In a year full of the unexpected, it is almost a miracle that at least one holiday tradition can live on in 2020: hours upon hours of holiday movie viewing. As more folks than ever turn to digital entertainment for holiday cheer, representation on screen is crucial. Lifetime (TV network) made television history this December by casting Ali Stroker as the network’s first lead actor with a disability. In Christmas Ever After, Ali stars as Izzi Simmons, a romance novelist who is experiencing writer’s block but finds inspiration in Matt, a man who mirrors the lead character in her novels.
If you think you have seen this storyline before and know exactly how it will end, you are probably right, but the well-deserved praise Lifetime is receiving for this movie stems from its appreciation of diversity. The film provides a realistic portrayal that may help dispel some common myths and reductive perspectives about individuals with disabilities. In an interview with West Coast Bureau Chief of TV Guide Magazine, Jim Halterman, Stroker says this about the significance of her role —
“It’s so important because so many times you see the narrative is about the disability and I think that these stories need to exist without the plot or the conflict being about disability… that anyone can be the leading role in the love story or in a Christmas movie.”
The movie benefited from Stroker’s acting experience and perspective as a person with a disability who uses a wheelchair. During production, Stroker approached the director and executive producers with a recommendation to change an ice-skating date scene to a bowling date, as ice and a wheelchair might not create the most romantic ambiance. She provided suggestions that kept the rom-com spirit alive and stayed true to the experience of a person who uses a wheelchair.
This post focuses on Christmas Ever After since it debuted just this month. However, there are some honorable mentions in the holiday genre that make strides towards inclusion and representation.
Noelle (2019) This family Christmas movie tells the story of Noelle (Anna Kendrick) and her brother Nick (Bill Hader), who are working on getting Nick ready to take on the role of Santa now that his father, Kris Kringle, has passed away. Feeling overwhelmed by this new endeavor, Noelle suggests that Nick take the weekend off to transition. Nick, however, decides not to return, sending Noelle on a mission to find him. Throughout the journey, Noelle makes some friends and learns new information about herself. The film features actress Shaylee Mansfield as a deaf character whose role is critical to the plot. Taking inclusivity a step further, Noelle also challenges traditional gender norms.
Carol of the Bells (2019) RJ Mitte, an actor with cerebral palsy, plays a man on a continuous search for his biological mother. He comes to discover that his mother, played by Andrea Fay Friedman, has Down syndrome. Unable to process this information on his own, his wife develops a relationship with his mother to reconnect them. This heartwarming film explores the universal themes of forgiveness, acceptance, family, and love in the context of disability.
2020 has brought diversity and inclusion to the forefront of many people’s minds, but there is still work to be done regarding the representation of disability on screen. GLAAD’s 2019-2020 “Where We Are On TV” report concluded that only twenty-seven characters with disabilities were featured in primetime network television. This is the tenth year in which GLAAD has tracked the representation of people with disabilities. There has been a slight increase to 3.1%, which is still a terrible underrepresentation of the disabled population, considering that one in four people in the United States has a disability.
Christmas Ever After is a small step in the right direction. For many individuals with disabilities, this movie might be their first time seeing an on-screen romance that they can relate to. The movie is not about the character’s disability, it is just a love story. This film will impact representation in the media for years to come, setting an example for other filmmakers and hopefully offering new generations of viewers the representation that has been missing for so long.