How the Story Ends: Gender, Sexuality, and Nation in the Happy Ending
Heather Schell and Katherine Larsen
The happy ending is often considered a particularly pernicious form of American pabulum, something that is too easy, simplistic, and pleasurable to be trusted or valued. While happy endings to narratives are common, little critical work has been done to define and analyse this trope in more than a cursory way. We invited a number of people in relevant fields and professions to respond to a handful of prompts about the happy ending. We then adopted Kenneth Burke’s (1973) metaphor of scholarship as conversation (110), weaving their ideas together creating a dynamic, polyphonic exploration of the happy ending.
Romance fiction; Popular Culture; Love Stories; Narrative Love
The happy ending as a narrative convention has long been associated with American cultural productions, particularly film and fiction. Through the lens of literary modernism, the happy ending marked middle-brow or low-brow work lacking literary merit. It is a trope so firmly linked to romantic comedy and the popular romance novel that it can even be considered a necessary component of those genres. As Leger Grindon notes, with the rise of ideological criticism in the 1970s, film scholars began to judge works on their politics, and this perspective makes the happy ending not just trite but pernicious: romantic comedies indoctrinated their viewers to believe in the fantasy of romantic love and thereby inured them to accept the harm inflicted by a patriarchal system (p.77). Scholarly concerns about popular romance were similar, perhaps expressed most powerfully by Tania Modleski’s Loving with a Vengeance (1982) and Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance (1984). Later developments of this perspective show up in scholarship by critics such as Eva Illouz and Sarah Ahmed.
At the same time, scholarship of popular culture has begun to complicate the causal arguments of ideological scholarship, attending to the historical and social contexts of popular works, audience responses, and returning to concerns of authorial intent. As creators of this essay, we identify with this approach and wanted to re-examine the happy ending from this new perspective.
Romance Writers of America (RWA) offers an official definition of the romance as “a love story that has an emotionally satisfying, optimistic ending” (Crusie, 2000). Note that all the fine-tuning of the definition of “love story” has to do with the ending. This moves the happy ending from a convention to a generic requirement, a shift that Pamela Regis echoed in 2003 with A Natural History of the Romance Novel, a highly influential structuralist analysis of what she framed as a subgenre of comedy. The happy ending, she maintained, “is the one formal feature of the romance novel that virtually everyone can identify” (p.9). Catherine Roach, in Happily Ever After (2016), explains the happy ending in a way that melds the ideological interpretation with an explanation popular among romance writers—namely that the ending lets the heroine win and thus empowers women (p.11).
However, fan studies remind us that endings are almost never the end. The fan is free to contest, reshape, or completely ignore an ending that is felt to be “inauthentic”—something Rebecca Williams (2015) has defined as ‘an ending that does not represent “the core values or ideas of a programme”’ (p.38). For example, fans often rewrite stories to give their favourite characters a happy, romantic ending. For fan fiction writers, the happy ending comes in many varieties. The fan fiction site Archive of Our Own (AO3) contains tags for fifteen different types of endings: Angst with happy, Happy, Eventual happy, Ambiguous/Open, Sad, Fluffy, Sad with Happy, Cute, Humorous, Bittersweet, Unhappy, Hopeful, Alternate, Surprise, and Destroy; of these, eight could potentially fall under the umbrella of ‘happy ending’. Perhaps because their favourite books already provide them with happy endings, romance readers tend not to rewrite, as evidenced by their lack of representation on AO3 and fanfiction.net. Nonetheless, fan culture reminds us that every ending, happy or sad, carries with it the implication of some sort of continuance – characters will continue, relationships will continue. Nothing is ever over.
We feel strongly that the scholarly investigation of happy endings has been isolated and sparse. With this project, we hope to launch a more interactive discussion, putting scholars and other experts in conversation about the meaning of the happy ending. The questions underlying this essay explore ideas of genre, gender, sexual orientation, and nationality. The questions themselves have been removed from the text; after all, this is meant to be an essay, not an interview. However, readers interested in the questions can find them at the end of the essay.
Sarah Lyons—For a novel considered part of the romance genre*, a happy ending is one in which the romantic partners** are in a relationship that works for them*** [and] that has a reasonable chance of lasting into the foreseeable future.
*A happy ending for any other genre — mystery, say — is something completely different. Each genre has its own conventions about what constitutes a happy ending.
**Two or more of any gender combination.
***I recently read a romance in which the main romantic pairing was a male/male couple, but one of the men was married to a woman, who was in a relationship with another woman, and they all slept together (literally) at the end after the bad guy was defeated, because they needed the confirmation of the closeness. A lot of romance readers would consider that ‘cheating’, but I consider it a happy ending that works for the characters. The stipulation ‘that works for them’ moves us away from a monogamous, heteronormative conception of the happy ending. It can include whatever combination of genders and sexualities and relationships makes the characters happy.
Kathrina Haji Mohd Daud—A happy ending is one in which a socially acceptable worldly desire is fulfilled, usually also within acceptable religious parameters, whatever the religious context of the text may be.
Caroline Smith—Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy wins girl back. They live happily ever after. This is the formula—with very few variations—of the romantic comedy, a genre that I’ve been examining in my scholarly work. In the context of romantic comedies, there isn’t an option other than happily ever after. Of course, this happy ending is usually reserved for white, heterosexual couples. These romances also tend to centre around economically successful individuals, although sometimes we see a wealthy man save an economically disadvantaged woman.
