Christmas rom-coms tend to fall on the ‘so bad, it’s good’ side of cinema. Simple plotlines and gushy moments make them easy and enjoyable viewing, particularly at Christmastime, when you’re feeling that little bit more sentimental. However, rewatching some of my old favourites like Love Actually and The Holiday, and discovering new takes on the genre – mostly courtesy of Netflix’s original holiday films A Christmas Prince, The Knight Before Christmas and, most recently, Love Hard – I realised that my sentimentality had blinded me to the obvious issue with all of these films: they’re all about toxic men. Whether they’re gaslighting their love interest, asking for the most while doing the bare minimum or perpetuating misogynistic beliefs, the one thing the men in all my favourite Christmas films have in common is that they expect women to fix them.
This year, the first seasonal movie I watched was one of Netflix’s newest Christmas rom-coms, Love Hard. It follows Natalie (Nina Dobrev), who travels 3,000 miles across America just before Christmas to surprise the man she has been virtually dating for the past few weeks. The twist? When she arrives, she realises that Josh (Jimmy O. Yang), her long-distance lover, has catfished her. Love Hard has so many of the things you want from a Christmas film: two very good-looking stars, an unsuspecting love interest, great one-liners. I mean, the protagonists even sing a version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” that unpacks its misogynistic undertones. But when the film was over, I was left with a strange, unsatisfied feeling. It ends (and let me insert a hugely predictable *spoiler alert* here) with Josh and Natalie falling in love as she dismisses his identity fraud as though it were a silly argument about what to have for dinner.
I don’t exactly expect nuance from Netflix’s Christmas films but this simplistic portrayal of catfishing is problematic, to say the least, as victims of catfishing often suffer both financial and emotional damage. Simplifying this issue just didn’t sit right with me; neither did the fact that the male protagonist was ultimately rewarded for his deception, for which he was almost entirely unapologetic.
This is just the start. Over the years we’ve overlooked awful behaviour from characters in our beloved Christmas favourites The Holiday and Love Actually, too.
Jack Black’s character, Miles, in 2006’s The Holiday is problematic, full stop. He consistently leads Iris (Kate Winslet) on and drops her for his toxic ex-girlfriend before they eventually end up together. But Jude Law’s character, Graham, is the perfect man, right? Wrong. Rewatching the film in 2021, I realised that not only does the painfully attractive Graham meet Amanda (Cameron Diaz) by stumbling into her holiday home, so drunk that he can’t stand up, he actually tells her the next day that she’ll probably never see him again.
“I tend to hurt women simply by being myself,” he says, adding that he also has the “classic male problem of no follow-through”, meaning he never calls the women he has dated afterwards. This made me panic: could it be that Jude Law in The Holiday is the ultimate fuckboy? The film does a pretty good job of trying to convince us otherwise, redeeming Miles along the way too. In fact, the plot of The Holiday could be described as two troubled women trying to save two toxic men.
Clearly, there’s something about a woman fixing a man that feels particularly festive.
In the past, the film’s problematic elements haven’t been so obvious to me, disguised by snowy Cotswold landscapes and Cameron Diaz’s inexplicably shiny hair. But if you look past the illusion of Christmas, you might find that The Holiday is no less problematic than Love Hard when it comes to excusing men’s toxicity or, going even further, rewarding men for their shitty behaviour.
Experiencing a reckoning over the years, it’s already been established that my favourite Christmas rom-com, Love Actually, is just as disappointing. There’s Mark (Andrew Lincoln), who professes his love to his newly married best friend’s wife via huge pieces of cardboard. He is undeniably a dick. And no one could forget the moment when Harry (Alan Rickman) breaks his wife’s (Emma Thompson) heart by having an affair with his much younger secretary.
Even some of the more lovable men in this cherished Richard Curtis film are only redeemed by their female love interests. Colin (Kris Marshall) does even less than the bare minimum to end up with three gorgeous American women, while Hugh Grant’s portrayal of the prime minister only has emotional complexity because of his very funny and charming tea girl, Natalie (Martine McCutcheon), who he fires after she is sexually harassed by the US president. Awful.
You’d hope that things might have improved in the 18 years since Love Actually was released. But Netflix seems to have cemented the forgiving of toxic men as its Christmas rom-com formula, and not just with Love Hard. In A Christmas Prince, one of Netflix’s most loved Christmas films, Amber (Rose McIver) falls in love with Prince Richard despite his reputation as a notorious playboy who is rude to her when they first meet. Amber spends most of the film trying to redeem Prince Richard’s character, to the public and to herself, while trying to prove he is next in line for the throne. Similarly, The Knight Before Christmas sees Brooke (Vanessa Hudgens) teach a time-travelling medieval knight to adapt to the modern world, apologising for and correcting his inappropriate behaviour throughout the film.
The rom-com formula is essentially this: boy and girl meet, something goes wrong, that thing is resolved, they live happily ever after. A woman fixing a toxic man is an easy way to fulfil this and maybe we’re willing to accept this kind of unsophisticated plot, just because it’s Christmas.
Clearly, there’s something about a woman fixing a man that feels particularly festive. Perhaps it appeals to us because, for a lot of adults, Christmas is when we go home to visit our families and are looked after for a short period. It could be that a woman forgiving and helping her love interest demonstrates a certain maternal instinct that many people crave during the holidays.
It also makes for a simple plotline, which is vital to a Christmas rom-com in order to make for easy viewing. The rom-com formula is essentially this: boy and girl meet, something goes wrong, that thing is resolved, they live happily ever after. A woman fixing a toxic man is an easy way to fulfil this and maybe we’re willing to accept this kind of unsophisticated plot, just because it’s Christmas. Plus, with Christmas taking place right in the middle of cuffing season, perhaps we’re keener than ever to find a partner and might be feeling a little more forgiving of potential romantic interests’ faults. The ‘woman fixes toxic man’ storyline allows viewers a certain hope that men (even the very worst of them) really aren’t as bad as they seem and are capable of love, which might reflect many women’s fantasies rather than experiences. This feels apt, as many people go back to their exes at Christmas or revisit toxic relationships.
There are some Christmas films that forgo this awful tradition. Last Christmas (2019), written by Emma Thompson and starring Emilia Clarke, actually reverses it. Without giving too much away, the male protagonist saves the life of Emilia Clarke’s character in a moving twist halfway through the film. Netflix’s The Princess Switch, too, is one of the streaming site’s few films that sees no women cast as romantic fixer uppers. The film embraces a Parent Trap-style plot as Vanessa Hudgens discovers a stranger who looks identical to her and they switch identities. The women in this film both have motives other than romantic relationships so the men they are dating take on supporting roles and appear pretty decent throughout (perhaps because of their lack of screen time).
These films show that there are ways to create Christmas rom-coms without encouraging damaging behaviours. Nevertheless, many of us will continue to watch them uncritically, choosing the genre for the very purpose of switching off. But as streaming sites ramp up their modern takes on the festive romantic comedy and endeavour to explore issues like catfishing, it’s crucial that they do so responsibly, avoiding oversimplification.
The rewarding of toxic men is certainly something I’ll look out for during my seasonal viewing from now on. I’ll treat it like a festive Bechdel Test.
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