I’d heard all about the problems in “Happiest Season” before I sat down to watch it.
I’d heard that it was very white, kind of boring, and very forgiving of toxic behavior. I’d heard (a lot) that folks shipped Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Riley (Aubrey Plaza) as end game really hard. But what I hadn’t heard much about — and was really taken aback by — was the plot’s central plot. Harper (Mackenzie Davis) lies to her girlfriend Abby (Kristen Stewart) about being out to her family, and then reveals this egregious offense, as if it’s a small misunderstanding, on their way to Harper’s family’s home for Christmas.
The conflict rises as Harper happily acts straight for the benefit of her parents — introducing Abby as her roommate, spending (like, a lot of) time with her ex-boyfriend — while Abby feels uncomfortable, erased, and discarded.
The audience’s sympathies are meant to lie with Abby. But we’re also expected to empathize with Harper: It’s hard to be queer when your family expects perfection, including heteronormativity, from you. Her intentions are heartfelt — she wants to spend her favorite holiday with her partner — so we’re supposed to be patient with the impact, regardless of how harsh.
Oh, hell no.
Have you ever fallen into a relationship with someone where you were expecting commitment, but they were planning to keep it casual, and because they skirted the DTR conversation, you ended up hurt? Yeah. It sucks. Because when someone isn’t honest about what they need a relationship to look like, we have no idea what we’re agreeing to.
Their intention might have been not to stress or lead you on but the impact is that you’re hurt anyway. No amount of “I didn’t mean to” that will change a past experience.
The conversation about intent versus impact has gained a lot of traction over the past few years, thanks to social justice advocates. The basic idea is this: Your intentions may be good (or neutral), but that doesn’t — and shouldn’t — forgive the impact of your behavior.
Sure, maybe you meant well when you invite someone you love to spend a holiday with your family, but asking them to lie and hide who they are carries more weight.
It’s like, listen, maybe what I meant to do was toss you a baseball in a casual game of catch. But if I accidentally chuck it at your head, you don’t stop having a black eye because it was an unintentionally hard throw. Of course, our ability to reconnect will depend on if I threw it at you with the intention of hurting you, but it doesn’t change how you’re hurt all the same — and your pain on its own is worth addressing.
Intention vs. impact, defined
When it comes to intention and impact, remember that they’re separate conversations. Using intention to explain away impact can make the person harmed or hurt feel unseen or unheard.
Intention: The aim or plan, which can differ from the results.
Impact: The resulting effect, positive or negative.
We all deserve compassion in working through our mistakes. But focusing on explaining the intent of the harm caused while brushing aside the impact of the harm received is not conflict resolution.
Yes, from a transformative justice lens, both intent and impact matter: exploring why harm was caused in the first place is necessary to holding people accountable. But the focal point for repair is on what thought, action, or communication was hurtful and who was hurt by it.
There’s a reason why, in crafting a genuine apology, there’s no “focus on your original intent” step. It moves the spotlight away from harm caused — and can be doubly hurtful. As Mia Mingus, a writer and educator whose work focuses on disability justice and who has been involved in transformative justice work for over 15 years, explains: an accountability process is “a place to practice true remorse… a great opportunity to practice integrity.”
Restructuring our beliefs — to understand that impact deserves to be addressed on its own, without bringing in intent — can be very helpful when working through conflicts in relationships. It’s only after listening to the person who was hurt, and reflecting, that the other side knows what to do next, to be appropriately responsible.
And taking a step back from having a conversation about intent until an appropriate time (after the harm is addressed) is humble AF.
But going back to “Happiest Season,” Harper’s intentions are also a moot point when you consider the lack of informed consent happening in her relationship with Abby.
After admitting that she lied about coming out, Harper also dictates Abby to follow rules so that her parents don’t wise up to the truth (oh no). All this happens while they’re on the way to her parent’s home with Abby stuck in a car with this new information and no opportunity to exit or process.
When we enter relationships with other people, it’s important to be upfront about the conditions of that relationship, including our needs and boundaries. That way, everyone can decide if the relationship is one that suits them.
And Harper, like all queer people, has every right not to be out to her parents (or anyone else). That’s a personal choice that we’re all allowed to make for ourselves. But by not making all this new information a discussion, Harper also takes away Abby’s option to negotiate or back out.
