Hallmark's Zola fiasco reveals the Christmas movie giant's true colors on LGBTQ equality

Hallmark can't have it both ways — it can't treat the LGBTQ community as a source of profits while simultaneously telling us we are too controversial to exist.
Image: Hallmark pulled a gay-themed wedding commercial from the planning website Zola.
Hallmark pulled a gay-themed wedding commercial from the planning website Zola.Zola
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By Trish Bendix

Every Christmas, the Hallmark Channel rolls out several new made-for-TV holiday movies that are as cheesy as their titles suggest ("Christmas Wishes and Mistletoe Kisses" is a real offering this year). And despite their redundant plot lines and ridiculous dialogue, this feel-good formula is largely successful. America is rife with cultural and political divisions, but the one thing millions of us seem to agree on is mindless, harmless seasonal content.

It's hard to find it so harmless, though, if the network behind this supposedly cheery content finds your very identity to be "controversial."

Backlash was followed by more backlash, as Americans wondered aloud how, in the year 2019, same-sex marriage was suddenly controversial again.

This holiday season, Hallmark momentarily dipped its toe into the modern era of inclusivity, airing an ad from Zola, a wedding company, that featured a brief lesbian wedding and kiss — an ad that it was, of course, paid to run. But after petitions from the anti-gay conservative group One Million Moms and LifeSite News protested the "offensive" commercial, Hallmark pulled the ad. According to The New York Times, Hallmark felt the ad was too "controversial" and did not align with the channel’s idea of wholesome content.

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This backlash was followed by more backlash, as Americans wondered aloud how, in the year 2019, same-sex marriage was suddenly controversial again. After pushback from GLAAD and public figures with sizable platforms (like Ellen DeGeneres), Hallmark's parent company, Crown Media Networks subsequently pledged to "re-establish" its relationship with the wedding company. Welcome to the right side of history, Hallmark, almost a decade after the majority of businesses — not to mention voters — stopped worrying about equal marriage.

Truthfully, this is nothing new, as the Hallmark Channel has long been a place of blatant erasure. This year (2019!), for the first time, it attempted to acknowledge Hanukkah (poorly), and the "diversity" of its casts remains laughable (take a look at the Hallmark holiday movie homepage and you'll see it's looking like another straight, white Christmas.)

The Hallmark Channel has also continually ignored the existence of LGBTQ people. There is no room for queer people in the channel’s fantastical rom-coms and tales of family cheer — it has also ignored direct requests for comment on why the holiday genre has left out an entire community who is quite literally committed to making the yuletide gay.

Crown Media Networks now says it is sorry for this "wrong decision" and the "hurt" that was "unintentionally caused." The company also said it was "open" to including queer characters and storylines in the future, which was meant to be some kind of win for LGBTQ viewers. But it doesn't feel at all satisfactory to me, especially because Hallmark has been profiting off of LGBTQ people for years.

In its apology, Hallmark cites LGBTQ employees and LGBTQ greeting cards as proof of the company’s inclusivity. Of course LGBTQ people work at Crown Media, like we do everywhere else — and it's wonderful Hallmark was one of the first major greeting card companies to produce same-sex wedding cards. But a truly inclusive company wouldn’t balk at a benign commercial about wedding websites. Hallmark is happy to take our pink dollars — and maybe throw us a card or two — but only as long as we stay mostly out of sight. This doesn’t feel like equality; it feels like appeasement.

Hallmark is happy to take our pink dollars — and maybe throw us a card or two — but only as long as we stay mostly out of sight. This doesn’t feel like equality, it feels like appeasement.

Just like with Chick-fil-A, the Salvation Army, Victoria's Secret and other openly anti-LGBTQ entities, a community's denouncement can bring attention (both positive and negative) to a brand's politics. When these brands are steadfast in their homophobia or transphobia, they are applauded by Trump-voting conservatives who rally around a shared notion that discrimination and censorship is family-friendly. Hallmark has been hoping LGBTQ people would just stay quiet — and to a large extent, we have, buying Hallmark greeting cards and watching inane Hallmark movies that peddle the same Christian-based heteronormative messaging the One Million Moms do on their Facebook pages.

Hallmark should know better and it presumably does — it just doesn’t have any moral spine. Hallmark is an empty "ally" just like so many other corporate companies that show up for Pride covered in rainbow glitter only to relinquish any true responsibility for the rest of the year. The irony is by giving in to the (only thousands strong) One Million Moms, Hallmark has shown itself for what it truly is. This may be the channel’s "come to Jesus" moment in a way it didn't quite anticipate.

Hallmark can't have it both ways — it can't expect LGBTQ people to buy its greeting cards and watch its Christmas movies while also working to make bigoted activists happy. Homophobia and the erasure of LGBTQ, non-Christian and nonwhite people is bad business — that's why even Trump has a line of Pride merchandise. We can't be considered a community worth making money off of while simultaneously being told we are too controversial to exist. At some point, we have to go elsewhere for our chicken sandwiches and easily digestible Christmas movies. That doesn't mean we should stop voicing our distaste; it means outrage is fine, but proving our visibility with our wallets is the best way to show we won’t be happy with crumbs anymore.

The outcry was long overdue. Hallmark’s willingness to pull the Zola ad says more than its decision to run it in the first place — or the apology and reinstatement. Will Hallmark suddenly become a bastion of LGBTQ content? It seems unlikely. But watching Candace Cameron Bure in one of a handful of Hallmark Christmas movies may now prove harder to swallow for those who are still willing to eat it up.