Have you ever gotten a rogue onion ring in your order of fries? If you like onion rings, it’s cause for celebration. But if you absentmindedly bite into it and think it’s going to be a strip of potato, the slimy sweetness might make you gag.
That’s how I felt when, midway through Lifetime’s wholesome new Christmas movie, I encountered a joke about strap-ons.
According to Lifetime, Under the Christmas Tree is its “first lesbian holiday romance,” directed by, I kid you not, a woman named Lisa Rose Snow. (The channel aired its first-ever LGBTQ Christmas movie, The Christmas Setup, last year, amid a slew of putatively groundbreaking queer holiday films.) In the true spirit of Christmas rom-coms, Under the Christmas Tree is chaste: Hearts are warmed, but nothing ever gets truly steamy between Alma (Elise Bauman, nearly upstaged by her bangs) and Charlie (Tattiawna Jones), who meet cute in Camden, Maine, just before Christmas.
Before we get to the strap-on situation and the self-flagellating spiral it sent me into, I should explain the premise of the film. Alma is preparing to take over her family’s struggling small business, a Christmas gift shop, when Charlie, a state employee, comes to town in search of the perfect Christmas tree for the governor of Maine. She finds one on Alma’s family property, but Alma has a sentimental attachment to the tree and doesn’t want to cut it down. Nevertheless, the two women continue to flirt over treats at the local patisserie (with … Ricki Lake … playing the meddling master baker). It’s obvious from the start that they like-like each other, and unlike so many other Christmas comedies, there is no central deception to be resolved. The stakes in Under the Christmas Tree are so low—will or won’t Alma make Charlie’s job easier by giving her the tree?—that one of Alma’s chickens could step over them.
I didn’t even mind this lack of conflict so much, because it can be nice to watch the occasional film that lowers the ol’ blood pressure. But for the first half of Under the Christmas Tree, the lack of sex in the women’s sexual orientation felt like a real bummer. Corny banter stands in for chemistry, and Jones’ million-dollar smile works overtime to conjure the appearance of sparks—until, midway through the film, as Alma buckles Charlie into some safety gear before they step onto a cherry picker to inspect a tree, this happens:
CHARLIE: I like a good harness to start your day.
ALMA: [cinches Charlie’s harness] Tighter?
CHARLIE: Yes. As tight as you can get it.
And it was at that moment that I fully disappeared into the crevice between my couch cushions, never to be heard from again.
Why, when the lack of strap-on representation in lesbian pop culture has long been a point of great bewilderment and annoyance for me, did this harness reference cause me actual physical pain? Why did I feel like I’d just walked in on my grandparents confusedly rifling through the box under my nightstand? These are the questions I’ve contemplated in the days since my viewing of Under the Christmas Tree, as I’ve struggled to iron the cringe lines off my face. At first, I identified my reaction as a symptom of internalized homophobia: Maybe I was embarrassed by the reference to queer sex because I’ve been socialized to see it as shameful, especially in a thoroughly wholesome space like this movie. I’ve been queer for more than 15 years—shouldn’t I have outgrown that impulse? What was wrong with me?
But after giving it a little more thought—too much thought, one might argue, for a Lifetime movie—I came to believe that there was something else going on. Something that doesn’t reflect poorly on society or on me as a person, but on the broader economy of holiday entertainment. That something is: bad, bad writing.
Charlie’s line makes no sense as written. I’ve replayed the exchange several times, at great expense to my brain, and I am positive that she says “I like a good harness to start your day.” I like a good harness to start your day? Huh? It’s the kind of thing a hopelessly awkward person would say when they want to insinuate that they know about and have had sex, and want their crush to associate them with sex, but can’t come up with a clever or natural way to bring it up in conversation. It’s a clumsy move in a lesbian mating dance that the self-assured and effortlessly charming Charlie never would have made.
The exchange isn’t just out of character for Charlie—it’s out of place in the movie. Despite its vaguely euphemistic-sounding title, there is nothing sexual about Under the Christmas Tree. Alma lives with her parents, so they play a prominent (and seemingly welcome) role in their daughter’s burgeoning relationship, giving it the juvenile sheen of puppy love. When the ever-paternal Enrico Colantoni, as Alma’s father, makes a toast “to the lesbians!,” he preemptively quiets any frisson of desire we might have detected. Who could feel the heat of attraction with Veronica Mars’ dad puttering around in the next room? When the two women finally share a first kiss, Charlie cuts it short because she has an abrupt revelation about Alma’s chickens. They never resume making out. The whole relationship is played as a parent-friendly, almost childlike endeavor.
So when the strap-on wordplay comes along, along with a joke about tightness that I can’t even bring myself to unpack, it’s a jarring shift in tone. A cutesy film about building gingerbread houses and stopping at first base has suddenly acknowledged the existence of sex toys. You can just feel Enrico Colantoni and Ricki Lake looking on approvingly, and it curdles the mood.
Under the Christmas Tree was scripted by Michael J. Murray, a guy who knows heartwarming Christmas movies. He’s written nearly a dozen of them, and this one fits quite neatly into the established mold of the genre. What that requires is a snowy town with a quaint thoroughfare, a subplot about a big-city executive who leaves her job to open a small business, and at least one protagonist whose year-round personality is Christmas. It does not require sophisticated screenwriting or character development. If it did, Lifetime would not have been able to release 30 new holiday movies this season. So while the network is promoting Under the Christmas Tree as a minor lesbian milestone, it was no doubt produced as swiftly and cheaply as the others.
I want to appreciate what I believe Murray and Lifetime were trying to do with the harness moment: acknowledge that while love is love and all that, gay relationships are not just like straight ones. Queer courtship offers an entire world of delightful particularities; I should be happy to see their perfunctory inclusion in fictional narratives. But I’m now convinced that, by asking for more post-coming-out queer love stories in mainstream culture and complaining about the absence of strap-ons from on-screen lesbian sex, I’ve set into motion a kind of “monkey’s paw” scenario, and my wishes are coming true in all the wrong ways. The protagonists are out and queer, but so much so that their loving parents have shown up to kill the vibe. Queer love is so mainstream it’s corny. The strap-on is there, but without the sex. Under the Christmas Tree is a delightful addition to the chaste holiday rom-com canon. It’s also a cautionary tale. Be careful when you wish for pop-culture representation. You just might get it.