Behind the Curtain: Why Does Romance’s Happy Endings Rule Make Me Panic?

There are a few topics in the writing world that never really fall out of circulation. They’re contentious, sometimes for the most ridiculous reasons, sometimes for very good ones; the long-standing piracy debate is one of these, as well as the Venn Diagram topics of censorship, representation and sexuality.

One of the repeating topics that I have a particularly interesting relationship with, however, is from the romance side of writing; specifically, the debate over whether or not romances have to have a happy ending. Characterizing this as a debate isn’t quite right. Romance writers and readers – those who populate, purchase and shape the genre – are pretty much united in what they want from it. Romance novels ALWAYS have a happy ending, whether it’s a happily ever after or ‘happy for now’. I’m not here to challenge that, or to reignite the furious defensiveness around the concept, especially since plenty of the people fighting romance readers and writers on it are doing it out of sheer misogyny and/or contrarianism.

But…not everyone. And here’s the thing: the statement alone that ‘romance always has a happy ending’ is, on its own, uncontroversial. Yet a number of queer folks, me included, have a visceral, difficult-to-pin-down reaction to it. Every time the discussion raises its head, so does a deep horror in my chest – a panic I can’t place. It took me a while to identify it as a PTSD trigger. I want to fight it, say that it’s not necessary to have a happily ever after, because for whatever reason, I feel trapped. It’s a nonsense reaction and completely irrational, because I don’t even write romance! I have no interest in writing romance.

After sitting back and observing both the romance-writers field and the queer publishing field for a while, however, I came to a few conclusions.

1. Romance is still struggling with who and what a happy ending can include.

This one isn’t particularly news. Even within the debates I’ve seen, people theoretically on the same side and within the same genre end up at loggerheads over very different definitions of a ‘happy ending’. In queer romance, is it really a happy ending for a homophobic family to halfway come around, or is it happier to be completely done with them? In interracial romance, how convincing is a happy ending where the racists in a white love interest’s life are still around? Is an open-ended or ambiguous ending still a happy ending if the love interests aren’t explicitly back together? If they’re happy but not dating, is it still romance? Is a queerplatonic partnership a happy ending for romance?

These are the kinds of questions which plague the romance community internally, and from the outside, the loudest voices tend to be the ones insisting on ideals that already automatically exclude me. When “romance needs a happy ending” is so often treated as synonymous with “romance needs to end with a monogamous, usually heterosexual, Standard Relationship”, it’s hard not to feel twitchy around the concept.

But ultimately, that’s for the romance community to sort out. If I’m not a romance writer or reader, I have no investment in the genre, right? And it’s probably a little concerning that I’m even writing this, except –

2. Queer writers are placed in the romance box, whether we want it or not.

As a queer writer who writes queer characters, and who does not write romances, I run into this on a horrifyingly frequent basis. If a piece of media is identified as LGBTQ+, queer or gay, it is immediately assumed to be romantic. Even if, say, it’s a horror novel, or urban fantasy. The most striking example of this for me, personally – with a massive side of fetishization – was when I initially pitched Ghosts in Quicksilver to a friend of mine at the time, about three or four years ago. When I said it wasn’t really romance-focused/shipping-focused, she said she probably wouldn’t read it, because “there weren’t any cute boys to ship together”. What? Nor is this an isolated incident – I’ve had a lot of people fixate on the supposed romance in GIQ, and while I’ll tease about it, if that’s what people are taking from my work, there’s issues at hand I can’t solve.

Recently, The Half Of It on Netflix came under fire for ‘queerbaiting’, and it’s proof of more of the same; an explicitly queer movie wasn’t “queer enough” because it didn’t have a happy, romantic ending. Queer movies and books are judged by the standards of romances, even when they are making a point that they are not romances. 

The effect of this is that discussions in the romance genre community involve queer people, whether they intend to or not – because the standards set in place by the romance community end up being applied to queer writers universally. It’s not like only straight (allocishet) people do this, either – we do it to each other just as much if not more. So when queer writers react badly to the idea that ‘romance has to have a happy ending’, it’s just as frequently an attempt to reclaim our own work, even if it’s taken as an attack on romance; and responses that ‘well it’s just not romance then, that’s not so bad’ don’t quite grasp that we aren’t given the choice to opt out of the genre.

3. Rape Culture, Allonormativity and Amatonormative Coercion

While most of us probably have at least a vague idea of what ‘rape culture’ means, the other two words here are a little less well understood. There’s a frequent tendency even in otherwise progressive circles to mock “weird Tumblr terms”, but especially here, they’re indispensible.

What is allonormativity and amatonormativity? Allonormativity – broken down into ‘allo’ and ‘normative’ – refers to the supposed universality of a human experience, specifically that humans Want Sex. This functions separately from heteronormativity (all humans are straight), and cisnormativity (all humans identify with the gender they were assigned with at birth, a.k.a are not trans) but interacts with them in a lot of different ways. Sounds complicated? Let me word it differently – allonormativity is the force that makes movies like The 40-Year-Old Virgin comedies and not just slice-of-life movies about some dude living his life. Allosexuality isn’t specifically about ‘wanting sex’ – more articulately, it’s about experiencing sexual attraction to specific people in a Socially Approved Way – but in mainstream culture, that and ‘wanting sex’ are pretty much conflated. (Now you see why ace discourse is so complicated! We distinguish things that most people think of as exactly the same.)

Amatonormativity is a similar idea but one that strikes even more precisely at the heart of romance as a genre. Amatonormativity presupposes that feeling romantic love is what makes us human. If you don’t feel romantic love, you must therefore be ‘broken’ or ‘immature’ – romance is some sort of Completing Factor or Missing Piece. Once you identify this, you start seeing it everywhere. Disney movies, romcoms, dating shows, embarrassing calls from your mother about why you aren’t married yet… Both allonormativity and amatonormativity shape the romance genre, but more importantly, impact our lives in ways that are hard to put into words. It’s still hard to talk about coercive hetero- and cisnormativity, and ace and aro discussions are newer than even those.

The expectation to have sex and fall in love isn’t just omnipresent – for aromantic and asexual people in particular, it’s frequently traumatic. Paired with rape culture and consent issues in wider culture, it suddenly becomes less of a surprise that “you’re going to write/read a happy ending with a monogamous relationship OR ELSE” can be such a triggering statement. I know  I’ve been in various non-consensual relationships that I was coerced or pressured into, through both external and internal forces amounting to “pretend to be normal or you’re going to die alone”. And if it weren’t for the second point I mentioned, where queer writers are already pigeonholed into the romance genre, it wouldn’t feel so much like that kind of pressure.

Plenty of aro/ace-spectrum people are readers and writers of romance! That’s what makes this conversation so difficult. Just like the rest of the queer community, the aro/ace community is incredibly diverse. Everybody is affected by allo- and amatonormativity to a different degree. But I find that there is not a tremendous amount of patience for those who are less successful at blending in with the status quo.

The romance genre is allowed to uphold its own rules and standards, and this article isn’t intended to combat that in any way! However, I think it’s important when these discussions come up to recognize that while Romance:tm: as a genre is a singular concept, romance is still a pervasive cultural concept with baggage of its own. Not everybody reacting badly to a perceived prescription is attacking a genre; sometimes, we’re defending ourselves from the perceptions of a wider world.

I panic when this rule comes up, because whether I want it to, it ends up applying to me. I opt out immediately once I’m permitted to – so stop filing queer books under romance automatically, and understand that forced relationships are a genuine thing many of us have had to live through, and while this topic is never quite going to go away, I think we’ll be able to see eye to eye quite comfortably.

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