This results in Abby agreeing to several conditions — to be or stay in a relationship with a partner who isn’t out, to visit Harper’s family, to conceal her own identity — through the manipulation of lying, omission, and false choice. Because Abby isn’t given an opportunity to declare boundaries or engage in negotiation, she’s left feeling used, tricked, and hurt.
Being clear about your intentions for a relationship, your boundaries around communication, any relevant information about how the relationship might be structured, and more, are important conversations to have!
We can’t consent to — well — anything if we don’t have all of the information necessary to make an informed decision. And “What am I signing up for?” is a question we all need answered before we know how we want to move forward in a relationship.
Conversations that could lead to conflict — and even the dissolution of relationships — are difficult to bring up, even when we believe that honesty is the best policy. Because it’s hard sometimes to be upfront, especially when we harbor some fear of rejection. If I name what I need here, will this person leave me? That’s a valid fear.
But if we do this continuously to avoid important conversations or to “keep the peace,” that’s just engaging in conflict avoidance. This is where radical honesty — and radical receptivity — comes in handy.
The concept of radical honesty was (in a trademarked kind of way) introduced by Dr. Brad Blanton in his 1995 book Radical Honesty: How to Transform Your Life By Telling the Truth. In it, Blanton argues that the underlying cause of human suffering is lying — to ourselves, and then to others — and that we can break free from this pain by practicing “living honestly”: understanding and communicating from a place of noticing.
“Sharing honestly what you notice,” he explains, “frees you from the suffering caused by attachment to lying, withholding, phoniness, and ideals. Sharing honestly what you notice also deepens love, connection, understanding, and forgiveness.”
To recap: Communicating our inner truths with courage and compassion will help nurture more supportive relationships. Radical honesty comes from a belief that our experiences can only be honored (and needs only be met) if we can be honest about what those experiences and needs are.
- Hey Abby! I want to be honest about something before we take our relationship further. I’m not out to my partners, and I don’t intend to tell them I’m queer anytime soon. How do you feel about that?
- Harper, I notice you acting different in front of your family. That’s to be expected — we all do — but what’s coming up for me is a feeling of being rejected. I understand your need to keep our relationship a secret from your parents, but I’m becoming increasingly uncomfortable here, so I’m wondering what you think about my going home.
- I want to talk to you about something, Abby. I told you in the summer that I had told my parents about our relationship. I wasn’t practicing radical honesty when I said that. The truth is that I haven’t shared that with them. I’m so sorry for lying. What do you need in this moment?
Of course, radical honesty can be hard to practice. My friend Margeaux Feldman, a scholar in trauma studies, explains how rejection or hurtful responses to our honesty tells us it isn’t “safe to share our truths with others.” That’s where radical receptivity — the practice of receiving someone as their whole, complex, and authentic self, especially when they are being honest — matters.
“Radical receptivity is a commitment to taking accountability for your response to someone else’s truth,” Feldman explains. “Radical receptivity requires us to get curious about why it hurts when someone is radically honest with us.”
Take notes, (screenwriters of) “Happiest Season”:
- Thank you so much for sharing that you aren’t out to your parents yet, Harper. I validate that that’s your choice and your right. I would like to think about what my relationship needs are, given this information. Can we circle back about this next week?
- Abby, I so appreciate your letting me know that my behavior at my parents’ house is hurting you. Of course that was never my intent, but the impact is so valid. By all means, if going home right now feels safest for you, please do that. When I get back, can we talk about what we can do differently next time?
- Thank you for telling me the truth, Harper. I know how hard it can be to admit when we’re wrong; that was very courageous of you. I’m feeling hurt right now. Would it feel okay if I take 15 minutes to gather my thoughts so that we can address this?
Because while it’s hard to tell the truth, it’s also sometimes hard to hear the truth. And we have to be willing to do both in order to be in the right relationship to ourselves and to others.
If both Harper and Abby were able to show up as their full selves in “Happiest Season,” including in Harper adequately addressing the pain she caused Abby, the season (and the movie) would have been a lot — well — happier.
Melissa Fabello, PhD, is a social justice activist whose work focuses on body politics, beauty culture, and eating disorders. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.