Is there only one happy ending for women characters in TV shows, movies and books?

by | Jan 13, 2016 | Quirkyalone | 16 comments

Is there only one happy ending for women characters? Lady Mary shakes things up in season 6 of Downton

Is there only one happy ending for women characters? Lady Mary shakes things up in season 6 of Downton

Ali sent me a text, “You should watch this week’s Downton Abbey. Mary Crawley has a big quirkyalone speech where she says she’d rather be alone than with a man she doesn’t love.”

I texted back, “OK, will do,” put down the phone and put Downton Abbey on the to-watch list for the night. Ali and I have been friends almost twenty years, we are both spotters of quirkyalone utterances in pop culture for fifteen years now. We look for moments when characters say being alone is preferable to settling, especially when they come from women. Those female articulations are more revolutionary in a world that defines women’s value in terms of their relationships.

Indeed the scene was awesome. Mary not only declared her preference for being alone over a loveless marriage, but also fended off a blackmailer who wanted to humiliate her for spending a week with a man (out-of-wedlock tryst! Scandal!). So not only did she declare her independence as a human being (she doesn’t need to be with a man to exist) but she stands up to slut-shaming.

The last season takes place in 1925, a decade when women were discovering new social liberties in the flapper era–where “calling” shifted into “dating” and sexual exploration became more commonplace. According to historian Michael Lerner, a decade after women finally won the right to vote, “women had the right to enjoy themselves socially as much as men did, whether through drinking, sex, or indulging in the pleasures of urban nightlife.”

The next question for me and Ali was, would Downton’s creators let Mary end up alone?

After Ali and I talked on the phone. Ali said, “They’re giving her all these boring men love interests this season. They’re not very inspiring. I hope they give her someone good before the series ends.”

I said, “I like the way they are playing it, that they have two single women sisters now Mary and Edith. That’s life too. Sometimes that is the way it goes.” I don’t mean either that Mary would always be single. But that there could be other valid endings.

I’ve been having conversations like these for quite a while now. Sex in the City was about to conclude a decade ago around the same time as my book Quirkyalone: A Manifesto for Uncompromising Romantics came out. Because they saw me as a real-life icon for the single girl, reporters often asked me for opinions about how ultimate single-women-in-the-city series (until then) should conclude. Would Carrie end up with Big? Carried ended up with Big.

When you look at other blockbuster memoirs-turned-to-movies such as Wild and Eat Pray Love, you realize they both begin with women who have husbands and end with women who have husbands. Is a woman finding a man a requirement for the ending of a big blockbuster book, movie or TV show? Do we need to be calmed by the formula of the fairy-tale storybook ending we’ve been sold since birth that a woman’s happiness begins when she finds her prince?

Even an edgy book like Gone Girl that is very critical of fake couplehood ends with the couple back together again. (In some ways Gone Girl is a sly argument that we get what we deserve.) HBO serial Girls which should herald a new era of higher standards (one might think) brings Hannah together over and over again with pretty lame boyfriend Adam.

Are are there a variety of happy endings for women characters? This question about women’s happy endings is something I have thought a lot about as I write the first and now second draft of my memoir Wet. How should I end my book, I ask myself often. For example, my memoir might end with me alone, but that doesn’t mean I will be alone forever.

My intuition tells me that in 2016 we are reading for new endings. It’s a thought experiment to imagine the multiple happy endings for a woman: she finally falls in love with herself; she finds her home, the right community of friends, her true calling, or the meaning of life; she heals from childhood abuse, or she learns how to have sex and not feel guilty about it afterwards.

Would we give these endings a chance, or do we really believe there is only one truly satisfying conclusion?

Let’s see what happens with Mary Crawley.


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  1. Faith Currant

    Last episode of Buffy —
    Buffy: I’m cookie dough. I’m not done baking. I’m not finished becoming who ever the hell it is I’m gonna turn out to be. I make it through this, and the next thing, and the next thing, and maybe one day, I turn around and realize I’m ready. I’m cookies. And then, you know, if I want someone to eat m- or enjoy warm, delicious, cookie me, then that’s fine. That’ll be then. When I’m done.
    Angel: Any thoughts on who might enjoy – Do I have to go with the cookie analogy?
    Buffy: I’m not really thinking that far ahead. That’s kind of the point.

    • Sasha Cagen

      That’s brilliant dialogue Faith. Thanks for sharing that!

  2. Janet

    My annual “Valentines Day” tradition is make myself a nice meal and watch movies in which the heroine does not end up with someone. Examples include The King and I (where Anna may wind up going home and marrying the English dude from her youth but it’s completely beside the point of the movie) and Begin Again (which is relatively new and if you haven’t seen it you should). There are other examples if you look but, yeah, you definitely have to search them out.

    • Sasha Cagen

      Very interesting tradition for February 14 (Valentine’s Day/Quirkyalone Day :)! Will check out those films. Thanks Janet!

    • Solange

      I really loved Miss Potter for the ending! And I would recommend Tracks as well 🙂

  3. CJ

    I’m single (or “its complicated.”) and I’m good at being single. I’m comfortable being single. I’m okay with being single.

    But reading this post, my initial knee-jerk reaction to the idea of this being my happy ending is sheer and utter panic.

    Which is pretty much your point. 🙂

    I’m going to breathe now.