Cait Coker—A happy ending in a romantic story goes back to the Greek ideal of agape, which is often misread as ‘Platonic friendship’ or ‘nonsexual friendship’ (and so distinct from Eros). Agape emphasizes not just an unconditional love, but love that strives for betterment, for excellence: literally, love makes you a better person—and I think that’s what comes through in fan fiction more often than in conventional romances. For instance, in Star Trek Kirk/Spock, the recurring theme is on how Kirk’s love for Spock gives Spock the self-acceptance he never had either on Vulcan or in Starfleet. Similarly, in a lot of Avengers Steve/Tony stories, either man can make peace with a queer identity because of the other’s love. Romantic fulfilment is great, but personal fulfilment is equally important.
Jodi McAlister—My reference point for a happy ending is bound up with the romantic: the protagonists of a love story ending a narrative having established a concrete romantic relationship, with the expectation that said relationship will last well into the future, if not forever. This is a relationship where they are always in sync with each other: a relationship without (major, at least) miscommunications, a relationship based on sharing and honesty, and an egalitarian one, where decisions are made together. In many ways, this relationship is Anthony Giddens’ ‘pure relationship’ (The Transformation of Intimacy, 1992)—a relationship based on sexual and emotional equality.
Margaret Stetz—It is one in which the fictional characters enjoy the fates that the author, or authors, have led us to believe they deserve (whether that fate is good or bad), but also in which the ending leads outward into the world beyond the text to promote some kind of positive action or change in the sphere of the ‘actual’. A happy ending should charge its readers with a sense of new social possibilities; it should transform them.
Rebecca Williams—For me, a happy ending doesn’t necessarily have to be ‘happy’ in that all the characters get what they want. Rather, a happy ending is more about whether an ending fits with what came before and whether it does that justice or not. A programme that has been thematically very dark and edgy that concluded with a neat and happy ending for its characters wouldn’t necessarily ring true. In this type of situation fans often feel cheated. C. Lee Harrington has talked about this as an ‘ars moriendi’ or ‘good death’ for television; one which cannot deviate too greatly from what came before and which must do justice to the life or narrative that preceded it.
Sonali Dev—In the end, it also matters whether one can achieve ‘happiness’ out of the interaction with the material rather than through a conventional happy ending. My satisfaction with a work may have more to do with the engagement it invites rather than a good feeling for myself at the conclusion. I may not feel ‘happy’, yet may still be satisfied by the intellectual challenge.
Radclyffe—First and foremost, a happy ending is unambiguous. The reader is not left with questions as to what will happen to the characters or their relationship in the future. At the end of a romance, there are several key elements which ought to be present and made clear ‘on the page’ to assure the reader that the two main characters are in love and committed to making a life together. The two main characters need to verbally express their love for one another and state their desire for a relationship that will extend into the future (simply put, a forever love) and demonstrate a willingness to face life’s hardships together. In order for this to happen and be believable, the primary conflict originally preventing the main characters from accepting an intimate connection needs to be convincingly resolved. While the ‘happy for now’ ending has gained more popularity, the HFN occurs in only a small segment of the romance genre (perhaps being more common in series books where the romance arc may play out over a number of books or an action-intrigue romance where the characters have not spent a lot of time together and a ‘forever’ commitment would seem premature).
Sara Kolmes—I’ve always been a lot more comfortable with happy endings where things are left unresolved: where there is hope at the end and then a fade to black. Of course, this might be an aesthetic preference, but I think this is for philosophical reasons as well. Too often the bonds that bind people together in a ‘happy ending’ are also the bonds that keep those whom the dominant structures are badly serving within those structures. The statistics on family abandonment of trans and genderqueer youth, leading to homelessness, and on how few people in abusive relationships successfully leave, bear this out. Bonds of love make it very emotionally and practically difficult for people to leave their home countries even when the regime in power turns on particular minority groups. There is also a lot of pressure for people to participate in the destructive parts of capitalism because they want to make their loved ones happy (for example, save many months of their salary to buy an engagement diamond that funds wars).
What might be a really classic happy ending could very quickly become contingent on being someone who you are not or on accepting treatment that isn’t acceptable. So, a happy ending has to be a negotiation, a constantly re-evaluated standard, and as such it has to be flexible. All parties need to be able to express what they need and ensure they get that. This flexibility is the reason that philosophers like Claudia Card and Elizabeth Brake think that we should stop thinking about marriage as romantic or a desirable state.
Pavla Zapletal—I see the idea of the ‘happy ending’ as a very problematic concept. Happy endings are not really endings; they are artificially created stopping points in the book. Romance readers are conditioned to accept the Happily Ever After as the end, but I always feel like they leave me hanging right at the most interesting part. I think that my own definition of a happy ending would be to see the story go through all of the changes that living and growing old entail, falling in and out of love . . . and at the end, the characters still believe and get the happy ending. Believing in happy endings is easy when you’re young and full of energy, but being old and tired. . . . I am very much under the influence of Haneke’s Amour (2012).
Sonali—The romantic happy ending is the point at which you stop telling the story, or at least stop telling that piece of the characters’ story. In real life, you hit those points and then move past them, and life, not being static, brings along another arc that you must trace for another happy ending. Also, if in real life you deal with story arcs as character arcs (the characters learning more and more about themselves and growing), then you can have a string of happy endings (and so it follows that there will be a string of dark moments, too).
Eric Selinger—My favourite definition of the happy ending as a concept comes from Catherine Madsen’s wonderful book about liturgy, The Bones Reassemble (2005), in a passage about what fairy tales mean when they speak of living ‘happily ever after’. This doesn’t imply an “unreal state of euphoria, to be punctured after the wedding when the prince still shows symptoms of froggishness,” she writes, “but the joy of being set at last in one’s place, beyond the adversities of bewitchment, freed for the normal business of living and dying”. The key terms from Madsen would be ‘joy’, of course, but also that sense of being ‘set in one’s place’: a sense of at-homeness in the world. When we talk about a happy ending, then we’re talking about what Madsen calls “the triumph of intelligence, courtesy and courage over the cruel and the loathsome”: a triumph that we might well need to hear about time after time since the cruel and the loathsome never entirely go away.
