Hey Hallmark, Maybe Don’t Dress Your Jewish Characters as Christmas Elves?

Hallmark has taken steps to include more actors, writers and directors of color — but they still can't seem to get Jewish representation right.

One evening a few weeks ago, exhausted after several days of solo parenting while my husband was away on a work trip, I wrangled my 3-year-old into bed and collapsed on the couch, ready to decompress.

My guilty pleasure of choice? A Hallmark Christmas movie.

In the spirit of self-defense, I haven’t always been Jewish. Hallmark movies first came into my life during a particularly difficult and lonely part of grad school, when I was 700 miles from home and struggling. Hallmark movies, with their mind-numbing predictability and good cheer (bad plots, bad scripts and bad acting that didn’t invite any critical thinking) were a perfect salve.

On the evening in question, I tuned in to a movie called “Christmas at the Golden Dragon,” which promised an unusually diverse cast. The plot follows the Chen family: Chinese-born parents Sue and Vincent own the Golden Dragon Restaurant, which — to the dismay of their adult kids Rick and Romy — they plan on closing so they can sail off into a quiet retirement. Close the beloved family restaurant before Christmas? Not on Rick and Romy’s watch. With the help of friends and loyal customers, the siblings plan one last surprise Christmas at the Golden Dragon for their parents. Hijinks ensure. Fences are mended. All enjoy a holly jolly holiday.

The plot was humming merrily along until (insert sound of screeching brakes here) the point at which Rick’s love interest, an over-achieving Jewish woman by the name of Sadie Cohen, invites Rick to accompany her to “the church” — apparently she always volunteers at their Christmas toy drive — where they will dress at Santa’s elves and give out gifts to needy kids. Eye roll.

At first, I was amused, texting my sisters that Hallmark tried really hard to incorporate a Jew into the Christmas movie but forgot to invite an actual Jew into the writers’ room. It seems like such a typical Hallmark gaffe: stupid and funny.

My sister’s response: “Did they though?”  — as in, did they actually try hard? — made me think.

No. Of course Hallmark didn’t try hard to properly incorporate the one Jewish character into the Christmas movie, and it was silly for me to expect anything different from them, despite the more diverse cast (in addition to Sadie and the Chens, there are also Black and Latinx main characters). I’m genuinely happy that Hallmark has shifted away from the all-white casting it was infamous for. This year, they’ve released movies that star Chinese, Latinx, South Asian, Black and queer actors whose identities are part of the plots of their respective films. In one movie, for instance, a young Black girl and aspiring violinist tells her (Black) grandmother that she thinks that she needs to straighten her natural hair for performances because professional musicians don’t have hair like hers. This surprisingly poignant moment sparks a conversation between the two about the pressure of conforming to white standards of beauty. I suspect it isn’t a coincidence that this particular Christmas movie, “Christmas in my Heart,” had Sheri Sharpe, a Black woman, on the writing team. Sharpe has worked on other Hallmark movies like 2020’s “Christmas in Evergreen: Bells are Ringing,” which features an all-Black main cast. Including more actors, writers and directors of color is a crucial step to better representation — and it seems like Jewish representation, at least in holiday movies, is lagging.

It’s worth noting that much of Hallmark’s holiday diversification came as a reaction to public outcry. In 2019, Hallmark was harshly criticized for pulling a commercial from Zola (a wedding planning website) because it depicted two lesbian brides kissing each other. Though Hallmark later reinstated the ad and apologized for cutting it, social media-driven criticism of their movies’ homogeneity was clearly a wake-up call: Viewers wanted better representation across Hallmark plots and actors. In the TV movie business, viewers are obviously the key to profit, so it’s not unfair to see Hallmark’s diversification as a capitalist, corporate-driven shift.

I know I shouldn’t let this one moment in a crappy made-for-TV Christmas movie bother me so much. But what really gets me is that it would have — should have — been so (so, so, so) easy to prevent this gaffe by consulting one Jew, or even if non-Jewish writers used a little bit of common sense. It’s probably too much to expect a company whose bread and butter is Christmas to prioritize Jewish representation, but having the Jewish character dress as Santa’s goddamn elf crosses a line. Hallmark didn’t, of course, plan for this to air in the midst of a certain rapper’s antisemitic meltdown, but it did: salt in the figurative wound and a stark reminder of how often American Jews face misrepresentation.

I’m still not certain whether I should laugh or cry at Sadie the Jewish elf and her “church” toy drive. Probably both. It is a shallow and performative move intended to tick off some diversity box (got a Jew in the movie? Yep! Check.) that doesn’t do real Jews any favors.

Hallmark, I wanted to think that you’d changed and were starting to understand what diverse representation means. But I guess — at least when it comes to Jewish characters — that was setting the bar way too high.

At the time of this writing, Hallmark’s 2022 Hanukkah movie, “Hanukkah on Rye,” has yet to air. It has a very Jewish cast, but there is no indication that anyone behind the scenes is Jewish. This time, I’m going to wait and see what other Jewish viewers have to say before I risk another blood pressure spike.

Leah Grisham

Leah Grisham, PhD (she/her) is a freelance writer whose upcoming book, "Heroic Disobedience," will be published with Vernon Press in 2023. She writes about Jewish life, literature, and feminism. She lives in Cleveland, Ohio with her husband and daughter.

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