If my life were to become a Hallmark movie, I would need a more corporate job than being a seventh grade English teacher in Harlem, and I would need to bump up my hair-care routine from a weekly Head-and-Shoulders splurge to full blowout. I would need to purchase a car that was made after 2020 and allow it to break down in a town in an undisclosed location, the only distinguishing feature being its idyllic nature. Thankfully, the hunky forty-year-old mechanic in town would have not only a spare room for the night, but an angelic child from a former relationship, and a flannel shirt purchased at Target. At least once, my clumsiness would cause me to fall into a snowdrift, which would inevitably lead to the salvation of both my corporate soul and my love life.
Why do people keep watching these films year after year, despite their bland formula? When I watch them, I often find I would rather pinch my fingers in a drawer. How do they make it onto the Netflix Top 10 roster for at least two months of every calendar year? While I’m not sure, I have some propositions.
1. People cling to the idea that their lives could become magically better, through the mere turn of fate. Happiness seems exhausting: it takes time, years of training, engaging in conflict resolution with your roommate, finally signing up for therapy, applying to new programs when you are forty-two. Wouldn’t it be much easier to suffer amnesia and be nursed back to health by a rugged lumberjack?
2. The pastoral ideal lives on. Since the days of Shakespeare, characters have slipped into the Forest of Arden when their experiences in the real world prove overwhelming. I have been known to slink off to the woods of Camp Roger, turning off my phone and pretending the world doesn’t exist. In the Hallmark film, the idea that there is somewhere more peaceful can live on, unquestioned.
3. Rural America chafes against its invisibility. In my first teaching job, I became progressively alarmed at how passionately my students felt spurned by the rest of America. They felt that the current fashion trends, the literary movements, and the political leanings of the country were leaving their culture out. They yelled at me for assigning a novel about urban ghettos, because they felt literature was forgetting about them, the trailer park boys. Hundreds of thousands of people can see their rural culture finally idealized, and far from forgotten, in these films.
4. Hallmark films don’t require critical engagement. People drag themselves home, exhausted from sessions with unwell clients, crying from the lack of empathy shown by their tenth grade students, and screaming from too many depressed patients crammed into one under-staffed hospital floor. Their minds feel worn down to a nub, and their number one priority is to turn on something that requires as little brain power as humanly possible.
5. Familiarity feels safe. You can feel the comfort of rewatching a film that you love, without actually watching the same film, since they all follow the same formula. I buy Dunkin’ every Friday, you watch the same story of a corporate girl falling for a country boy ten times in a row.
I was listening to an interview with my most recent hero, Lorraine Hansberry, the other day and she made this beautiful statement that “Art must tell the truth… it’s almost the only place where you can tell it.”
Now I’m not sure that a bland, cookie cutter story of unrealistic love “tells the truth.” But I do think that the reasons that draw millions of viewers into these films tell a truth of their own.
People are exhausted by the difficulty of this world. People feel unseen, and they desperately call out to be heard in nearly senseless ways. And people want an attainable solution to this pain. And so they drink hot Chocolate, while they watch a Barbie doll woman spill her hot chocolate on Paul Bunyan. Again.
Susannah currently lives in New Jersey and works as a 7th grade ELA teacher in East Harlem. When she is not teaching or writing, she can be found exploring independent bookstores, going backpacking, and trying to roller-skate on all the cool trails in the city. She is also recently experienced in the art of citrus skunk repellent (I know you’re impressed).
Appreciate the reference to green worlds in #2 there. #myworkhereisdone