Elizabeth Morrison—For all that I love happy endings in fiction, I rarely think about them in real life. The time I’ve spent studying Buddhism has strengthened my tendency to avoid thinking in those terms. Life keeps going and changing. A happy ‘ending’ so easily changes into something else, just as a miserable situation can turn around radically.
Maggie Parke—Often the only goal for the Disney-influenced happy ending is to save the girl and get married/kiss. We can’t escape the Prince/Princess tropes, and the gut reaction when you say happy ending is Jane Austen-esque or Disney—a kiss and a marriage. Preferably with cartoon birds circling the happy couple’s head. Want to up the game? Make it a DOUBLE wedding! Bring on Jane and Bingley. Seemingly, the girl must find wholeness in a man, and the man must rescue the woman, be it from a hidden tower, an evil stepmother, or from a meddling, worrisome mother and poverty. There are exceptions to this, of course, but they are rare. Even with our recent obsession with a ‘strong female’ character (Hunger Games, Divergent), the story is incomplete without a male love interest. In fact, Katniss’ survival ultimately depended on choosing a man at the end; her survival was reliant on Peeta. God forbid Katniss had gone back to District 12, decided to become successful and happy by her own definition—farming? Public service? Hunter training? Nope. She got married to Peeta and had two kids.
Bethan Jones—The happy ending is tied up with the poor scullery girl marrying the prince. There’s nothing about the poor scullery maid marrying the princess, or even the other poor scullery maid—instead it’s this heteronormative narrative that gets fed to kids (quite often young girls) and that ends up feeding into a lot of expectations about the fairy tale romance, the perfect wedding, the happy-ever-after.
Margaret Gonglewski—In stories like Cinderella, the young, beautiful, and eligible girl suffers some unfairness but behaves well and is dutiful, and is rewarded in the end by marrying the prince. The German versions offer a more nuanced take on happy endings in terms of the reward for being the responsible heroine. Consider here the brutal gauging out—by birds—of the stepsisters’ eyes on the way to and from Cinderella’s wedding to the prince. End not so happy for those female characters . . . and it’s hard to imagine that Cinderella herself (the good and pious one, remember) would be happy to be the motivating force behind such violence.
Jodi—I don’t think it’s accidental that the romantic happy ending is so often associated with the domestic—with a couple settling down and building a family. If we think as the happy ending as something especially prevalent in texts by and for women, this isn’t at all surprising, considering the domestic has historically been such a female space. However, we should be careful of reading the happy ending as reconciling women to their fate confined in the domestic space, because that overlooks the radical remaking that men undergo in heterosexual romance narratives. Overwhelmingly, it’s the man’s worldview, not the woman’s, that has to change (or at least it is the one that changes the most dramatically). He inhabits the domestic space with her, blissfully and happily, without complaint. In this way, the happy ending often offers a way of reimagining the domestic space as a fantasy space with a greater level of equality.
Sara K.—There’s something really fascinating that goes on in female-focused stories with a happy ending, particularly romance novels. The woman really does end up happy, and she often ends up happy in a socially acceptable way: overwhelmingly in romance novels and elsewhere she ends up in a committed, monogamous relationship with a man as part of her happy ending, and it’s implied that she’s going to have kids and start a family. But there’s nothing wrong with that inherently!
However, if we look closer, something happens with the heroes in romance novels and other fiction where the female lead is the focus when such a romantic happy ending happens. The man in her life just gets her, often nearly without needing to ask, and therefore their relationship is reliably satisfying. We should focus on how unrealistic some of the portrayals of the relationships are when we try to understand how these happy endings, in which a woman ends up in a classic gender role, can be really happy. This seems to be a working out of all of the necessary unrealistic things that need to be true for this kind of ‘happy ending’, in which a woman is solidly performing her gender role, to be satisfying! This is how we get Twilight, where it’s okay that Bella has married a much older man and her main role is to bear children, because this man is entirely dedicated to her and could never leave her, essentially for supernatural reasons. Her child, too, is special in a supernatural way. We should read this as highlighting that to make this role universally appealing and clearly the only one she should take, we need the child to be a literal chosen one and the man to be supernaturally good and fundamentally incapable of being unworthy or unkind to her. We should look at the preconditions that make gendered happy endings possible as highlighting the ways in which the real world lacks the things necessary to make this the best call.
Michael Gratzke—Happy endings stereotypically are the outcome of external circumstances and/or male agency. Transformative change is not shown as the outcome of concerted efforts or female agency.
Caroline—The ‘messages’ portrayed by romantic comedies are very much tangled up with ideas about gender and gender roles. These films rely on the male characters to be active and the female characters to be passive. They contain a multitude of damaging ideologies for both women and men.
Lisa Macklem—There is definitely a prejudice that a woman’s (character) happy ending must involve a successful relationship—or at least the potential for one. Men can have a happy ending even if they don’t ‘get the girl’. It’s rare that the main female protagonist will be allowed to sacrifice herself for the greater good. While it may not pass the Bechdel test, there’s also nothing inherently wrong in women wanting to see issues from their own lives worked out in fiction — and this may include relationships. In the Hollywood model, women are rarely the active participants and are often portrayed as being motivated by romance/love/relationships.
I would also posit that women fans tend to be more interested in the more intimate spaces of a story. Herein lies a chicken-and-egg dilemma. Do women crave these spaces or do they gravitate here because it is what is offered to them and expected of them?
