If you have a tendency to get sucked into bad movies starring formerly famous actresses, you've probably watched some "Fa la la la Lifetime", a month-long event in which Lifetime Television brings out its considerable collection of Christmas movies. Whether they're are about Christmas dating, Christmas engagements, or Christmas weddings, the movies usually to have a few things in common: sassy friends with Canadian accents, insipid male love interests, excessive seasonal decorations, embarrassing covers of Christmas carols, and unconvincing dye jobs. I watched enough this year to discover a sub-genre of the Lifetime move that's even more unsettling than your average cute-heroine-finds-Christmas-love story. I call it the Second-Chance
It consists of women questioning their life choices, and then (via Christmas miracle) experiencing the alternative. But of course, there are only two alternatives: Lonely career woman or stay-at-home mom. Can you guess which option always turns out to be the best? Just in case you're coming down from a candy cane high and can't focus too well, I'll break it down for you:
Holiday Switch, 2007
Nicole Eggert (formerly of "Charles in Charge" and "Baywatch") plays Paula, a stay-at-home mom who's married to the nicest guy ever. She's sad because they're poor. When she runs into a fabulously wealthy high school boyfriend, she wonders what life would have been like had she married the rich guy. Then she bumps her head and climbs through a magical dryer into the life she could have had. The next half hour is her squealing and exclaiming to herself about her new mansion, which is filled with clothes and shoes and bubble baths (what else?). But then she gets sad about not having kids anymore. She realizes that family is more important than shoes, and gets magically transported back to her old life, which she is now satisfied with.
Eve's Christmas, 2004
Elisa Donovan (Amber from Clueless and "Clueless") is a successful ad exec who's having an affair with her married boss. She wishes on a Christmas star to go back in time 8 years to right before she broke off an engagement to her high school boyfriend. It works! And amid all the hilarious jokes about "pilates" and "internet shopping" (no one had EVER heard of those things in 1996, get it?) she manages to stay with her unbelievably bland fiancé long enough get married…on Christmas Eve, of course. When she wakes up she finds out that 8 years has passed, she's still married, and she's now successfully running her husband's family business. No more single holidays or sleeping with the boss for that feisty redhead! Thanks, Christmas star.
Comfort and Joy, 2003
Nancy McKeon (Jo from "The Facts of Life"!) plays Jane, a Marketing VP who's bummed about not having a family. When she bumps her head in a car accident, she gets rescued by—get ready—her husband. He says they've been married for ten years and they have two kids together. She's a stay-at-home mom in this reality, but of course she keeps insisting that she's a successful career woman. She even calls her boss, but he doesn't remember her because she quit as soon as she got married! Rather than take her to the hospital, her husband decides to proceed with Christmas as planned. The next 90 minutes consists entirely of Jane saying she doesn't remember things ("But I don't remember buying that gift!" "But how could you know that my toothbrush is purple?!") After all that stimulating conversation, she kisses her husband and returns to the moment of the crash when they meet for the first time. Who knew head injuries could be so romantic?
Whereas your average Lifetime Christmas movie enforces the marriage-is-the-be-all-end-all idea by ending every movie with a wedding (or at least a proposal), these bizarre cautionary tales take it a step further by showing how terrible life is for successful single women without kids and insisting that they'd choose marriage and motherhood if they really thought about it. But I have to wonder if any career gals are actually getting cautioned by these tales, as most of them are aired on weekday afternoons. I suspect that, in fact, desolate career women don't get to enjoy these movies because their sad, unfulfilling careers require them to, you know, be at work. So that leaves the women who chose correctly and are now living the Lifetime dream of stay-at-home motherhood. You know, if I was taking care of infants and/or toddlers on two hours of sleep all day long, I'd probably take comfort in a movie that portrayed the single working life as depressing and unfulfilling too. If there is a purpose behind the Second Chance Fantasy, it's probably about reassuring the viewer base that they've made the right choice, rather than chastising women who made a different choice and aren't watching anyway.
I think the strangest thing about the Second Chance Fantasy is that it so rigidly divides work from family. Why did Jane quit her high-powered job when she got married, never to return? Why was Eve's only option as a career woman to sleep with married men at her office? Why was Paula's financial success completely predicated on her husband earning money, rather than her pursuing a career?
Of course, we all know that these divisions don't exist in real life. Most wives and mothers enjoy fulfilling professional lives, and most unmarried women enjoy fulfilling personal lives. There may be a lot of variations in women's lifestyles, but there's also a lot of overlap in our experiences. We're not on opposite sides of the fence. In fact, there isn't a fence.
But it's the Holidays and I'm about to take off until the new year, so I'd like to conclude on a positive note and give Lifetime credit for one movie that unexpectedly warmed my heart:
If You Believe, 1999
Ally Walker ("Profiler") plays Susan, a book editor whose recent divorce has left her depressed, exhausted, and rude. She hates Christmas, she's alienated her family, and she's sleepwalking through her career. She's visited by her 7-year-old self (played by Hayden Panetierre of "Heroes"), who encourages her to get back in touch with the things that make her happy. Kid Susan drags grown-up Susan to the opera, makes her get a Christmas tree, and, most important, reinvigorates her love of books. Susan rediscovers her passion for editing and the movie ends with her being more successful and satisfied by her career than ever. Okay, so there's a romance in there too. But the real love story is about a woman and her job, which is some pretty feminist fare for Fa la la la Lifetime.
[Now published at www.loveinthelivingroom.com]