A year ago, the Hallmark Channel bowed to pressure to pull an ad that featured a same sex couple kissing. After public outcry, the network eventually reinstated the commercials and then took things one step further this year, with its first Christmas movie featuring an LGBTQ couple: The Christmas House cast Mean Girls alum Jonathan Bennett as Brandon, who's trying to adopt a baby with his husband Jake (Brad Harder). Bennett is no stranger to Hallmark Christmas movies, but this is the first time he hasn't had to put his own identity as a gay man on the back burner for a role in one.
"I've played straight characters in Hallmark movies for years now," Bennett told Refinery29 on a late November phone call. "I've told their stories so many times that it was nice to be able to tell a story that felt more authentically me." Bennett adds that when his agent called him to say he'd landed a role in The Christmas House, he didn't yet know the plot. "I asked them, 'What's the name of my [girlfriend]?'... They said, 'Jake.' And my jaw hit the floor. And I think I had tears well in my eyes, I was so excited."
And he wasn't the only one. "Many of the LGBTQ+ members of the crew came up to us and said that they've worked on a lot of Hallmark movies and to have representation like this for the first time was very special," Bennett remembers. "It feels like I'm a part of progress."
The Christmas House is breaking major ground for Hallmark, but it's not exactly breaking ground for the movie industry. Bennett’s on-screen relationship is just one of three couples that share the movie's spotlight, with the other two being straight relationships. And the "adopting a baby" storyline isn't particularly revelatory either. The Family Stone did this 15 years ago when it featured an ensemble cast with a gay couple (played by Brian J. White and deaf actor Tyrone Giordano) also trying to adopt a baby at Christmastime. And LGBTQ representation in Christmas films had already been increasing of late, with Netflix's 2019 film Let It Snow exploring a teen queer romance and this year with Hulu's Happiest Season starring two women in the central romance. Lifetime, Hallmark's biggest Christmas TV movie competition, had LGBTQ storylines for side characters in the 2018 movie Christmas around the Corner and 2019's Twinkle All the Way. This year, Lifetime finally put a gay couple in the spotlight: In The Christmas Setup, real life husbands Ben Lewis and Blake Lee play the main couple.
Hallmark's content is traditionally more conservative and Christian-focused, so diversity and representation hasn't really historically been the network’s strong point. And it still isn’t: Just four of Hallmark Channel's 23 Christmas movies for 2020 feature black actors in the lead roles. There's also just one 2020 movie about Hanukkah, and it unfortunately airs after the 2020 celebration of Hanukkah has already concluded. As for The Christmas House, on the movie poster, the couples are featured on ornaments hanging on a Christmas tree. Brandon and Jake's ornament is dwarfed by the one featuring Jake's brother Mike (Robert Buckley) and his love interest Andi (Ana Ayora).
Still, Bennett says that the silver lining is that the two straight couples in his new film are the ones having the most relationship issues. "The gay couple are the ones that are rock solid and adopting a baby and growing their family," he says. "We're the relationship goals."
Michelle Vicary, executive vice president of programming and network publicity for Crown Media Family Network, told The Oregonian when the schedule dropped in October that this is Hallmark's "most diverse holiday slate yet" and that "we want our programming – our talent, our stories, our characters – to reflect the experiences of all viewers and create an environment where everyone feels welcome. In the long term, our viewers will continue to see an expanded representation of cultural backgrounds, belief systems, lifestyles and ethnicities."
But with only six movies out of 23 working to bring diversity to the channel, there is a lot of room to grow. As appreciated as these steps forward are, Hallmark’s progress is, so far, the smallest of baby steps.
Bennett says that he thinks Hallmark will continue to grow, especially because he happens to know for a fact that The Christmas House won't be the last LGBTQ+ Christmas movie from the network. He already has a movie greenlit at Hallmark for 2021 that has "an LGBTQ+ storyline in it." Hallmark did not return Refinery29’s request for further details, but it's not clear whether or not this film will simply include a gay couple in another ensemble cast, or if it will be focused on one. Bennett could only say, "There's not a doubt in my mind that Hallmark will one day do a lead storyline that is an LGBTQ+ storyline."
The real question is how long we’ll have to wait for "one day." But for now, we can celebrate this year's win.
The network’s annual tinsel-draped slate is a holiday institution, and Bennett knows the value that The Christmas House can bring to "all the young Jonathans of the world, who are sitting out there watching Christmas movies with their family, to feel a little less scared and a little more seen this Christmas."