Rebecca—Notions of a happy ending and a ‘good ending’ are not always the same, and this is linked to different genres that are often themselves highly gendered. So, there is a tendency for certain genres (such as comedy or romance narratives) to be more likely to have a happy ending where the characters ultimately either get what they want or end up happily in relationships. Fans of Sex and the City, for example, talk about the satisfactory ending of the series, which saw all of the main characters in their own different ‘happy’ endings, and how they felt that continuing the storyline in films ruined that.
Cait—Mainstream romantic fiction is inextricably bound up with social norms and expectations: women are supposed to marry and have children, and bonus if they can also be successful in their careers. The popular novels of Jennifer Weiner—who has in many ways been at the forefront of arguing that perceptions of women’s fiction are coloured by a male literary establishment—play with this trope. In her 2001 novel Good in Bed, the journalist heroine conceives a child with her boyfriend before they break up, and she is determined to take care of it herself even as she is left emotionally reeling. However, she ends up miscarrying the child and having a depressive breakdown; the ‘happy ending’ sees her emerging from her medical and emotional malaise, getting a new and better job, and dating again.
Interestingly, m/m romantic fiction, a genre that features queer male romances by women writers for women readers, follows similar patterns. Aleksandr Voinov and L.A. Witt’s 2014 novel Lone Wolf is about a fan of a supernatural book and TV series who 1) ends up in a romantic relationship with the book’s author, 2) has his epic fanfic novel adopted as part of the ongoing book series, thus rescuing the author from writer’s block, and so 3) becomes a published and famous author himself. The novel-within-a-novel plays with genre expectations itself as the characters discuss the limits of writing for different audiences: how the original book and TV show were discouraged from having queer characters, only to see the familiar slashing within the popular fandom, and so on. In many ways, the story is a wish-fulfilment of an author/fan relationship, and one I think is possible simply because both characters are men, given the familiar demonization of female fans in American popular culture (as in Misery or what have you). Further, while the characters end up in a monogamous and happy relationship, the questions of the heteronormative marriage plot (marriage, children) are not discussed.
María Ramos-García—I don’t think the happy ending in itself is tied to gender roles or even to gender. In romance, for example, the ideal happy ending has changed from the sound of wedding bells and the consolidation of a traditional marriage with a stay-at-home mom to many alternative models of a happy couple. The fact that in romance the heroine ‘wins’ may be a factor for the derision the genre suffers, but it is not due to the fact that the ending is happy itself, maybe the manner in which it is achieved.
Sarah L.—I don’t think that the happy ending is particularly gendered. Queer romances by queer authors of any gender need a happy ending just as much as any heteronormative, monogamous romance written by a straight female author.
Margaret—Happy endings almost always have something to do with power. They restore or bestow power on those who will use it for good purposes and take it away from those who have misused it. They give hope of an end to oppression, both of the fictional characters and of the readers of a text. If the oppression has been linked to conventional ideas about gender and gender roles, then the happy endings will point toward more liberating arrangements.
Radclyffe—As an author writing lesbian romances, I have seen the happy ending change over the last fifty years with the advent of domestic partnerships, then civil union, and finally marriage. Whereas at one time we could not end our romances with a conventional marriage ceremony or even a proposal, we can and often do now. Nevertheless, we could certainly end the novel with a clear-cut vow to love and cherish forever prior to the legalization of our unions. Historically the elements of courtship, betrothal, and commitment are present in our romances in substantive form, and in the last decade these elements are more explicit in many LGBTQ romances. Now that we have a choice as to how to frame the happy ending, it is not always with marriage (which is not universally embraced in either the heterosexual or LGBTQ world, is not necessarily binary, and is not the province of any gender or gender identity). In a ménage the trio presumably will make some commitment to a long-term relationship, and many couples (gay/lesbian/bi/trans etc.) may promise ‘forever’ without stipulating that it will include marriage. The key to the HEA is not the form of the union, but the commitment to make a life together.
Eric—If all we mean by ‘happy ending’ is victory, then I don’t think there’s any particular gendering involved. As Beverly Jenkins jokes in the Love Between the Covers (2015) documentary about popular romance fiction, there’s plenty of that sort of happy ending in Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone movies. If what we mean is ‘successful courtship and relationship formation’, then the happy ending gets tangled up with the fact that love and romance and relationship success (not just the emotional work of both of these, but the ‘intimate public sphere’ discussion of them) have become profoundly gendered, or specifically feminized. These are things that public discourse assigns to women, with a dose of misogyny and effeminophobia policing the boundaries so that boys and men are taught not to take too strong, too deep, too emotional an interest in them, except in certain carefully monitored ways. That hasn’t always been the case historically — there’s nothing inevitable about it — and I’ve seen it go back and forth a bit in my own short lifetime. That said, there are also certain kinds of sad endings that are also tangled up with ideas about gender and gender roles.
Maggie—I’m from the US, but I live in the UK and have for twelve years. I vividly remember the first time I saw the Keira Knightly Pride and Prejudice with some friends here in the UK, and the final scene where Lizzie and Darcy are sitting on the terrace of Pemberley in a state of undress, calling each other by pet names as he kisses her softly, professing his love repeatedly—it wasn’t there! It’s not in the UK version. The UK version ends with Darcy going in to ask Mr. Bennet for permission to marry Lizzie. What does that say about a US audience? That there can’t be a happy ending without the kiss? Discussing it with UK friends after watching the US version on YouTube, they found that final scene overly saccharine. The fact that it was added onto the US version says to me that the intimacy, kissing, and ‘saccharine-ness’ are necessary for US audiences to feel satisfied. That they need this giggly, girly, gooey moment. I do think happy endings can happen in all cultures of course, but one country’s happy ending may not satisfy someone from another culture. And as the United States dominates the TV and film industry, has worldwide distribution, and thereby produces the most visual evidence of happy endings, this definition has arguably become quite pervasive.
