Is it a “Wonderful Lifetime”? How Made-for-Television Christmas Movies Represent a Fictional America

After a very rough eleven months, the holidays are finally upon us. People are getting cosy, the fires are blazing, and if you are in the United States, then the Lifetime Christmas movie marathon is well underway. Catherine Mullner is here to take a look into why these predictable films are still on everyone’s televisions every December, and how they represent the ultimate fictionalised “American Dream” we still can’t let go of.


Image(s): IMBD


There are a lot of things America has made that some of us cherish, and some of us absolutely loath. We can immediately name Donald Trump, tuna casserole, and the electoral college right off the top of our heads for things we’d rather have never existed.


But, something that’s been firmly in the middle of love and loath is the Lifetime Movie Channel. Although it has gone through several phases since its conception in 1984 as a television channel specifically made to discuss women’s health and issues, it is now known for rather ridiculous made-for-television movies. Evil twins, warnings against teen pregnancy, and stripper stalkers are all staples of Lifetime. If movie titles like Inspector Mom (2006) and Killer Hair (2009) don’t make you want to find this station right away, then perhaps knowing that Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003) was originally a Lifetime movie will!


However, in the holiday spirit, I wanted to take a particular look at its made-for-television Christmas movies. There are, of course, plenty of other television channels, such as Hallmark and Freedom, that each has its own Christmas movie marathon, full of classic stereotypes and flannel-wearing men. However, I wanted to focus particularly on the Lifetime Movie Channel because of its long history of producing questionable movies, and its recent developments in trying to represent more of the actual American population (emphasis on trying).


The first Lifetime Christmas movie aired in 1997, however, what has brought Lifetime infamous fame is its Christmas movie marathon, “It’s a Wonderful Lifetime”, which has aired every year since 2012. This year alone, the “It’s a Wonderful Lifetime” movie marathon will feature thirty films, and began over a month ago on the 23rd of October! I believe this was done in an effort to see if they could eventually merge their summer movie marathon with their Christmas marathon, beginning it on the 31st of August by 2030, but that’s just a personal theory.


What’s interesting about the types of movies made for this Lifetime Christmas marathon is the complete dichotomy in reception. These movies are made for a particular audience (i.e., white suburban housewives in middle-class America), and the reception for their targeted audience is always somewhat positive. To those in that demographic, Lifetime Christmas films represent comfort and security. They act as an escape from worldly woes and offer predictable storylines one can feel safe within.


I think this paraphrased quote from the Mary Carver Blog (one of many blogs I read researching this article) exemplifies the comfort Lifetime Christmas films bring to some people: “no matter what is going on in your life or in the world, [these films] will always be there …and they will not let you down.”


That line read as incredibly intense for me. It seems like such a minute thing to need stability and consistency from, considering I would much prefer that from my physician, my government, and the McDonald’s ice cream machine that is always broken.


But, taking a step back, this statement began to make more sense. There is something about these predictable films with their casts of blonde women, single brunette dads, and scenic suburban towns that reminds me deeply of The Great Gatsby and the quest for the American Dream. These films play into the fictionalised American Dream, that living in America is a rainbow, with financial security and a nuclear family as the attainable pot of gold at the end of it.


Obviously, the mechanics of the American Dream were designed to be operated by rich white people, who can then turn around to every demographic besides theirs and say confidently that, “You just didn’t work hard enough! You can achieve anything if you work hard enough, and you believe!”


You can work so much harder than the 331,790,984 people that live within the United States, but when there is systemic prejudice built into both the economic and legal system, that logic flies out the window. What is really being said is “the American capitalist system works for those who designed it”, and therefore I submit this ridiculously weighted theory on a very silly topic:


Ultimately, Lifetime Christmas movies reflect that the United States of America was and is still made with upper middle class white, Christian families solely in mind.


It is not a new revelation that America, like a lot of other post-industrial capitalist countries, are made to work mainly for the upper class. However, what is perhaps new is to make an argument that this concept is clearly reflected in something as trivial as Lifetime Christmas movies. Yet, one could argue it is in things we consider trivial that we see the most blatant reflection of our own societal values and taboos. So, what evidence do I have to back up my theory? I submit to you all Lifetime’s most iconic Christmas movie trope: “Executive City Girl Returns to her Small Town Roots: the Saga.”


In this commonly used plot device, seen in holiday hits like All I Want for Christmas (2013) and A Nanny for Christmas (2011), women who “hate” the holiday season and are too busy being successful marketing and advertising executives (because there are no other types of executives in the Lifetime world) are forced to return to their small hometown. There, they encounter one of three options: brunette single dad, brunette ex-boyfriend, or local brunette man who somehow helps run the town with his smile and muscles. All are required to wear flannel, which is also a town law.


She resists the holiday spirit, she resents being kept away from her work and constantly points at her phone and sasses everybody to show this. Yet, she is softened by the two twin daughters of the single dad she ends up nannying for/ competing in the town bake-off with her ex-boyfriend / saving the ice rink with the town mayor. Everyone around her is encouraging her to find “Christmas magic” and “to let herself be happy”, even though she was perhaps already happy, enjoying financial stability at her seemingly high-end executive job.


This trope displays a lot of unconscious rules and societal norms that middle-class suburbia accepts as reality, yet have never been applicable to all of America (and quite frankly, never will be). Sure, this trope is comforting to some and predictable to all, but there is a huge issue in its seeming comfort. Why must the woman return home and settle down to be truly happy? There is always the assumption that she is alone in the city, scared, and out of her depth. The comfort she seeks can’t be truly found in individual self-worth or her network of close friends or family members she trusts, but rather must be found in the arms of a husband, a future with children, and in fully supporting the entire community of her town. She must settle back into the bubble to be happy in this plot, or there won’t be a happy ending!


Another obvious issue is the assumption of heterosexuality. It is not in a woman’s arms that our lead protagonist can find comfort in, but rather in Chad’s, Brad’s, and the occasional Derek. It is after twenty-three years of making Lifetime Christmas movies that the channel is putting out an LGBTQIA centred film called The Christmas Setup (2020). In it, real-life couple Ben Lewis and Blake Lee will star as the featured couple, and find holiday joy with each other, just as 20 million other people will during this holiday in the United States.


There is so much more that is blatantly linked to what the channel thinks middle class, white America will find acceptable, and is then reinforced by their Christmas films. To celebrate and find joy in the holidays, that usually means characters are finding that in a Christian/ Christian-esque context. Furthermore, Lifetime films have featured historically all white-casts, or often white leads. To give some credit, however, Lifetime has taken more strides than Hallmark to include POC actors and stories. This year, they will be releasing a film called Sugar & Spice Holiday (2020), featuring an Asian American family.


However, one band-aid won’t fix a broken leg. There are still millions of ways made-for-television films, Christmas or otherwise, could improve their representation of racial diversity and LGBTQIA stories in America. It is not someone’s innate fault that they get to take joy in made-for-television Christmas movies like those Lifetime makes. However, perhaps it is time to recognise that not everybody has the privilege to feel comforted by these stories because they don’t get to see themselves properly represented on screen. When we recognise and understand this, we then can truly find ways to share in joy and love with everyone (and not just holiday joy for that matter).


So, take up a seat, grab a seasonal beverage of your choice, and if you can’t agree on what film to watch with somebody, I think Shrek (2001) is something we all can universally agree brings joy.