Willie T. Stokes, Kevin McCallister, and the Grinch. What do these three have in common? They're among the very few Christmas movie characters I can relate to — because they don't end their on-screen narrative by falling in love. As a single person, my festive relatables include a sex-addicted alcoholic Santa impersonator, a small yet resourceful child, and Jim Carrey in green latex. That tells me there's something wrong in Christmas movieland.
The message is clear. You may have just resolved a violent hostage situation à la John McClane in Die Hard. You could have been through a life-changing emotional journey with a group of ghosts like Scrooged’s Frank Cross. Whatever the preceding events, if you’re a main character in a Christmas film, you must end up with a partner. Anything else is unthinkable. A festive happy ending is not compatible with being single, unless you’re a child, a Dr. Seuss character or Billy Bob Thornton.
Despite some strides towards much-needed diversity, even the new breed of Christmas films are still hammering home the same old message when it comes to single life.
If the situation seems dire for the non-coupled in general festive films, it’s considerably worse when you get into the seasonal rom-coms. The way single people – and particularly women – are portrayed makes me deeply uncomfortable. Just take Love Actually. The female characters who remain single at the end are either to be pitied, like Laura Linney’s Sarah, who chooses her brother over her hot co-worker, or despised, like Heike Makatsch’s Alan-Rickman-seducing secretary, or mocked, like Aurelia’s body-shamed sister, Sophia. In The Holiday, Kate Winslet’s people-pleasing Iris is eventually rewarded for standing up to toxic love interest Rufus Sewell… by ending up with arguably similarly toxic Jack Black.
It would be easy to blame outdated attitudes towards singlehood if this were only true of classic Christmas rom-coms. After all, Love Actually and The Holiday, with their relationship-at-all-costs plotlines, came out 18 and 15 years ago respectively. That’s long before Emma Watson talked about being self-partnered or Lizzo sang about the joys of being single. But no. Despite some strides towards much-needed diversity, even the new breed of Christmas films are still hammering home the same old message when it comes to single life.
If you are single in a modern festive rom-com, you are desperate for a relationship. You will probably do something really embarrassing to highlight that desperation. Your loved ones will judge you. But never fear! During act three someone will pick you and validate your existence by starting a romantic relationship with you. Problem solved.
While Love Hard may have some quotable one-liners, it’s hard to escape the fact Nina Dobrev’s entire motivation – even her career – revolves around finding a partner. Happiest Season ends with a proposal: the ultimate sign, in Christmas filmland, of a successful romantic relationship. Even Last Christmas, which (spoiler ahead) doesn’t end with the female lead as part of a couple, takes place within the framework of romantic love as a transformative force.
I’m not saying it’s anti-single to show characters falling in love. I’m saying it’s toxic to portray single life as fundamentally unsatisfying, with finding a partner the only route to true happiness.
If you’re the rare single woman in a Christmas rom-com who seems happy with your relationship status, you’re lying. As seemingly carefree Aunt Susan in Holidate, Kristin Chenoweth’s character is the originator of the concept of the film’s title — the idea that you choose a no-strings-attached plus-one for holiday gatherings. But what’s that lurking beneath her serial-dating ways? Spoiler alert: massive insecurity, that’s what. “I’ve had so many men that loved me,” she tells Emma Roberts’ Sloane towards the end. “Once they got too close I backed off.” Because she’s admitted what’s wrong with her — of course there has to be something wrong with her; she’s single — her reward is a romantic relationship with a kind-hearted doctor.
This is simply baffling in light of the ways women have been reframing singlehood in recent years. Quite apart from the fact that the sad single stereotype is offensive, it’s also out of touch with reality. “The single positivity movement has been growing thanks to the huge rise in the number of people who are single compared to a few decades ago,” says Nicola Slawson, who runs The Single Supplement newsletter. “Being single can be empowering, and you can still live a really fulfilled life – and that goes for whether you do want to find a partner or not.” At a time when Singles Day is bigger than Black Friday, why is it so impossible to find a cinematic celebration of singlehood at Christmas?
What’s particularly frustrating is that single positivity isn’t even incompatible with the basic premise of a rom-com. I’m not saying it’s anti-single to show characters falling in love. I’m saying it’s toxic to portray single life as fundamentally unsatisfying, with finding a partner the only route to true happiness. “It's possible to simultaneously want to find love and also want to live your best life in the meantime,” says Nicola. “This is what single positivity means for me. It's not about always being happy about being single, it's about rebelling against the idea you have to be miserable and desperate all the time purely because you don't happen to have a partner.”
In fact, non-Christmas films have been slowly waking up to the concept of single positivity. One of the most satisfying recent examples was writer/director Greta Gerwig’s decision to retool the ending of Little Women. “If you decide to end your delightful book with your heroine a spinster, no one will buy it,” says Jo March’s publisher. “I suppose marriage has always been an economic proposition,” replies Jo, coolly agreeing to marry off her main character while herself remaining single and going on to cleverly negotiate her book deal.
Even some films on the rom-com side are beginning to reframe the single woman narrative. In The Incredible Jessica James, the heroine could end the movie on a flight to London with love interest Boone. Instead, Jessica Williams’ playwright uses his air miles to jet off with her friends – and no guarantees that her relationship with him will continue. “It takes more than a couple of round-trip tickets to London for somebody to be my boyf,” she explains.
How to Be Single does end with some of the characters in relationships. However, main character Alice slips the bonds of couplehood to fulfil her dream of solo hiking the Grand Canyon. “The thing about being single is, you should cherish it,” she says. Try to imagine hearing that line in the world of the Christmas rom-com, where being single is something to be solved. While it’s obviously played for laughs, I found the opening scene of Holidate disturbing, as Emma Roberts’ relatives alternately commiserate and castigate her for her single status. I genuinely cannot imagine a universe in which my loved ones would talk to me like that and yet, here, single-shaming is presented as a casual inevitability. Being single is far from being something to be cherished in Christmas films.
But why? Going back to the words of Jo March’s publisher, is that because the companies behind these films assume the audience can’t accept or believe in positive depictions of singlehood at Christmas? If that’s the case, I think they’re underestimating the audience’s capacity for acceptance. If viewers can get on board with Brooke Shields and Cary Elwes falling in love by somehow ending up living together in a Scottish castle (I’m still puzzling over the plotline of A Castle for Christmas), surely it’s not a leap to imagine a happy single ending.
The thing is, I enjoy single life, and I also enjoy Christmas. I’d really love to watch a festive film where those two things aren’t incompatible. Until then, it looks like I’ll have Home Alone on repeat again.