María—Although I have become used to it, I am still annoyed by the reaction of my [American] students to unhappy endings. They feel cheated when in a book or film the end is not satisfying and the main characters don’t ‘win’. In that regard I would say that the happy ending is extremely engrained in the American psyche. If I go to the movie theatre to watch a mainstream US film, the happy ending is almost a given. Even when the end is necessarily sad (as in Titanic, in which everyone knows in advance the ship will sink), there is always a symbolic gesture that somehow resolves the conflict or provides closure (a very American concept). That is not the case in European film unless you go to a comedy. I think it is connected to the belief in American exceptionalism and the blind faith in the American Dream.
Jodi—I don’t think the US can lay claim to the happy ending entirely, although it is a matter of cultural prevalence there. As the global spread of the romance genre shows, the appeal of the happy ending is international, especially in Anglophone countries. The happy ending in Australia, for instance, is largely imagined in the same way as it is in American narratives: with the establishment of a romantic relationship with the understanding that the worst is over and the relationship will continue at least some way into the future. Happy endings in Australia often also include an emphasis on finding a place where one belongs, which I haven’t seen quite so emphasised in US narratives.
Kathrina—I’ve never thought of it as particularly associated with the US, although certainly the idea of romantic love as the panacea to all social/religious/economic ills is particularly American, I think. A friend once said to me, ‘Americans are greedy for love’, and that idea of excess, or desperation for romantic love as almost the antithesis to a capitalist American Dream, permeates a lot of American pop culture and media. I think a lot of the literature around romantic love in America looks at how tragic this discourse is.
Elizabeth—Recent mainstream US culture seems to have such a case of optimism as well as individualism. The ancient Greeks would have a hard time recognizing us as their cultural heirs for the former, if not the latter. In popular film and books we avoid hard realities, or use them only as props to overcome in the pursuit of happiness. And the bar is so high for happiness.
Michael—US culture has some typical everyday and cultural narratives (self-made man, redemption) but does not have exclusive claim to the happy ending.
Pavla—Almost every movie that comes from the US has a happy ending; the good guy always wins and gets the girl. American movies are the biggest imported item to the Czech Republic since 1989; in my country the idea of happy endings come mostly from US, at least for my generation. One of my colleagues said that she doesn’t like American happy endings because they are fake and, more importantly, predictable. Real life is not like that. I find that very fitting and almost representative of the Czech nature. Happy endings are like fairy tales, meant for children and those who are naive.
Lisa—It’s a well-known fact in Hollywood that sad endings tend to do less well at the box office.
In Canada, this is not nearly as prevalent, and there is a greater tendency to gravitate to either an unresolved or negative ending. In fact, when I was completing my BA in English and studying Canadian literature, I distinctly remember a fellow classmate putting up her hand in despair and asking if there were ANY happy endings in Canadian literature! This is also a facet of the post-modern, however.
Elizabeth—Traditionally, the Chinese have been suspicious of individual happiness. Contentedness in one’s role in the family, yes, but the pursuit of individual happiness seems so disruptive, so dangerous, with no guarantee. I know many Chinese in the US who’ve embraced American ideas of happiness, particularly in choosing their own romantic partners and their own careers, but I also know many who find Americans quite naive and child-like in their insistence that ‘things will work out’ and ‘it’s all for the best’ and ‘as long as you’re willing to work hard and follow your heart, life is fair’ and so on. No, it’s not, they say.
Kathrina—Particularly in Brunei, the understanding of the happy ending is tied up with a cultural and religious belief that the worldly ending is not the true one. Thus, the happy ending must negotiate divine approval as well as worldly desire. The fundamental component of the happy ending is divine approval—if the worldly desire is sacrificed to attain this, then that is still a happy ending. However, if the worldly desire is achieved at the expense of divine approval, then it’s not a happy ending. The Ultimate Happy Ending, then, marries the two.
Lisa—I have a fond memory of watching Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Not being a fan of the genre, I didn’t understand the conventions, but it became clear to me about one-third in that things didn’t seem to be going well. I was invested in these characters and it was a long movie. About two-thirds of the way through, I leaned over to my companion and told him that if the two characters on the screen at that moment died, I would not be happy. Needless to say, I did not leave that film happy.
Pavla—I thought about Czech books and movies and realized that most of these have either a very sad ending or were melancholic, thought-provoking or hands-down depressing. Czechs are really not a sunny and optimistic nation. We do not have the emotionally satisfying ending. Our happy ending would be better defined as ‘making the majority of the people involved satisfied and content’.
Margaret—While living in Germany, I went to a movie in which the term das Happyend came up several times. At first I considered it to be a simple direct translation of the English loanword, referring to the story’s positive outcome against all odds. Although I can’t recall the exact story, I do remember that through the plot development and outcome and the narrator’s perspective, it became clear that there was at least a tinge of irony in the word use, as if it were accompanied by disgust and/or eye-rolling (think: ‘Oh those naive Americans, who believe that the good guy should always win in the end’).
In order to check whether that ironic take has been codified in the definition, I turned to the Duden [the German dictionary]. I discovered that the irony would derive from use and not from the definition itself, for the Duden defines ein Happyend as an “[unexpected] happy outcome of a conflict or love story”. What’s far more exciting here is the new German verb I learned — happyenden: to take (or make) a happy outcome, to find a happy end. It’s interesting to see that the words doch noch appear here, as they indicate the sense of ‘against all odds’.
Cait—We have been taught that romance provides narrative closure if the rest of the plot can’t do it. For instance, in Elizabeth Gaskell’s industrial novel North and South (1855), most of the drama comes from workers’ riots, attempts to form a union, and so on, and that plot actually goes unresolved, whereas the romantic plot between the heroine and the hero concludes with them accepting their feelings for one another. In the 2004 BBC miniseries, the screenwriters changed this, giving resolution to both plots and so what we might consider a ‘true’ happy ending.
