I have been waffling between wanting to write about the President’s Executive Order and about the attack in the New Jersey kosher supermarket. Both have layers to them and warrant exploration. Both serve as points of entry to discussions about antisemitism other than the garden variety hate that has been seen from the extreme right side of the political spectrum. And both are deserving of big dives that I would need to devote some time to. In deferring until another week writing about these instances which showcase how antisemitism can come from multiple and unexpected directions, I decided to approach the topic of marginalization from another direction.
Merriam-Webster’s 1b definition of hallmark is “a mark or device placed or stamped on an article of trade to indicate origin, purity, or genuineness.”
Let’s talk about Hallmark. And purity.
While this week’s news focused on how after a conservative group, One Million Moms, complained about a commercial showing two brides kissing, the Hallmark Channel pulled the ad. Think about that for a moment. Audience complains, and Hallmark acquiesces, Zola, the advertiser, then cancelled all their advertising, after which (surprise!) Hallmark reconsidered, apologized, and pledged to air the commercial. Around the same time, a second group, LifeSite, created its own petition calling on Hallmark to reject all LGBTQ pitches.
Last month, after weeks of social media buzz in the Jewish community that there would finally be Hanukkah-themed films this season – two in fact! – excitement quickly turned to dismay when the movies’ plots were revealed. “Holiday Date” and “Double Holiday” each focus on Christmas celebrations where a Jewish character is enlisted to play a part in Christmas preparations. Each also has a requisite romantic spark between the Jewish character and Christian lead. The intended audience is clearly not a Jewish one, but a Christian one.
The channel’s aim to produce a white Christmas expresses itself is other ways. In September, 2018, it made the news that for the first time, there would be black leads in Hallmark Christmas movies. This was considered a breakthrough. This year, though, there are fewer than there were last year. I also have to question if creating movies where the leads are all black isn’t also a way of segregating, that is, whereas the attempt with Jewish characters is to integrate them into Christmas stories (also not desired), is the fact that Hallmark movies don’t promote interracial diversity one worth looking at? In fact, on one movie’s set in 2018 while filming couples watching a Christmas tree lighting, one interracial pair of extras was not even allowed to stay in the scene. “’The casting wrangler looked at us and said, ‘Oh no, Hallmark has this policy against interracial couple representation in our productions.’” While Crown denied this was policy, anonymous sources said otherwise.
I tried to find out what I could about other minorities and found little. Cardi Wong, an Asian actor out of Vancouver, has played minor roles in a number of Hallmark movies; last year he had his biggest, in a supporting lead. What other minority groups are only afterthoughts, if they are at all even represented? Perhaps also of note, among wrongful termination and/or harassment lawsuits Hallmark has faced is one regarding the channel’s ageism, a claim an additional show’s host made after being let go unceremoniously. This same article points to the alignment between conservative values and the channel’s – and their viewership. Is this purity for them? Is promoting same race but mostly white, Christian, heterosexual, young couples and content their hallmark?”
In a 2017 International Business Times interview with Bill Abbott, President and CEO of Crown Media Family Networks (aptly titled “Why Are Hallmark Movie Casts So White? We Asked The CEO”), the executive was asked why there had been no African American or Asian romantic leads in 2017. The article noted that the topic had been eloquently brought up four years earlier in a 2013 Facebook post which had garnered support – and which, apparently has since been deleted, as the link is dead. I was able to retrieve this from cache:
Abbott admitted that the organization was aware there was an issue, that they wanted change, but did not commit to deliberately creating movies that reflect America’s diversity, “’I think if we look at it that way in terms of trying to be intentionally casting Asians or African Americans in lead roles like that, then I think if that’s going to be our goal, our only goal, our sole goal just so we can talk to the press or communicate that back to our viewers, then I think we’re doing our viewers a disservice,’ Abbott said. ‘I don’t think that’s what they really want. I think they want a very organic, very natural strategy…’” Strategy is all about planning. Organic strategy, in terms of marketing for instance, is all about not using paid advertising but relying on word-of-mouth. Does organic and natural meant he same here? I have to wonder about a commercial entity that plans on not planning on change. What do their casting calls for lead roles look like?
Perhaps organic change means that he’s waiting for someone to bring them a script. In another article, though, his responses intimate that the company is not actively looking for specifically diverse content either. “’We are always encouraging people to bring us stories across the board.…So it’s not as easy as I think you’re making it sound and it’s certainly something that we do discuss consistently with our team and with our talent and with the agencies….there’s only so much time in the day,’ Abbott said when asked about how much he’s asked the creative community for more inclusive holiday scripts.”
If fans asking isn’t enough for them to seek out more integrated and diverse content, what is? And when they do show anyone who is not white or Christian, are they allowing for characters to be developed who are true to their heritage?
When asked about the Hanukkah movies that weren’t, his response in that same interview read like a contradiction to me. He claims Hanukkah is too religious and that’s why the name of the holiday isn’t used in a movie title but that Christmas is seasonal and that they do not look at it religiously. Let’s take a closer look at that. While the movies often concentrate on families coming together back home, the holiday itself is about Christ’s birth – that is why the holiday exists. Hanukkah is about a historic event – and has no religious significance. Abbott thinks Hanukkah is “not necessarily as commercial and not necessarily as much as about gift giving” as Christmas. Nice for American Jewish moms to hear but I am wondering if that at the same time demeans Christmas and what the channel’s far right supporters would say. (May I also share a blog on Hanukkah that I wrote in 2017, about where Hanukkah’s significance does lie and why it would be nice for television programming executives to thing about the non-Christian audiences?)
So perhaps the bottom line really is the money. And that perhaps makes sense for a company with roots in the greeting card. Wrapping paper, ornaments, gifts, movies are all the embodiment of commercializing holidays and really, the company’s raison d’etre. They care about their viewers. Pity, because America’s market is much bigger than that, and they could play a bigger role in depicting what everyday interactions between people could be like.
This year’s clash between conservative viewers and revenue from a large advertiser really just broadened and increased media attention regarding something those of us in a number of marginalized communities have been aware of for years – Hallmark’s movies do not reflect America. And until they actively change direction, that will continue to be their hallmark.
ADDITIONAL EDIT: The day after this blog was published, a story was posted by the New York Post’s Page Six about how actress Hilarie Burton had requested more diversity in the casting of a film and was told by Hallmark executives to take it or leave it. She left. I also found a thread on Twitter from someone who had worked for the greeting cards and was on the receiving ends of “talking tos” whenever she asked about things that would speak to a black audience. To me, it sounds like it’s past time for Hallmark to discard the idealized white hetero Christian world it imagines its audience wants to retreat to and instead put in place responsive leadership which wants to embrace the beautifully rich tapestry of the world we live in.