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It’s a Very WHITE Christmas: Where is the Representation in Holiday Films?

By Kirath Pahdi

It’s December. Big bottles of Baileys are on offer at your local supermarket, your mum’s deciding which chocolate box to gift the curtain-twitching neighbours, and Home Alone is on ITV for the umpteenth time. There are certain things that you can rely on running like clockwork during the festive period. And the most important of all? The bringing together of various communities in the name of celebration. Tradition goes that families, loved ones and acquaintances are known to put aside whatever differences they may hold in order to spend Christmas together and have our turkeys served with a side of buttery sprouts, bitten tongues and underlying resentment. But if ’tis the season for unity (or something close to that) then why is it that all the top Christmas films are filled to the brim with family narratives of white heteronormativity? More importantly, are films like Make the Yuletide Gay or the Black-centric Jingle Bell Bride the remedy to their less inclusive predecessors or are they just token representation?

The Preacher’s Wife Source: D23

The Christmas films that are generally perceived to be the “classics” - I’m talking Love Actually and The Holiday - overwhelmingly rely on stories that focus on various heterosexual white couples and their families. Amongst the hundreds of sub-character plot lines in Love Actually, the lack of non-white characters is almost impressive… but ultimately, it is worrying that Hugh Grant’s nameless, singing chauffeur is a more commonly named festive film icon than a single person of colour.

The notion of the more popular films being the ones with the greatest lack of diversity is hardly a new one. The lack of representation within the Christmas genre is part of a broader problem within mainstream cinema, as shown by a whopping 89% of Oscar winners of the past decade being white. But this isn’t to say that this problem is being ignored. In the wake of cultural reckonings like the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements, the necessity for on-screen representation is being recognised through a rise of films that feature more cultural and racial representation and address more contemporary societal concerns. Although this is where the ‘all publicity is good publicity’ card may be played, it is equally as important to determine the fine line between inclusion and tokenism, and address why Christmas films fall victim to tokenism more than other genres.

By definition, inclusion is the notion of equal access and opportunities for all people despite any differences that they have, and this can be achieved by diverse representation: recognising and understanding uniqueness and differences with respect. This raises the question: is the inclusion we see in film truly altruistic or instead a way of falsifying diversity in order to prevent criticism and to give the illusion of representation? If the random coming out scene in Christmas with the Coopers is anything to go by, there is a tendency to crudely insert “inclusive” storylines into pre-existing Christmas narratives for the sake of representation.

Happiest Season Source: TodayTix

This is where tokenism comes in. A prime example would be Chiwetel Ejiofor’s character Peter in Love Actually; albeit a small role within the film, Peter is the only Black character amongst the masses. Instead of personifying his character by seeing his best friend’s creepy obsession with his newly-wed wife through his own lens, Peter is portrayed as a submissive character who is blindingly oblivious to Mark’s fixation. Peter’s perspective is not only overlooked, but his entire purpose is as the white man’s secondary.

Another huge clue that you might have tokenism on your hands? Stereotypes, which occur almost inevitably when the people writing, directing and producing the film do not identify with the lived experience of the characters their storyline revolves around. Take The Preacher’s Wife: While hearing the names ‘Denzel’ and ‘Whitney’ was enough to make me reach for my debit card for the rental, seeing the persistent Black male stereotypes of financial struggle and marital problems within the narrative affirmed those irking fears I had tried to ignore. While the all Black cast could have made for a relatable cult classic, the involvement of a white director and producer not only makes the plot seem disingenuous, but the cast appear meticulously chosen. In the end, the only thing I took away from The Preacher’s Wife was the necessity for diversity both on screen and behind the camera.

But it’s far from the end of the road for the inclusive Christmas film. Over the past few years the problem of relatability within the genre has gained prominence and in turn we’ve seen the birth of many a diverse festive favourite. 2020’s Happiest Season, directed by Clea DuVall and starring Kristen Stewart, depicts the stigma attached to coming out as lesbian and the pressures of the festive period, all in less than two hours. Compared to Christmas with the Coopers, Happiest Season is testament to the fact that when a film shows integrity within its use of inclusivity, it is often not difficult to spot. The all Black casts of Black Nativity and the upcoming Boxing Day create a spectacle that is truly needed for the people of colour who struggle to relate to the overly repetitive narrative of the white Christmas that dominates mainstream cinema. These films are a booming reply to questions of representation asked by the 7.9 million in the UK that are not white. They are, hopefully, the dawn of a new era for the Christmas film.

Black Nativity Source: Roger Ebert

For me, the films that we watch during the festive period are the best part of the season. As a British Indian woman, I find a sense of comfort and understanding when I see my community represented with sincerity in mainstream film. Unfortunately the two do not go hand in hand quite yet. But with more effort and understanding going into the wider problem of cinematic representation, I feel optimistic for the future of the Christmas film. And in conclusion? I won’t rest until I see a Christmas film where that Joni Mitchell CD is swapped out for a Shah Rukh Khan DVD.

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