In Party for One, Mashable explores single life in 2020, from Carly Rae Jepsen’s iconic single anthems, to the beauty of alone time, and the fascinating history behind the single positivity movement.
Just a note: this article discusses the endings of a lot of (mostly old) movies and a couple of TV shows, so if you’re spoiler-averse, it might not be for you.
P.J. Hogan’s 1997 romcom, My Best Friend’s Wedding, broke one of the cardinal rules of the genre. Despite a barrage of tropes, from email heists and karaoke ambushes to a romantic slow-dance on a boat and passionate last-minute declarations of love, Jules (Julia Roberts) fails to talk her lifelong best friend into ditching his fiancée for her — and the film ends with the eponymous event going ahead. Our protagonist is left sitting alone, radiant but miserable in her lavender bridesmaid’s dress, before being lured to the dance floor by her irrepressible gay BFF George (Rupert Everett In A Tux).
“Life goes on,” George murmurs sagely. “Maybe there won’t be marriage, maybe there won’t be sex — but by God, there’ll be dancing.” Those maybes hang in the air for a moment before the soundtrack swells and the credits roll; the film ends with Jules still heartbroken and single, but loved, and a less selfish person. And, yes, there’s dancing. It’s not just the ending she deserved: It’s one audiences deserve, too.
We talk about relationships in terms of endings a lot: happy endings, ending up with someone. It makes perfect sense that the vast majority of romcoms and romantic movies end with a kiss and the implication (or confirmation) that those two characters are now Together Forever. Their woes are over, the ultimate goal of coupledom achieved. The rest of their lives are now plotted out with their paramour at their side, and we need follow their story no more. The happily ever after (or in romance genre shorthand, HEA) ties everything up in a neat pink bow, offering the audience reassurance that their own HEA is possible and even inevitable — that all roads lead to romance, and there you stay.
It’s a fantasy, one that people seek out like comfort food, and for good reason. It’s fun to watch the symmetrically beautiful actors make out at the end; it’s supremely satisfying to see sexual tension resolved; it’s reassuring when characters with relatable flaws are deemed worthy of love. We’re soothed by a narrative that tells us someone else can fix us. Problem is, we’re inundated with these endings from our earliest movie experiences — princesses get their prince, one kiss solves all their problems, The End — and you probably don’t need this 2008 study to tell you that all those tied-up-in-a-neat-little-package love stories create unrealistic expectations for how your IRL love life is going to play out.
We talk about relationships in terms of endings a lot: happy endings, ending up with someone.
There is, however, a subset of romantic stories that find the main character, usually a woman, heading off into the sunset alone, or at least not with the person we’ve watched them dance around or pursue for the last hour or two. These stories can be just as romantic, passionate, funny, true, and life-affirming as the ones with a big pink bow on the ending — especially if you’re single and bone-tired of movies that seem to reinforce that you’re incomplete until someone else completes you, and then you’re done.
I’m not talking about star-crossed romances and tragic weepies, here. For one thing, as any Jane Austen fan will tell you, marriage was an unavoidable economic necessity for most women for hundreds of years (or at least the “respectable” middle- and upper-class ones who tend to be featured in stories where romance is the focus). Even in contemporary times, leaving a female protagonist to tramp off into an uncertain future without a man at the end of a story can be a hard sell. The trope could really only grow after the sexual revolution and the women’s liberation movement created the cultural circumstances where a woman not getting the guy, choosing (or settling for) singledom and self-actualisation, could be framed as a happy ending all its own, and to boot. (And as anyone who’s single, or has ever been so, will tell you, being contented as a “self-partnered” woman still invites bemusement and rude interrogation.)
Nor is this quite the same thing as the , dubbed so by 90210’s Kelly Taylor in 1995 and recently echoed on an episode of The Bold Type. While rejecting all available options in a love triangle in favour of working on personal growth or career is one way of getting to the non-HEA ending, it’s much more common on TV than in film, but it’s a ruse: a means to prolong sexual or romantic tension between characters and avoid the work of writing a happy or at least settled long-term relationship in an interesting way. It also, crucially, leaves the possibility open for that character to End Up with someone later in the show’s arc.
The single best use of a non-HEA ending on TV in recent memory was for an actual ending: the series finale of the CW’s beloved musical dramedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a show that was constantly, gleefully, pointedly wheeling out and then subverting the romcom tropes woven into its DNA. Protagonist Rebecca Bunch tells a room gathered to hear who she’ll pick in her love quadrangle (it’s a whole thing) that if she eventually does partner up, “it won’t be ending up with someone, because romantic love is not an ending… it’s just a part of your story.”