On the flipside, look at Marvel’s Civil War comic series from 2007. It has no real resolution; the ‘war’ ends with Captain America’s death, and the special issue “The Confession” features a long monologue by Tony Stark/Iron Man to Cap’s body where he explains why he did everything he did, and why it wasn’t worth it. And this spawned the Steve/Tony fandom because only by introducing elements of romance did the story have any conclusion at all: it becomes a romantic tragedy if these two characters have been in love with one another, whether said or unsaid.
Sara K.—I think the fan tendency to read romance into non-romantic relationships denigrates the possibility of real, close friendships with members of the gender to which we are attracted, and that’s a terrible thing. Friendship is super important: we’ve literally been saying that friendship is one of the greatest goods in a person’s life since Aristotle! But if we have no models of friendships that we don’t see as potentially improved by romance, it will be much harder for people to understand and commit to the work that a true friendship takes. Elizabeth Brake calls this tendency ‘amatonormativity’, and she points out that it also means that those who aren’t seeking romance in the way we think they should are stigmatized, and our platonic relationships are implicitly de-emphasized. That’s a bad thing if we take seriously how important friendship can be for improvement and support.
Bethan—One of the things I love about this fannish tendency is that it’s so often non-heteronormative romance. Slash and femslash get written into Hawaii 5-0 or The X-Files, and it creates this new (or at least not mainstream) kind of romance. In some ways—and this has been argued loads in fan studies—it becomes a very subversive act in the sense of writing queer characters, but also by turning a horror, crime, SFF (etc.) text into a romance, which is typically seen as lacking merit. So there’s this double level of subversion going on within the text and also to the text.
Maggie—You could argue that the human experience is grounded in relationships — finding them, securing them, seeking them out, and understanding them, as evidenced by the popularity of romance novels, romantic comedies, and the cultural catchphrases that have seeped into our daily conversation (‘Oh, they are such a Ross and Rachel . . . when will they get together?’). It’s therefore not too much of a stretch to think about fictional characters and imagine relationships extending beyond the page into a romantic space, especially if it is something where groundwork has been laid, or perceived to be laid. For example, the ‘ships’ between Snape and Malfoy, and between Malfoy and Harry are extremely popular. I think this is due to the intensity of these relationships and the lack of LGBT relationships in the Potter series, so readers seeking something like that latch onto it. It would provide an easy vehicle through which to stretch their creative muscles and write in this desired storyline. Additionally, X-rated scenes are extremely popular in fan fiction, particularly in texts that are not X-rated, as fans want to see beyond the ‘fade to black’ after a kiss. Teens are a large population of the audience, although not the only demographic, and so fan fiction can be a place where those exploring their own sexuality or seeking experience and knowledge could find information through familiar characters—and it may be a bit of a healthier option than porn!
Lisa—Why do fans of Marvel superhero comics write domestic fan fiction? Why do these fans ‘ship’ characters with each other so frequently? I would posit that it’s because these intimate stories are what is missing from the grander, action-adventure side of the story. Fan fiction writers, who may be predominantly female, often seem to prefer this more intimate space. Do they want to see the action in the space that is prescribed as theirs? Is this the space they are more comfortable in? Are they filling in gaps? Is it easier to have happy resolutions to ‘simpler’ issues?
Caroline—In the course that I teach on romantic comedies we talk about society’s tendency to privilege ‘high art’ over ‘low art’. While my students and I acknowledge that most people would label rom-coms ‘low art’, we also know that these movies are incredibly rich in terms of discussion material. We’ve had spirited conversations about race, class, sexuality, and gender over films such as Maid in Manhattan and I Love You, Man. Furthermore, the fact that they are actively—and voraciously—consumed by the public indicates that there is something very compelling that these films bring to bear regarding the American cultural climate in which they are historically positioned.
María—On the other hand there is, even in the US, an intellectual prejudice against the happy ending (maybe in part, even if unfairly, due to a sceptical attitude towards what is perceived as complacency with the status quo). Aristotle’s Poetics may be in part responsible for this attitude, too. For many intellectuals a happy ending is equated with an uncritical attitude and conservative politics. While there is more than a grain of truth in this assessment, it is also a gross generalization. First, the conflation of politics and quality is problematic in itself. Second, and for me most important, the fact that the protagonists resolve a conflict and enjoy a happy situation at least in one area of their life does not preclude narrative complexity or a critical, progressive attitude. Somehow, we are willing to accept that in older texts (‘the classics’) but condemn contemporary texts with prejudice. For example, nobody would think that Jane Austen considers that the state of affairs for women is ideal in her time because Elizabeth Bennet gets her Mr. Darcy. Austen’s criticism is presented from the first line of the novel and through different characters (Elizabeth’s friend, caught in a loveless marriage, is not a traitor to love ideals, but a reminder of an inescapable reality for many women if they want to survive). The fact that the same kind of complex critical attitude is less likely to be applied to contemporary texts has more to do with intellectual elitism and, ironically, protection by critics of their own status (quo) as experts.
Eric—This idea that comedy is less noble than tragedy has deep roots all the way back to Aristotle; comedy is for the hoi polloi; happy endings are trivial or childish, etc. This ‘general belief’ has inertia on its side and perpetuates itself in many ways across our educational system.
