The ‘Happiest Season’ Backlash Highlights the Queer Rom-Com Double Standard

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Clea DuVall’s Happiest Season is not perfect. That’s to be expected; most movies aren’t. But, no matter how familiar and formulaic, Hulu’s new romantic comedy starring Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis was always going to be held to a higher standard by the Twitter Hot Take machine. And honestly? That sucks.

The reason, of course, is because Happiest Season is a lesbian romantic comedy, a category of movies with so few examples that the most recent one I can think of came out in 2005. (It’s Ol Parker’s Imagine Me & You—more on that later.) Because it is a rarity, Happiest Season doesn’t get to be merely a “cute romantic comedy” in the same way that The Proposal or Bridget Jones Diary gets to be. Instead, audiences starved for queer content pinned all their hopes and dreams on what they hoped would be the perfect gay rom-com, and were inevitably let down when they found flaws. Cue the influx of Happiest Season hot take tweets.

The complaints mostly fell into two categories: 1) Kristen Stewart’s character, Abby, should have ended up with Aubrey Plaza’s character, Riley, in part because of their undeniable but chemistry; but also because 2) Mackenzie Davis’s character, Harper, is a “toxic” girlfriend.

Happiest Season Kristen Stewart white elephant party outfit
Photo: Hulu

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by these reactions, but I was. For one thing, straight rom-coms have been committing the exact same sin for nearly a century, and for good reason. Movie relationships need conflict in a way that real-life relationships do not. If Bridget Jones picked the correct British man for her from the beginning instead of stringing poor Colin Firth along, Bridget Jones’s Diary would be a short and boring film. Any sane person would report Sandra Bullock’s character in The Proposal to HR in real life, but we’d rather watch her banter with Ryan Reynolds. I’m not saying I wouldn’t watch Stewart and Davis cuddle for two hours, but if Harper brought Abby as her girlfriend home for a lovely Christmas with her family in Happiest Season, it wouldn’t really be a movie.

And sure, maybe Stewart and Plaza did have more on-screen chemistry than Stewart and Davis in the end. But it’s a bummer that most of the Happiest Season tweets I saw fixated on that flaw, rather than the film’s many attributes. It’s genuinely hilarious, for one, from Stewart’s awkward stammering to Mary Holland (who also co-wrote the script)’s adorable weirdness as Jane. It features a heartbreaking monologue from Dan Levy about the variety of coming-out experiences that should be required viewing for every straight person. And it’s a deceptively intricate script that manages to provide an emotional payoff for every character in a large ensemble. It is, in summary, a good movie!

Beyond that, despite what the online reaction would have you believe, Happiest Season wasn’t trying to be Hulu’s Oscar nomination for Best Picture. It was trying to be a fun, holiday-themed romantic comedy, just like the hundreds of fun, holiday-themed romantic comedies about straight people put out by Hallmark and Netflix every year. No one puts those movies under the public microscope, because why the heck would you scrutinize a movie called The Princess Switch 2: Switched Again?

Yet because of the lack of mainstream queer romantic comedies, DuVall is expected not just to make a good movie, but to make one that responsibly represents the experience of all queer women. It’s an impossible expectation, of course, but it’s not a new one. The cult lesbian rom-com classic starring Lena Heady and Piper Perabo Imagine Me & You, though beloved, has taken many similar beatings over the years for its use of the “closeted lesbian leaves her fiancé for a man” trope.

IMAGINE ME AND YOU, Piper Perabo, Lena Headey, 2006
Photo: ©Fox Searchlight/Courtesy Everett Collection

Most agree that the solution to this problem is to simply make more light-hearted mainstream LGBTQ romances, to relieve the pressure on the few that do get made. Unfortunately, the tendency to pick apart the flaws of movies like Happiest Season doesn’t help get more films like it made—instead it creates a vicious cycle. In the age of Twitter, it is not just film critics who have access to a large audience for their movie opinions, and believe it or not, those opinions do get back to the people with the movie-making money.

All this is not to say audiences don’t have a right to complain about a movie on Twitter, or that LGBTQ audiences don’t have a right to demand stories where they feel responsibly represented on screen. Rather, it’s to call attention to a tendency to publicly nitpick delightful queer rom-coms in a way that we simply do not bring to straight ones. Not every film demands a “take.” Sometimes, you can simply let people enjoy things—especially when doing so might open the door to a thing you may enjoy even more in the future.

Watch Happiest Season on Hulu