Hallmark movies often get a bad rap, especially from priests. I’ve heard them called “emotional porn” for women on more than one occasion. I could write an entire article on that alone…
But most criticism is aimed at their corny reputation. I’ll admit, their stories follow a predictable formula, and their actors are not necessarily giving Oscar-worthy performances. But to be honest, when’s the last time you actually liked an Oscar-winning film anyway? However, one such critic of Hallmark is popular priest Fr. Gregory Pine, who laments against them for a different reason. He told me:
In general, I think that a lot of made-for-TV movies are artistically uninteresting and are mass-produced for a consumer culture. I also think that they prey upon our emotions in a way that distorts our sense of reality and addicts us to low-grade entertainment. I think that real art encourages a culture of thick and substantial leisure that prepares you for identifying the beauty of life amidst otherwise difficult circumstances. I don’t have any particular beef with Hallmark movies except that I think they’re an especially clear instantiation of the theme.
I agree with Fr. Pine in that there is a beauty to stories of grit, especially love stories that include suffering and perseverance (see my piece on Hostiles). Maybe that comes with age or just the astute realization that the best stories have some tragedy since nothing is perfect this side of Heaven. However, Hallmark movies aren’t intending to capture the totality of life and all its past and future challenges. They’re meant to capture the turn-around moment in a character’s life, the happy ending for now.
So yes, Hallmark movies are unrealistic—in how much these women LOVE their jobs and life in the big city, and there being a small-town hunk you keep casually running into one weekend *in said small town.* It is fictional escapism after all. But they also contain realistic elements, and that is why I think they resonate and have become such a cultural phenomenon. The simple storyline that most of the films follow is plausible. The scenarios could happen. It’s nothing grand or epic. It’s what we all desire: to fall in love with the simple life and for things to fall into place.
While some are better than others, Hallmark movies are quaint and idealistic in their aesthetic—the town has historic charm to it, the women have the best wardrobes (including multiple winter coats), the men are always handsome and wholesome—but more importantly, their stories include three universal human desires:
- Finding Love—either through meeting a new person who redeems lost time or having a second chance with an old flame and seeing a past love redeemed. We see this in the tale of the hometown hero who saves the cynical city slicker from themselves and calls them back to their true self and their heart’s desire.
- Finding Community—most stories center around a town working toward a common good or upholding tradition.
- Finding Purpose—we see this in the city slicker who stumbles upon the small town and ends up using their talents and gifts for others.
A priest friend of mine, Fr. Patrick Schultz, agrees. As he once said to me, “They tap into real deep longings.”
One of those longings is nostalgia. Many of the actors in the films are from our childhood. Seeing them on screen creates the same visceral experience as running into someone from our past. We feel like we still know them because at one point we did know them.
These films also pull wisdom from older characters, making us feel like our fairy godmother is speaking directly to us. Not to mention the main character is always in their thirties. Hallmark is clearly catering to a generation that is getting married and figuring out their life later than previous generations.
But perhaps a deeper reason for why we love them is this: They are stories of homecoming. As Fr. Schultz points out:
There’s always a reluctance to go back home and yet, isn’t that what we all yearn for? To go home? To find a home? That’s literally what nostalgia means—the pain that comes in the longing to go home. And isn’t it interesting that the love, community, and purpose these characters were looking for “out there” is found “at home?”
Maybe that’s why every time I go home, I end up watching Hallmark movies with my mom—because it’s nostalgic; but also because they feed those universal longings (at least for the two hours they last). They inspire me to be more open to love, more readily available to the people in my community, and more apt to seek what’s real in such an artificial world—to make my life more Hallmark-esque (I mean, I do live in Old Town Alexandria, a quintessential Hallmark town). And isn’t that what we depend on art for? To inspire us to keep pursuing the True, the Good, and the Beautiful in life?
“Hallmark girl” might be just one of my many nicknames, but to me it signals that others see in me an identification with a certain life, a life I think we all universally long for.