However, perhaps this belief isn’t altogether ridiculous. I can think of plenty of ways that a longing for the happy ending—whether narrowly defined in a romantic sense, or more broadly just in terms of success for the protagonist—can lead us into the temptation of kitsch or simply into caring so much about our protagonists and their immediate circle that we no longer care about the broader world around them. As long as Meg rescues Charles Wallace from Camazotz [from L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time], we don’t care that the rest of its inhabitants are still under the rule of IT: that’s a happy ending, a beloved ending that teaches us to care about certain things and to conveniently forget about others in a way that a more tonally or emotionally unsettled ending might not. So, yes, there’s reason to be wary—but we need to be wary of lots of things, right?
Cait—This is a function of how art becomes stratified and gendered. Almost as soon as we had a mass popular culture through print, we had gendered models of consumption, with novels for women and ‘serious’ literary and scientific works for men. Popular novels often (but not always) had happy endings, serious literature less so. I do not think it’s a mistake that the incredibly popular and literary novels of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet series (2012-2015) go through the motions of women’s fiction—childhood friendships between girls, preoccupations with first love and then with marriage and divorce—but are also almost unrelentingly dire in their descriptions of poverty, gangs, adultery, and so on. And no, they do not have a happy ending of any kind.
Sometimes I think the prejudice against happy endings is directly because of consumerism; the mainstream romance genre is a marketing juggernaut with around $1 billion worth of business done each year (according to RWA). Happiness is a commodity that can be bought and sold; unlike other objects that are advertised to make one happy, romance novels depict happiness and particularly sexual contentment, the latter of which specifically discomforts men.
Rebecca—Personally, I don’t agree with the value judgments about which type of ending or text is better, but it is interesting how often the idea of happy endings is seen to be synonymous with a lack of originality, almost as though a text with a happy ending isn’t bold or clever enough to do something different. The linkage to literary value is odd, however, because many important literary texts have clear happy endings—Pride and Prejudice ends in marriage, for example. Again, I think the distinction is more about genre rather than being literary or non-literary per se.
As an example, I had a real problem at the end of the movie La La Land because its generic coding—as a musical, as a romance—led me to expect a happy ending at the conclusion. Not getting that made me feel cheated because it felt as though the film forced itself to go against convention, almost to prove that it was ‘better’ or more original by not having its lead characters be together at the end. I think genre is really important in terms of our expectations of what an ending will be.
Sarah L.—I think . . . hmm. I think stories with non-happy endings have more choices. Like, is it a non-happy ending because everyone died, or everyone was disappointed, or just the main character had to give up their dreams, or . . . what? The happy ending for each genre is well-defined. The non-happy ending could be, literally, anything else.
Sonali—The novelist writes to make a statement, don’t they? Some do it more consciously and overtly than others, but I do believe that all writers write because they have something to say. If the nature of your exploration is socio-political, then you cannot end a story without revealing the result of your exploration in some way. Even if your exploration is entirely internal to your characters, a character’s growth has to reflect in her relationship with her world in some way. Stories work best for me when the statement is the result of the story, rather than the story being made to bend so it ends in a predetermined statement. The exploration of the issue as part of the story arc is more important to me than the statement as an ending (because that should follow naturally).
Maggie—There may be the perception that happy endings are ‘simple’ or uncomplicated, thus giving the impression that there’s less depth and less complexity for analysis. However, complexity is not equal to merit in my mind, and I also don’t think that a happy ending means there’s no complexity . . . or that only unhappy or frustrating endings can have cultural (and academic) merit. In fact, an open, unsatisfying ending is such a popular trend now with programs like Netflix’s The OA and Stranger Things that it is now being seen by some as a gimmick to appear more complex and sophisticated, thus negating its intended effect.
Radclyffe—Why are tragedies more valuable and more valid than life-affirming romances is the real question. Why is sorrow a more authentic emotion than joy? Ultimately what this says is that suffering is more noble than happiness, as if to be happy or sexually satisfied is shallow or frivolous and certainly not an aim. Obviously, as a romance author I disagree. In the LGBTQ community, the happy ending is embraced and often demanded as a life-affirming, validating portrayal of our lives.
Sarah L.—But honestly, more than anything else, I think it’s that the romance genre, which has the most well-defined ‘happy ending’, is generally written by women, for women, and about women (obviously not so stringently anymore), and anything considered feminine is devalued (sort of contradicting my earlier comments about gender, but what the hell).
Every ending carries with it some sort of continuation, whether happy or sad: characters will carry on, relationships will persist and change. Similarly, we hope that these ruminations on happy endings are only a beginning. Since we embarked on this project, much has happened in the world of Romancelandia, paralleling and in some cases furthering urgent debates about social justice and the pursuit of happiness, something that the U.S. Declaration of Independence asserted as an “inalienable right”, but that the current American government sees as a threat to the rights of wealthy white citizens. The Black Lives Matter movement has drawn broader attention to the historical underpinnings of institutionalized racism; many historical romance writers of colour are working to do the same, making the fight for social justice an essential component of the happy ending. Likewise, the question of who deserves a happy ending also arises in response to an overdue public reckoning about gender, consent, sexual assault, and entitlement; for example, novelist and Washington Post columnist Sarah MacLean reports rewriting a recent manuscript to make her hero a nicer man. The ripple effects of #metoo and harassment charges are felt in all quarters of the romance fiction industry, and we are still grappling with how to deal with instances as they arise. We hope to embark on a follow-up project that will explore the intersection of the happy ending with contemporary politics.
The questions, in the order they appear in the essay:
- What is your working definition of a happy ending?
- What are your thoughts about the ways in which the happy ending may be tangled up with ideas about gender and gender roles?
- Is the happy ending particularly associated with the United States (or has it become so)? If so, why? If you are from a different country, what do you see as your country’s understanding of the happy ending?
- What do you make of the fan tendency to insert romance into non-romance genres and/or rework those non-romance genres as romance?
- It is generally believed that genres with happy endings have less literary value or cultural merit than those without. What do you think about this?
