Un-Happiest Season and the Toxic Trope of Outing
Coming out is not a grand romantic gesture, it is ongoing and individual to each person.
This article contains spoilers for Happiest Season, Love, Simon and Alex Strangelove.
It’s hardly revolutionary to say that members of the LGBTQIA+ community are “constantly coming out.” To come out is not a spectacular, Hollywood climax moment – it is an ongoing process of communication about who one feels they are. Despite cinema’s insatiable attempts to represent coming out as a grand gesture that resolves all of the issues within a queer relationship, being open about sexuality is a hugely complex issue.
As both a queer person and a slut for a soppy rom-com, I am always keen to watch any film under the “Romantic LGBTQ Films” Netflix category. Yet, as a community, Hollywood continues to disappoint us on one key issue: okay-ing forcing people out of the closet; okay-ing “outing” them.
Despite my attempts to enjoy both Alex Strangelove (2018, dir. Craig Johnson) and Love, Simon (2018, dir. Greg Berlanti), I couldn’t get past my anger at their resolutions. The ending of Love, Simon is altered from the book to include an outing scene (in the book it is a private moment rather than a “grand gesture” in front of a huge crowd) and in Alex Strangelove, the titular character’s best friend and ex-girlfriend forces Alex (Daniel Doheny) to kiss his crush, Elliot (Antonio Marziale), at their prom. (Please note, I know the straights aren’t any good at the healthy relationship films either, but a queer can dream!)
So therefore, it comes as no surprise that the “resolution” of the 2020 Christmas film Happiest Season (dir. Claire Duvall) follows the same overdone timeline of the closeted character being outed in front of a room of people, followed by a grand gesture. According to Duvall, this semi-autobiographical film is rooted in her experience with her own family. The film tracks Harper (Mackenzie Davies) struggling to come out to her conservative (read: toxic) family when she brings her girlfriend, Abby (Kristen Stewart), home for Christmas as her “friend”.
Harper reveals her closeted-ness to Abby in the car on the way to her parents’ house, trapping Abby in an extremely uncomfortable situation. Abby has no option but to accept that Harper has been lying about having come out to her parents months earlier. This inevitably creates a series of uncomfortable scenarios where Abby is forced to pretend she is not with Harper, but also to claim she is straight. After all, as Abby’s best friend John (Dan Levy) reminds us, we’d all dress like Kristen Stewart if we were pretending to be straight…
The “comedy” of the film is supposed to come from a combination of Abby being trapped with Harper’s family, and the extremely intense family dynamic. Though I did chuckle at times, both of these “funny” features of the film also made me angry. No queer person wants to have to hide their sexuality (especially when they are in close confines with their partner, and in an unfamiliar space) and it is fundamentally unfair of Harper to force this on Abby without giving her a real choice. This is only made worse by the weak attempts to make light of Harper’s dysfunctional family, especially the incessant bullying of her sister, Jane (Mary Holland). Every character in the family is forced to hide who they are in one way or another, so it is hardly surprising that Harper expects Abby to be ok doing the same.
These two frustrating premises intersect in the climax - when Harper’s other sister, Sloane (Alison Brie), discovers Abby and Harper alone and tells their Christmas Eve party guests that they are a couple. Unlike the other rom-coms mentioned, Harper denies her sexuality in this public scene, hurting Abby and opening up the opportunity for her to make it up to Abby by (you guessed it) coming out later in the film.
This outing creates a neat circle with Harper’s behaviour as a teenager. When discovered with her ex-girlfriend Riley (Aubrey Plaza), Harper denied her sexuality and claimed Riley was in love with her, leaving Riley to then be ridiculed in school. It is revealed that Harper didn’t give Abby this detail about her previous relationship, creating another grey area in the trust department. Harper clearly regrets her teenage behaviour and we do emotionally side with Riley (it doesn’t totally romanticise outing, don’t worry). The Riley storyline centres the potential dangers of coming out, showing just how messy it can be. It seems ridiculous, then, that the film would insist on using it as a plot device to drive the happily (out) ever after ending.
The film hinges on one key moment, just after Harper’s denial of her sexuality to her family. Outside the party, John and Abby have a heartfelt conversation about their respective experiences of coming out to their parents. John’s attitude towards Harper has shifted - at first, he is adamant about her mistreatment, but once he comes to rescue Abby, he flip-flops to a new view of the situation, perhaps because being reminded of his own coming out story makes him empathise with Harper’s fears.
He gives a very moving speech about being kicked out by his dad, reminding Abby of the moment just before telling your parents:
‘That moment’s really terrifying. Once you say those words, you can’t unsay them [...] and you have to be ready for that.’
The scene seems to suggest that Abby doesn’t understand why Harper cannot come out to her family, because she herself had a positive experience of telling her parents that she is a lesbian. But what queer person doesn’t know that it is really hard for some people to tell their parents who they are? Equally, having been in a relationship with Harper for a year, and on the cusp of a proposal, it is worrying if Abby is unaware of her difficulties coming out.
Despite John’s reassurance that ‘Harper not coming out to her family has nothing to do with you,’ Abby responds with the particularly resonant line: ‘I want to be with someone who is ready.’ Clearly, Abby did not want to be with someone who would force her to hide herself. This does not mean that it is bad to date someone in the closet around their family, but it’s the opposite of cool to tell someone you’re out, lie until the last moment and then expect them to be ok with a five-day family gathering without asking their consent first.
Unlike in Alex Strangelove, where Elliot suddenly forgives all of Alex’s crap behaviour just because Alex kisses him at prom, it takes both Harper coming out in front of her family AND chasing Abby to a gas station (by tracking her phone, but that’s a whole other article) to win her back. However, the fundamental issues with the premise mean that the grand gesture, Hollywood ending had to (like almost always) include a forced coming out. As an audience member, you just can’t help but wish that Abby had stuck to her claim that it was ‘too late’ for their relationship and left Harper.
Though of course there is nothing wrong with being in the closet, Happiest Season perpetuates a toxic trope of coming out, and even being outed, as a solution to clear trust and value issues in the relationship. Realistically, we didn’t need another film about a queer person either hiding their sexuality (I’m looking at you, every gay period piece) or coming out - it’s only one part of who we are, and it’s getting kind of boring now. This lazy premise along with Harper and her family’s cruelty frustrated me to no end, and made this film far from the healthy, happy, holiday romance I was craving.
Bea Goddard is an English grad turned documentary filmmaker and digital artist. This means that everyday they put on their silly little outfits, make their silly little films and draw their silly little pictures (@stickybea on insta). Despite living in Edinburgh, they spend as little time as possible within cities, preferring to run away to the hills like a true cottagecore bisexual. Also a boxer, they don’t like rules and it only takes one drink for them to challenge every man in the room to a fight.