By Giulia Heyward and Melissa Gray, CNN
Updated 9:17 AM ET, Sat December 5, 2020
(CNN)Holiday movies are a time-honored tradition, and this season could signal that queer couples are finally getting a seat at the table.
Hulu and the Hallmark Channel have both released holiday films that feature LGBTQ couples in the main storyline. And there are at least seven new movies this month that have some sort of representation as well.
“Compared to previous years, and the amount of LGBTQ-inclusive films that are out, it’s like night and day,” GLAAD’s CEO and president, Sarah Kate Ellis told CNN.
“We’ve really gone from zero to 100.”
This year marks the highest number of LGBTQ characters
Last year, a Christmas ad featuring a lesbian couple was pulled by Hallmark, a giant in the holiday movie game. (After the channel’s decision spurred criticism, the ad was put back on the air.)
It was a moment that Ellis considers a wake-up call for studios.
“Hollywood understands that the business model works, and this gave them an enormous opportunity,” Ellis told CNN.
This year saw the highest percentage of LGBTQ characters on our TV and film screens since GLAAD started tracking those numbers more than 20 years ago.
And the holidays won’t disappoint.
“The Christmas House” and Hulu’s “Happiest Season both feature LGBTQ couples in the main storyline.
And other newly released films featuring LGBTQ characters in lead or supporting roles, such as Lifetime’s “The Christmas Setup,” Paramount Network’s “Dashing in December,” Netflix’s “Dash and Lily” (actually an eight-episode show), Amazon Prime’s “Friendsgiving” and Tello’s “I Hate New Year’s.”
There’s still a ways to go
But the numbers overall are still paltry.
Of an estimated 879 regular characters on broadcast scripted prime-time programming, only about 10% — 90 characters total — are explictly LGBTQ.
There were another 30 characters who had only recurring roles.
The numbers are even more staggering when considering this is only the first time that LGBTQ characters who are women, or people of color, just barely outnumbered those who weren’t.
“In terms of the visibility, it was very limited,” Ellis said. “It’s twofold: Hollywood recognizes that the demographics of this country have changed, and so there’s a need to change with that.”
A Harris Poll survey done on behalf of GLAAD in 2016 estimated that 20% of Americans ages 18-34 are part of this community. Data from the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law estimates the LGBT population in the United States is 4.5%.
Ellis also points to how film falls behind TV when it comes to representation.
“Those films are our biggest cultural export in the US,” Ellis said. “They go to a global audience. Especially, when we still have 70 countries where being LGBTQ is illegal. Also advertising — we need to see more inclusion, too. We’ve seen an uptick in kids and family programming, and we need to see more of that.”
For actors portraying gay characters, there’s added pressure
When actors Ben Lewis and Blake Lee, who are married in real life, decided to play love interests in Lifetime’s “The Christmas Setup,” they knew they were breaking boundaries, they said.
Even though the channel aired its first same-sex kiss in a holiday movie last year, this is its first holiday film to feature a gay couple in the primary storyline.
The film, scheduled to premiere December 12, follows a New York lawyer (Lewis) who is set up by his mother, played by Fran Drescher, on a date with his former high school crush (Lee).
“We didn’t really feel the weight of what we were doing until the film was actually announced,” Lewis told CNN. “Most of my friends — many of whom are queer — were reaching out to us about how excited they were that this kind of story is happening. We honestly feel privileged to be given this opportunity.”
Lee said the two definitely felt pressure.
“It was a huge thing for us,” Lee told CNN. “We are going to be the first to open this door.”
The channel is looking to follow in the steps of streaming service Hulu and its movie, “Happiest Season.”
The film, which stars Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis, broke records for the streaming service. It had the highest viewership numbers for any Hulu original series, according to Variety. Hulu also said the film attracted a significant amount of new subscribers.
Ellis said she isn’t surprised by the success of the film.
“For a very long time, it was perceived as a risk (to profits), but it wasn’t ever an actual risk,” Ellis said. “The opposition from people who are anti-LGBTQ also had a larger share of the voice to respond to this content. But that’s changed.”
LGBTQ-inclusive holiday films are here to stay
Considering the success some of these films have already gotten, it’s clear that they’re not going away anytime soon.
Directors Paul and Alicia Schneider said they’re already working on their next big project, “A Holiday I Do.” The film, scheduled to begin production next year, launched with a Kickstarter to help raise funds.
“In 2019, when we first started working on this project, 70 new Christmas movies premiered on the main cable Christmas movie channels and none of them contained gay lead characters or storylines,” Paul Schneider told CNN.
In “A Holiday I Do,” a lesbian divorcé is the best man in her ex-husband’s wedding — and winds up in a whirlwind romance with the gorgeous woman who is their wedding planner.
“Being part of the LGBTQ+ community myself, seeing ourselves on screen is a rare but amazing feeling!” Alicia Schneider told CNN. “It could also help open dialogue for people who don’t fully understand or accept our lifestyle. Maybe seeing us on screen in a ‘normal’ setting would bring clarity and acceptance.”
Let’s face it: Holiday movies aren’t known for innovation or creativity. It’s their formulaic — almost too predictable storylines — that are always wrapped up with a happy ending that make them a comforting staple. But there are plenty of people who see increased representation of LGBTQ characters as an indication of inclusion.
“These stories offer comfort and escapism,” Lewis said. “It’s something queer audiences haven’t had a lot of. There has got to be room for fluff, for lack of a better term, and seeing queer representation in all genres, even where it hasn’t been seen before.”
And Lewis wants to make sure this isn’t a passing moment.
“Even the word ‘trend’ suggests that this is something of the moment, like people are saying ‘We’re gonna give the gays what they want,’ and then it’ll end,” Lewis said. “And it can’t be like that.
“This has to be the beginning of something more.”