A film with all the trappings of a romcom can tell a better story when it opts not to pair up its leads at the end.
Plenty of classic romances kind of fit the brief — think of 1942 urtext Casablanca, for example, or David Lean’s restrained, quietly erotic 1945 masterpiece Brief Encounter. Both see their female protagonists, mature women with rich inner lives, “end up” not with the romantic, brooding leading man we’ve grown to root for throughout the movie, but their less-compelling yet honourable husband. More relevant: One of the greatest romantic comedies of all time, Roman Holiday (1953), sees Audrey Hepburn’s princess move on from her whirlwind connection with Gregory Peck, having taken something sweet and precious from it to treasure. All the women’s choices to return to real life (and a higher duty to either family or country) instead of continuing their love affairs are painted as noble and mature, the sweeping romance an interlude rather than an end in itself.
When a romantic comedy takes this trope further by having their (usually female) lead end up alone, without so much as a less-impassioned consolation marriage, it’s a more meaningful and interesting take on “happily never after” than the easy heartstring-tug of a doomed widescreen love affair. A film with all the trappings of a romcom — the great hair, the breezy banter, the meaningful eye contact and grand gestures — can sometimes tell a better story when it opts not to pair up its leads at the end.
Instead, the romance we’ve watched is framed as a moment in a character’s life, a learning experience, something that shaped them into a new and better version of themselves — but not an ending.
Jenn Kaytin Robinson’s day-in-the-life breakup comedy Someone Great (2018) briefly teases a reconciliation between Jenny (Gina Rodriguez) and her newly minted ex Nate (Lakeith Stanfield) — but it’s a fake-out, and it’s all the better for it. All her crying and antics and angst aren’t a precursor to a happy ending; they’re just her being a person, going through a moment of transition, aided by the support of her two best friends, before picking herself up for a new life and a new phase of her career. The film is so much stronger for sticking to its guns and allowing Jenny to let go of the relationship, acknowledging the magnitude of the painful change but not so much as even hinting that a new relationship is waiting in the wings. (Looking at you, 500 Days of Summer.)
I watched James L. Brooks’ 1987 classic Broadcast News for the first time a few years ago, expecting a screwball-smart workplace comedy with a love triangle and a reassuring HEA — and got two out of three. Holly Hunter’s intense, uncompromising news producer Jane has both a hunky love interest (William Hurt) and a brilliant best friend (Albert Brooks) who proclaims his love for her, but she ends up with neither of them, as shown in the flash-forward final scene. And it’s perfect. Hurt’s a himbo with an unacceptably flexible approach to journalistic ethics, Brooks is a gifted but tightly wound type who lashes out nastily when he’s jealous.
As much as they bond over their work and admire her brilliance — like the scene where Hurt tells her having her voice in his earpiece during a heart-pounding live broadcast is “like great sex” — neither of them are right for her, and because they’re not meant-to-be, the story gets to draw these characters without having to shave off their sharp edges to fit them together. In the flash-forward, Jane does have a new boyfriend — but he’s only mentioned in passing as the main trio catch up in this contented future, and not the be-all and end-all.
I’d been feeling Extremely Single on this particular day, and basked in the confidence and breeziness of this ending. I hadn’t realised how much I needed a film not to reassure me that my person was out there, but to remind me that my story wasn’t over, that it hadn’t not yet started, just because I wasn’t part of a love story at that exact moment.
Romcoms at their best are actually about personal growth.
Romcoms at their best are actually about personal growth. Our leads have to navigate narrative obstacles or their own flaws to be worthy of someone’s love. Even the frothiest tropes, like makeovers, are usually deployed in the service of a message about learning to be happy with who you are inside and gaining self-respect so you can get and give more in a relationship than mere validation. More movies should take the sweet, sunny optimism of the romcom and use its tropes to tell stories that teach us to value the lessons of love and intimacy without clinging to coupledom above all else, or let us enjoy the back-and-forth and yearning and Big Speeches without having to force a happy ending for the sake of narrative convention. (And once Hollywood’s actually managed to make more than a handful of movies where LGBTQ people can find their own shiny, uncomplicated HEA, romcoms that happen to feature queer people can benefit from this just as much.)
Romance is one of life’s great pleasures for so many, and the knowledge that you’ve found genuine happiness with somebody you love is no small thing.
But the classic Hollywood HEA is far from an endangered species. What we need are more love stories that don’t end in bliss or tragedy. After all, you are the main character in your own life, a whole alone — and your story continues after the romance burns or fizzles out. Endings don’t need to be either happy or tragic. They don’t even need to be endings.