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Why Does ‘Happiest Season’ Feel So Miserable?

CW: This article discussing forced outing of queer people and violence and prejudice against queer people and people of color.

Spoilers for Happiest Season

The Happiest Season posited itself as being a queer-friendly, progressive Christmas tale. The film’s comedy-of-errors set up is that Harper (Mackenzie Davis) is not out to her family and does not tell her girlfriend Abby (Kristen Stewart) this until they’re almost at Harper’s family home. Notably, Harper has mislead Abby to think not only that she is out, but her family is accepting of her sexuality.

Parts of this set-up are relatable to many queer couples. Queer partners historically and currently have had to pass themselves off as roommates or friends when faced with potentially hostile family members and communities. However, the attitudes around this have shifted. While violence and prejudice against queer people is still present, acceptance has also become more prevalent. The film acknowledges this: not everyone’s coming out experience will be the same. Abby’s positive experience does not mean that Harper’s will be equally positive. This is the lesson that Abby has to learn after breaking up with Harper.

However, as many viewers of the film have already questioned, why does Abby need to learn a lesson? As presented in the film, the problem is not that she’s pushing Harper to immediately come out. In fact, she’s very accommodating to the hoops that they have to jump through. The misery that leads to her refusal to play along comes from Harper. Harper routinely abandons her and exposes Abby’s trauma (losing both of her parents) to others.

Abby spends the film trying her best to hide herself from Harper’s family. She is only relaxed when in queer spaces with Riley (Aubrey Plaza). Riley and Harper, however, have sordid history. Harper outed Riley when they dated as teenagers, which, understandably causes Abby to draw comparisons to her own relationship with Harper and question if she wants to continue to be in that relationship. This is exposed in the film as another one of Harper’s lies. While she told Abby that things didn’t end well with Riley, she purposefully leaves out the details.

The film presents this as holiday hijinks and past-coming-to-haunt-you comedy. Harper and Abby nearly being caught together in Abby’s bedroom, for instance, takes cues from standard comedies of errors. However, when put into the context of a queer relationship, the meaning of these actions change drastically. The consequences of Harper and Abby being caught together could range from an awkward conversation to actual violence or disownment. The film is not ignorant of this fact. Abby is regularly reminded by the other characters that Harper risks losing her family by being with her.

Happiest Season equates the shared experience of violence and bigotry with awkward first-time family meetings. The tropes from other holiday movies and family-centered comedies, when inserted into Happiest Season‘s queer-centric story, become much more sinister. The audience understands these tropes in that context to mean that the characters will be in some amount of danger. The shoplifting scene for instance reads very differently when the characters involved are Black children and a queer woman (though Abby is white). These groups are traditionally in more danger from the police. Abby isn’t just humiliated. She’s only narrowly escaped a great deal of danger.

However, holiday movies exist in a reality outside of our own. Crises can be paused for hot chocolate and sitting by the fire. Everything fixes itself when the characters accept Christmas magic into their hearts. In this sense, having queer people benefit from holiday magic tropes is a net positive. Queer people have been historically coded as villainous, so to be able to take part in a light-hearted, if trite, love story is progress.

The issue comes up when the problems are not absurd or abstract enough to dismiss. Abstract or absurd problems can be dismissed if we know that the character involved is deeply good. However, we don’t know that Harper is innately a good person because we are only shown evidence that says otherwise. We only know that Abby loves her because she repeatedly says it, plans to propose, and embarrasses herself to be with Harper. The film doesn’t show the ways in which Harper has Abby’s best interests at heart or that she’s particularly kind or generous. The parts about Harper that Abby doesn’t know but learns throughout the film are that she’s highly competitive, jealous, dismissive, and willing to hurt others to protect herself.

The film expects us to accept that Harper is good because it fits in to holiday tropes. This isn’t inherently wrong, but you also have to earn that trust from your audience. Happiest Season muddies the waters by uncritically using tropes as shorthand for what the audience should believe. The audience knows that they should want Abby and Harper to be together, but when the film contrasts Harper putting  Abby in uncomfortable positions in straight spaces with Riley inviting Abby into queer spaces, the love story loses its impact. Does true love matter when one party is consistently hurting the other?

The only view we have of Harper is through this film. The film tells us that she and Abby were deeply in love and happy before making the trip to Harper’s parents’ home. However, what the audience sees is the opposite of that. The moral is that everyone’s coming out story is different. Harper is not wrong for not being out to her family. Still, if the film wants us to forgive that, then it is also asking us to accept that certain realities of the queer experience are present in this film. Harper isn’t wrong for protecting herself, but it’s difficult to forget that she’s putting others in danger in the process.

The film isn’t positing that Abby and Harper are destined by fate. It’s far more grounded than that. The film wants us to believe that Abby and Harper are two people who love one another, and that it’s no different from any other couple. Like all couples, Abby and Harper have their difficulties with one another and their families. However, the movie is, at its core, a love story. With a film fraught with so much pain, it at times feels more like a drama or even a tragedy than a comedy. This is not a value judgement against the film, but Happiest Season is a romantic comedy and one of the most visible movies right now about queer relationships. It’s necessary to examine what the film is saying and why its saying it. It isn’t wrong to enjoy the film as is, but there is a reason why many wish that Abby and Riley got together instead of the ending of Abby forgiving Harper and proposing off-screen.

Harper and Abby’s situation is not unique to them or unbelievable. However, that familiarity is because the experience is part of the queer experience. When indiscriminately combining this with tropes drawn from stories almost exclusively about hetero couples, then the result feels uncomfortable rather than comforting.

Image Credit: Hulu

Fiona L.F. Kelly (@FionaLFKelly)
Fiona L.F. Kelly is a writer, editor, and podcaster. She has published numerous articles about all things gaming and pop culture on websites all across the internet, was also a writer for Trinity Continuum: Aberrant 2e, and has been published in books and magazines. She is an editor for the pop culture and media website GeekGals.co. In addition to her writing and editing, she has also been a guest and host on several podcasts. She hosts the Project Derailed podcast Big Streaming Pile, produces and performs on Fables Around the Table, and plays the githyanki pirate Rav’nys on Tales of the Voidfarer. Buy her a coffee: ko-fi.com/fionalfkelly

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