Conventional Criticisms of the Happy Ending

By Laura Vivanco on Thursday, 24 July, 2014

Given how often criticisms of romance are interpreted as being, at their core, the result of the denigration of a genre associated with women, I was intrigued to discover that many of the negative responses to popular romance can also be found in the critical work on Hollywood movies. The common factor would seem to be happy endings, which are, apparently, commonly supposed by critics to be "a ubiquitous feature of Hollywood cinema" (MacDowell 1).

Here are some of the critiques made of Hollywood movies which sound rather familiar:

  • "Probably the second most common scholarly assumption about the ‘happy ending’ is that it is inherently ideologically conservative" (3).
  • Some critics have resorted to "Freudian psychoanalysis" (4) to understand their appeal.
  • "narrative ‘closure’ is in itself ideologically suspect – a view rehearsed many times in both literary and film scholarship since at least the 1960s" (4).
  • "the ‘happy ending’ is in some sense ‘unrealistic’" (15)

All these quotes are from the introduction to James MacDowell's Happy Endings in Hollywood Cinema and I think I may have to get hold of the rest of his book because he aimed

to broaden our conception of what ‘happy endings’ clearly have the potential to do, and to explore some of the implications of that potential. While I do not in the least intend to imply that ‘happy endings’ never function in the ways they have so frequently been assumed to function, I am nevertheless keen to convince the reader that, at the very least, there is little in the convention that ensures they must always do so. Demonstrating this is the necessary first step towards a much-needed reconsideration of this most famous and maligned of conventions. (15)


MacDowell, James. Happy Endings in Hollywood Cinema: Cliché, Convention and the Final Couple. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2013. [Introduction available in full here.]