Hallmark “interfaith” movies are a concerning development in popular culture. First, for non-Americans, Hallmark is a television channel which the Hallmark stationary company began sponsoring in the days before cable television. The channel found its niche converting children’s books into low-budget films, which in turn gave it a reputation as “family-friendly.” In the mid-1990s, the channel renamed itself “The Faith and Values Channel,” though it continues to be known by its old name. Starting around the year 2000, the network’s directors steered away from the channel’s roots and moved to producing new, big-budget content.
In general, the high-points are as follows: 1) a young woman lives and works in a large city, typically New York City; 2) she returns to her parents’ town in a deus ex machina; 3) there, she finds the true romantic love she thought she would find in “the City.” The stories are trite and banal, but they would be harmless if it weren’t for an underlying anti-rich, anti-education, and anti-success agenda.
First, though, the heroine’s life in the city is established: she works at a respectable job sur-rounded by busy, harried people; she eats a salad or a sandwich for lunch; she talks about her fiancé. There is no suggestion that she reads, writes, goes to the theatre or cinema, visits art galleries, meets friends in cafés, or engages in any cultural or intellectual activities. Her one interest and source of social status is her fiancé, her rich fiancé.
The anti-rich message usually occurs within twenty minutes of the opening sequence. The young woman’s fiancé has some dialogue in which he will vulgarly rant at someone about how expensive his possessions are, e.g. “watch it! That’s a $40,000 jacket (or watch, or briefcase)!” Often, there will be a chaotic spewing of names intended to sound like designer brands. The dia-logue serves no dramatic purpose except to show that the fiancé is rich and crass. At some point, she will drift like an alien waif through his office or apartment, afraid to touch anything (normally shown as an antique clock sitting alone or with a handful of black-and-white photographs on a polished dark-wood table), while she waits for him to return from work. The message is that he is neglectful and materialistic, both of which are tied to his being rich. He is a “hoarder” in the sense that the filmmakers characterize him as someone who doesn’t profit from his spacious apartment, his heirlooms, or his nice fiancé. All he wants is to make more money. His enjoyment of his possessions lies in that others can’t have them because he has them. This in turn makes him a “bad” man, the villain of the story.
The anti-education message is tied to the anti-rich theme. The names of Ivy League universities are tossed about, and the sorry specimen of manhood is usually a lawyer or a financier. The man’s wealth, workaholism, profession, career, and materialism are all bundled into an origin story around education and pressure to succeed.
Once the action moves to the girl’s hometown, abundance becomes the theme. The abun-dance is meretricious. It is a comparison between the austere luxury of the fiancé’s space with genial overabundance, usually represented by tables so loaded with tchotchkes that the heroine can’t set her bag down. Someone will move the bric-a-brac for her alluding to how they aren’t fussy. Food is another source of comparison: the whole turkey served at a dinner for twelve is significantly larger than the lunch sandwich for one. Logically, this comparison is a false equivalency. But the visuals create a clear division between who is nasty and who is nice. There is also a message of communitarianism that stands in contrast to the individualism, read “hoarding,” of the rich fiancé. Everyone at the table may make do with smaller portions taken from a greater volume of food, but they are all happy because “sharing is caring.” For the first time since she moved away, the heroine feels “cared for.”
The anti-success message is spread across the second two-thirds of a Hallmark movie. On return to her hometown, the girl will find a former sweetheart conveniently available. Unlike her fiancé, the ex-boyfriend isn’t rich, isn’t well-educated, and isn’t successful, but he is attentive — very attentive. By the end of the film’s second third, the girl decides she prefers her ex. She will have a monologue in which she justifies herself by explaining (for the audience’s benefit) that her fiancé used to be different, used to be kind, all before… She’ll trail off at this point, implying that earning a living, meeting social expectations, becoming successful ruined the man she loved. Unsurprisingly, the happy ending is that she gives up her job and moves back to her parents’ small town to marry her ex, with whom she expects to have the emotional fulfillment the rich fiancé was too busy to give her.
These little digs create a divisive message. The rich are bad, undeserving of their wealth or position. Even when they’re not shown as morally bankrupt, they’re shown as chronically stupid. Since the plots don’t change, making the rich stupid is as divisive as portraying them as evil since the message remains that they are fundamentally unworthy of respect and have obtained their wealth through morally questionable means.
The “nice” people aren’t any more worthy than the rich villains in that there is no objective reason that they are better. Considering the idea is to use material possessions to convey the spiritual vapidity of rich people, one should question why “good” people have literally more material by volume. By the filmmakers’ own logic, the “nice” people might be worse than the scripted villains.
There are further inconsistencies, such as the new love apparently isn’t employed since he is constantly available to dance attendance. As she gives up gainful employment in the name of “money doesn’t make a person happy,” then income, or rather the pursuit of an income, is ulti-mately evil in this fictional world. If ownership of luxury items and the pursuit of income are evil in this morality, then what these films preach is a form of candy-coated Marxism.
Mary Lucia Darst is a DPhil in Music candidate at the University of Oxford. She holds an MA in History and Literature from Columbia University. In addition to working as a writer and researcher, she is a filmmaker and active classical musician.
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