Hallmark’s famed Christmas movies have been known for revisiting the same stable of stars — which until recently, hasn’t left much room for faces that aren’t white. But this season, the brand has made an effort for diversity. It’s no longer a whitewashed Christmas on Hallmark, though it still has a way to go for a truly inclusive winter wonderland.
Previously, people of color were only relegated to supporting roles such as the sassy best friend or goofy co-worker. Though to be fair, Hallmark did occasionally cast biracial white-passing actresses like Jessica Szohr, Katrina Law, Alexa PenaVega, or new duchess Meghan Markle as the romantic lead. A few years ago, Hallmark even had a partnership with Mariah Carey, which resulted in her appearing in and directing “A Christmas Melody,” about putting on a school’s Christmas pageant.
But after that brief partnership ended, inclusion hadn’t really been prioritized until recently. Last year tested the waters with “Christmas in Evergreen,” which starred Holly Robinson Peete in a main, but not leading, role. The actress also starred in her own reality show “Meet the Peetes” that debuted this year on Hallmark.
The 2018 Christmas lineup, which features a total of 38 movies, finally made the leap to feature four women of color in starting roles: Jerrika Hinton, Christina Milian, Tia Mowry-Hardrict, and Tatyana Ali, the last of whom has the honor of starring in this year’s Hallmark Hall of Fame movie “Christmas Everlasting.” While this is a good sign, Hallmark still has a way to go opening up the leading roles to other ethnicities and marginalized people, which is an industry-wide issue: Hollywood only just recently featured its first Asian rom-com cast with “Crazy Rich Asians.”
Hallmark’s closest Christmas rom-com competitor Lifetime (which delivers 14 movies this season) has featured inclusive casting for years, in addition to interracial couples. In fact, Ali, Milian, and Mowry-Hardrict had all previously starred in Lifetime Christmas rom coms, and Hinton did the same at ION, another network trying to wiggle its way into the Christmas movie game.
“There was work that needed to be done, and we felt that we made a really good effort this year,” said Crown Media’s executive vice president of programming Michelle Vicary. “We continue to look at expanding our roster of talent to be reflective of the U.S. population.”
Part of that endeavor is also looking at different types of underrepresented characters and family members, such as veterans, adoptees (“Road to Christmas” features a lead whose two brothers are adopted), and even pets, as seen in the feline-friendly “The Nine Lives of Christmas.” The fur-friendly stories fall in line with Adoption Ever After, Hallmark’s corporate pet initiative, which aims to educate the public about the many rewards of pet adoption.
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One area that is underserved across all networks is the lack of LGBTQ representation in its Christmas movies. The rare example of a made-for-TV Christmas movie with an explicit gay storyline is the former ABC Family’s “Holiday in Handcuffs,” starring Melissa Joan Hart and Kyle Howard, who plays her gay brother. Other movies only hint at queer stories — such as the best friend in Netflix’s “A Christmas Prince,” or one of the adopted brothers in Hallmark’s movie “Road to Christmas.”
In a Times-Standard story decrying the lack of LGBTQ characters in holiday movies, a statement from Hallmark reads, “There are no forced values associated with our networks with the exception that we want to provide a quality viewing experience for every member of the family … We are not an issues-oriented network: our goal is for every viewer who comes to us to feel happier and better because they watched.”
However, there’s still hope for Hallmark, which has been queer-friendly in its greeting card business, advertising, and with its talent. Out actor Luke Macfarlane has starred in numerous Hallmark movies, including this year’s “A Shoe Addict’s Christmas” as the love interest for Candace Cameron Bure. Similarly, Robert Gant has wooed (and won) Debbie Gibson in two movies for the network.
In its most festive move for inclusion yet, Hallmark recently announced that it won’t just be looking at Christmas for next year’s holiday slate. “We put two Hanukkah properties into development on our plate that we hope we’ll hope to get to air in 2019,” Vicary confirmed, noting that Christmas overlaps with the Festival of Lights next year, which takes place Dec. 22-30.
Including more people of color and Jewish holidays onscreen is just the beginning. Vicary said, “We are just getting started. We are going to have a lot of terrific announcements, some of which we can’t say yet. We’re finalizing deals, that I do promise when you hear them, you’ll see why I had to hold on tightly to these announcements.”
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An area that Hallmark excels in that doesn’t get enough attention is its multigenerational casting, specifically putting women over 30 in the spotlight. Using former ‘90s sitcom or soap stars results in the women who tend to be older than the usual rom-com leads: Bure, Danica McKellar, and Alicia Witt are all in their 40s, while another “Full House” alum, Lori Loughlin, is 54. Sure, younger faces appear on the network, but the above are arguably Hallmark’s most bankable stars, in addition to Lacey Chabert, who is a spry 36.
This might not be too surprising considering that women aged 25-54 is its target demographic, and that Hallmark has a good record with women behind the scenes as well.
“This year we went and looked at our entire slate for 2018, and 55 percent of all of the movies were written by women,” said Vicary. Gender parity with directors is another matter though. “About 18-19 percent of our movies are directed by women. The industry needs to catch up because it has largely been a male-dominated career. We are making great strides I think with women, but continuing our diversity slate is going to be critical in 2019.”