Remember Death by Matthew McCullough, Free for CAPC Members
Matthew McCullough suggests that death awareness allows us to find joy in the problems of this world.
On December 10, 2017, Netflix tweeted out: “To the 53 people who’ve watched A Christmas Prince every day for the past 18 days: Who hurt you?” I saw the tweet, I laughed, I liked the tweet, I moved on with my life.
It didn’t cross my mind that anyone might take offense at the pithy humor. It was funny to me that there were people out there who had actually watched the Netflix original movie A Christmas Prince every single day for 18 days in a row. I am someone who binges my favorite entertainment, and I can rewatch with the best of them—but 18 days in a row? That seemed worth a chuckle to me. So when I found out there were not only people on Twitter who thought the tweet was an enormous judgmental faux pas but that I also had friends who considered it hurtful, I stepped back and took another look at my initial response. One of my friends, who found the tweet rude and intrusive, said of it: “It felt like they were making fun of the kinds of people who get made fun of too much already.”
Was it making fun of people? We could certainly parse out Netflix’s intentions behind the tweet. It was clearly a joke. It was undoubtedly cheeky, if not downright mocking, although perhaps they didn’t actually intend to hurt a portion of their paying subscribers, no matter how small. Maybe it was little more than a clever marketing ploy (here we are, still discussing it, after all!). And some people—even those who truly love movies like A Christmas Prince—were not at all offended by the tweet. One such friend of mine said she thought the tweet was “hilarious.” At the end of the discussion, though, in a way it doesn’t matter what their intentions were, because they said it, and aside from being an eerie reminder that Big Brother Netflix is watching (as this piece in Opus discusses), it had the potential to hurt some of the most vulnerable people on their subscriber list over the Holidays: lonely people.
“Who hurt you?”
There are a lot of people whose particular hurts are magnified over, and because of, the Holiday season. Missing loved ones who were there the year before. Deaths in the family. Marriages rent asunder. Empty arms due to infertility. Another year without a boyfriend or girlfriend to bring home to Mom and Dad. The Holidays are a time when loved ones are supposed to be together, so when one or more are missing, that absence can be felt acutely. And perhaps most of all, nobody wants to spend the Holidays alone.
When people are alone, they look for ways to be comforted, and often comfort comes in the form of entertainment choices. I don’t usually watch movies like A Christmas Prince, but as I pondered my reaction to Netflix’s tweet, I thought I should sit down and take it in. Maybe I could see what it was about the story that so appealed to 53 people to watch it 18 days in a row—and what it was about it that prompted Netflix to mock them for it.
A Christmas Prince is a low budget TV movie made in the style of the Hallmark Channel Holiday Specials. As saccharine as it is silly, it tells the story of American journalist Amber Moore who travels to the kingdom of Aldovia to attend a press conference for the apparent ascension of the tiny kingdom’s errant royal bad boy, Prince Richard. After the prince is a no-show at the press conference, Amber decides she can’t go home without a story, so she infiltrates the palace by masquerading as the new tutor for the prince’s little sister. From there, royal entanglements abound as Amber discovers—surprise!—Richard is not a bad boy after all, but a brooding, piano playing, archery practicing, horseback riding, damsel rescuing, orphan helping prince with a heart of gold. Amber has to figure out how to tell Prince Richard’s true story to the world while holding on to her lie about her own identity, which is difficult to do as he slowly steals her heart!
Stories like A Christmas Prince are meant to satisfy certain longings within the viewer. Longings for fulfillment and happiness, but perhaps most of all the longing to be wanted. The longing to belong. The longing to not be alone. It’s not really about Prince Richard and Amber—it’s about the Happily Ever After. It’s about the belief that, at the end of the story, they will end up together, because togetherness is happiness in a movie like A Christmas Prince. I think most of the people who watch movies like this recognize they are ultimately fantasy stories and mere wish fulfillment. But the holidays are the season of wish fulfillment, especially for the lonely.
One of my favorite Holiday movies that also speaks to loneliness, and that gave me pause as I thought through Netflix’s tweet, is 1995’s While You Were Sleeping. In this story, Lucy, a young single woman working for the Chicago Transit Authority, gets mistaken for an attractive businessman’s fiancé after he falls onto the train tracks and she saves his life. Stuck in a coma, Peter (the businessman) is unaware that Lucy has become enveloped into his large and loving family—and of course, hijinks ensue. But the movie is poignant, too, as the story unfolds over the Holidays, overwhelming Lucy, who has been all alone in the world since her father died. In one moving scene, Lucy sits by Peter’s hospital bed and talks to him, pouring out, in a series of questions he obviously can’t answer—because he’s in a coma—her heart and her desperate loneliness. The final question she asks of him is, “Have you ever been so alone you spend the night confusing a man in a coma?”
I’ve never been that lonely, and I haven’t felt loneliness at all over the holidays for a long time. With four sons of my own, and living in the city where my family travels in to celebrate Christmas, my house is always full of people. Maybe I am too far removed from loneliness to now be able to feel empathy toward those for whom A Christmas Prince fulfills certain longings. Maybe this was why my first inclination was to laugh at the Netflix tweet—at something that caused others real pain during this season. Perhaps this tweet—this faux pas—could be a reminder to me to cultivate sympathy for people not blessed to be surrounded by their loved ones over Christmas.
At a Christmas party several years back, the elderly widow who was hosting the party thanked all of us who came. With tears in her eyes and a waver in her voice, she said, “My house used to be full of people over the holidays, but now they are all gone, and I am all alone.” Then she looked down and blushed—embarrassed maybe to have revealed a degree of dissatisfaction with her life as she stood in a beautiful house in an affluent neighborhood, surrounded by friends at a party. “All I mean to say is,” she continued on, now in a whisper, “Cherish your family while you have them because someday you might be the only one left.”
Reminders to cherish our family and our loved ones are good reminders. I’ve forgotten what loneliness feels like, if I ever really knew. But I do know that loneliness is terrible. And even though I can’t truly empathize, I can cultivate sympathy in my life for those who are lonely, especially over the Holidays. Maybe someday it will be me binge-watching a Netflix Christmas special for 18 days in a row, longing for the catharsis of a Happily Ever After. Those who are lonely during this season don’t need to be mocked or called out or even lightly teased for their viewing habits. We don’t need to laugh at them, and the corporation that provides their entertainment services doesn’t need to broadcast their foibles to the world.
We don’t know why the 53 people watched A Christmas Prince 18 days in a row. It may have been loneliness, or it may have been a combination of many factors because humans are complicated beings. But Netflix’s ill-conceived tweet can still act as a reminder to us all to cultivate sympathy rather than mockery this Holiday Season.
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