In brief synopsis: Gays have been begging for holiday rom-coms of our very own for years. Decades! Centuries!!
And it seemed like all our dreams were coming true this year—finally, in 20freaking20—with The Happiest Season. Kristen Stewart. Clea Duvall. Dan Levy. Aubrey Plaza. Seriously: a dream.
Like all highly-anticipated queer content, the feedback on this one was quick, passionate, and divisive. I have cycled through a lot of feelings about it since watching it, and while the one general consensus is that this movie was mis-marketed, I actually have less issue with the com part of this equation than the rom. This movie, in fact, did make me laugh out loud several times.
But after far too much overthinking, what I’ve realized bothered me the most about it was that it was not, in my opinion, a romance.
For a brief plot summary, this movie deals with Abby (KStew) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis) heading home to Harper’s family’s for the holidays. Abby is planning on introducing herself to Harper’s family before she asks Harper to marry her on Christmas Day. It’s only on the way to Harper’s small town that it’s revealed that Harper is in fact closeted to her family and wants Abby to be, too. She’ll reveal their love, she promises, after the holidays, but Harper’s father is running for mayor and she doesn’t want her gay happiness ruining his political career.
(This will be the spoilerest of spoiler posts, so if you want to watch this movie, abandon this now and come back later!)
There are a few important things about this movie: it’s based on Clea Duvall’s (icon!!) personal experiences; it is one of the first queer movies, ever!, with substantial mainstream backing with queer writers and producers and actors. It is a queer story told by queers that will resonate with many queers, and it (sort of) has a happy ending. This is all incredibly important.
The acting and writing is great and smart and funny. It’s a very compelling story. Like I said, I laughed out loud at quite a few moments.
But where things went wrong, for some viewers, was that while straight people apparently get to have holiday rom-coms about Christmas tree farms and sugar plum bakeries, we got an incredibly toxic family and two hours of Kristen Stewart being in gut-wrenching gay pain.
There were other issues, too—there is a lot about the character of Jane that made me uncomfortable, and people of color have pointed out issues with the choices made here about race—but I want to focus on the themes of gay trauma and romance, being that…this is what I write about. This is what occupies my brain.
(And let it be said from the get-go that there have been a thousand times more shitty and toxic movies about straight people that resulted in 0% Twitter discourse! Because 1) art about marginalized people is ALWAYS held up to more intense scrutiny, and 2) when you only have ONE of a thing, you don’t have anything else to talk about. Give us more options to talk about, World.)
The annoying thing about trying to summarize this stuff in tweets is that it gets boiled down to false opposing viewpoints:
Give queers happily-ever-afters without any trauma! We have had enough trauma!
Coming out stories and family trauma are still important to talk about, actually.
When the reality is, of course: both can be true.
I have always had trouble swallowing the no trauma allowed discourse. Which might be a defense mechanism, being that I tend to include trauma in what I write: both Books 1 and 2 in my three book series include themes of parental rejection. Which I write mainly due to the students I work with, who still very much deal with these issues. And I want them to have books where there are characters who deal with these same issues, but are able to find love anyway—in themselves and in other people.
And that, in the end, was what was lacking in The Happiest Season: love.
When we meet Abby and Harper at the beginning of the movie, they are already in love, so we have one brief scene to make us trust in their relationship before we are thrown into two hours of lies and hurt. Other than knowing they like to make out with each other (which is, admittedly, important), we know nothing about why these two actually love each other.
If there had been more devoted to their actual relationship—some flashbacks, maybe, to happier times that Abby recalled as a means of getting through this nightmare, reminding herself, and viewers, that getting through this for Harper was worth it—maybe watching the nightmare itself wouldn’t have been so painful. But we didn’t understand why they loved each other, why they worked, and so all we saw was Abby, hurting, over and over and over.
And then, toward the end, when Abby is at her pinnacle of hurt, her best friend John comes in to explain that, in fact, none of this is about her. That Harper’s trauma of being closeted with her family is just that, separate from her love for Abby. That Harper can be afraid of coming out, and still be deeply in love with Abby at the same time.
And that…is true.
But in the narrative of this story, it almost felt like a trick to make the viewer feel bad. Because I had spent almost two hours, like, actively hating Harper. And now I felt like this horrible person because I was told, no, actually, Harper is the victim here.
And maybe she is! The scene where she cried to Abby about not wanting to lose her, and not wanting to lose her family, and not knowing what to do, was the most emotionally resonant scene of the movie, in my opinion. Heart-wrenching and well done.
(It was also a conversation Harper should have had with Abby MONTHS AGO. You’re telling me these people are LESBIANS and have been LIVING TOGETHER FOR SIX MONTHS and Abby doesn’t know that Harper’s family is fucked up? PUH-LEASE WE DISCLOSE THAT SHIT IN THE FIRST WEEK.)
But! Harper’s very real pain doesn’t erase the pain that Abby had just been forced to go through.
And because there was no emotional investment given to their relationship, because I didn’t know why these two loved each other anyway, Harper being in horrible pain TOO didn’t make this story better, or more justifiable. If anything, it made it worse. This didn’t feel like love. It felt like a really unhealthy, awful situation that was inexpressibly wrapped up in a pretty bow, when the only logical happy ending for anyone in that household was therapy.
(Because, as Adriana Herrera explains so damn well in this very important conversation with Jen Prokop, love alone does not cure trauma.)
