Angry reactions to Clea DuVall’s festive flick are missing the point, argues Michele Theil

BY MICHELE THEIL, IMAGES VIA SONY PICTURES

The release of Happiest Season this month received a mixed reception from the queer community. While many have described the film as a quintessential lesbian rom-com, providing “queer festive cheer,” others have criticised the film for a number of reasons, but mainly because of what they perceive as main character Harper’s (Mackenzie Davis) “toxic” behaviour. 

The film follows Abby (Kirsten Stewart) visiting her girlfriend Harper’s family at Christmas, but Harper is not out to her family and asks Abby to pretend that they are straight roommates rather than in a relationship to protect her family’s image and view of her. By the end of the film, Harper is forced to come out to her family so as not to “lose” Abby and struggles with her queer identity in the very traditional WASP-y family she has grown up in. 

Criticism towards Harper suggests that she is “toxic”. By refusing to come out and hiding her girlfriend, she is forcing Abby back into the closet over Christmas, and is a result of her wanting to hold on to her power as the “golden child” of the family. One Twitter user, Andrea Pino-Silva, said the film “casually flaunts unhealthy and abusive relationships,” suggesting that Harper continually “gaslights and manipulates” Abby. 

While a critique that people who have experienced a similar situation from Abby’s point of view will relate to, it doesn’t consider that Harper is not a one dimensional villain. In my view, she is a victim of the world she grew up in, of internalised homophobia and the heteronormative ideals of her family. Harper is undoubtedly privileged, and her fear of coming out does stem from wanting to hold on to that privilege, but it is also about her relationship to her family. She fears that they will not accept her if she is not the perfect straight daughter they believe her to be. This fear is something many queer people know all too well. We don’t want our families to hate us, cut us off financially, kick us out of the family home, or worse. 

I understand Harper because I can relate to her. Most of my family are not aware of my sexuality because I know that they would not be accepting of it and would want me out of their lives because of the “abnormal” choices they think I am making. As I embark on more serious relationships with women and non-binary people, I am constantly thinking about how I will be received if I return home with my girlfriend in tow instead of the straight, white man that they expect me to be with. How will I navigate my family failing to accept the (hopefully) loving relationship I am in? 

In Happiest Season, Harper is dealing with the same thing. I don’t think her behaviour is a sign of a toxic relationship, as some suggest. She is simply trying to keep her worlds apart and trying to keep everyone happy. She is trying to be the daughter that her parents want her to be and trying to be a good girlfriend to Abby, but in the process fails at both. At one point, Abby believes that Harper is hiding her from the family and hiding their love. Harper responds, “I’m not hiding you, I’m hiding me.” While Abby obviously suffers as a result, I don’t believe that it is Harper’s intention.

Many viewers are also angry about how Harper treated her ex-girlfriend Riley (Aubrey Plaza) when they were in high school. It is revealed that Harper outed Riley in order to save herself from being outed, which is undoubtedly awful, and while it is not something I would’ve done myself, I have compassion for Harper. Once again, Harper is driven by fear, later realising how badly she’s behaved, and apologising to Riley for the hurt caused. She has recognisable flaws that she works to overcome as she tries to accept her queer identity. Harper is not perfect, but she isn’t a bad person either, and it’s too simplistic a view to paint her as such.  

Gracie, 23, has similar thoughts about Harper’s character. “It annoys me how they paint Harper as irredeemable,” she says. “At the end of the day, she realised her mistake and fought for Abby. It’s so insensitive to how coming out and self-acceptance is different for everyone.” Like me, Gracie wishes her own coming out experience “didn’t involve unintentionally hurting people” for the sake of her family’s views but her conservative Asian family made that impossible. 

During the film, Abby’s best friend John (Dan Levy), who is also gay, says that he and his parents did not speak for 13 years after he came out – in stark contrast to Abby’s experience, whose parents were extremely supportive and accepting of her queer identity. John goes on to say, “Everybody’s story is different, there’s your version, my version and everything in between,” acknowledging that there is no one size fits all for a queer person to come out and each person will be ready to do so at a different point in their lives. 

This is what the film is about, and a point that I think has been missed by many. Harper is scared about being her true self with her family because she doesn’t know how they will react to it. It has nothing to do with Abby and their relationship – there are countless stories of queer people in long-term relationships but are still not out to their families because of the unimaginable hurt it will cause them to realise their family’s love is not unconditional as they were brought up to believe. There is no malicious intent behind Harper’s actions – she is being driven by fear; one that she overcomes to accept herself and save her relationship with Abby by the end of the film. Instead of condemning her, I think we should celebrate her character development, and her bravery. 

Those who abhor Harper’s behaviour and are upset that Harper and Abby end up together (as is traditional in a rom-com) have missed the point of what both John and Harper say and missed the point of the film altogether by sticking so closely to this one-dimensional view of Harper. We have wanted a lesbian romantic comedy on our screens for so many years and now we have one, helmed by a queer woman, set at Christmas, and portraying how queer people really deal with coming out – and yet so many are focused on being angry at Harper rather than celebrating that achievement.

Happiest Season’s director Clea DuVall has said that the film is based on her own personal experiences of coming out, telling DIVA recently that she has experienced Abby and Harper’s story from “both sides”. “I really tried hard not to vilify anyone in the movie. Coming out or not coming out is challenging and it is personal. However it happens and however you get there, that’s your journey…. There don’t have to be bad guys in this situation. This movie is really an embrace of people on all sides.” 

The public outcry about its “unhealthy” portrayal of queer people is dismissive of DuVall’s story. As a community, queer people have the right to channel their stories into creative mediums to portray what really happens – just because DuVall decided to do so in a rom-com format, while adhering to the tropes of the genre, does not mean her story or that of Harper’s is any less valid. As Gracie says, “Everyone’s been fighting for queer people to tell their stories, and now they have, it’s not accepted because it’s not some fairytale.” 

Harper is not a villain. She, like many of us, are victims of the heteronormative society we have grown up in, and deserves compassion, not cancellation. In Happiest Season, Clea DuVall is trying to show us that all experiences – including Harper’s – are valid. 

@micheletheil

Is Harper a villain or a victim? Let us know what you think on social media @DIVAmagazine

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