14 December 2023

Why are Christmas films so afraid of sex?

The Christmas film genre has always been scared of getting steamy, but that might be changing.

At the end of November, it was announced that Lifetime’s season of made-for-TV flicks — called, wait for it, “It’s a Wonderful Lifetime” —  would contain something that might put them on Santa’s naughty list. Surprisingly, it wasn’t anything to do with them committing crimes against filmmaking. It was a sex scene. 

According to Jana Kramer, the star of the inventively named A Cowboy Christmas, her co-star “lays [her] down on some hay” and they… get to it. While A Cowboy Christmas isn’t exactly taking cues from Gaspar Noé (“Obviously, it’s still Lifetime, it’s still family”) it’s sexy content feels pertinent given the genre’s broader fear of getting down and dirty. There’s a few reasons why — at least up until now — that that’s been the case. “Christmas has a religious connotation and traditionally, Christianity and Catholicism have deemed sex to be sinful,” Sarah Downing, a lecturer in film and media studies, tells HUNGER. For Sarah, the typically “family orientated” genre has a “fear of losing audiences by causing offence”.  

So what’s changed in order for a film like A Cowboy Christmas to be unleashed upon the masses? When it comes to the role that sex plays in the cultural consciousness right now, it’s all rather contradictory. On the one hand it’s widely held that we are experiencing a “sex recession”, whereby a recent study showed that those between the ages of 18 and 23 are having 14% less casual sex than the same demographic 10 years ago. On the other hand, all our cultural output communicates the opposite, with the success of TV shows like Sex Education and the resurgence of the erotic thriller, a-la films like Deep Water. Tia Maggini of the Lifetime channel said it best during an interview with Variety: “there’s an audience out there that’s hungry for grown-up romance”. What she didn’t say is that this audience exists because they ain’t getting any IRL. 

That’s not to say that sex hasn’t found its way into the genre before this. It’s been alluded to in some of the classics: it’s made clear that Jude Law and Cameron Diaz get it on multiple times in The Holiday, and Martin Freeman and Joanna Page explicitly simulate the deed in Love Actually. There’s also a few instances of full-blown sex scenes. One that comes to mind is 2015’s The Night Before, but you probably wouldn’t consider that to be part of the core Christmas canon. Still, in comparison to the major film studios behind the Christmas classics, channels like Lifetime and Hallmark are squeaky clean, and that makes the existence of A Cowboy Christmas pertinent. 

Sex or not — alluded to or not — really it’s not all too surprising that the genre has struggled with the subject. Not just because they’re held back by their religious subtext, but because if you take a look at the classics, you’ll see they’re conservative across the board. Just like cinema that’s suitably un-Christmassy, they by and large feature a slew of white, straight, able-bodied characters. Take Love Actually for instance: out of the 28 top-billed roles, only 3 of them are people of colour. 

But times are changing, and it looks like Christmas films’ lack of representation is being remedied. “As attitudes towards LGBT communities have changed with the legalisation of same sex marriage, some Christmas films have emerged with an LGBT focus” says Sarah. For her, Happiest Season is a great example of how to “include a lesbian relationship in a Christmas family drama”. Elsewhere, 2020’s Christmas Ever After became the first festive Lifetime film with a disabled lead. And while it’s by no means an equal match for the hordes upon hordes of white Christmas films, there’s an increasing amount of Black-led festive flicks. Are they given the same care, attention and budget as the films with their white counterparts? That’s a topic deserving of a whole other article. 

What does the future hold for Christmas films now that something like A Christmas Cowboy exists? “While Christmas films will continue to develop to remain relevant, it’s difficult to foresee an increase in sex in Christmas films” adds Sarah. There are things we can hold out for though: “as Christmas is about togetherness, we might see more alternative representations of relationships”. Basically, if you’re looking for representation (albeit with a slightly tokenistic flair) things are on the up. But the horny people might have to look elsewhere. 

  • Writer Amber Rawlings
  • Banner Image Credit Love Actually / Universal Pictures

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