    • Sasha Cagen

      Yes, breathe. 🙂 I get what you are saying. It can be panic-inducing to imagine another happy ending, and it’s hard to tease out whether that’s because we are so conditioned to expect one as the mark of a life well-lived or if that’s what really is the mark of a life well-lived.

    • Heather

      Omg – that sums up exactly how I felt reading this! Lol.

  4. Valerie

    Because I love anything about the exploration of mind, or should I say psyche, from Greek for soul and mind, I watched “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”.

    Pretty much all I remember is a dumb broad relentlessly pursuing — or is it stalking? — a relationship for which she is mismatched and dysfunctional. And they made it out like it was a good thing!

    It’s been a long time, and maybe I should watch it again to check my perceptions, but even as much as I like Jim Carrey, I can’t hack that yet.

    Same for that movie where Goldie Hwan tricked Steve Martin by pretending she belonged in his house. Two fine actors playing characters who pull (or fall for) that crap, and it’s a happy ending?


  5. Grace

    I agree that Girls has had some disappointing (if, sadly, realistic) storylines involving female characters settling for unsatisfying relationships. I have to comment, though, that the season 4 finale struck me as kinda quirkyalone. Hannah tells Adam they won’t be getting back together, Shoshanna accepts a job in Japan despite a dude’s wishy-washy protest, and Marnie shows strength by performing solo after her music partner boyfriend flakes.

    It would have been amazing to see a positive portrayal of homebirth to round out the empowerment, but alas, the birth-is-scary mentality won out.

  6. Kai

    Hi Sasha, this is such a great post!

    I remember my English teacher talking about this at school (seems so many years ago now!) when we studied Pride and Prejudice. She said that books and fairytales and movies etc were so wrong to put the marriage as the ending of the story, as if nothing else ever happened after that. Because after the wedding, their life would be full of countless events and daily interactions, and it wasn’t at all the case that they had now “achieved” a static, unchanging state of happiness for all time – anything could happen going forward. So in other words, the wedding was just one event of many in their story, not the end of the story.

    And in any case, like you, she dearly wished there was more of a range of “happy endings” for female characters.

    I also remember her really challenging the ending of The Merchant of Venice. Sure Portia and Bassiano have ended up getting married, and typically we think of that as a happy ending. But is he really such a catch?! His recklessness with money has put Antonio’s life in danger, and the wealthy, strong and intelligent Portia has had to intervene to save him, disguised as a male lawyer. My teacher asked: do you really think that brilliant Portia is going to be happy in this marriage to such a weak man?

    She was an awesome teacher and individual, and those things she said to us as teenagers have been such an influence on me, even today!

  7. Ally

    Thank you for writing this.
    I’m someone who’s still annoyed by the ending of SATC, even after all this time. Here we have a show that celebrated strong independent women and what happens in the end? They’re all couple up and at least two of them to men who are completely wrong for them!
    Can we please have more articles about positive portrails of QA in pop culture? It seems that single, childfree characters are often grotesque, childish and selfish until they finally find a person to marry them, start a family with and now they can be seen as proper members of society….

    • Sasha Cagen

      Yes, yes, and yes. Totally agree about the disappointing endings for the SATC characters.

      It’s my hope that when my memoir is finally done–and it’s the journey of my lifetime to write this thing–I’ll be able to provide a different kind of ending. And in my dreams the book becomes a movie too.

      Meanwhile I agree we need more positive portraits of QA in pop culture.

      I’m going to be expanding the quirkyalone blog with more writers and if anyone wants to take this on as a beat then email me!

  8. Inge

    Great post! I’ve done my best thinking of movies that doesn’t see the female lead end up in marriage – or mourning the loss of her true love. I think ‘Mona Lisa smile’ fits the bill, and Mary Poppins. :o)

  9. Samara

    I’m chiming in late here, but chiming in nonetheless…

    I wholeheartedly agree with Kai that having the wedding as the ending is foolish. It makes the wedding look like the finish line when it’s really the starting block…

    I love the movie Elizabeth for this reason—a strong ending for a woman who declares she’ll be single all her life. There is romance in this movie for the main character but ultimately the biopic heroine decides that it’s best for her and her country that she doesn’t marry.

    As soon as she becomes queen all of her advisors tell her she has to marry otherwise there’s no hope for her reign: “Madame, until you marry and produce an heir you will find no security.”

    At the end of the movie she walks up to the guy who said the above quote and says, “Observe Lord Burghley” [shows him her left hand] “I am married to England.”

    While I’m sure there’s plenty of poetic license in the movie, I have read that Queen Elizabeth I said that often, “I am married to England.”

  10. Paula White

    I am posting this late. My apologies.

    Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy a great romance story like anyone else. And I have great respect for the books that were mentioned.

    However, romances are 50% of publishing sales and the publishing industry knows this.

    As a direct result, you will see this ending very often. It is something to consider.


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Hi! I’m Sasha

Executive and Life Coach on a mission to help women connect with their bodies to pursue their truest desires in the bedroom and the world.

Author of Quirkyalone: A Manifesto for Uncompromising Romantics (HarperCollins) + To-Do List: From Buying Milk to Finding a Soul Mate, What Our Lists Reveal About Us (Simon & Schuster).

At work on a memoir called Wet, about adventures in healing through sensuality.

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