The War on Schmaltz
February 9, 2020
As most of us gathered around the dinner table on Christmas Day to cherish our families and the gifts they gave, Salon’s Amanda Marcotte probably sat alone, twiddling her thumbs, with a stocking full of coal as she defecated her article onto the Internet. Politics writer for Salon and author of “Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set on Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself” and “It’s a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments,” Amanda Marcotte had her eyes set on a holiday staple: the bevy of cheesy Christmas movies released every year by the Hallmark Channel. Her analysis puts it bluntly: “Hallmark movies are fascist propaganda.” With “token” “characters of color” and an “uncanny valley of shiny-teethed, blow-dried heteronormative whiteness,” these movies, claim Marcotte, “constitute the platonic ideal of fascist propaganda.”
Citing Hallmark’s inept attempt at diversity, liberalism’s preeminent mandate now an otherwise meaningless catchphrase, with their background frizzy-haired mulatto women and Hanukkah crossover film “Mistletoe & Menorahs,” combined with the implicit “normal” of these films’ oeuvre—namely, whiteness and heteronormativity—Marcotte reckons these alone are enough to warrant the “fascist” label. The effect of a non-inclusive normalcy ignores the “true diversity” (there’s that word again) of “American experiences,” she suggests, and the assumption that these films do not evoke empathy from their audience—as we will see later, a reckless assumption—primes these films’ viewers to conform to the “authoritarian worldview.”
“Forget ‘Triumph of the Will’— the most insidious authoritarian propaganda comes in the form of schmaltz,” the article’s subtitle reads. For the eternally angry, fascism is like porn: they know it when they see it.
But like most things, it’s not that simple. Similar complaints could be made about the political implications and lack of real emotional affect in big-budget capeshit Marvel films saturating the market. In October 2017, Marvel’s relationship with defense contractor Northrup Grumman ended after fans pushed back at a launch event for a custom edition of an Avengers comic, which would have integrated the Northrup Grumman brand into the comic as a new troupe of superheroes, the Northrop Grumman Elite Nexus.
In this case, fans rejected the explicit acknowledgment of what was already implicit in these worlds, reflected most clearly in the Iron Man trilogy, Obama-era apologia that sentimentalized the military-industrial complex. And yet, we will find no complaints from Marcotte about this, probably because more people watch Marvel than Hallmark; and probably because the Disney-Marvel media monopoly kowtows to gender and diversity quotas more successfully by means of the Lego block construction of their films. And because hypocrisy knows no bounds.
Most importantly, these representations of political struggles that often overtly mirror our own are always unquestionably lopsided, because then no one ever has to stop and ask if the billionaire playboy vigilante contracting with the military is a technofascist—the equally teched-out psycho antagonist always prolongs the answer to this question.
But rather than home in on Marcotte’s use of the term “fascist” here, a term used without reigns and without much, if any clarity by chronic hyperbolists, I think it is more important here to home in on the metanarrative appeal of the Hallmark films that so bluntly criticizes. Examining their affective origins—the romance novel—one finds out rather quickly that these films do indeed host a seedy underbelly: raw, unexpressed female desire, the female fantasy left unconsummated. Doing so not only undermines the assumption that the industry that produces these films are simply capitalizing on the commercialization of Christmas to produce schmaltz, but it also exposes the political contradictions of liberal feminism itself.
Hallmark Christmas films follow a plot structure so ubiquitous that you can probably write a new one in your head: a busy, probably corporate wage slave Girl Boss travels to the country, her home, where she meets an old flame, perhaps even a guy who isn’t “her type.” They don’t like each other, but really, they do, and then they slowly break down their own biases about each other and eventually fall in love, et cetera, et cetera.
Media Cultural Theory
Cultural theorist Stuart Hall describes three positions you will inevitably find yourself aligning with when interacting with a pop culture text: the dominant position, the negotiated position, and the oppositional position. Each of these positions assumes that a text is never apolitical or value-free. Salon’s Amanda Marcotte clearly occupies the oppositional position, which means you hate what you’re watching—you disagree with it, you despise it, you hate that you’re even watching it, you think it’s for fascists.
The negotiated position perhaps occupies the lion’s share of Christmas movie viewers. Several articles have been written about the rise of the Hallmark Channel’s rise in niche films “in the time of Trump,” and it here in this position that many viewers will attempt to negotiate the values a text expresses in order to reconcile the pleasure they receive from it. Complaints might include poorly executed representation (“It’s not realistic”), morally contentious content (“This character is problematic”), or, in the case of Hallmark films, politically contentious images of the fantasy world (“It’s not feminist enough”) initiated by a recursive plot structure that replicates itself in each film.
For Hallmark Christmas films, the dominant position is one that is relegated to the realm of fantasy for the implied female viewer. In the dominant position, the viewer empathizes with the film’s female protagonist and desires what she desires, finds her character arc compelling, and doesn’t find any issue at all with the gender dynamics represented onscreen.
Almost all Hallmark films are fantastical in this way, representing gender dynamics on-screen that don’t really exist in the real world—that is to say, they are certainly not realistic, leading many to call them “cheesy” or “kitsch” or “schmaltz.” And in an era that saw many women join their fellow men in the toils of wage slavery, sexually liberated from the domestic sphere, and romanticized onscreen in television shows like Sex in the City, it should certainly come as a surprise that a considerable amount of women will engage and enjoy their culture’s illiberal, lily-white antithesis.
The reason for this is simple to diagnose yet difficult to cure. Rosalind Coward notes in her book Female Desire that the rise in these cultural products have developed parallel to a rise in feminism, leading her to suggest that these novels must serve “very definite needs” and suggest the presence of “a very powerful and common fantasy” among women. In her book Loving with a Vengeance, Tania Modleski suggests that the conditions of women’s lives necessitate the existence of these romantic mass culture products—so much so, she notes, that students would skip their women’s studies classes to watch soap operas, retreating from the obligations and liberties of liberal feminist activism to the romance fantasy, the comfort of the domestic.
Such contradictions in the lives of women necessitate a culture-wide reconsideration, and soon. And if the 2016 Election was any indication, the war on liberalism is here and now. As the online Right is still trying to find its bearings following MAGA disillusionment, with a sharp break splintering in various directions towards figures like Bronze Age Pervert and Nick Fuentes, there still remain MAGA loyalists like The Perfume Nationalist, as well as the perpetual Outsiders like Nick Land and Curtis Yarvin. Meanwhile, the online Left has made headway in cultural critique with the so-called “dirtbag left,” including socialist podcast Red Scare and Twitter’s dedicated Marxists Aimee Terese, as well as the not-insignificant contributions of Jacobite Magazine Incel Correspondent Mike Crumplar.
If there is one thing that is true, it is that liberal feminism has failed women—and as a result, it is failing everyone else. What will be the way out?