Cait Coker is a doctoral candidate at Texas A&M University specializing in the history of women in publishing.
Kathrina Haji Mohd Daud researches global Islamic fiction, Southeast Asian literature and popular romance. She is an Assistant Professor in the English Studies program at the Universiti Brunei Darussalam, where she has been since 2011.
Sonali Dev is an award-winning author who writes Bollywood-style love stories that let her explore issues faced by women around the world while still indulging her faith in a happily ever after.
Margaret Gonglewski (PhD, Georgetown University) directs the German Language Program at GWU. She is co-author of Treffpunkt Deutsch, an introductory German textbook, and many articles in language teaching and learning.
Michael Gratzke is a love researcher and Professor of German and Comparative Literature, at the University of Hull in the UK.
Bethan Jones, a PhD candidate at the University of Huddersfield and board member for the Fan Studies Network, has published many journal articles on fandom.
Sara Kolmes is a Doctoral Candidate in Philosophy at Georgetown, researching the importance of paying attention to different ways of knowing and life goals in medical settings.
Katherine Larsen teaches in the University Writing Program at The George Washington University; she is the editor of the Journal of Fandom Studies and a co-author of Fandom at the Crossroads and Fangasm.
Sarah Lyons is a Lecturer at Fayetteville State University, NC.
Lisa Macklem is a PhD candidate in IP, Entertainment, and Media Law; a dressage rider; a runner; and a traveller still hoping for a happy ending.
Jodi McAlister is a Lecturer in Writing and Literature at Deakin University in Melbourne, and an author of young adult fiction.
Elizabeth Morrison is a scholar of Chinese Buddhism and teaches classes on East Asian religions at Middlebury College in Vermont.
Maggie Parke earned her PhD in Film and Digital Media from Bangor University, Wales, and currently works in both education and the film industry, developing projects, editing scripts, and consulting on fan management.
Radclyffe is a queer romance author and the president of Bold Strokes Books, an LGBTQ publisher.
María Ramos-García is a Professor of Spanish and Global Studies at South Dakota State University. Her current area of research is Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy.
Eric Murphy Selinger is Executive Editor of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies and President of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance.
Heather Schell, Assistant Professor at the George Washington University, is engaged in a project that uses mixed methods to investigate cultural representations of love in Turkey.
Caroline J. Smith is an Associate Professor in the University Writing Program at the George Washington University, where she has taught a variety of first-year writing seminars themed around such topics as women’s writing and popular culture.
Margaret D. Stetz, the Mae and Robert Carter Professor of Women’s Studies and Professor of Humanities at the University of Delaware, has published over 100 essays in scholarly journals and edited collections and was named by the magazine Diverse: Issues in Higher Education in its 2015 list of “The Top 25 Women in Higher Education”.
Rebecca Williams is Senior Lecturer in Communication, Culture and Media Studies at the University of South Wales, and has written several books on fan culture, most recently Everybody Hurts: Transitions, Endings & Resurrections in Fan Cultures (University of Iowa Press, 2018).
Pavla Zapletal is a Ph.D. student at Masaryk University in Brno, with a dissertation that focuses on the social and ideological force in the works of Nora Roberts.
References and Further Reading
Burke, K. (1973). The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Crusie, Jennifer. (2000, March.) “I know what it is when I read it: Defining the Romance Genre”. [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://jennycrusie.com/non-fiction/i-know-what-it-is-when-i-read-it-defining-the-romance-genre/Jennycrusie.com
Fleming, R. (1993). “Happy Endings? Resisting Women and the Economy of Love in Day Five of Boccaccio’s Decameron”. Italica, 70(1), 30-45.
Giddens, A. (1992). The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love and Eroticism in Modern Societies. Cambridge: Polity.
Grindon, L. (2011). The Hollywood Romantic Comedy: Conventions, History and Controversies. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.
Illouz, E. (2012). Why Love Hurts: A Sociological Explanation. Cambridge: Polity.
Kermode, F. (1967) The Sense of an Ending; Studies in the Theory of Fiction
New York: Oxford UP.
MacDowell, J. (2013). Happy Endings in Hollywood Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP.
MacLean, S. (2017, August 8). “How Trump Killed off My Romantic Lead”. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/how-trump-killed-off-my-romantic-lead/2017/08/08/8e3e40dc-7305-11e7-8839-ec48ec4cae25_story.html
Madsen, C. (2005). The Bones Reassemble: Reconstituting Liturgical Speech. Aurora, CO: Davies Group.
Modleski, T. (2008). Loving With a Vengeance: Mass Produced Fantasies for Women. New York: Routledge.
Radway, J. A. (2009). Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Regis, P. (2013). A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Roach, C.M. (2016). Happily Ever After: The Romance Story in Popular Culture. Bloomington: Indiana UP.
Schalk, S. (2016). “Happily Ever After for Whom? Blackness and Disability in Romance Narratives”. The Journal of Popular Culture, 49(6), 1241-1260.
Shaw, B. “Sequel: What Happened Afterwards”. Pygmalion. New York: Brentano, 1916; Bartleby.com, 1999. Retrieved from http://www.bartleby.com/138/.
Strunk, W. (1925). “The Happy Ending”. The Sewanee Review, 33(1), 38-48. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.proxygw.wrlc.org/stable/27533827
Tauchert, A. (2005) Romancing Jane Austen: Narrative, Realism, and the Possibility of a Happy Ending. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Williams, R. (2015) Post-Object Fandom: Television, Identity and Self-Narrative. New York: Bloomsbury.
Zwinger, Lynda. (2016). “Henry James and Suffering: Emptiness, Non-Attachment, and the ‘Happy’ Ending”. The Henry James Review. 37 (3), p. 305.
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