I think the reason why I haven’t been able to stop overanalyzing Abby and Harper’s relationship is because…I learned this year that I actually do like absorbing stories about seemingly toxic relationships. I think examining the way we hurt each other is important.
I have been working my way through Alexis Hall's significant body of work this year, and after reading so many of his books, I’ve learned the story he likes to tell—because the truth of writers is that we all, essentially, write the same story over and over. I have obsessively gobbled up Alexis Hall’s story over and over, and will continue to do so until he stops writing, which, WOW, writing that sentence actually made panic bubble up in my veins haha just kidding, self, he will never stop writing everything is okay take a deep breath!
Anyway. Alexis Hall writes about messy people with trauma making bad choices, and how those bad choices affect everyone around them—including the people they love, and inevitably hurt, the most. He writes about the redeem-ability of these messy, traumatized people, the love-ability of them, even as we watch them make these bad choices, even as we watch their trauma take over and hurt characters that don’t deserve to be hurt.
This is often hard for me to read, but like The Happiest Season, I can’t look away from it, because pain is compelling. The series I am most obsessed with of Hall’s is the Arden St. Ives series, which is thousands and thousands of words about a cold, deeply traumatized billionaire, Caspian, and the pure-hearted puppy of a soul that he falls in love with, Arden. I read the entire series through twice in the space of a few months, loved it even more deeply the second time, and will probably continue to feel the same each time I choose to reread it in the future. It is about sex and power and consent and trauma and love and it absolutely knocks me out. And there are so many scenes throughout the series where—even reading through the second time, when I already knew the impressive extent of Caspian’s trauma—I wanted to kick him in his stupid face every time he hurt beautiful puppy Arden. I wanted him to walk barefoot over an endless field of Legos. I wanted him to live the rest of his lifetime in cold wet socks and too-tight jeans.
And I still wanted Arden to love him.
Because Arden and Caspian were electric when they were together, and they each loved each other to the greatest extent they knew how to love. They each got something out of the relationship, and even when Caspian hurt Arden, Arden was willing to suffer for him. He consented his suffering, until it was too much, and he couldn’t anymore, and Caspian always, always respected Arden’s consent.
Abby, in The Happiest Season, does not have the power of consent. She is blindsided, with little choice to say anything but yes. Yes, I will put myself back in the closet. Yes, I will lie for you. But she’s not a truly willing participant. And we don’t understand the root causes of why she suffers what she does for Harper—her love—and so it only feels like suffering for suffering’s sake.
There is a line in Hall’s Prosperity series, which I am making my way through now, that I have not been able to stop thinking about. In Prosperity, there are multiple storylines happening at once, but the redeem-ability theme is really taken up a hundred notches here in the heavily present storyline of Ruben and Milord. Their story is more starkly Biblical, good vs. evil, than Hall’s other books, even though Biblical elements are almost always present in his work. Milord is the least redeemable character Hall has probably ever written—for all intents and purposes, a sociopath—but still, Hall want us to know that he can be lovable. That Ruben loves him anyway. And I’ve honestly struggled with it, just as the main character Picadilly struggles with it, with Milord not deserving Ruben’s love. Byron Kae (who I would die for) describes it to Picadilly like this:
This is essentially Alexis Hall’s recurring thesis, distilled. Love isn’t earned. It’s given.
It’s an incredibly powerful sentiment. And I feel like it’s what I’m supposed to feel at the end of The Happiest Season, when John explains to Abby that Harper’s trauma isn’t about her, and when Harper gives a disingenuous plea to Abby at the end (“I don’t care what my family thinks”—YES YOU DO HARPER! THIS ENTIRE MOVIE WAS ABOUT THAT! It would be much more true to say, “I realize now that I am fucked up by my family and am willing to work through it with you by my side, if you’ll still have me”—THAT is romance!!). And Abby, inexplicably, says OKAY, and they kiss.
I am supposed to accept that, even though Abby has now been traumatized by Harper—and Harper hasn’t groveled nearly as much as a romance hero should—it’s okay because Abby is still choosing to give her love anyway.
But…I can’t accept it. Because I don’t understand why she’s giving it.
And so that doesn’t really feel like love to me. It feels closer to something much darker than that. And having everyone in that fucked up family being all happy dory at the end—running to the man who has emotionally abused them for years and giving him a hug because he was finally forced to be a decent man—doesn’t feel like a happily-ever-after. It doesn’t feel like catharsis; it feels like a lie.
I know a movie cannot do everything a book can; I know that you have to pass over a bunch of the work that it takes to get to a happy ending for the sake of pacing and time. And like I said, I really don’t think this is a bad movie, per se. It’s complex, and honestly, it is amazing to have a complex queer movie out there marketed toward the masses.
What I think I’m trying to say, in the end, is that if you’re trying to pull off a romance, the romance matters. The romance doesn’t solve trauma, but it can soften its blow. It can give us a reason to face the trauma head on, to care for ourselves better. To know that we truly can be loved, and that we can love in return, and that sometimes it’s messy, and sometimes we hurt each other, but it’s worth it if we get it right.
We are all made of trauma AND love.
I want both.
Queer people deserve both.
Hopefully, capturing both is something I do an okay job of in my own work. It feels important to get it right.
But I’m sure the Goodreads reviewers will let me know, one day.