bad terms, so the reunion is emotionally poignant (part joy and nostalgia, part painful remembrance). The reunion meet cute is often used for stories about high school sweethearts who are now adults. It also works well with narratives of homecoming, for obvious reasons. Without googling, I can think of two Hallmark movies with Autumn Reeser, one of my favorite Hallmark heroines, that use this trope. In Season for Love (2018), she plays a chef who returns home after losing her job and runs into her ex, who has also returned home, and they end up competing in a barbecue contest together. In All Summer Long (2019), she convinces her aunt and uncle to hire her as the captain of their dining yacht, and as she’s walking to the dock for her first day of work, she bumps into her ex, who has just been hired as the yacht’s chef.

Of course, the most adorable reunion meet cute occurs in the remake of The Parent Trap (1998). Knowing that she will run into her ex-husband because their daughters have traded places and set them up, Elizabeth stresses about what will happen.

Natasha Richardson as Elizabeth. Beautiful, talented, always a delight to watch and gone too soon.

When she finally heads down to the pool to meet Nick, he is so surprised to see her that he crashes into people and falls into the water. You can predict the splash – if it’s a comedy, if it’s a meet cute, and if there’s a pool, someone is going to fall in – but just look at his face when he first spots her. From his wondrous grin and the sparkle in his eyes, it’s clear that this first meeting will lead to them getting back together because he’s clearly never fallen out of love with her.

More about Meet Cutes

Because how the couple meets is so important to the rest of the story, there is a ton of scholarship, popular writing, and guidance for screenwriters and novelists on the topic of the meet cute. Check out some of these links:

  1. I haven’t read it, but you might like Helena Hunting’s romance novel entitled Meet Cute. It sounds adorable!
  2. Here’s a recent list of romance novels with meet cutes from Bustle.
  3. Finally, here is the adorable screenwriter character Arthur (Eli Wallach) explaining the old Hollywood meet cute to Kate Winslet in The Holiday (2006). I think I like his character more than the central couples.

I’ve learned a lot since that first time I thought “meet cute” sounded wrong. It’s now my favorite part of any romance, and the tropes above are my favorite kind of meet cutes. Readers, what are your favorite examples of meet cutes and why?

How much contrivance can you stand?

The fine art of screwball romance

The fundamental building block of all romance novels and movies is that a couple will get together at the end of the story, which means the rest of the plot must be devoted to keeping them apart long enough for this resolution to feel satisfying.

Here’s the question of the day for you, reader: How much contrivance will you put up with to allow a couple to reach their happily ever after (HEA) or happy for now (HFN)? How much emotional angst are you willing to endure? How many capers, misunderstandings, changes of direction, and red herrings can you stomach before you want to scream, “Just tell them you love them already!”?

I prefer screwball romance to angsty romance. I’m willing to watch people miss each other by seconds as they knock on the wrong doors, race to the airport to find the plane has just taken off, let Aunt Ida set them up with the wrong person, hunt a loose leopard named Baby who is really very tame, honestly. I’ll give a lot of benefit of the doubt to a good screwball that takes characters on crazy adventures.

Here are three of my favorite:

My Man Godfrey (1936)

Admittedly offensive, thanks to the mistreatment of Godfrey by a pack of out-of-touch socialites, the film makes stark commentaries on the plight of the “forgotten man” at the height of the Depression. The blossoming romance between the mismatched homeless Godfrey (played by the easily cleaned up William Powell) and ditzy Irene (the effervescent Carole Lombard) reaches its peak when Godfrey can stand her idiocy no longer and throws cold water on her. Everything works out in a way that is deeply satisfying to romance lovers and deeply obnoxious to those of us on the other side of growing social inequalities in the 21st century: the family, it turns out, is on their way down, and Godfrey is on his way up. He saves them, and in return Irene coerces him into marriage.

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

This is the aforementioned leopard-chasing movie that sees Susan (Katharine Hepburn) and David (Cary Grant) getting into one delicious caper after another as they chase down Baby. Bonus: Cary Grant in glasses. The best screwball moment, in which something completely ridiculous happens for the most inane reasons, is when the back of Susan’s dress rips in the middle of a fancy dinner. To save her face, David stands behind her, and they walk out together in a moment of perfect physical comedy timing. With two lesser actors, a lesser script, and a less agreeable audience, this scene would cause eye rolls. It never fails to make me laugh.

Watch the full clip here.

Putting on the Ritz (1991)

Not a romance, per se, by the rules established by pretty much every romance reader, writer, and scholar, but…this book is one of my favorites for madcap screwball adventure and calamity that culminates in a “no way, this is not even plausible / oh my god, this is the best thing ever” climax that leaves New York high society with pie in its face. There are three books in the series: Blue Heaven, Putting on the Ritz, and My Lucky Star. In each, gay best friends Gilbert and Philip become embroiled in a mess when Gilbert figures out ways to get rich and famous. Author Joe Keenan has a knack for witty dialogue, sparkling characters, and putting readers into the place of outcasts who desperately want in – but only get in with the worst possible consequences. I adore all his books and wish there were more. I wish they had been adapted into movies. I first discovered Putting on the Ritz at a used book sale at a LGBT library before the third book in the series had even been published. Later I found the other novels and read them back to back. A few years later, I revisited them by reading the whole Gilbert and Philip saga again. I’d like to believe that eventually they end up together (spoiler: they become involved for a hot minute), which would make these actually romance novels.

What are some of your favorite screwballs?