Clea Duvall’s Happiest Season is addressing a market left largely unexplored by major streaming platforms or studios: the gay family member, at home for the holidays. The subject of an onslaught of memes, the experience of reinserting your gay self into the fold of your straight family brings up all sorts of feelings that can resonate with both queer and straight family members who constantly push and pull at familial expectations for their lives. Seeing who you’ve become versus the person your home environment crafted you to be can ring in one of the season’s ugliest byproducts: self-loathing, seasoned with cardamom and cinnamon for rich flavor.
This is perhaps where Happiest Season really is the Christmas movie no one’s ever seen before, namely because of Mackenzie Davis’s Harper. We don’t know much about Harper, except that she’s thin, white and has bangs (perhaps Nicole Kidman in BLL but an AU fic). She loves Christmas, and (ostensibly) loves her girlfriend, played by Kristen Stewart who seems somewhat comfortable for the first time in her life onscreen. Harper’s only real plot point: internalized homophobia in all its various stages.
The minute Harper pulls her Prius over on that frosty Pennsylvania highway is when we get our first insight into Harper’s personality beyond being gay: she’s also deeply closeted, a fact she lies about to Abby and then asks her (cue trauma nausea) to play along with for an entire FIVE DAYS. If Abby’s parents’ death and her sad holiday cat watching wasn’t enough to generate sympathy, the fact that her soon-to-be fiancee is yeeting her back into a closet will make you want to cry for poor little velvet-soft-butch Kristen Stewart.
What follows is a seemingly unending list of oppressive requests from Harper, who falls quickly back into dysfunctional family dynamics and exchanges her beanies and jeans for Anne Taylor Loft get ups in what is one of Clea Duvall’s less graceful visual indicators of heterosexuality. She expects Abby to sit through dinners with ex-boyfriends, veiled homophobia from Harper’s parents, and a horrifying set of would-be in-laws that don’t seem to trust anyone not shopping at Anthropologie. In every scene where Harper could redeem herself with a bit of sympathy or courage on behalf of her endlessly patient girlfriend, she devolves more into a nightmare prom queen.The final nail in the coffin for Harper‘s likeability is when her ex-girlfriend Riley, played by Aubrey Plaza in a pantsuit, confesses to Abby that Harper cast her as a deranged lesbian when their secret relationship was uncovered by high school classmates. If Duvall has at all intended for Happiest Season to be a tearjerker, this is one of two moments that choked me up. The self-assured, self-deprecating Riley cheerily singing along to drag queen carols in the same hometown where she suffered through a betrayal and unceremonious outing at age 14— it’s a hard-won moment of happiness that should’ve been its own movie.
This scene, beyond anything else, launched a million Instagram polls confirming that Riley deserved a happily ever after with Abby, and Harper deserved a life of Republican fundraisers and bad hors d’oeuvres. The online vitriol for Harper isn’t surprising when you consider the vast majority of fervor around the film comes from gay Twitter & Instagram. Appreciation for the Plaza Pantsuit is dotted across lesbian/wlw meme accounts, alongside jokes about chronic IBS and long distance u-hauling. This sliver of the internet is where I became mort comfortable with my own identity (after coming out at the sore old age of 22), and the community surrounding it, outside of the heterosexual framing of queerness. It replaced basic explanations of “why gay relationships are not so different from straight relationships”, with highly niche memes on Kristen Stewart’s hair or Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara’s press tour for Carol. In other words, it is a world in which straightness is not just left unaddressed, but also totally ignored in ways that are impossible in a real life context.
And this perspective colors a lot of our expectations for films within the queer community. We want films to reflect a stage of comfortability with our own identities instead of asking us to explain how that coincides with the heteronormativity that shapes everything around us. This shouldn’t be confused with expecting a queer utopia; there’s an appetite for the cultural struggles of the LGBTQ+ to be addressed. But the most satisfying “resolutions” to these plot points are, in my opinion, those that center the importance of queer community and chosen family — not ones that land on either side of a misery versus assimilation binary. The overwhelming desire is to see a fully formed gay human, replete with issues and plot points both pertaining to and totally irrelevant to their sexuality. Rachel Cargle points out that white people treat race “like rocket science,” exasperated by nuances that we seem to apply to virtually ever other sphere of life. The writing of marginalized characters seems to suffer from this same syndrome; it’s considered highly intricate work to form characters who are deeply unlikeable and charming in equal measure, as most people of every sexuality, gender, and race have the potential to be.
This matrix of issues is what makes the response to Harper validating to see, because the demand is for lesbian characters whose lives aren’t fully defined by homophobia. However, it is also hard to hear because I have been, at one point in my life, a Harper of some small measure. In an early gay relationship, I asked a partner to conceal our relationship or significantly downplay it in front of my college friends. I told a group of maybe 5 individuals I was gay, and only under the strictest instructions to not share the information with anyone. I went to a women’s liberal arts college and yet wouldn’t hold hands with my girlfriend while walking down the street within a 5 mile radius of campus. My parents are lifetime liberals whose gay friends popped in and out of my adolescence, but I snapped viciously at my mother when she asked if I might be a lesbian. Much like Harper, the obvious question lurking in the background of all of my gay stealthing was, “What really is there to lose here?” And the answer wasn’t centered around the things I was so privileged to not have to really consider: jobs, housing, etc. Instead, the panicked, covert nature of my gayness was driven by a fear that if I had managed to suppress this very basic information about myself for so long, what else did I not know about myself? If you lose control over a defined narrative you have for your own life, and sacrifice it to a future that’s unimagined by most of society, do you have control over anything, ever? You relinquish who you are to every homophobic joke a dipshit boy made in high school, and to every suicidal lesbian you saw on TV. And that is surreally scary.
The hurt and trauma Harper inflicts on Abby is an inexcusable but very recognizable stage of coming out that many of us would like to skate past. I’m sure amongst the thousands of Harper haters out there (myself among them), there are those whose self-discovery resulted in zero casualties. But I’ve never met one. We’d like to imagine ourselves as resilient, forgiving Rileys, whose self-assuredness in her sexuality and worth beyond a tiny hateful hometown never fails. But I also imagine that most queer people have inadvertently hurt someone on the path to being fully out in the world. And perhaps that’s why Harper is so polarizing — we’ve either been one, or been the victim of one. The internalized homophobia is so upsetting to even consider now, at age 27, watching a film that centers an experience from lightyears ago in my romantic life. But of course the desire to assimilate to a heteronormative ideal, even when your life doesn’t depend on it, is present within each of us, baited into existence when we feel just a little too small and a little too gay. I wish Clea Duvall had given Harper a context and life other than her self-loathing, if not to justify her actions but instead give us a reason to root for Abby and Harper. And to root for the Harpers we’ve all been before.