We all know the phrase “and they got married and lived happily ever after,” which tells us the story isn’t over until the girl gets the boy, the L-word is exchanged, and there is a promise that the couple faces a lifetime of bliss. It can make a modern, independent woman go totally insane by suggesting that no matter what she accomplishes personally or professionally, she alone is not enough.
In her essay "Why It's OK When The Girl Doesn't Get Her Happily-Ever-After — And Why, In Fact, It Might Even Be Better," Leila Sales writes about the power of stories that end triumphantly for the heroine — but without a man in sight: “Even in the year 2015, it still feels like an unusual and brave storytelling choice to give a heroine her happily-ever-after without her soulmate.” Just look at the uproar from Grey’s Anatomy fans who were devastated by the death of McDreamy.
But what if we’re misunderstanding the happy ending? What if it’s not about the boy at all, whether he's present or not?
In my book Dangerous Books For Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained, I explore the secret history and snarky reputation of romance novels, perhaps the art form most derided for its 100 percent guaranteed happy ever after (HEA). What I discovered is that these books aren’t just fluffy stories about plucky women snaring Prince Charming, and that the happy ever after isn’t about the wedding — or the boy — at all. Rather, romance novels — especially the new breed being written now — are about fictional heroines embarking on adventures, defying expectations, and refusing to settle in love. By rewarding them with a happy ending, it encourages real-life women to follow their example. In short: in modern romance novels, the HEA that you're used to reading about isn't what you think it is at all.
Myth: The HEA Is All About Ending With A Wedding
Truth: Romance novels are written to reflect the world the readers and writers live in, and that has often meant marriage. Even historical novels written today featuring totally feminist heroes and heroines usually wrap things up with wedding bells simply because it’s the historically accurate conclusion to falling in love. But there are plenty of modern romance novels that buck this convention, and show that not every happy ending has to end in a wedding. For example, the love story in Four Nights with the Duke by Eloisa James begins with an unwanted wedding and a marriage of convenience. The real story is what happens after "I do." But of course, because it's a romance novel, we end with an HEA. (I won't tell you how it ends, though!)
Myth: The HEA Is All About the Boy
Truth: How much of our resistance to the notion of happy ever after is the suggestion that a woman still needs a man? It’s hard to claim that lesbian romances are all about the boy (gay romances are all about the boy, but it’s not quite the same). No matter the genders involved, a romance is about how love transforms an individual by challenging one's own assumptions about his or herself and what he or she needs to be happy. What really matters: that the characters have grown as a result of the romantic relationship.
Myth: The HEA Is So Old Fashioned
Truth: The demographics of marriage have shifted radically since the days of the first romance novels — more people have the legal right to marry, people marry at a later age, people live together before the wedding, people live together without having a wedding, and some people get divorced and then do it all over again — and the HEA is evolving to reflect this.
For example, we now see the rise of the “happy for now” ending instead of happily ever after. When people don’t usually get engaged after a few dates, what does the HEA look like? “I’ve been seeing it more in contemporaries that they don’t necessarily have to be married or engaged at the end as long as there’s a resolution to whatever was hindering their relationship from moving forward,” says Elyse, a romance reviewer with the blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. What really matters: a sense of optimism that these individuals are going to be fine managing the obstacles that will inevitably follow.
Myth: The Goal of the HEA Is Being Coupled-Up
Truth: A romance novel always ends with love. After a few hundred pages of rule-breaking, risk-taking, and soul-searching, love is the reward. But it’s the love that comes from a deeper understanding of oneself. And yes, there's love from another person. However, romance novels don't just want to send the message that you need a plus-one to be happy. With the HEA, romance novels tell readers they too can dare to break the rules, defy expectations, and risk everything to find greater happiness. An unhappy ending says don’t try this at home. But the HEA says live the dream. In Tessa Dare's Say Yes to the Marquess, the heroine does get the guy — but this historical heroine also overcomes significant obstacles for professional success in a venture she loves. The HEA wouldn't be complete without both.